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.
They find a tagline or a cause or even a certain color and it becomes shorthand for remembering and honoring their missing child.
Me, not so much.
Dominic wasn’t the kind of person you could sum up in a few words or a certain favorite anything.
He was a drummer, a social commentator, an adrenaline junkie, a fitness fanatic, a neat freak, a bargain hunter, a mechanic, an electronics aficionado, so very funny and a loyal and fierce friend.
He could be sarcastic and cutting.
He was nearly always brutally honest. His twitter feed is full of (sometimes misspelled) witty commentary on everyday irritations and observations. I can hear his voice in my head when I read them.
Dominic was also kind and compassionate.
He was often the kid that sat next to the kid that no one else wanted to sit with. His friends from law school told me tale after tale of how he helped them with one thing or another, how he went out of his way to be there for them and how his kindness made a difference.
He was a stubborn mule too.
When he’d established a position it took a heap of convincing to get him to change his mind. More than once he simply waited the other person out, trusting exhaustion to do the work of making his case.
His thirtieth birthday is coming up in a few days. It will be the seventh one without him.
If he was still here I’d do what I do for most milestone birthdays-create a portfolio of gift cards in an amount equal to the years. I love hunting down a recipient’s favorite places to shop and filling up the envelope.
I’m still not good at figuring out what to do about birthdays down here when he’s in Heaven and probably not even marking the day.
He would hate balloons.
He’d know none of us needed any cake.
Between now and then I’m going to try to think of something.
Especially therapists that only know what child loss is supposed to look like from books and lectures.
I understand how logical it seems that a parent should be able to accept his or her child is no longer alive. After all, most of us saw our child’s lifeless body and performed whatever rituals our hearts find most comforting.
We haven’t received a phone call, text, message or new photograph. Weeks, months and years pass and no word.
Of course this child is gone.
But a mama’s heart still hopes. Somewhere deep down there is a part of me that longs for connection to this child I carried, nurtured and loved.
So sometimes my heart will play tricks on me.
It started just after Dominic ran ahead to Heaven.
I was the one who had to make phone calls and inform the family of his passing, repeating the awful words over and over and over. So my head got it right away.
Dominic was dead. He was not coming back. There was nothing I could do about it.
Still, I found that for the first year or year and a half, every time I went somewhere we usually went together or attended a family function or celebration where we’d all be in one room, I looked for him.
If someone came around the corner and I caught a glimpse of a shoulder-could that be him?
If voices drifted upstairs-maybe that’s Dom’s laugh down there?
A whiff of soap or shampoo on the grocery aisle-was he just ahead of me?
Ridiculous. Maybe. But very, very real.
Now these six years later that hardly ever happens. Once or twice a year, when the family is together and especially if we are together in a crowd of other people, I’ll kind of “look” for him-on the fringes, around the edges, his voice maybe mixed in with others.
I do still sit silent in the dark hours of early morning shaking my head and saying aloud, “How can Dominic really be dead?”.
But that’s not denial of the fact he is gone.
It’s acknowledgement of how hard it is to live with that truth.
When it first happened all I could think about was getting through a minute, then a day and then all the decisions and days leading up to a funeral or memorial service.
There’s no road map.
Even when others come alongside (and many, many did!) there’s just no easy way to navigate that part of the journey.
And then I realized that in addition to all the “regular” days that absolutely, positively break your heart, I had to forge a path through “special” days.
It was overwhelming!
Mother’s Day was especially challenging that first year. Our loss was fresh and we’d had to acknowledge and celebrate two graduations and a wedding was about a month away. How in the world could I honor my living children and also safeguard my broken heart?
We muddled through by having Mother’s Day at my daughter’s apartment co-hosted by some of her sweetest and most compassionate friends. Not a lot of fanfare, but good food, good company and a quiet acknowledgment of Dom’s absence but also my living children’s presence.
It was a gift.
This is my seventh Mother’s Day. Every year is different. Every year presents new challenges and every year things change.
Since discovering there is an International Bereaved Mother’s Day my heart has taken advantage of having a day to think about and honor Dominic and then another day to think about and honor my living children.
I wrote this post four years ago but can’t really improve on it so I’ll share it again. I pray that each heart who finds Mother’s Day hard will lean in and take hold of the hem of His garment.