Wednesday, June 26, 2013

On vintage video games and tattoos

Last week marked one year since we lost our son Aiden, and as such, I've had some time to think about, observe, and experience the mourning process. While I'm not qualified to speak as a psychiatrist or grief counselor, I will offer my opinions on what a grieving person needs. Perhaps these thoughts will help you comfort a friend during a hard time.

Grieving is like Frogger. Yes, really. You remember Frogger, right? It's the classic video game from 1981 where players control a frog and move in cardinal directions, hoping to negotiate a barrage of vehicular traffic and crocodiles. When you first start playing the game, as with any game, you're awful at it. You hop out into the road and immediately get pulverized by a truck. With some practice, however, you become more competent. After a few rounds, you can go much farther without getting clobbered. That said, Frogger is similar to most vintage video games in that there's no end. The trucks and gators just keep coming faster and faster until your poor frog ends up as either lunch or a smear on the highway.

So where's the connection to grief and loss? Well, when you first lose a loved one and the wound is still fresh, the sadness flattens you quickly and frequently. The universe seems to conspire against you, and you are constantly reminded of your pain. With practice, you get better at dodging the sorrow, going longer and longer between emotional collapses. That doesn't mean it doesn't hurt when you get run over... Getting hit by a car after dodging traffic for hours is still incredibly painful. When the grief does catch up to you, it hits you with all the force that it did on the first day. You don't ever win, you just learn to go longer and longer between losses. Sometimes you grow so weary of dodging that you just stop in the middle of the road and wait for the sadness to wash over you. Other times you don't even see it coming.

We don't want to forget. Cori and I regularly struggle with the fear that, in an effort to keep from upsetting us, our friends and family will just pretend that Aiden never existed. We worry that some have already forgotten him. One of the ways that we have both chosen to honor him, one of the ways in which we will preserve the memory of him, is through memorial tattoos. Here's the part where I take a moment to give an obligatory overview of the morality of tattoos, because at least some subset of those reading this will have gasped at the news that I am inked.

Most people who believe that tattoos are inherently immoral cite Leviticus 19:28, which says "You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD." (NASV) Most people who cite this verse also deftly sidestep the verse prior (which bans certain kinds of beard grooming), and the verse before that (which outlaws medium rare steaks), and the one before that (which prohibits eating fruit from a tree until said tree is at least five years old). The bulk of the chapter is meant to offer the Israelites a set of guidelines for differentiating themselves from the pagan people that lived in close proximity. If you're willing to say that using a Norelco beard trimmer and eating a peach from a 4-year-old tree are inherently sinful, then I guess I'll have to concede that my memorial tattoo is as well. Okay, enough about that... You certainly understand my personal view at this point.

Many hours were spent anguishing over the designs of our tattoos. Cori probably showed me well over a hundred different amazing memorial pieces on Pinterest alone. Eventually Cori decided on a dove as the primary symbol in her piece, flanked by forget-me-nots and carrying a tiny heart. A portion of the dove's wing forms the letters in Aiden's name. It's quite unique and I like it a lot. Here's the finished piece:

My piece was a little longer in the making, mostly because I dragged my feet for weeks about what to get and where. Some of you know that one of my hobbies is designing ambigrams (typographic art that is readable from multiple viewing perspectives). I set about making one of Aiden's name, and eventually decided to have it inked on my left forearm:

If you stand on your head and look at the picture above, you'll notice that all the blood rushes to your head and you look ridiculous. You'll also notice that it still says "Aiden". That's what makes it an ambigram.

For Cori and I, these marks are permanent reminders that Aiden was a real person, that our love for him is real, and that the pain we feel is valid. We don't want to "get better" or "get over it". What a horrible notion it is to think that we could ever get to a point where we simply feel no grief for our late son. Our culture often views the mourning process as a temporary weakness from which you must quickly recover. The truth is that grief is empowering. It adds clarity to your priorities. It makes you look at the world differently, forcing you into an appreciation for your blessings. Grieving isn't easy, but it can be a potent force for good.

We have to find our own silver linings. Many people have tried to comfort Cori and I by pointing out the things that have gone well for us since Aiden's death. Our daughter Isabella, formerly a cancer patient, is now in remission; I'm fortunate to have a stable job that is challenging and rewarding; Our son Brady is a vibrant and healthy 3-year old with a bright future in the building demolition industry. Stuff like that.

Here's the trick. When you're grieving, a silver lining only counts if you are the one who discovers it. Attempts by others to help you realize just how good you have it invariably just end up sounding attempts at invalidating your sorrow. In the midst of your sadness, one of the most infuriating things to hear is a list of reasons why you shouldn't be sad.

We're not going to be okay, and that's okay. This wound will never fully heal. It shouldn't fully heal. Don't worry about us if we suddenly get misty three years from now when a new baby rolls by in a stroller. Don't be alarmed if we suddenly need a moment when a diaper commercial comes on. Don't freak out if we start crying over a sippy cup at a garage sale...

...We're just playing Frogger.