My daughter, Fiona, wrote this last year, in the voice of her brother who ran ahead to heaven.
I am so thankful for her and so sorry that she has gained this wisdom at great cost.
Some of the bravest, most loving women I know are those who have suffered one of life’s greatest losses. I hope you know how truly beautiful you are.
I know most days your eyes are misty with tears, your mind full of questions, your voice quieted, your heart broken by the pain of living without me.
There are only two ways to gain a child: birth or adoption.
But nobody and nothing in this world prepares you for the harsh reality that there are countless ways to lose one.
I can’t dry your eyes or answer your questions; strengthen your voice or fix your broken heart. But today, the day you stand with empty arms or a few empty chairs while others’ hearts and homes are full, I want to remind you of a few things:
It is not your fault.
You are a great mom.
It’s OK to wish for more time.
Broken crayons still color and the world needs your tear-washed rainbows to remind them that stormy clouds are not the end of the story.
If you’ve never faced anything very frightening, it’s easy to think that those who do and march on through are somehow immune to fear.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
Courage is not the absence of fear but the mastery of it.
Yet you cannot master something you deny. You cannot resist that which you claim doesn’t exist.
Child loss is frightening.
So frightening that those not forced to walk this road usually choose to pretend (in practice if not in words) that it simply isn’t part of the world they live in.
It’s so frightening that most bereaved parents experience a period of time we would describe as “being numb” and “shock”.
It was probably six months until my heart truly understood the fact that Dominic was not coming back.
It was frightening on so many levels-I had to face the fact I was not in control, had to face the fact my life was never going to be what I had envisioned it to be, face the fact that my surviving children would be shaped by grief in ways neither I nor they could anticipate, face the fact that I would live out my years carrying this heavy burden, and face the fact that no matter how hard I wished things were different, they were never going to be different-my child was dead.
And when the numbness began to wear off and fear creep into my heart, I had to choose: Was I going to embrace and experience this awful, devastating fear or was I going to try to deny it, distract myself from it or try to dismiss it as inconsequential?
Facing fear requires facing my own weakness.
Facing fear means becoming vulnerable-admitting that I am hurting, admitting that I cannot do this on my own, admitting that maybe, just maybe, I can’t climb this mountain without help.
Choosing vulnerability was its own challenge.
What if others mocked me? What if no one helped me? What if I just wasn’t up to the task?
I decided that NOT facing fear was not an option. As long as it lurked in the shadows I would be its prisoner.
So I turned and looked it square in the eyes. And I found, with God’s enabling help, I could master that fear.
Two verses became my touchstone:
When struck by fear, I let go, depending securely upon You alone. In God—whose word I praise— in God I place my trust. I shall not let fear come in, for what can measly men do to me?
Psalm 56:3-4 VOICE
When I admitted my weakness, His strength was sufficient.
Choosing vulnerability and facing fear opens the door for God to show His power in and through me.
Child loss is still scary.
I’m still afraid.
But the Lord gives me strength to master the fear.
Trigger warning: I discuss my loss in terms of falling. If you have lost a loved one to that kind of accident, you might want to skip this post. ❤
I really don’t know how to explain it to anyone who has not had to repeatedly face their greatest fear.
It takes exactly as much courage.
Every. Single. Time.
I have had a dozen major surgeries in my life. I am always just as anxious when they start the countdown to anesthesia. Doesn’t matter what they push in my IV line-that moment when I realize I am relinquishing all control to the hands of others frightens me.
I feel like I am falling over the edge of a cliff-nothing to hold onto, no way to stop what’s coming, no way to clamber back up and change my mind or change what’s about to happen.
It’s the same every spring since Dominic ran ahead to heaven.
From the middle of March to the middle of April my body responds to cues my mind barely registers. Sights, smells, change in the length of the day, the direction of the prevailing wind-a hundred tiny stimuli make my nerves fire in chorus declaring, “It’s almost THAT day!”
There is another underlying dissonance that begs the question, “Why didn’t you see it coming?” Or, at least, “Why didn’t you spend a little more time with him on those last two visits home?”
Dominic was busy that spring-an internship with a local judge, papers and responsibilities as a journal editor along with the demanding reading load of second year Law School meant he didn’t make the 30 miles home all that often.
But there were a couple days he came our way in the month before he died.
One was to bring a friend’s car and do a bunch of work on it. That day was chilly and I popped out a few times to chit chat as they labored under the shed in the yard. I made lunch and visited with them then.
Still, I kind of felt like I shouldn’t hover over my grown son even though I really missed him and wanted badly to talk to him about something other than car parts.
The jacket he wore and dirtied that day with oil and grease and dirt and gravel grit is still hanging in what we use as a mud room.
Because they were coming back to do more repairs in a few weeks.
It is only now finally free of the last scent of him.
The next visit was on a day when I was busy, he was busy and we were all frustrated over equipment that wasn’t working properly. He brought me some medicine from the vet in town for a sick horse and spoke briefly about whether or not we’d cut some fallen limbs in a bit. Then he went to help his brother try to get the backhoe cranked. I was suffering from a severe flare in my ankle so was only able to hobble out to the spot the stupid thing had stopped for just a minute before needing to hobble back inside to put my foot up and allow it to rest.
