Forever Changed

A dear, close friend asked me the other day, “Where are you with your grief?”  It is rare that anyone asks me so pointedly about my grief since our adopted son, Grant, died unexpectedly, since our daughter, Catherine, was born premature and did not survive, since our previous attempts at starting a family ended in miscarriages.  It is rare that anyone will raise all that ugliness.  Most are relieved to think that we’re getting on fine and that things are better now, maybe even back to before.  The typical avoidance is symptomatic of their discomfort, not really in the interest of protecting our hearts.  There is no shelter from the pain of losing a child.

I read recently on this site about “re-mapping” our lives, altering the journey so that somehow we can continue to move forward.  We build a different life than we imagined and – at least – we haven’t wholly shriveled up and died.

Five months ago, my wife and I showed great resolve and courage and adopted another son.  Bradley is happy, healthy, and has brought so much joy to our world.

My friend continued in his inquiry with, “how has the relationship with your son impacted your grief?” And I thought about that a lot.  Has it healed me? (No.)  Has it distracted me? (Yes.)  Has it made me more guarded? (Perhaps.) Has it given me hope? (I think so.)

The truth is that our infant son requires constant care, love, and attention.  That cannot be denied – denied to him or, perhaps more importantly, denied from us.  To realize our dream of a family we had to face our greatest fears and commit to love. That’s not to say we’re not paralyzed with anxiety sometimes.  How could we not be?  But we have re-mapped and there is a path before us.  And so, we’ll make our way in that direction – forever changed, but not hopelessly broken.

The other piece of that relationship is that sometimes there is terrific guilt.  It’s easy to be critical of yourself that you could even possibly re-map a life with so much devastation in the past. You ask yourself, does living today in the present deny the significance of those precious lost lives?

To many it may look like we’re all better, that our grief is over.  (If only!)  I’m sure they’re relieved and happy for us.  I appreciate the sentiment, even if it is misguided.  We’re who we are as parents today because of Grant, Catherine, and our unborn children. Our love for Bradley encompasses the wholeness of our experience.

I’m so grateful to have an understanding friend who recognizes the complex layers of grief and life, of pain and love, of both honoring and taking steps forward – baby steps. I’m touched that he actually asked and more that he listened. I hope you have that kind of support in your life. What’s that question for you – one that’s been asked or one that hopefully will be – the one that gets to the heart of your journey?

By Thom Gonyeau

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User Comments ( 21 )

  • Tim Hayes:
    I want to thank you for helping me find the words for my writing.

    Although most of it is the original post here. You made me realize something I wasn’t seeing.

    Thank you!

    The Jacket

    I have Tim’s school bag. The strap is torn from the impact and heavy from his school books. I don’t know exactly what happened to his jacket that he was wearing. It was my jacket which was my platoon jacket from when I was in the Police Academy – my name and class number and platoon designation of “A”. Over the years it became a ratty thing that Tim took to wearing. I offered to buy a replica of it but he refused. He continued to wear it; he said he wore it because he was proud of me and it made him feel safe. When I see the pictures of him wearing it, I think how many times I had sewn a hole or two over the years.

    I think his mother said her sister took it when it was released from the investigation. I know it was blood soaked and would not be something that would be too painful to keep. I start crying and then get pissed at myself thinking I should have just bought him a new copy of the jacket…all it had was my last name and my class and platoon number. Another grieving father had pointed out that I had bought a copy of the jacket; it would not have been the same because it was not mine. He continued by pointing out Tim wanted me near him and that I had, in a way, wrapped my arms around my son when he left this world. I was encouraged to look at it as a gift I bestowed on my son. I had thought of it. I thought of how in literature, religion, and mythology clothing was used as a gift to offer some form of protection, conversion, or transition.

    J.R.R. Tolkien used clothing as a gift in The Fellowship of the Ring. On his quest to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, Frodo is given, by Bilbo, dwarven coat of mail of Mithril – metal lighter and stronger than steel. The mail saved Frodo from a spear and an arrow, while the Fellowship battled Orcs, in the Dwarven mountain kingdom of Moria. Later Galadriel, the Lady of the Woods, gave Frodo an Elven cloak that camouflaged him as a boulder as he neared the completion of his dangerous quest.

