While I certainly had no real idea in the first hours or even weeks what losing a child entailed, I understood plainly that it meant I would not have Dominic to see, hold or talk to.
I wouldn’t be able to hug his neck or telephone him.
He wouldn’t be sitting at my table any more.
But the death of a child or other loved one has a ripple effect. It impacts parts of life you might not expect. As time went on, I was introduced to a whole list of losses commonly called “secondary losses”.
Here are just a few:
Loss of a large chunk of “self”. Dominic possessed part of my heart and part of my life. It was violently ripped away when he died. There is part of me that was uniquely reflected from him-like a specialty mirror. I can never access that part of me again.
Loss of identity. Before Dominic died I was one kind of mother. I was a mother of four living children who were making their way in the world as successful adults. I was a mother looking forward with happy anticipation to the next years. Now I am still a mother of four children but one whose heart has been changed by tragedy and sorrow. Tomorrow is still bright, but there’s a shadow just behind it.
Loss of self-confidence. I used to enter a room without a thought to how I’d be received or perceived. That’s definitely not the case now. I’m self-conscious-constantly wondering if I’m saying or doing the right thing. I never know if a grief trigger will (at best) pull my attention away from conversation or (at worst) send me scurrying for the bathroom.
Loss of sense of security. I think every parent has moments of fear over his or her child. When they first go off someplace without us, when they get a driver’s license, travel abroad, go to college. But all the awful things I imagined didn’t hold a candle to the reality of waking one morning to a knock on my door and the news that Dominic had been killed. The bottom fell out of my (relatively) safe world. Bad things, random things can and do happen. Once it happened to ME, it changed how I processed everything. The passing years have softened some of the anxiety but I will never be able to assume safety again.
Loss of faith. I did not “lose” my faith. I never once doubted that God was still working, was still loving and was still in control. But I most certainly had to drag out every single thing I thought I knew about how I thought He worked, loved and superintended the world and examine it in light of my experience of burying my son. It took a long time to work through all the pat answers I had been offered and myself doled out to others for years that didn’t fit with my new reality. I am learning that doubt is not denial and that I have to live with unanswered questions.
Loss of family structure. I’ve written before that a family is more than the arithmetic total of the number of members. There were six of us. But we were so much more than six when we were all together! Our talents, personalities and energy were amplified in community. When Dominic’s large presence was suddenly whisked away, every relationship got skewed. We’ve fought our way back to a semblance of “whole” but still miss him terribly. We can function, but we will never be the same.
Loss of my past. Memories are funny things. They are plastic and subject to change. And my recall of an event is limited to my own perspective. For a memory to be rich and full, I need input from others who were there as well. One vessel of family memories is no longer available to add his unique contribution. Every time I pull out a photo or dig down deep in my heart to draw up a treasured moment, I realize I’ve lost something I can not recover. The joke, the glance, the odd detail are all gone.
Loss of the future I anticipated. I’m a planner by nature. Not a detailed, OCD, got-everything-in-order kind of planner, but a “big picture” kind of planner. When Dominic left us in 2014, things were going (pretty much) according to plan. Each child was well on his or her way to the career path they had chosen. I was easing into an empty nest and exploring options for life after homeschooling. My husband was entering his last few years of a lengthy career. It’s hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, but when your world is shaken by child loss, everything gets scrambled. You can’t just pick up where you left off and keep going with the pieces that remain.
There’s a prolonged period of confusion and everyone is impacted differently and in ways you could never imagine. All of us have changed dramatically in the years since Dominic left us. He is not the only thing missing from the rest of our lives. Holidays are altered. Birthdays are different. We have to plan special events around uncomfortable milestone dates that roll around every year whether we want them to or not. It’s a constant readjustment to life as it IS instead of life as I thought it WOULD be.
Loss of ability to focus and function. Oh, how this surprised me! I was in some kind of zone for the first month after Dominic left. My other children were home, we had to make it through planning his funeral, two graduations and cleaning out his apartment. I also had to handle paperwork for my husband to take short-term disability due to grief. I cried a lot, wrote down dozens of notes but managed to do what I had to do. Then I crashed. I couldn’t remember a thing. I couldn’t read more than a couple sentences at a time. I hated the telephone. I could barely stand to hear the television. I had to make a list of the most basic things like brushing my teeth, feeding my animals, turning off all the lights before bed. It was awful! And it didn’t really get better for well over a year.
I still suffer from a very short attention span, low tolerance for noise and an inability to accommodate last minute changes. I don’t schedule anything back to back. I live in a rural area and sometimes shop in the nearby town. I will start the day with a long list and shorten it repeatedly as I go along because driving in traffic, crowds and random sounds ramp up my anxiety and make me want to go home with or without what I came for. I have changed the way I do so many things. My pre-loss memory has never returned.
Loss of patience. I am at once impatient and long-suffering. I have zero patience for petty grievances, whining and complaining. Yet I have compassion for other people living hard and unhappy stories. I berate myself for not being “better” and, at the same time, extend grace to others who aren’t “better” either. I want to shake people who bowl over weak, hurting, desperate souls. I don’t have time for moaning about rain when you were planning a picnic but will listen for hours to a mama tell me about her missing child.
Loss of health. I had a number of chronic health conditions before Dominic ran ahead. Within the first year of his departure, I was hospitalized twice. My experience is not unique. Some parents suffer immediate health effects (heart attack, blood sugar spikes, anxiety/depression) and some see a slow decline over time. In part because child loss, like any stressor, will negatively impact health and also because sometimes bereaved parents stop doing the things that help them stay healthy. At almost five years, I’ve learned how to manage the stress better although some of my health issues continue to get worse. It’s hard to tease apart what is age, what is disease and what is grief.
When your child leaves this life before you do, it changes everything.
Not only things you might expect, but many you’d never imagine.
It’s a constant balancing act, readjusting every day to new challenges.
Struggling to keep my head above the waves.