I’m the kind of person who thinks a lot about what makes people tick.
I always assume the person in front of meis the sum of his or her experiences.
We all are, really.
No one wakes up one day and just “is”. We become, over time, as our innate nature interacts with the world around us. First our parents and siblings influence us and then school, friends, life experience either gently molds us or pounds us into shape.
Often we get so used to our own way of doing and being we never give it much thought. It’s just “how we are”. We work around our faults and try to use our strengths to our advantage.
Most of us are pretty good at it.
Then something earth shattering comes along and suddenly the cracks are exposed and we haven’t the energy to cover them over.
Grieving hearts can be overwhelmed by all the seemingly unrelated issues that crop up after child loss. They lament that the pain and sorrow they bear missing their child is more than enough of a burden. Why, oh why are all these other things demanding attention at the same time?
How we grieve is informed by so manythings!
Not only by our relationship with the one we miss but also our relationship withprevious losses, ourselves and others.
Here are some often overlooked things that affect our grief:
Relationship with the one we miss. I think most of us realize this intuitively but we might be afraid to look deeper than the most recent memories and feelings. Dominic was almost 24 when he was killed in a single-vehicle motorcycle accident. At first my reaction to his death was mostly about losing him as a young adult. Over time I mourned losing him as a younger middle child who came along when I wasn’t taking as many photos of babies and toddlers (I have far fewer of him than his older siblings!). I mourned not making as much of his high school graduation and being not long out of major surgery for his college graduation. I mourned not making videos of his amazing drum playing because, you know, there’s always next time. My relationship with Dominic was complicated as all relationships are. I’m still discovering sore spots, having to think about, feel them and forgive myself or him for that specific pain. It takes time and willingness to explore my heart even when it hurts.
Relationship to previous losses. We’ve all suffered loss in our lifetimes. It might not have been due to death, but something or someone was taken from us, left us or is missing. And we’ve observed how others in our family have dealt (or not dealt) with loss. How we processed previous loss-what we learned or didn’t learn-in the course of living through it impacts how we approach child loss. I suffered numerous smaller losses before Dominic ran ahead to Heaven. One of the most profound was the decade prior to his leaving when my health declined in ways I could neither control nor anticipate. Over and over I was forced to accept that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t MAKE something happen (or not happen). I had already surrendered, for the most part, to the worldview that I was not in control. It didn’t stop my heart from crying out nor stop my mind from trying to find a reason for this awful tragedy, but it helped me get past the initial disbelief that it could happen at all.
Relationship to ourselves. Some of us are masters of ignoring inner voices and prodding. Some folks never have a conversation with themselves, question their own motives or examine their own behavior. They walk through life and experience it moment by moment, day by day without looking too far ahead or looking over their shoulder at what they might leave in their wake. I’d love to have a day like that. Because I’m precisely the opposite. I will replay a conversation a dozen times trying to figure out where it went wrong or what I could have said differently. I am never free of a long list of self-imposed “Do’s and Don’t’s”. Even while grieving, I had expectations regarding what was allowed and what was out of bounds. It took time for me to give my heart permission to do whatever was necessary as long as it didn’t harm me or others. The less introspective may need help setting boundaries around their words and behavior so they don’t damage other hearts and relationships in unbridled grief.
Relationship to others. One of the most shocking realizations in child loss is that although others are in your immediate grief circle (spouse, other children, grandparents) no one has precisely the same relationship with the missing child. And every relationship within a family is impacted by the space left behind. Families are reshaped as much by the subtraction of a member as by the addition of a new baby or spouse. It changes everything. So even in this intimate setting, misunderstandings happen. Each person is working through their own grief. As they do, they will change. And the cycle begins anew. The husband I knew and the children I knew BEFORE Dom left have been reshaped as much by this experience as I have. I tend to want to relate to the people they were before and not to the people they are NOW. The gap between the two can be difficult to navigate. We continue to learn to live together in our new reality-changing and (hopefully) growing together. We talk more about important things, hide less behind false fronts and work harder at keeping short accounts.
Child loss shook me to the core.
It rattled every loose thought and feeling so hard they fell out and I was forced to deal with them. It ripped away any facade I’d managed to construct around poor coping techniques and suddenly I had to find new ones. Excuses that served to kick relationship problems down the road weren’t enough anymore.
Healing is a process that takes as long as it takes and may never be complete this side of eternity. It’s a folding in of the hard parts of my story, an acknowledgement of the way I am changed because of the wounds I’ve received. It involves scar tissue and sore spots and ongoing pain.
I can only live forward and there are no do-overs.
No amount of regret can roll back the clock and give me another chance to do it right, do it better or just do it at all.
I can’t undo or redo my past.
If I’ve made blunders, hurt hearts, missed opportunities or just plain screwed up, I have to live with that. And other people might have to live with the damage I’ve inflicted.
I need to own that.