    J.K. Rowling uses a cloak of invisibility through her Harry Potter novels. Harry Potter received a cloak of invisibility which was instrumental in the battle against Lord Voldemort. Harry’s father James, just before his death at the hands of Voldemort, had lent the cloak to Dumbledore. During Harry’s first year at Hogwarts, Dumbledore gave it, as a Christmas present, to the young wizard in training.

    Saint Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier, in about the year 334, was approaching the gates of the city of Amiens in Gaul (now Amiens, France), and met a scantily clad beggar. He impulsively cut his military cloak in half to share with the man. That night, Martin dreamed of Jesus wearing the half-cloak he had given away. He heard Jesus say to the angels: “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized; he has clad me.” When he woke his cloak restored to wholeness.

    So looking back, with the input from another grieving father, looking from the outside-in, I can agree that perhaps I was in a sense doing all I could to protect or comfort my son at the time of his death.

  • Chris

    Thank you for sharing guys. I like the idea of mapping out a new plan as the whole ‘plan’ we had is now out the window. We lost our 6 month old daughter to an unknown genetic disorder. I found only 2 of my best friends were able to cope and be there for me. The others just struggled and avoided me mostly and certianly didn’t raise the subject. Good for you to have a good friend like this. I have always said to my wife, I wonder what I would be like to a friend if it happened to them, and I honestly believe I would be as you described.

    Take care all and cheers from Australia.


    • Martin Connors

      First off, I am sorry for the loss of your little lamb. I can understand the pain being unbearable and relentless.

      As for friends:

      I was just talking about this very subject with a friend tonight. I chose my entourage of grief, from a pool of friends that I knew would be there for me one way or another. I know my friend was taken aback because I didn’t include her, but I was referring to that very first moment not the present.

      I know what friends will answer the phone if I ever have to face a moment of personal crisis such as a flashback. I pay homage to those that were there in the beginning, played or did their part to help to help me stand again. I have always prided myself for being able to do for myself and not depending on anyone – but also being the guy a friend could turn to for help. When my son was killed, I was crippled. No body pulled me to stand, no one pushed me to walk. Instead I leaned on some shoulders and took a few steps. When I fell, I pushed them away – but they never left. I stood again for a moment and again leaned on their shoulders.

      Dante’s path through the Inferno was a cake walk compared to this path I am on; I trust you know who will be your Virgil in Oz.

      Peace Brother from Down Under

  • I’m renovating, and doing for a two ply reason. #1 – the needed change. #2 – sell it at sometime in the near future. I considered having a room for Tim in a new house. But I will settle for a man-cave, and have a little shrine of sorts for my son. I hardly have privacy now, but I’m not going to bitch about since the bathroom has been finished and we all know that is where our throne is as kings of our domain.
    I chose articles of Tim’s clothing to keep – his Spider-man shirts or shirts that have funny sayings. I kept all his movies and CDs. His sisters have his Spider-Man mask pillows and one day will inherit his art kits if they continue with artistic skills. If anyone had seen my blog, the background watercolor is by my daughter Alaina. Kelly was gracious to include it in the Blog Roll. There are a few other things I’ve kept – some books, action figures, and his notebooks, both school and personal.
    Although each of us is a man on his own path or journey somewhere we intersect on a psychic or emotional level. It gives me a little solace knowing some how our collective tears are filling a chalice that other new grieving dads may learn from our pain.

    For our Jewish dads – Happy Passover even though belated.
    For Christian dads – Happy Easter

    May God give us a break and let a little happiness visit us.


