Surviving The Guilt

When you go to bed at night, you are (hopefully) easing into being content that the day is over. Everyone is home, tucked in their beds, you’ve accomplished what needed to be done and drifting off to sleep, satisfied. All is quiet and your family is safe.

That was how I felt when I went to bed the night Andrew died. My daughter was out with friends but my two sweet boys were safe and secure enclosed in the warm walls of our home. I went to sleep knowing that I had had a successful day of organizing a closet and taking down holiday decorations. All was right in the world.

An hour later, nothing was right. My world was turned upside down. My life, as I knew it, forever changed. I was inspired to write this after reading an article posted on Facebook, by Angela Miller, author and creator of A Bed For My Heart, an online community for child loss.

‘I Wasn’t Sure If I Could Survive’: What It’s Like to Lose a Child struck a cord with me. Particularly, this quote:

“One of the unique features about losing a child is that there is always a sense of guilt there,” she explains. “The role of being a parent is to keep your child present and on this earth and healthy and well, so regardless of the circumstances, mothers often feel like they failed. It’s such a huge burden to carry.” 

Cadmona A. Hall, PhD

I have had extreme guilt since losing Andrew. I couldn’t understand it…he was home. He was safe at home, in his room. I was 20 ft down the hall from him. I was right there. I had checked on him before retiring to my room. By all accounts, in my mind, I failed him. Failed to do the most basic part of being a mother…keeping him alive.

I’ve carried this immense guilt inside of me. Guilt that I could not keep my child alive. Guilt knowing that while I was asleep, he was literally dying 20 feet from me and I didn’t know. How could I not have woken up? Why didn’t my motherly instinct naturally kick in and stir me to get up. Why didn’t I know something was not right. Something was wrong. Why couldn’t I save my child’s life. Why didn’t I run into his room and revive him. Why was I content and at peace in my bed because I organized a fucking closet!

Why. Why. Why.

It has taken me a very long time to understand that I will never be able to understand that night. I know I did not do anything wrong. Andrew’s death was the most freak accident. It was not my fault. However, carrying the guilt and surviving the guilt is something I face every day. It is etched into my soul. The basic instinct of protecting my child was robbed from me.

“I began to see my writing journey as another way to honor Hudson’s memory; I also say often that the only thing that brings me any consolation after her death is knowing that her life can still have meaning, that she can still have an impact on others and the world even though she is no longer physically here. So if sharing my story helps someone else, I feel like that is the greatest way to honor her and to comfort myself.”

-Mandy Hitchcock

While I fight these demons inside, I push through, for Andrew. For his life. For his memory. Speaking his name. Sharing his story. Being there for others who have children with ADHD. Supporting them. Advocating. Anything I can do to honor Andrew.

Everything I do is honoring Andrew’s memory. Making sure to live a life that he is proud of. And that includes, surviving the guilt.

When I Laughed & Realized I Laughed

I was just on a video chat with a close friend of mine. She is obsessed with drinking pina coladas and then dancing in the rain with said pina colada. Mind you, she has not done this, just obsessed. Upon finding out that we are waiting for Tropical Storm Claudette to arrive, it was insisted that I make one and then dance in the rain. Right away. And for some reason, I felt pressured to do this (damn peer pressure!).

Did you really think I was going to post the actual video??? LOL

So, I did. And my husband recorded it so I could show proof that I did it. And I was laughing. And he was laughing. And we were both laughing at the silliness that was happening on a random Saturday afternoon. And then I texted the video to my friend. And she sent tons of laughing emojis. And then I sat down at my laptop. And it put up the last thing I was looking at…an article about losing friends after child loss…which I had been reading a few hours earlier, trying to accept this information while dealing with my feelings about it (which we will discuss another time, when I have accepted the loss of these relationships). And it hit me. Again…my son is dead. My Andrew is gone. I will NEVER speak with him again. I will never hug his physical body, hear him speak from his voice box, feel the softness of his skin, look into his beautiful blue eyes.