But it is not helpful to let regret stop me working NOWto repair, restore and rebuild relationships.
Sometimes my best efforts may be rebuffed.
If I’ve hurt someone’s heart they have every single right to tell me, “No. I won’t let you back in.” I don’t get to establish a timeline for their healing. But if I don’t try to make amends I can be sure the rift won’t be mended.
If someone has hurt me I can choose to look beyond that pain, forgive the offense and commit to begin now, leaving the past in the past, and start fresh.
If so much time has passed that it feels awkward-so what? Embarrassment is a small price to pay for restoration.
So write a letter.
Send a card.
Make a phone call.
There’s a proverb that’s been spoken by my family for years. It goes like this. A young man asks an old farmer, “When’s the best time to plant a tree?”
The old man answers, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. But the next best time is now.”
I can’t go back and sow seed or plant trees when I wish I had.
There are all kinds of ways child loss plays with your head.
One of the most common and often repeated questions among bereaved parents (especially those who have lost their only child , all their children or a child before or at birth) is this: Am I still a mama (or daddy)?
Short answer: YES. Absolutely!
The fact that your child has taken up residence in Heaven and is no longer here to hold and love and parent on earth changes NOTHING about your status.
Being an almost mother isn’t a thing. You have seven children, whether they made it here or not doesn’t take away from the fact they existed. They were yours, and they were loved fully if only for those small moments.
You are a mother, Grace. I am so, so sorry you were never able to hold your babies, but you are, and always will be, a mother.
Brittainy C. Cherry, Disgrace
For the uninitiated, it may well seem that the lack of a physical presence changes how a parent’s heart feels or thinks about a child.
But it doesn’t.
Sure it’s more complicated-in fact I’m not certain that six years has been time enough for me to figure it out-but I am still Dominic’s mother. He is not an only child, but even if he were, I’d still be a mother.
I know that for those in our “club” who had only a few minutes or hours with a precious child it can seem even more difficult to convey to others that our daughter or our son is very, very real and important to us.
When there are few witnesses to the beautiful life and light of a tiny baby, it can almost seem like a dream.
But it’s not.
So for every single parent who has wondered if you are “still” a parent-please accept this affirmation: You ARE a parent. Your child matters. Your relationship is ongoing regardless of your child’s address.
I think it’s almost always offensive when someone says, “I know just how you feel” to a grieving heart.
Even two biological parents of the same child have a slightly different relationship with him or her because their experience is filtered through the lens of distinct personalities, shared adventures, struggles, joys and secrets.
We are a family of six-four kids and two parents.
Each one of us has experienced Dominic’s death differently because he was uniquely woven into the fabric of our separate stories as well as our corporate story.
Parts of me reflected back from him are gone forever. The unique give and take we shared is my loss alone.
Sibling memories, inside jokes, sneaky “don’t tell mom” pranks and antics belong to his sister and brothers and are part of their loss I can neither understand nor access.
Yes, we share corporately the loss of a son and brother, but none of us can really say, “I know just how you feel”.
Because we don’t.
And that’s one of the things that makes grief a very lonely journey.
All these feelings wrapped inside of experiences bound up in memories stored in two hearts. Only now one of them is inaccessible and the other is trying to find a way to carry both halves of the relationship.
Part of the work grief requires is gathering up the fragments of memory and tucking them safely away.
It will be different for each heart.
Even hearts that mourn the loss of the same person.
If you follow my personal Facebook page you know that part of my family evacuated ahead of Hurricane Dorian.
We are waiting the storm out at my parents’ farm in a safe spot. It was an unexpected opportunity to see one another and a sweet blessing (the visit, not the storm!) but a houseful makes it hard to do the kind of writing I normally do.
So…you’ll see some reposts for a couple days.
Hurricanes and random shootings and awful accidents can make a heart remember that relationships are really what matters.
One hard, hard lesson I’ve learned from waking up one morning to a never-coming-home son is this: You may not have another chance to make amends, say “I love you“, kiss a face or hug a neck.
I’m here to tell you: don’t drown your important relationships in unsaid words, unshared feelings, unacknowledged wounds.
All that does is guarantee distance grows between your hearts.
If you let the distance become too vast, or the pile of unsaid truth get too high, you might just find you can’t reach that far or that high to reconnect.
It takes a bit of brave to say what’s important and uncomfortable.
“Death ends a life, not a relationship.” ~ Tuesdays with Morrie
A parent’s love doesn’t end simply because a child leaves this earth.
The relationship is not over as long as a bereaved parent’s heart beats.
So we face a challenge: How do we express love to and honor relationship with a child out of sight and out of reach.
We tell our stories and theirs. We start foundations or fund scholarships or do Random Acts of Kindness in honor of our son or daughter. We lobby legislators and city councils. We fight for changes in medical protocol. We post pictures on social media to keep their lights bright in friends’ and family’s memories.
And we say their names.
Because death can take a body, but it can’t steal a relationship.