I grew up in Philly and going to the Jersey shore every summer was a right of passage. Everyone went “down the shore” -the only variation was which shore point your family liked best. I have a lifetime of memories there...long days lying in the sand on beach towels with toes in the hot sand and slightly static-y 80's music playing from transistor radios, crabbing with my Dad on the bay, seagulls stealing our lunch, the boardwalk (Mack & Manco’s! Kohr Bros! Fudge Kitchen!) and endless other memories with family and friends.
We started going to Diamond Beach in Wildwood when I was a little girl. I remember collecting shells on the bay and spending time with my grandparents & cousins. When I was in high school we gravitated to Ocean City, Avalon & Cape May. In college I spent care-free days & nights in Sea Isle & Margate. I danced the night away at Snickers & belted out terrible accompaniments to “Brown Eyed Girl” at the Princeton.
Keith, a transplant from Ireland, worked at the Windrift in Avalon for years when he first moved to the US. Meeting admissions officers at Drexel University at the Windrift bar convinced him to apply to and eventually get his degree from Drexel. He moved to Philadelphia to do this and with that, the the trajectory of my life was forever changed. I met a cute Irishman working his way through Drexel at a bar in Philly and that was the start of 19 years of marriage & 3 beautiful kids (also one super friendly and slightly crazy dog).
It was natural for Keith & I to bring our children down the shore for vacations when we had our own family. We upgraded our beach towels to nice Tommy Bahama chairs, & umbrellas, traded in our suntan oil for Kids SPF 50 and an dragged along an SUV load of sand toys. We spent so many sun-drenched days with family and close friends.
In July 2016, Keith asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday. I usually never say no to a nice birthday dinner out with friends, but it had been a busy year and I just wanted quiet time with my family to regroup. I couldn’t think of a better spot than the Jersey shore....
All of our Team Ronan/GreenHeart followers know the rest of that story from here. Ronan suffered a catastrophic Traumatic Brain Injury on the beach while playing bocce ball with friends during that trip to Avalon. He was taken by helicopter to to Cooper Hospital and then transferred to DuPont Hospital, where we would spend many weeks battling for his life and would live for a year fighting for the recovery of his brain.
I have learned so many things since that life-changing day 3 years ago. One of them is that when you experience trauma & grief, like a traumatic brain injury in your immediate family, there is a ripple effect. In addition to the “main event” and primary loss, there is so much secondary loss & heartache.
We have ambiguous loss that is unique to trauma & medical events like like brain injury--our precious son is still very much alive, but is not the same person who he was before the accident. We are extraordinarily grateful every day to be able to hug him and have him with us, but we lost the boy that we had known & loved beyond measure for 12 years. We lost the family friends associated with the accident who chose not to be involved with our family's difficult journey. We lost other people dear to us who weren’t able to understand our healing process or be patient with us while we gathered the shattered pieces of our lives. We lost the carefree happy nature of our lives. Our children lost the sweet naïveté of the belief that nothing bad will ever happen, and up until last week, we had lost a family vacation spot that was that is etched into the fabric of who we are.
The Attempt to Reclaim
About nine months after Ronan's brain injury, Keith & I quietly drove to the beach block in Avalon where Ronan got hurt. It was excruciating. We stood on the beach and then drove around Avalon and felt like our hearts would explode with grief. I decided at that time that I wouldn’t return to the shore.
But...time passes and the heart starts to heal.
We decided to go and reclaim the Jersey shore for us and for our children.
I have faced so many things in the last 3 years that I never thought I could cope with. I stood in a hospital room and said goodbye to my first born child and I watched him die in front of me 4 times. I have faced his disability and embraced the brain injury world. I have faced the loss of valuable people and was able to speak my truth in a way that sustains me. I have done my very best to take our family tragedy and turn it into something meaningful. So when opportunity arose for us to go to Ventnor for a Brain injury walk for Holton‘s Heroes, a foundation who we admire and who also sponsored Ronan to go to Camp Cranium last summer, we decided that it would be a good way to ease back in. We would be there for a reason related to something for the greater good. We wouldn’t be trying to re-create our life before the accident, but we would be going back fully facing our new normal. We decided that to cross our proverbial fingers and stay for 4 nights.
So what happened?
It was hard.
Harder then we thought it would be. It wasn’t just the PTSD that reared its ugly head every once in a while--It was a pervasive sadness and feeling of loss that I was surprised I still felt so very acutely. More acutely there than at home.
I was expecting more of a feeling of empowerment. I was hoping that I had a advanced enough in the recovery process to be able to triumphantly reclaim the shore for my family. Instead, while there were a lot of fun & beautiful hours, the main emotion that I felt was an overwhelming sense of loss.
I missed our old life. I missed carefree days at the beach watching the kids play and watching Ronan leap over waves. I missed the breeziness of who we used to be. I missed spending time with friends who are no longer part of our lives. I missed the old me.
Most of all though, I missed my old Ronan and I missed his old life that included a limitless, bright future.
It did get a little easier everyday. We did make new memories. We got to watch 6 year-old Declan rediscover the boardwalk with full-on enthusiasm and joy. We saw how much Ronan has improved with his swimming in the ocean and we laughed with 12 yr old Meadhbh while debating the merits of attempting the more gravity-defying amusement rides (GaleForce anyone??) We got to watch Ronan devour a Kohr brothers cone and Keith & I watched the sun go down on the bay while sharing a cold bottle of wine in paper cups by the marina while waiting for our table at Smitty’s.
I spent a few days when we got home trying to process everything and figure out exactly what all of this meant for my healing process.
I came to the conclusion that grief & trauma recovery are similar to the process of healing from a brain injury. Neither fits into one specific rubric. They are both multi-layered and multi-faceted. There is no model that can fully explain & encompass all of the nuances of the grief & healing of a human being.
It’s OK to feel more evolved in the healing process in one setting and less in another. It’s OK that some days I wake up feeling relatively unburdened and on others I feel suffocated under the weight of Ronan’s accident and disability. It's the same with brain injury healing, in one setting Ronan may seem much more highly functioning and cognitively aware, in another he may flounder and seem to regress.
I think it’s all just complicated.
I hope someday to be able to report that I have worked through all of the many layers of my trauma, but for now I’m giving myself permission to feel proud of the evolution that I’ve had and accept that I still have a long way to go.
Peace friends ✌🏻💚
I wish you a healthy and happy summer building your own sun-filled memories with those who are dear to you. If you are on your own journey of healing, I implore you to be kind & generous to yourself. Have patience with your process. We're getting there.