It takes a village.
As I settle in to share this story, Central Virginia is blanketed by five inches of snow. There was snow on the ground that day in February 2011 too. Outside the frozen landscape is calm and the day is lazy and comfortable. There couldn't be more contrast between the present and the past.
That February day in 2011, a family lost a father, mother and sister to a violent outburst from an estranged family member. Rashad Riddick, nephew to James "Clark" Jackson stole his uncle's shotgun, sawed off the end of the barrel and used it to end the lives of Clark, his wife Karen and Karen's daughter Chante Davis. After an agonizingly lengthy series of court appearances, psychological evaluations, and desperate antics on the part of the accused, Riddick plead not guilty by reason of insanity this year and will spend the rest of his days in a secure psychiatric hospital, which at least means he will never have the opportunity to destroy innocent life again.
As fate would have it, Chante's barely four-year-old son Jayden was not present at the time of the assault. His uncle had a strange feeling that day and had come by earlier to get Jayden so he could hang with his cousins. Jayden's father & mother were not together at the time, having decided to live apart a few months prior. They were very young (Chante was 26 when she passed) when Jayden was born and neither was truly ready for parenthood.
Jayden's father, Kyle, is the eldest of my girlfriend's two sons. Kyle (now 28) lived with us and at the time and we kept Jayden on the weekends. Jayden is with us full-time now. The absence of Grandpa Clark, whom Jayden loved dearly, bestowed upon me the coveted and singular title, "Papa." My parents like to remind me that they have the best of both worlds because they can lather up their grandsons (my sister has two boys) and send them home to the 'rents. I, on the other hand, am joined at the hip with my grandson, though I sense that this condition diminishes over time.
He was also joined at the hip with Chante and when she left us Jayden lost his mommy and his best friend in the world. Whereas I have almost zero recollection of large chunks of my childhood, Jay remembers seemingly every detail of the time he had with Chante. When he was five I realized his unhealthy obsession with Sponge Bob Squarepants was rooted in a memory; watching Sponge Bob and eating McNuggets was a mommy and Jayden thing.
My girlfriend and I read lots of books and online resources on coping with loss but slowly realized that we were looking for tools to help us cope with greater regularity than tools for helping a child through the loss of a parent. Kids are unfathomably resilient. It was the adults that were languishing through the stages of grief.
He was only four years old. He barely had the vocabulary to tell us what he needed let alone to relate how all this made him feel. The adults found solace at church and through very supportive families. Kyle's life changed overnight. You can imagine what a nightmare it was for him. And a blessing. And a guilt trip. And a rude awakening.
Jayden is happy and healthy now, and doing well in school. He's grounded and full of love. As his vocabulary expanded he began to share with us how much he misses mommy. I don't have the vocabulary to describe how deeply that kind of thing will cut you. He'll grow silent at times in the car or during a walk and when you ask what's on his mind he'll simply declare, "I miss mommy." We tell him we do too and it's OK to feel sad and then gradually turn to reminding him how much mommy loved him and how she would be so proud of who is growing up to be. He's precious about his curly hair because mommy loved his curls. He is a constant source of entertainment and inspiration.
Jayden teaches me something about being a human being every day; lessons I carry with me everywhere I go. He's taught me a great deal about myself and given me the rare gift of truly understanding love. Beyond love as an emotion; love as a force through which humans connect, communicate, overcome and build a joyful, productive existence.
I'll wrap this up by sharing some of the lessons a forty-something-year-old Papa has learned from his grandson. They've made me a better designer because communication and empathy are essential tools in my profession. They've made me a better person because understanding and appreciating ourselves and others is essential for successfully living amongst our fellow human beings.
Lesson #1 - Every single human interaction is important, both physical and virtual. From a simple "hello," to a complex dialog at work, the nuances of how we communicate matter. Our interactions are always adding to our experience and those of others. The impact of mindful interaction resonates well beyond what is captured in the moment.
Lesson #2 - Suppressing any emotion is harmful. There's a fine line between suppression and mitigation, but the difference can be life-altering. Jayden taught me to leave plenty of space in your life to contemplate how you react to both stressful and pleasurable situations. Prepare for each by practicing your emotional responses in a void. This is tricky. But I found that drumming up anger, for example, alone in a room and examining my impulses brings greater awareness of my reaction when a coworker throws me under a bus or when arguing over chores with a nine-year-old. I still experience all the emotion, but I'm less likely to loose my cool.
Lesson #3 (a) - Pure, unadulterated honesty is always the best policy. None of us are completely open all of the time. We each possess some level of hubris that convinces us we have a handle on when to lay it all on the table and when to leave out the worst parts (or save them for a better time). We're all pretty sure there are times when another party "can't handle the truth." But if I can have frank conversations about the loss of his mother with an innocent child and our worlds don't collapse, you can conduct a civil conversation with an acquaintance over something which which you don't agree.
Lesson #3 (b) - Put your effort into crafting the message, not obscuring the truth.