It has been 899 days since I saw Andrew alive. And here I am, laughing? Enjoying a sliver of life? While my child cannot? The grief. The pain. The realization. The tears. They hit me again. How am I supposed to enjoy life when he cannot? How dare I laugh and be carefree in that moment and forget that my child died. When will this self-inflicted torture end? Is there a set amount of days? Hours? When will I be able to laugh without guilt? When is life supposed to be easy, carefree, again? My heart is still shattered, yet, a few pieces have been taped together, allowing me to have small moments like this.

There have been quite a few of these moments. Especially in the past 200 or so days. These laughing, happy times. Do I hate myself for them? Sometimes. When I remember. And then I am sad. And I feel guilty. My baby boy is not laughing beside me. His physical being is in a box. Ashes. Sitting on a bookshelf, in my living room. Surrounded by pictures of him and crafts he created. I look at this shelf, every morning, and speak with him. It’s always a one sided conversation. How I wish my questions could be answered.

Right now, sitting on my porch and typing this, the tears have flowed. My heart is heavy. I miss my sweet boy so much. But, one thing I do know…as heavy as my heart is right now, there will be more laughter, sooner rather than later. There will be more silliness. There will be more carefree days. I know Andrew is wanting them. Rooting for them. And blissfully happy with them.

A Smile From A Memory

Dear Andrew,

We are now in month 22 since losing you. It’s November. Thanksgiving is just a week away. The leaves are changing to majestic colors and falling. And I keep waiting for you to come home. I’ll be sitting in the livingroom and will look at the staircase, still expecting you to walk down the stairs. Head down, looking at your phone as you come down. But, you’re not there. It’s still unfathomable at times that you are gone. I miss you so much.

Life keeps chugging along. Even without you here. Daily routine things. Somehow, the world and our family has continued to move forward. Work, school, dishes, laundry and errands continue. Most nights, I quietly cry myself to sleep thinking of you and that another day ended without you here. Somehow, we have started living life without you and getting used to it. Which, to me, is a double edged sword. On one hand, it has been very important to our family that we continue to live our lives. Going from a Party of Five to a Party of Four is hard but it’s important that we continue to thrive for your brother and sister. On the other hand, it’s disturbing that this is our reality. However, it is a reality I continue to move through.

One of the first things I do every morning while I am waiting for the coffee to brew, is to check my Facebook memories. I get so excited to see if there is a memory of you. Today, a memory from 8 years ago came up. You were 9. You had a doctor’s appointment that morning. You were so good at the appointment that I decided to take you out to lunch before bringing you back to school. We went to this local southern restaurant and had a true southern lunch. I had fried chicken, fried okra, cornbread and sweet tea. You had meatloaf, deviled eggs, cornbread and sweet tea. We had such a nice lunch date that day.

Mommy & Andrew lunch date!

When the picture came onto my screen, I immediately remembered that day and smiled remembering the memory. And then I realized what I had done. This was the first time that I thought of a memory of you and thought back to it fondly versus getting sad and letting a few tears drop from heartache.

This is a pretty big turning point for me. The fact that I smiled and felt happy at the memory made me realize I am starting to move to acceptance of your death. The fifth stage of grief. I never thought I would reach this stage. It has startled me. And scared me. How can I accept this? How can I be ok with this? My child. My son. Died.

It’s simply what I have to do. I can’t change what has happened. I can’t live under the covers in bed. I have so much to do. I have to continue taking care of our family. And of course, I know this is what you want. I know you have been watching over me, waiting for me to start to get to this point. Where the blood curdling devastation starts to subside. Where I start to peek out on the other side. Where I slowly become stronger. And continue to live while honoring you and your memory.

Some days, like today, are easier than other days. Sweet boy, don’t you worry…I am getting back up. I am starting to put back together the shattered pieces of my heart. There have been many bad days, but today…today is a good day, where your memory shines brightly through my soul. I will savor each and every sweet moment I had with you. Treasure them and fill with love and warmth when I think of you. I love you, baby boy.

