The funeral director told us it was time to close the casket, and suddenly I gasped for air and tried to hold back my tears. But nothing could stay my sorrow. This was it. I wasn't ready to look upon my son for the last time, to say goodbye to his little body, his sweet face, this little boy I used to cuddle, hug and laugh with. My youngest son Wyatt stood beside me and watched as I, with grief and sorrow, tucked-in his older brother one last time.
I carefully pulled Mitchell's favorite blanket up to his chin, like I did every night, and said, "I love you, little boy, my sweet son. Oh, how I love you." I cried a father's tears. Until that moment, I had tasted no deeper tears. I had never known so great a sorrow as to say goodbye to my child. Sweet Mitch trusted I could keep him safe from harm. He thought there wasn't anything I couldn't do. When he looked at me, he saw Superman. When I looked in the mirror, I saw a broken man. But I tried. God knows how hard I tried. But I was only human.
Months later, my oldest son Ethan came into my office while I was writing an entry for my Facebook page, Mitchell's Journey. I was unprepared for the interruption. My eyes were red and filled with tears. Ethan asked, "Dad, are you okay?" I immediately tried to be Superman and put on a brave face. As I wiped my eyes, I said, "Yeah, I'm okay," as if to suggest all was well and that I was simply rubbing my tired eyes. But Ethan was discerning and knew better. I could tell by his expression he knew I was grieving.
In that moment I thought to myself, "What good do I do my children when I pretend?" I realized I do them no favors when I am not being real. I paused a moment then looked Ethan in the eyes and said, "Actually, I'm not okay. But I'm okay. Do you know what I mean?" Relief washed over his face, and I could tell he not only understood but was also glad I was being real, as if it gave him permission to be real, too. I wanted my son to know that it is okay to hurt: that you can be "okay" but "not okay," and that's okay.
Ethan and I talked about Mitch for a while, and he shared some of his sorrows about losing his younger brother. We both cried together. I hugged Ethan and let him know how much I loved him every bit as much as his brother. We crossed a threshold with grief that day. My son knew it was okay to hurt and that pretending otherwise serves nobody, not even ourselves. On the contrary, we do a great disservice when we pretend.
I had a moment of truth a few years earlier when I read the words of an 18th-century French writer, who observed, "We discover in ourselves what others hide from us, and we recognize in others what we hide from ourselves." When I read those words, I vowed to retire my masks and get real.
I've tried to have similar exchanges with my other kids. My children, each unique, process their grief differently. And that's okay, too. In all things I want to be real with them because it is when we're real, that we become equipped to deal with real life.
I am still walking on Jupiter, where the gravity of grief is great. The air is thin, and my tears fall as generously as spring rains. Yes, I have moments of sweet relief, and happiness is returning, but grief and sorrow linger. I cannot run from sorrow any more than I can run from my shadow on a sunny day. I must learn to live with love and sorrow: there seems no other way.
I'm okay. But I'm not okay. And that's okay. That is part of being human.