WEST JORDAN — Michelle Newman was a helicopter mom, overprotective and hovering. But the day James, 22 months old, died, they were safe at home near the end of a perfect day.
It was the kind of day in Las Vegas that April gets exactly right: too warm to keep the two-story condo windows closed, the breeze a small sigh of contentment as the outdoors beckon "come play with me." So Newman took toddler James and baby Spencer, just 6 months old, to the park, then they visited friends. She remembers every detail, as if it's etched into glass, a tangible barrier between before and after. She can describe the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches they had for lunch, the bustle and giggles before she finally settled on the couch, late afternoon, to suckle Spencer while she chatted with her husband on the phone. James was beside her, almost within reach. And then he wasn't.
She heard a small pop and turned her head to see the soles of his tiny feet disappear through the opening. Later, they learned the window screen wasn't anchored properly. It was capable of keeping insects out, but not of holding a rambunctious, inquisitive little boy in.
Each year, on the anniversary of his death, she tells a stranger the story of James. How he lived and made her laugh and how he fell from the window. How she'd never put furniture by a window now and how she compulsively checks screens and windows. She hopes it will save another child's life. It is part of the process that's helping her save her own.
For the first four years, the sorrow was never far from the surface, where it would burble over multiple times a day. Along the way, she and her husband, Joe Krainich, moved to Utah and had a third child, Kierah, now 4. They got divorced and somehow managed to stay close. She started a photography business, a passion she'd had since she was 7. But while she was busy "doing," she says she was nearly paralyzed. She told her sister she felt like she was drowning inside.
Four years after James died, she did some math and wrote about it on a blog she started that very day. If she lived the average lifespan, she wrote, she'd have to make it through 54 more years. Too long to fake a smile. She'd been trying hard, but literally marked her calendar if she made it through two days without crying. She'd already lived 1,460 days without James, but that left another 19,710. She needed, she decided, to reclaim joy. She'd tried to honor her son's memory in various ways. She'd been running the Salt Lake City half-marathon since he died, the two to four hours it took her pure "James Time" as she replayed his life and loved him with each step. She and Joe had taken pains to avoid making the visits to their son's grave sad, so that Spencer and Kierah would know happy stories of their big brother and not forget him or stop visiting when they got older. On the anniversaries of James' fall, they played games and told stories and released a balloon with a message or memory for each year he'd been gone. But she needed more.
The day she started her blog, she published a bucket list of things she planned to do one day: own horses — write a book, float a river, learn to make ice cream, get her degree, jump the wake on a wake board. And soul tasks — laugh with my children "every single day." In a world that had been largely devoid of joy, she decided she wanted to laugh so hard she couldn't breathe.
That kind of change doesn't just happen, she says. So she handed her grief to God. And she decided, as well, that she'd stop waiting for others to make her feel better. She'd accept that she could be "happy and sad simultaneously," and give herself permission to seek happiness.
"It took me a solid four years," she says. "Only in the last two have I been able to face life happily and with optimism. There are still James days when I cry and miss him all day. But when I find symbolic things I can do to keep him alive and do for others, it makes what was taken away from me hurt less. And I believe we have the opportunity to help others."
James is still part of the Christmas name draw, for example. He'd be 8 this year, so the person who draws his name will shop for the gifts that James might have loved had he lived this long. And the gifts will be given to an 8-year-old who really needs them.
Her friend and neighbor, Maria O'Mara, marvels at the difference. Her friend has experienced the worst of sorrows, but the joy is back, she says.
Newman has found a community of friends online who have suffered their own losses. On the day she penned her first blog — www.daysofmichelleslife.blogspot.com — other bereaved parents chimed in with encouragement, much of their own pain still so clearly raw. "You give me hope that someday I TOO will start living again, instead of existing," wrote one. "I feel as though I can't reach that yet," wrote another.
They referred to their "journey of grief." And that's something else Newman has chosen to tackle in honor of James. Others, she says, can help or hurt a grief journey. So she's put together a list that she periodically adds to of things that helped her and hurt her as she struggled with James' death. So many people don't know what to say or do so they do nothing, she notes. It's the wrong response if you love someone who's hurting.
"Some people thought if they talked to me about James they'd remind me. I hadn't forgotten. I was already crying. If we don't talk about it, it's like you don't care. And what I really wanted someone to say is simply 'I am so sorry,' " she says.
Church leaders of various faiths often speak of it as the "ministry of presence." You don't have to say something profound. You don't have to solve someone's problem or take away their grief.
You just need to show up.
She warns against trying to put a time limit on how long or how someone else can grieve. And against avoiding talking about the person who is gone. Even if it is uncomfortable, it gets easier.
"They are in a better place" backfires, she warns. "It makes the bereaved feel like the place they had with them wasn't good."
And don't wait for someone to get "better." It will always be a part of their lives. It's not a straight line.
"Whatever you do, please don't compare your loved one's loss to someone else's 'harder loss,' " she says. "Every loss is hard."
Listening — even to the repetition that is common after a death — is a gift to the heartbroken. So is no underestimating "how frazzled, absent-minded and spacey" grief can make you.