Love, Mommy

Waiting For The Other Shoe…

As a parent, you always seem to hold your breath just a little bit with your children. Since birth, you seem to always be ready to catch them when they fall. Even if they are not falling, you are still quietly waiting on the side, just in case.

As a mother with an ADHD child, my mind always raced with waiting for the other shoe to drop. I was constantly anxious when he walked out the door, went to his room, sat at the computer…anything and everything that Andrew did, I was holding my breath, praying he would not do something wrong or get in trouble. The constant worry. People always told me to relax, but that was hard with being Andrew’s mom. I was always in a bad mood. Yelling, stressed, angry all the time. I was preverbally running around with my arms outstretched, ready to catch him when he might fall. Always ready for the next catastrophe. And there always was.

Andrew’s severe ADHD came with some pretty intense impulsivity. There was stealing, lying, cheating and behavior that was “odd” to other people. And as I’ve said before, he had true remorse for his actions. He didn’t blame anyone else. I didn’t state that it wasn’t his fault. Or even deny that he was the culprit. He always apologized. He always felt bad for what he did. He would be embarrassed and ashamed. Unfortunately, many people did not or would not see that side of my son.

The looks people would give me. The knocks on my door when he would get in trouble with other kids in the neighborhood. The parents who yelled at me, calling me a bad mother when another catastrophe hit and they wouldn’t let their children be friends with Andrew anymore. The constant calls from the school. It seemed all I ever did was apologize for Andrew and was always dragging him around from one place to another having him apologize to people. It was exhausting.

Several weeks after Andrew died, in the midst of my grief, I realized there was another feeling that had started building up inside of me…relief. For 15 years, I was always trying to save Andrew from himself. Always worried about him. Stressed, anxious, angry that this truly AMAZING human being’s worst enemy…was him. And all of a sudden this ginormous weight that I had been carrying on my shoulders was lifted. Disappeared. Gone. I was horrified of this. What did it mean? Did it mean I was happy my son was gone? Now I could lead a carefree life? I had spent the past 15 years already feeling like a failure as a mother to him. Now this? Well, I truly must be the worst mother in the world to feel relief.

I did not walk, I ran to my therapist. Through some pretty earth shattering sobbing, I admitted this awful secret. I was truly in despair and terrified that there was some part of me that was happy he was dead. Being the wonderful therapist she is, she assured me that this was not true. She helped me realize that the feeling of relief was coming from my constant fear of what could happen next. I had always been worried about Andrew doing something impulsive that would land him in jail. Stealing a car. Graffiti. Drugs. The list goes on of scenarios that always ran through my head. She helped me to see that this was all out of a fierce love for my son and wanting to see him on the right path.

Everything was out of love for Andrew. Immense, intense love for him. I just wanted the kid to get a break from himself. I was always carrying this burden for him. But, honestly, I was also exhausted.

It’s been 14 months, today, that Andrew has been gone. I still carry a lot of guilt for all the times I would get angry at Andrew. Time I will never get back or have a chance to make up to him. I do not have the anxiety anymore of what could have happened. Now it’s been replaced with the sadness of what will never happen. All the good things Andrew will never get to do. But, that’s a post for another day.

Exhaustion and burnout are very real feelings for parents raising special needs children. I really benefited from this article in ADDitude Magazine. I related to all the feelings and emotions. You are not alone. I encourage you to read it and take some time for self care. Be kind to yourself and know you are doing everything out of love.

Andrew Helping Others

In my grief and sadness from losing Andrew, I have felt this incredible tug to share his story and create more awareness about ADHD. The outpouring of support has been amazing. I’ve heard from so many parents who have thanked me and also shared Andrew’s story with their ADHD children.
Last month I got a message from a friend who has been so supportive and kind to me in the past six months.