He left early because I wasn’t up to cutting logs and neither he nor his brother could crank the infernal machine.
I remember that before he left, I made a point of turning him to face me and hugging him tight while telling him how very proud I was of him and everything he was doing and becoming. A little unusual because Dominic was the least huggable of all my children. He was no cuddler.
It was not a premonition-I was prompted by the knowledge he was going into finals and had been stressed lately.
But I am so glad I did it.
And then-poof!-time flies like time does and he and his brother were off on a Spring Break trip. They texted me faithfully to let me know they made it safely to their destination, safely to my parents’ home in Florida for a few days after that and then safely back home.
I never saw him alive again.
Spring is not my favorite season anymore.
While my heart can appreciate the promise of new life declared in every budding flower, every unfurling leaf, every newborn bird and calf and lamb, it is also aware that every living thing dies.
I’m on the edge and falling off.
I can’t stop it.
And it’s just as frightening this time as last time.
Bereavement has not made me a perfectly compassionate person. I still say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing and sometimes don’t do the right thing.
But it HAS made me more aware that what I do/don’t do/say/don’t say can either speak life or death to a struggling heart.
And I so want to speak life and courage to everyone I meet.
Before I lost Dominic, I know that I, like others who had never experienced the death of a child, undoubtedly said and did things that were hurtful instead of helpful.
I painfully remember sharing at a Thanksgiving women’s gathering and, meaning to encourage the ladies, said something like, “I think we are able to better face the big disappointments or trials in life, but find the daily drip, drip, drip of unfulfilled expectations to be a greater challenge.” A bereaved mom in attendance set me straight (in a very kind and gracious manner!).
That exchange has come often to my mind in these months after burying my son. I wish I could go back and have a do-over.
Most folks would count the date of death and maybe the date of burial or memorial service.
But a mama’s heart counts it ALL.
I count the day he left, the day I was first able to view his body, the days of visitation, the day of the funeral and burial.
I count the day we cleaned out his apartment.
I count the day I notified credit card companies he would no longer require their services.
I count the day I received the death certificate.
I count the day I got his posthumous diploma.
And every year these dates roll around again to remind my heart of the pain I felt then and to pierce it afresh.
So how does a heart survive all these grief anniversaries? How can I navigate the minefield of emotions and triggers that only I can see?
I believe the first step is to embrace them and not try to deny them.
I remember the horror I felt when I realized I had survived 365 days since the deputy came to my door when I was certain I wouldn’t make it through the first 24 hours. It did not feel like victory, it felt like betrayal.
How in the world could my broken heart keep beating if I truly loved my son?
I cannot, by force of will, fend off the feelings that are sure to invade my heart when it recognizes that another year has passed.
The most important thing is to have a plan, I think. That way it doesn’t slam you against the wall unawares. The feelings are impossible to outrun, but having a plan means you are anticipating them and in a kind of “fighting stance”.
The plan might be to go away or to go to the cemetery or other spot that evokes strong connection to your child. It might be an elaborate gathering that includes friends or family or just lighting a candle next to a photograph. Your heart may insist you stay in bed all day, covers over your head and wait out the ticking moments.
I think each family has to approach the day however makes sense to them. There is certainly no “right” way or “easy” way to do it.
I am sorry you have to do it at all.
Here’s the truth: evenTHATday will only last 24 hours. Just like the awful day when your child left you.
However you manage to survive is fine.
You are not abandoning your missing child if you don’t make a big public display. You are not forgetting him or her if you let go of some of these grief anniversaries over time-you are learning to carry the load. You are not a bad parent if you choose a getaway to distract your heart from the pain.
You are coping the best you can-choosing to carry on.
If you’ve followed the blog for long, you know I have Rheumatoid Arthritis. What you may not know is that it is not at all like the arthritis most people experience as they age. Instead of a gradual wearing out of joints due to use and, sometimes, injury, RA is the result of my body attacking itself.
I was 44 when diagnosed after both ankles suddenly swelled so that I could barely walk.
I’ve been living with it for over ten years.
It’s a chronic disease. It can be treated with greater or lesser success to modify and mediate symptoms, but it is always, always, always there. And it affects every aspect of my life-from getting dressed to driving a car.
I find that most folks just don’t understand that.
We are used to getting sick, going to the doctor and being prescribed a drug or treatment or even surgery and getting well (after some period of time).
But some things can’t be “fixed” and must simply be “managed” and endured.
Child loss is like that.
It cannot be fixed.
It cannot be healed.
It cannot be undone or ignored or sequestered so that it doesn’t impact daily life.
And that is hard for people to understand if they’ve never dealt with a chronic illness or other circumstance that defies remedy.
Every morning I walk down my stairs one step at a time like a toddler because my joints are too stiff to bend until I’ve been up for a few hours-that’s how I have to accommodate my arthritis.
Every morning I sit in my rocking chair and journal and talk to other bereaved parents before daybreak-that’s how I have to accommodate my grief.
Neither of these conditions is a choice.
Each of them happened TO me-not because of anything I did or did not do.