  • Changes


    I watch the ripples change their size
    But never leave the stream
    Of warm impermanence and
    So the days float through my eyes
    But still the days seem the same

    ~David Bowie

    After Timmy died, I found it hard to go into his bedroom. I could still smell his scent – the body wash, deodorant, and even his musk and sweat on the sheets. I could almost hear his laughter from when he would be watching Robot Chicken on Cartoon Network, or saying “Oh my God!” when he was watching Walking Dead or Super Natural. I would walk in and see the constellations I put up on the walls back in 2001, after his mother painted the room in a cobalt to resemble the night sky; how sick I felt – feeling dizzy because I felt I was in space. I wrote Timmy’s name in the remainder of the glow-in-the-dark stars. I told him a great person has his name written in the stars. Over the years, as he grew into a teenager, there were the names of the Bionicles, lines from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, and the proverbial Spider-Man stickers. On the wall, next to his bed, hung a zombie calendar for 2011 – frozen, for at least until today and open to May 2011.

    Over the past twenty-one months since he died, if I wanted to watch one of his many movies on DVD, I would go in and select one. I would find myself saying “I just wanted to watch a movie Monk. Want to watch it with me? I’ll bring it back as soon as it’s over – I promise.” I did this several times. I would look at his stereo that I got him for his 13th birthday, with five CD changer filled with CDs either I burned for him, he burned himself, or I bought him – Green Day, 3 Doors Down, Rise Against, The Beatles … the list continues. I found my copy of American Idiot in the carousel.

    I wondered, many times, if it was the last CD he listened to when he drifted off to sleep May 16th. I remembered I had to explain to him that Wal-Mart refused to carry the album because of the title alone – missing the point and exemplifying what Billy Joe Armstrong wrote the song about “Now everybody sing the propaganda.” How excited he was on a trip to New York with his 8th Grade class, noticing on Times Square, to see the flashing LED screen displaying an announcement for a Broadway show based on Green Day’s songs. He asked several times if we could go see it…he wanted to see Green Day in concert as well.

    The night of Tim’s death, as I went to lie down in his bed and cried myself to sleep; Jun, my brother, partner, friend, and appointed care-taker for that time, threw a blanket over me. I woke the next morning feeling guilty for sleeping in my son’s bed. I remembered how excited he was when he graduated from his toddler bed that his grand-father, John, built to the “big boy” bed we purchased with a tax refund. I bought Spider-Man bed sets and fleece blankets, and whatever movie was his current favorite – Bugs’ Life, Toy Story, and etcetera. His room was his domain – soon he had his Play Station, DVD player, VHS player, toys, games, books, and art kits taking up nearly every inch.

    I was envious, in truth, because I never had my own room – at least not since the age of 18 months after my sister was born – later having a brother and step-brother to share bedroom space with growing up in Ventnor. Space was a commodity in my mother’s home raising eight children; privacy was a premium.

    So now, our house is being renovated. Tim’s room has just been demolished to be rebuilt. Despite agreeing the necessity to do so, to give my daughters their own room, I’m feeling like I am erasing a part of Tim – even though I know I am not. Still I’m feeling anxious, trying to stifle tears, and feeling nauseous. It’s not exactly guilt…more like a panic attack as I’m sitting, looking at a picture I had taking of his name written in glow-in-the-dark stars the night before. I tried several times the night before attempting to take a picture of the stars, with the lights out, just to capture the effect – my camera didn’t agree with me. I know nothing is meant to last forever – change is sometimes needed, even if it is painful. I only know the love I have for my son hasn’t changed.

    Just gonna have to be a different man

    Time may change me

    But I can’t trace time

    • Tim Hayes

      Martin –

      Thank you for such beautiful memories! I was called Timmy until the 6th grade when I rebelled and refused to answer to anything but Tim. My 25-year-old son Keith died three months before your son. Just as you experienced, 2011 was a pretty rotten year. Your story of renovating the house really resonates with me today. Last week, I had a very large tree taken down in our front yard. It was planted when the house was built 47 years ago but began to die from a virus that swept through our area around the time of my son’s death. It finally died completely last summer, and with West Texas winds, I feared it would topple if I did not finally get it down. I was amazed at the impact it has had. Trees, like bedrooms, carry so many memories of our little boys. Change is indeed difficult. Sometimes it is not only “needed” but is absolutely required. I might be able to accept it, but I will always hate it.