“Thank you for sharing Andrew’s story. And for resharing as often as you do. I can’t imagine your pain and grief. But your posts remind me to be constantly vigilant with my own ADHD kid. And I worry that the house could burn down and she wouldn’t notice (she buries herself in books and hyper focuses on her reading). As a result of Andrew’s story, I am always going over safety precautions with her.

And today. Today the fire alarm went off (spoiler: all is ok). She let the dogs out of the house, took a phone and left the house to call me.
While these acts did not necessarily save her life this time (turns out it was something she was cooking in the toaster), I have just a wee bit more confidence that she does know what to do in an emergency.
And I suspect this is because at least twice a month, I’m asking what she’d do if the alarm went off. I didn’t start doing this so regularly until after you shared Andrew’s story.

So thank you, Christina for reminding me (and others) to talk to our kids about safety and making good choices and thinking before you act. I am sending you and your family love and light and I am forever grateful that you are brave enough to keep sharing Andrew’s story.”

I’m so proud of this child and her parents. Awareness. It’s all about awareness and safety. Keep your kids safe. Talk to them about Andrew. Share his story. Repeat it.

It was a very hard decision to share Andrew’s story with the public. In the days leading up to my original post, my biggest fear was retaliation and nasty comments from people. However, all I could think about was preventing something like this happening to another child. To another parent. To another family.

Andrew had such a big heart and cared for people. He always showed kindness. I picture him smiling at all of us today and sharing his kindness with whatever beauty you find in the world.

The Ugly Side of Grief

There are 5 Stages of Grief. They are:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Apparently, they are in order however I’ve been told multiple times that you go through them many times. Back and forth. Back and forth. Zig zagging your way through them. Except Acceptance. That does seem to be the final one.

I know I have gone through the first four MANY times in the past six months. Today was a prime day for Anger. Holy shit was I angry today. Not at Andrew. Not at his stupid, impulsive moment that has spiraled my life out of control. Not that. No, today…today was an angry day at the world. And it was all about Facebook.

Everyone seemed to be complaining about the STUPIDEST CRAP! One person was whining about having to drive 45 miles to the closest Abercrombie Kids (seriously???) to go back to school shopping. Someone else hosted a pity party because they had to check out their groceries themselves. And the list goes on and on. And I got ANGRY. Angry that people were complaining about the silliest things. Angry that they were so upset about something so small. Angry at their anger over nothing. Angry that these people had such TRIVIAL problems that are forgotten about in an hour and that things, stuff, can be replaced. All I could think was, “In the grand scheme of things, this is nothing. This is a moment of annoyance. You want something to complain about, take a step in MY shoes! MY SON IS DEAD! HIS LIFE IS OVER! And you’re complaining about THIS???” Inside, I raged all day. Angry at the small mindedness of people.

It occured to me about twenty minutes ago why I was so enraged. I wish I had these problems. Once upon a time, I did. I would get frustrated and vent over the littlest inconveniences in life. It would annoy me if a cashier didn’t greet me with a smile. Being stuck in traffic would have infuriated me. And someone not changing the toilet paper roll WOULD HAVE BEEN THE END OF THE WORLD! I realized that I am envious of their problems. Life used to be so easy. I look back at all the small stuff that I used to get soooo upset over and want that life back. Back then, I didn’t know the true cruelty of life. I didn’t know the true feeling of pain. I didn’t understand how life can change in a heartbeat. I was clueless.

Of course, now, as I sit here and write this, the anger has left. Tears and sadness has replaced it. Plus, a healthy dose of foolishness and regret. I wouldn’t wish this upon anyone. Everyone has problems, struggles and heartache in their lives. It may be different than mine, but it is still theirs. It still evokes an emotion to them. And who am I to rage over someone else’s life?

This is the ugly side of grief. The side that is not me. This is not the person I want to be. I really do not like that stage. I know it will come back. Just like every other damn stage. Except Acceptance. I cannot imagine ever reaching that stage. Honestly, I don’t think I ever want to.

