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The Rope Burns Of Grief

“Grief is the rope burns left behind when what we have held to most dearly is pulled out of reach, beyond our grasp.” Stephen Levine

I clung to the rope that bound Jimmy to the earth, to our home, to our tight knit family, to the people who loved him most. I gripped it with both hands and fought to hang on as long as I could, searching everywhere for treatments, ideas, stop gap measures that would extend his stay. Even after the cancer spread down his spine like a fast-moving train, I refused to give up, advocating for anything and everything I could think of to help his doctors beat it back. And when that didn’t work, whatever I could think of to hold it place, to buy him more time, to give us more days with him. But the cancer was stronger than I was, and in the end, it pulled Jimmy out of reach, burning my hands and shattering my heart.

After Jimmy died, all I wanted to do was to curl up around the searing pain of his absence and not move. If I could have stayed in bed all day, I would have, but Molly needed to get to school, to be picked up after practice, to continue some semblance of a normal life. Dan was here, but it felt like Sophie’s Choice — go out in the world, raw and exposed and risk having to talk to another human or stay home by myself in the already too quiet house with only Buster to keep me company.

What I hated most about being alone was the relentless tape that keep looping endlessly in my head of all that had happened during the eight years of Jimmy’s cancer journey. Had we made the best choices, gone down the correct path, made the right turns, taken enough chances (but not too many), done all that we could, left no stone unturned? Did I give him enough freedom to live his life or hold on too tightly? Did we keep him safe or make him overly nervous about being on his own at Stanford? Grief is all about second guessing, making lists of regrets, being your own worst critic, beating yourself up. It starts with the rope burns and spreads and spreads and spreads until you feel as though you are turned inside out. And confused, at the same time, as to why no one but your most important people can see you bleeding.

As the months and years have gone by, Jimmy’s sweet voice has slowly crept back in. Reassuring me that we did the very best we could with the information we had and the choices before us. That we fought with everything we had to save his life. That we kept our promise he would never be alone in his fight.

The rope burns on my hands have scabbed over but the scars remain. Like any war wound, they remind me of both terrible pain and amazing strength. I loved my son with every fiber of my being … and I couldn’t save him. That I wasn’t successful doesn’t diminish the beauty of our time together or the gift of his 21 short years on this earth. Those burns help me remember that everyone else has scars, too, sometimes unseen but no less painful. They remind me to honor my sweet gentle son by not judging others’ battles or comparing them to mine and to be kind … always.

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