That was a problem as a young child because often I couldn’t tell where the dream ended and real life began when I woke.
Many, many nights I’d cry out from my bed, begging my parents to come save me from whatever monster followed me from my dream.
I pretty much grew out of that as I got older and learned to be very careful what I fed my mind-especially right before I fall asleep. I don’t watch horror movies, dark so-called comedies, violent dramas or anything that my brain might twist into scary or disturbing shapes in the dark.
After Dominic left for Heaven, I once again experienced a season of uncomfortable dreaming. Only one or two of my dreams were actually awful, but I would often wake feeling out of sorts, a bit “off” or vaguely aware of something just outside my consciousness that was sure to frighten me if I could see it clearly.
That season passed and only very rarely was I troubled with those kinds of dreams these past few years.
But since my mama joined Dominic, I’ve had at least one disturbing dream every single night.
I can remember some of them-like the one that woke me at two this morning-but not all of them. Even when I can’t recall the exact sequence of events, they all have a similar theme: Someone I love is in peril and I can’t save them or something I hold dear is lost and I can’t find it.
And that awful feeling of helplessness follows me when I open my eyes.
It doesn’t take a PhD to interpret these dreams.
Grief is leaking out in my sleep.
All the feelings I’ve become so good at pushing down during waking hours since Dominic left us are growing stronger again in the wake of my mother’s death.
The lid my conscious mind keeps screwed on tight is no match for the power of the unconscious.
Off it pops and all the sad, scared, anxious, helpless, longing, fearful emotions stirred up by losing one more soul my heart loves come flying out and swirl around until they create a perfect storm of awful to parade across my mind’s eye while my body tries to rest.
I think I’ve only had one night of more than three hours uninterrupted sleep since the week Mama was hospitalized.
I’m trying all the old tricks of carefully tending what goes into my brain each day. I’m feeding myself healthy and wholesome images and words. I’m ending each day with prayer and asking God to give me sweet dreams or no dreams at all.
My mother’s death has forced me to relive the early days after Dominic’s death.
While her leaving was not completely unexpected (she had many health issues and was not strong) it was still sudden.
And one of the things I’m reliving is that while this giant life-altering event has turned MY world upside down and inside out, it really hasn’t changed anything for those outside a very small inner circle of grievers.
The weird, weird thing about devastating loss is that life actually goes on. When you’re faced with a tragedy, a loss so huge that you have no idea how you can live through it, somehow, the world keeps turning, the seconds keep ticking.
Life DOES go on.
I had someone ask me a question in church Sunday about a decision that was made a week or two before my mom went into the hospital for the last time. It took me at least a full minute to orient my brain to the question and longer to answer it because I could barely remember anything that happened in the past weeks before Mama died.
It was like that after Dominic left us.
I felt like I was living in a low-budget foreign feature film (think ancient Godzilla movies) where English was simply dubbed over the Asian actors original dialogue and everything was slightly “off”. Words were being said that I SHOULD understand but they didn’t match what my eyes were seeing. It took tremendous effort to comprehend what people said to me and an even greater effort to comprehend the context of what they were saying.
It is a weird, weird thing that time moves on regardless of my shattered world.
It is a weird, weird thing that people keep doing routine stuff like watching favorite TV shows, going to football games, celebrating birthdays, checking the value of their portfolio, chiming in on social media and buying groceries.
It is a weird, weird thing that I grow older while Dominic stays twenty-three-almost-twenty-four. It’s even weirder that his once younger brother is now twenty-seven.
I used to think I had a pretty good imagination. But now I’m not so sure.
I can’t scale Dominic up to what he might be doing now, who he might be dating or married to, where he might have chosen to pursue a career or if he might have done something entirely different than anything he’d done before.
For one reason or another, the tiny life budding in a belly never gets to see the light of day. Never takes a first breath. Never cries. Never opens his or her eyes to the mama waiting to meet her precious one.
So many mamas have experienced the excitement of watching the pregnancy test show positive only to endure days, weeks or months later, the sadness of saying good-bye to a little one they never got to meet.
Statistics tell us that one in four women will become part of this group during their lifetime.
But what statistics can never tell you about anything is why so, so many of the women who survive pregnancy and infant loss don’t talk about it.