A Letter to Andrew’s Dad on Father’s Day

I know how hard today is. I know you’re trying to hold it together. I know you are trying to push through this day, like you have every other day. But, I know this day is different. Today is your first Father’s Day without Andrew.

I know going through Facebook, seeing all the posts of fathers with their children isn’t easy. I know more than anything you want one more picture with your son. One more hug. One more smirk from his face. One more of everything.

I watch you support our family. I see you hugging us through our pain. I see you taking care of us. I see you wiping away my tears. I see you standing guard. I see you holding our family tight. I see you trying to stay strong.

I also see how much pain you are in. I see your daily struggle. I see your confusion. I see your heartache. I see your despair. I see your anger. I see you grieving the loss of your son.

But, I want you to know, today and everyday, I see what an amazing father you are. I see the joy dance in your eyes when you see Morgan and Ethan. I FEEL the love you shine onto us every moment of every day.

And more than anything, I want to make sure you understand what an amazing father you were to him. I want you to know Andrew’s love and celebration of you will continue on, forever.

Thank you for being our son’s best friend. Thank you for giving him a wonderful life. Thank you for being Flumper’s Dad.

When Andrew Taught a Teacher

About a month ago, I was contacted by the religious school principal, Rebecca Tullman, at our former synagogue, Temple Kol Emeth. Our family were members of this wonderful community for four years before we moved to a congregation closer to home. Both Morgan and Andrew had their B’nai Mitzvahs there.

Given we had 3 children in the religious school, Rebecca knew our family well. Especially Andrew, who seemed to be in her office, often, during Sunday School…

Rebecca was one of the first to reach out to me and provided amazing support after Andrew died. I will never forget the her supporting smile, her watery eyes and huge embrace she gave me at Andrew’s Celebration of Life.

When Rebecca called me, she explained that she wanted to write about Andrew in her monthly article in the temple’s newsletter. When she explained her reason, I was overcome with emotion. I couldn’t believe my crazy, impulsive, ADHD child had touched an educator, the way she said he did. As a parent of an ADHD child, who struggled daily with my son’s behavior and constantly trying to explain to others his issues, it honestly floored me that someone actually “got it”. But even more, the fact that Andrew had left such a large impression in someone else’s life. Below is Rebecca’s story of Andrew and the impact he made in her life…

“One of the greatest blessings that comes from teaching is how much we learn with and from our students.
In the Talmud we read:

And this is what Rabbi Ḥanina said: I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my friends, but from my students I have learned more than from all of them.

I have been thinking about this lately – about all the learning that I have been gifted by students over the years. Sometimes they suggest a new way of thinking about something. Sometimes they ask a question that I have never considered; and as we search for answers together, I am exposed to a variety of new ideas and information. Sometimes they trust me enough to be vulnerable and talk about fears and emotions; and I am given a greater understanding of the human experience.

There was the time when a nine-year-old informed me that the central message of the Garden of Eden story was NOT, in fact, about following rules and the consequences to breaking them. “You see,” she explained, “people break rules. We make bad choices. God knows that, too. What God is mad about in this story is that no one is taking responsibility for their choices. Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake.” I had never considered that perspective before; but it makes perfect sense. Otherwise, because the God of Genesis clearly DOES know that humans will make poor choices and give in to temptation, God has set them
up to fail and then punished them for it. But this 9-year-old made the story so much richer and gave me an understanding that was
comfortable for me.

In a youth group meeting one day, the teens and I were talking about pop culture messages about drinking and drugs and the messages in media that seemed to suggest that you could not really have fun if you were sober. This morphed into a conversation about why the teens in the room had tried or considered trying drinking or drugs. One young man talked about being anxious and feeling awkward at parties and trying to fit in. He explained that the lure of alcohol for him was not rebellion, desire for the forbidden, or liking to be wasted. It was that the alcohol could take that edge of anxiety off and allow him to be more comfortable
in a group. From the outside, this teen was a “golden boy.” He was popular, attractive, well liked, athletic, and a good student. The learning for me in that moment was a stark reminder that we never know what other people are struggling with. I never would have guessed that the golden boy was touched with social anxiety.

