by Tom Wyatt
There are important moments in our grief recovery where we take a stand, so to speak, or make a decision to pursue a new path. These decisions are turning points and even though this new path may lead to a dead-end, it can signal a positive step in a willingness to try something new.
One of my turning points came during the first holiday season without Johnny. It was mid-November and I was already sick of the holidays. I was at a very low point but kept on a happy face at work. One morning in particular was horrible. I had sat in traffic on the way to work just like every other day except this time I was stuck behind a flatbed roll back tow truck. For those that don’t know, that was the kind of truck that hit and killed my son. By the time that I got to work I was a basket case. I decided to hide in my office and possibly have a good cry when one of my “caring” co-workers stuck his head in the door and with a big Hallmark holiday smile on his face said, “how ya doin today, Tom?” ‘How are you?’ tends to be one of those throw away lines that people greet you with but never want the real answer just as sure as this gentleman didn’t want but got.
I pulled him in, sat him down and for the next 20 minutes I told him exactly how I was doing. I scared the Hell out of that poor guy and for the next year that we worked together he never once offered more than a hello. After he escaped my clutches I wrote the poem, “The Question” and put one in each of my co-workers mail boxes to let them know how I was doing. Non-bereaved friends, family, neighbors and co-workers will continue to do and say the wrong things until we educate them. As long as we keep quiet about this we’ll have no room to gripe about them. I believe this is especially important during the holidays. We are at a time of year when the family gathers to celebrate some important holidays. Unlike birthdays or anniversary dates of our children’s deaths, these holidays also call for public displays.
We begin with Thanksgiving followed by Chanukah and then Christmas. There are office parties, family parties, television specials, music and decorations surround us everywhere we go. Many of us have found that of all of the groups that surround us and may make the most demands upon us at this time of year is your family. Family can also be the most unreasonable when it comes to our grief. We must not allow ourselves to be put into situations that we know that we are not ready for. We must be firm but we must also explain to them why we are declining. If compromise can be reached then great, if not, feelings may be hurt but I have found though that feelings heal and that my mental health may be worth not talking to my mom or aunt Sophie for a while. We didn’t feel like attending Thanksgiving at my mom’s the first year so we reached a compromise and had mom, dad and a friend to dinner at our house. We did this because we felt more comfortable at home. I have to admit that things went better than anticipated. It was tense at first but before we ate I re-told a ‘Johnny’ story about an event that took place one year earlier at the same dinner table. It was a funny story that reminded us of what a funny little guy he was. This story has now become a family tradition.
The first Christmas was horrible for me. If it weren’t for Blake and Kelsey (my surviving children) I would have been content to let Christmas go by unnoticed. I cried constantly but that wasn’t new, I’d been crying since his death in March. I got dragged to the Candlelight Memorial and sat there while I listened to someone talk about hope for the future which, at the time, wasn’t a concept that I could wrap my heard around but when his name was read and we stood and lit the candle I was glad that I was there. The next year, I chaired the Candlelight and I poured myself into this labor of love.
The first year I put up the Christmas tree but didn’t even go back into that room until Christmas morning. It hurt too damn much. The next year I forced myself to look at the tree with his handmade ornaments and I even went to the office party, for a while. More often than not the ornaments and carols made me cry but sometimes they made me smile too.
Each year has brought change with a few constants such as tears and that horrible pain in my heart because he’s not there but I rejoice in my memories of him. The year that we stopped putting all of his handmade decorations out was tough but they are not a renewable resource so now we just put out one or two.
It’s been 21 years and we’re getting ready for our 22nd holiday season without him. Now I have grandchildren: a little girl who’s three, a grandson who’s 1 ½ (that I see a lot of Johnny in) plus a new grandson that will arrive shortly after Thanksgiving. I expect to cry a little or maybe a lot, I don’t know, but I’ll smile a lot remembering him and watching them.
Cry when you need to. Scream when you have to. But if you can, remember the good memories, if you’re lucky enough to have them, and allow yourself to smile if you can. Be honest with people about how you feel. Don’t be afraid to push yourself but don’t allow yourself to be bullied. Here are two poems, the one that I wrote that first year and the one that I wrote a few years later. They should put my early journey into perspective. May G-d bless us all and may we all find peace. Shalom.
Please don’t ask me how I’m doing
unless you really want to hear:
Because I’ll tell you I’m falling apart as
the holidays draw near.
I’ll tell you that each day it hurts worse
than the one before;
I’ll tell you that each day I cry for him
and miss him that much more.
I’ll tell you that the baby fills a void
but cannot take his place;
I’ll tell you that when I hold her
sometimes I see his face.
I’ll tell you that all I want is to have him
by my side;
I’ll tell you that a part of me has
withered up and died.
I’ll tell you that I don’t want your pity,
but sympathy I’ll gladly receive;
I’ll tell you to leave me alone if it bothers
you to see me grieve.
So be careful when you ask a question
because the answer may not be so nice;
Give me your shoulder and an ear,
but not some kind but useless advice.
Tom Wyatt, November, 1991
It’s okay to ask the question and extend
your wishes well.
I’ve grown and changed
I’m happy to tell.
I’ll still tell you how I’m doing and
what’s in my heart,
But the answer won’t be so harsh,
The words not so tart.
I’ll tell you that the lights are the
twinkles that danced in his eyes,
I’ll tell you that when I hear a song
sometimes they comfort my cries.
I’ll tell that of course I miss him and
wish that he were here,
I’ll tell you about the miracle in my heart,
how it always keeps him near.
I’ll tell you that she still looks like him,
now that she’s four,
I’ll tell you it doesn’t bring pain but
gratefulness and more.
So go on and ask, even say Happy
New Year as well,
I’ve changed and grown,
I’m happy to tell.
Tom Wyatt November 1995
Tom’s son, Johnny, died in 1991 at the age of as the result of being struck by a flatbed truck.