I first shared this post two years ago when I was approaching the four year milestone of Dominic’s leaving for Heaven.
By that time most folks who knew me when he died had relegated that part of my story to some ancient past that surely I was over by now. I’d met others who had no clue my heart skipped a beat on a regular basis because one of my children was buried.
And even the closest ones-the ones I thought would understand forever-were sometimes impatient with my ongoing refusal to leave Dominic behind and be “healed” of my grief.
What I long for more than anything as the sixth anniversary of his departure draws near is simply this: Let me be me, whatever that looks like.
Don’t try to fit my journey into your mold.
Even in the very first hours after the news, my brain began instructing my heart, “Now, try to be brave. Try not to disappoint people. Try to say the right thing, do the right thing and be the example you should be.”
Whatever that meant.
As I made phone calls and received concerned friends and family members I was so aware that they would take a cue from me-how much can I say, how hard can I cry, should I hug or stand back, should I talk about him or be silent lest it make the tears fall harder?
I have so much more empathy for older folks since Dominic ran ahead to Heaven.
I’ve always tried to be a patient listener when hearing that same story over and over and over but have to admit that sometimes I’d drift off or internally mock an elder because I was tired of hearing it.
Because I understand now that it’s in the telling that one both commemorates and honors people as well as the past.
Stories are how we weave facts into narrative and give them meaning. It’s why so many of us love historical fiction or period dramas that not only reference actual people and events but also peek at emotions, motivation and draw conclusions.
I could hand you my daily calendar and you’d understand the outline of where I was and what I did.
But you wouldn’t know what I thought or felt that day unless I filled it in.
When Dominic ran ahead to Heaven, I was forced at first to deliver the most basic message to others who needed to know. I repeated it over and over, “I have to tell you something awful. Dominic is dead.”
I didn’t really know much more than that.
Details were added by friends and first responders in the days to come.
The story broadened to include how we reassembled our family from across the country, who showed up to help us through the first hours, where we chose to bury him, what the funeral service looked like and on and on and on.
For months afterward I found myself compelled to repeat the story of those days.
Compelled to rewind and play again the details, each time teasing out additional insights, questions and feelings.
It was an important part of unspooling and exploring what, exactly, it meant to live in a world that no longer included one of my children.
I know sometimes folks get tired of me telling the story. For them, it is a reminder of some awful event that is tucked neatly in the past. A date on a calendar somewhere that might occasionally tickle the back of their brain and evoke a, “that’s so sad” response but not something they live with every. single. day.
But for me, Dominic’s death is an ongoing experience.
Every day I have to fit his absence into my world. I have to find a way to live around the giant void where heSHOULDbe butISN’T.
So the story grows.
It’s not only what happened on the day he left, it’s what has happened since and is still happening now.
When you make space for me to tell, you make space for me to feel.
In the wake of revelations that Harvey Weinstein built his media empire in part, by harrassing (and worse) women who worked for him, there is a Facebook wave of “me too” posts by women and men who have also been harrassed, molested or assaulted.
It is empowering.
Because when hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands raise their social media “hands” to be counted, suddenly the lonely heart hiding in the corner realizes they are NOT alone.
I am thrilled that the secrecy and shame of sexual misconduct by men against women is being dragged into the light. That is where it belongs.
I want to do the same for child loss. I want to do the same for grief. I want to start a bold campaign where mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandparents and others say, “Me too!”
My heart hurts too.
My life is NOT the same and will NEVER be the same without my loved one’s companionship on earth.
I STILL look for him to come through the door on holiday weekends. I still long to CALL her and share good news or talk over my day. I CANNOT give up his old clothes or put away her toys or bundle up his belongings for charity.
I have to suck in my breath when a quick glance at a passing stranger tells my heart, “THERE HE IS!”
But my head says,“No, that can’t be him-he’s GONE.”
Songs-all kinds of songs-provoke memories, feelings, tears.Dry it up. Keep the fake face smiling. Look forward, don’t let them see.