      I also hate the “different man” thing. I know I am becoming a better man, but I still hate it. I am praying for the day when I can embrace this new man living in my body.

      Your comments about Tim’s CDs made me smile. Keith was a big music collector, and I have much of it on my iPod. My music tastes have certainly become more “alternative” since he died, but it is so great to listen to what he loved.

      Grace and peace.


    • Damnit, Martin. You got me tearing up here at work.

      Mason has been gone for almost a year. My wife and I are planning on putting the house up for sale and moving closer to my job so I don’t have a 75 mile commute each way.

      We haven’t touched his room since his death, except to dust. We’re just not ready. Now, when we list our house, eventually somebody will buy it and we will be forced to go through his stuff and pack it up.

      Do we set his room up at the new house?

      • Tim Hayes

        Kevin – I must admit… I had to shut my office door for a bit after reading Martin’s post.

        Reading your question, the only word that I could utter is, “Wow…”

        My wife and I have discussed how we are thankful that Keith was married, so his bedroom did not have the same significance it would if he was at home. Of course, there is sadness because my daughter-in-law quickly moved out of their apartment into her parent’s home, and much of “him” was boxed up or given away. I really have no concept of the pain behind your question about Mason’s room. It simply shows how every person’s grief is very unique.

        The main question I would have is: “What is the purpose?” Once you understand the real “why” behind setting up Mason’s room, it might help you find the answer. Then, as I think about it more, I realize you may have rhetorical, simply expressing a painful reality regarding your loss, and you already know your answer. If that is the case, then I’m simply being an ass who doesn’t have a clue, so just ignore me 🙂

        My heart breaks for you.

        • Tim,

          I wish it was a rhetorical question. Sadly, it is not.

          As you know, he was staying at my parents house for the weekend when he died. After the funeral, we brought home his suitcase. We still haven’t even opened it to unpack it. Probably a pile of dirty clothes in there. Just can’t open it.

          Our house is also a 4 bedroom. All of them upstairs. His bedroom is directly across from ours. We leave the door open, so I look into his bedroom every morning before I go to work just like I did when he was still here.

          As far as what the purpose would be to set his room up? I don’t know. Part of me wants to neatly pack everything away and the other part wants to set everything up so it will be ready when he comes home. Even though I KNOW that he’s never coming home.

          • I have Tim’s school bag. The strap is torn from the impact. I don’t know exactly what happened to his jacket – which was my jacket when I was in the Police Academy. It was a ratty thing that I offered to by a replica of for him. He wore it and said he wanted to wear it because he was proud of me and it made him feel safe. His mother said her sister took it, but I know it was blood soaked. When I see the pictures of him wearing it, I think how many times I sewed a hole or two over the years. I start crying and then get pissed at myself thinking I should have just bought him a new copy of the jacket…all it had was my last name and my class and platoon number.

          • Tim Hayes

            Man, guys. This thread has been rough. It amazes me how individual our grief journeys truly are. There are so many experiences to which I cannot relate. But others have told me they cannot relate to the pain of watching a son battle cancer.

            Martin – If you had bought a copy of the jacket, it wouldn’t have been yours, and obviously Tim wanted YOU near him. I know I am looking at it from the outside, but how beautiful that you (or a representation of you) were literally wrapped around your son when he left this world. Working through my son’s last conscious moments before he went into cardiac arrest and was sedated/intubated for two days, I realized the magnificent blessing it is that my son’s last seconds of consciousness involved his dad’s touch and voice as I called out, “Stay with me!”

            Oh, how this journey sucks. But it truly helps to not do it alone.

    • Kevin Guthrie

      19 months have passed since my son Shanon passed away on July 3rd 2011 at the age of 17; I’ve only been in Shanon’s once. His room remains the same as it was the day he passed and his mother found him in his bed. When others like his brothers or even my wife go in his room, it sends me into a crazy state. Lots of anxiety, I can’t explain why. We live in four bedroom house that’s basically a three bedroom. Shanon’s door is always closed; I have to walk past it every day. Myself I can’t imagine moving, or giving away Shanon’s things or remodeling. To me it just means more loss and little by little he is being slowly removed. I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. Sure there are pictures and DVD’s of him to remind everyone that he was here and he did live. But I feel more loss and pain to give that up.