And then in 2013, when I returned to TKE as the Religious School Principal, I met Andrew Tracy. Andrew struggled with severe ADHD; and his parents, Christina and Stephen, struggled to help him function at his highest potential and to advocate for him to teachers and friends.

ADHD is a disorder that makes it difficult for a person to pay attention and to control impulsive behaviors. Finding the right combination of medications, therapy, training, and education to help someone with ADHD be able to function is often a long process of trial and error. In the meantime, the child who is suffering from this disorder is not easy to have in a classroom. They are often restless, fidgety, and lack focus. They may talk frequently and over others. They may have trouble completing
assignments, waiting their turn to talk, or being still. They are often labeled as the bad kid or the troublemaker or thought to be simply disrespectful. Their behavior can be seen as intentionally disruptive. Even for those of us who know better, who know intellectually that these behaviors are symptoms of a disorder and not of a “bad seed,” it can be hard to keep that in the forefront of our minds in the heat of the moment. In the moment, while trying to create an active and engaging learning environment for a room full of school-aged children with varied levels of intrinsic engagement, it can be hard to remember that the one kicking his desk loudly and interrupting constantly is not being intentionally difficult. Andrew’s most prevalent symptom was his extreme impulsiveness. It is likely for this reason that Andrew spent frequent time in my office.

So many children, ADHD or otherwise – many adults too make excuses for poor behavior or blame others. As did Adam and Eve! But when I asked Andrew what was going on, when he was sent to my office for the second time, he did not tell me that the lesson was boring or that the kid next to him had started it. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and said he didn’t know why he behaved the way he did. Our conversation in the next few minutes made it powerfully clear that far from being “a bad seed,” Andrew Tracy was a kind, caring boy who was embarrassed to have disrupted class and mortified to have made the teacher feel so disrespected.

Because a 10-year-old boy was brave enough to be vulnerable in front of me, instead of pretending bluster and self-righteousness and blaming others, what I had known intellectually was forever engraved on my heart. Andrew literally was unable to control his impulsivity. He was not bad – in fact, quite the opposite. He was a kind and caring child who hated to upset others; but his disorder prevented him from always being able to behave as such.

Because of Andrew’s brave display of vulnerability, I am a better educator, but more importantly a better human. When a student or anyone else is displaying bad behavior, I think of Andrew and am reminded not to judge the person by the person by the behavior. Most people are not trying to be difficult or to ruin our days; and extreme behavior is usually a sign of a bigger problem.

When I was called to the hallway outside the first-grade classroom this school year because a 5-year-old was refusing to go into the classroom and was making a scene and the teacher couldn’t help, I found him sitting on the hallway floor in his socks, crying and
refusing to answer the teacher’s questions or to move. She explained to me that he’d thrown his shoes down the hallway. Because of
brave Andrew and the lesson he’d engraved on my heart, I knew instantly that my task was to understand what was upsetting this boy so
much that throwing his shoes was the only way to communicate it, and then to help him cope with it. Andrew’s example has given me
new wells of patience and determination to understand the reasons for behaviors and how I can help.
Due to a tragic accident on January 3, 2019, Andrew Tracy passed away and will now be forever 15 years old. But he will also be
forever the brave student who taught me the enduring lesson that you can’t judge a book by its hyperactive cover.
May his memory be a blessing and may all of us be blessed with the continued gift of learning from those we teach, parent, coach, train,
and mentor.
Kol Tuv,
Rebecca Tullman”

To read in the original form, please click HERE.

Rebecca, from the bottom of my heart, thank you so much for sharing this with the world. You will always be a blessing to our family.

Andrew, in life and beyond, you continue to shine your light. I love you.