There are thousands of us. Thousands. of. us.
Who will stand and raise their hand andSHOUT,“Me too!”?
I’ve written before about anxiety and child loss here. No matter the cause of death, the FACT of a child’s death seems to create the perfect conditions for a parent’s body and mind to experience anxiety, dis-ease, fear and often a sense of impending doom.
My world was rocked to its foundation the moment I heard the words, “He was killed in a motorcycle accident”.
The worst thing I could imagine had come true.
There was no protection from it happening again, no guarantee that THIS unbearable pain would be the ONLY unbearable pain I would have to carry.
I think my body chemistry was instantly transformed that morning to include rapid heartbeats, shallow breathing and a horrible creepy tension that climbs my spine and clenches its claws tightly at the base of my skull.
Before Dominic left us for Heaven I was not an anxious person.
No matter what happened, I generally took it in stride, looked for a solution and moved forward armed with an arsenal of choices to meet the problem head on.
Now, I can be pushed into a corner by an ordinary phone call that lasts too long. I can feel trapped if a price fails to ring up properly and I have to wait to have it corrected by a head cashier. I can become positively frantic when I reach in my purse and can’t find my keys even though I know for a fact I put them there and if I look a bit harder I’ll find them.
Traffic makes my heart go pitter-patter. The doorbell sends me flying to make sure it’s the UPS man and not another police officer to tell me heartbreaking news.
If I try to multi-task (which I rarely do) I am soon overwhelmed and have to sit down to catch my breath.
I only shop in stores where I’m familiar with the aisles and where products I need are shelved.
I check and re-check directions if I have to go to an unfamiliar address and leave with double the time needed to get there in case I get lost. Making on-the-fly course corrections doesn’t happen.
I pull off and have to figure out where I am.
And heaven forbid the phone rings past midnight -I wake with a start and even a wrong number means I won’t sleep for the rest of the night.
This is not “worry”. It’s not “borrowing trouble from tomorrow”. It is not an indication that my faith is weak or I’m “caving in” to my feelings.
It’s an uncontrollable physiological response to various stimuli.
So please, please don’t judge me or other bereaved parents for making choices about where we go, whenwe go and how muchwe go-most of the time we are anticipating an anxious response and trying to beat it.
I belong to several online bereaved parents’ groups and they are truly a lifeline in so many ways.
I can speak my mind there without fear of rejection or correction or of hurting my non-bereaved friends and family. I learn from other parents farther along in this journey how they cope with birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and every day grief triggers.
Sadly, there are new members added daily. New parents are forced to join this “club” where the dues are higher than anyone would willingly pay.
I am horrified by how quickly the numbers jump week-to-week and month-to-month.
And usually the parent (when they are ready) will share a bit about the child that has run ahead and the circumstances of his or her death. It’s an important part of learning to live with this pain-learning to speak your story.
But when too many of the seasoned parents are silent and my newsfeed explodes with stories of newly bereaved parents, my heart can easily be ovewhelmed by the desperation, sadness and utter despair that swamps a parent’s heart when they first find out their child is not coming home again.
Then the sites turn into echo chambers where sadness calls to sadness, circles back around and calls again. Despair is everywhere and there appears no way forward.
Bitterness weaves a black thread through post after post after post:
No one understands,
everyone has abandoned me,
I am unloved, alone and hopeless.
That’s precisely how I felt in those early months and it is an appropriate response to the awful devastation of out-of-order death.
But if I’m to survive this life I didn’t choose, then I’ve got to also have a healthy dose of hope.
So I limit my exposure to the echo chamber from time to time, especially if I’m feeling weak and vulnerable. I might take a week’s break to let my heart recover a bit and then go back with fresh vigor, ready to participate, encourage others and be encouraged.
Life after child loss is a marathon, not a sprint.
I have to pace myself if I’m going to make it to the finish line.
Sometimes that means taking a break and sitting on the sidelines.