    • Martin Connors

      I know it would have been different. That’s the sad thing also, that Timmy wouldn’t have felt the same…it would have just been a replica. Perhaps the essence of who I am was absorbed into the jacket and he felt safe and close as if I was there with him.

      The room is done, as is the rest of the house – just some touch up stuff on the punch ticket.

      Strange thing is that when I pass his room, I still glide my finger tips against the door.

  • Madison

    Hi there

    I was wondering if you could help me out with something. Almost a year ago my brother lost his newborn child. I have wanted to be there for him in anyway that I can/could, but have found it difficult. Although I love him very much we don’t have the closest relationship and have found to easier to support his wife than him. Most likely partly because his wife has always let us know through this what she needs and doesn’t need so it has been easier to support her, but I think this is also due to the fact that my brother always has seemed like he is okay. I know most likely he is not, but I’m not sure how to approach him about this. A complicating factor in this is my brother is a first responder by profession. He has seen horrible things and every time he suits up for work may be a time he sees and has to process something horrid. Obviously, first responders cannot just fall apart on the job they need to be able to quell whatever emotions they are feeling and deal with the situation at hand. I wonder if this is why my brother has always seemed so “okay.” I have tried to research dealing with baby loss specifically for first responders, but haven’t really been able to find anything concrete to go on. How can I help see him through this road he is on? If he doesn’t need me than that’s okay, but I don’t want to assume that.

    • Madison,

      As a police officer, and once an EMT, I can understand many things about what we see on a daily basis. But when it comes to losing a child, each man is on his own path. Sometimes we walk with another, sometimes we don’t. To be honest, when my son was killed, I fell apart. I hated the fact that I have saved a few people and couldn’t save my son. I am now friends with the medic who tried, most valiantly to save my Tim. He couldn’t talk to his wife for a month about my son’s death. He felt he should have done more, but he did everything he could that was human possible.

      However, you can’t help him see the road he is on. That is for his eyes only. You can walk with him because what you have to realize is that he lost a child – you also lost a family member. You will not understand his pain. I am not trying to sound mean, but grief is a selfish bitch of an emotion. What you may be able to do is contact a Grieving Parents support group and ask for their help. But I do recommend Kelley’s book.

      First responders don’t quell emotions. We put them to the back of our minds and focus what to do. But here’s the rub – it eats our soul. We see abuse, drugs, blood, injury, and death – all ages. We push aside the horror we see, but like dog shit, it sticks to everything. Don’t try fixing your brother. Just say three words: “I love you.” That’s all. You’ll be amazed how much healing power that has compared to finding an answer.

      Peace to your brother and family.

  • Matt L

    I can relate to the multiple layers of grief as I am experiencing them myself. I am 21 months into my loss of my infant daughter while trying to take care of her healthy twin sister. Sometimes I feel like I am going insane fighting between joy of one daughter here and the pain of losing her twin sister. I have learned that grief can’t be dealt with using one method. it includes multiple treatment methods: exercise, counseling, group therapy, good diet, sleep, medication (if needed), a friend or friends to talk to, and above all, faith.

  • Pat

    Many thanks for the heartfelt peice, Thom. It is interesting to see how all of us have been changed in different ways and how we have chosen different paths to take as we attempt to move forward and remap our lives. We wish you love, life and happiness with your new son.


  • Marcy

    What a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing your experience, Thom. Kelly, thank you for making it available to the rest of us. This site offers a lot to those you are grieving the loss of a child and those who have suffered other losses. Thank you.

  • Nancy

    I think its really good that you have a true friend that actually is willing to listen and wanted to know and listen to the continuing “complex layers” of grief”
    it must be comforting..for your journey

  • We only learn to move through it, we never get over the grief. One day at a time…
    Peace to you and family.