Many think they can’t talk about it or shouldn’t talk about it because often the experience is so very personal.
It may be the pregnancy was never announced. It could be that the culture in which a mama lives doesn’t recognize life at conception so, really, what was lost? Perhaps many women in her family have had similar experiences and THEY didn’t “make a big deal” out of it, so why should she?
Then there’s guilt.
So, so much information is shoved into mothers’ faces about what they should and shouldn’t do to promote a healthy pregnancy and birth. Eat this, don’t eat that. Take this, don’t take that. Exercise-but not too strenuously. Drink water. Don’t drink alcohol or too much caffeine.
It’s easy to blame yourself when a baby stops growing.
Some brave mamas carry a baby for months and to the point of birth-see that precious bundle on an ultrasound, hear the heartbeat, watch and feel those legs kick-yet never hear a cry or hold a warm infant in their arms.
That’s a kind of awful no heart should have to bear.
And yet, that loss too is often unacknowledged.
How do you celebrate a life that was lived only inside the comfort and safety of the womb? How do you share a photo of your precious baby when the only one you have (if you have any) is of him wrapped in a blanket, eyes closed, your eyes crying?
If a second pregnancy follows any kind of pregnancy or infant loss, friends and family almost always pounce on the opportunity to push a mama’s heart forward fast and furious to the future of her “rainbow child” making it even less likely her missing baby is acknowledged or remembered.
But she never forgets.
A mama’s heart never lets go of the life that lived inside her.
That tiny baby-one week, one month, full term-is her son or daughter.
Counted among the others.
Just as precious.
I’m remembering with you, my sweet friends. Tonight I will light a candle along with millions who also remember, to honor the baby I never held. May the multiplied voices and hearts joined together help others hear the message that our child matters.
I think it was second grade when I started a notebook dedicated to them-carefully copying out the words of others that spoke the truths of my own heart. Although the topics which draw me are different now, I’m still collecting them.
So here are fifteen quotes on grief that I hope will help another heart:
I once read the sentence ‘I lay awake all night with a toothache, thinking about the toothache and about lying awake.’
That’s true to life. Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer.
I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.
C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Rather often I am asked whether the grief remains as intense as when I wrote. The answer is, No. The wound is no longer raw. But it has not disappeared. That is as it should be. If he was worth loving, he is worth grieving over.
Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved. That worth abides. So I own my grief. I do not try to put it behind me, to get over it, to forget it… Every lament is a love-song.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son
You will lose someone you can’t live without,and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.
They say time heals all wounds, but that presumes the source of the grief is finite
Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Prince
What an awful thing then, being there in our house together with our daughter gone, trying to be equal to so many sudden orders of sorrow, any one of which alone would have wrenched us from our fragile orbits around each other.
Paul Harding, Enon
This was how to help a family who has just lost their child. Wash the clothes, make soup. Don’t ask them what they need, bring them what they need. Keep them warm. Listen to them rant, and cry, and tell their story over and over.
Ann Hood, The Obituary Writer
I guess I always thought it would be bigger, when a terrible thing happened. Didn’t you think so? Doesn’t it seem like houses ought to be caving in, and lightning and thunder, and people tearing their hair in the street? I never – I never thought it would be this small, did you?
Dan Chaon, Stay Awake
There are no words, not in English, Spanish, Arabic, or Hebrew, that have been invented to explain what it’s like to lose a child. The nightmarish heartache of it. The unexplainable trepidation that follows. No mother loses a child without believing she failed as a parent. No father loses a child without believing he failed to protect his family from pain. The child may be gone, but the years the child were meant to live remain behind, solid in the mind like an aging ghost. The birthdays, the holidays, the last days of school—they all remain, circled in red lipstick on a calendar nailed to the wall. A constant shadow that grows, even in the dark. As I was saying…there are no words.
I started writing because of Dominic and my family. I keep writing because of Dominic and my family and all the beautiful souls I’ve met along this journey-many who have never lost a child but whose hearts grieve for someone or something else.
I thought I’d share what I read at my sweet mama’s funeral yesterday-it was made easier and richer by all those who have walked with me so far in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Your comments, your messages, your thoughts and insights helped me express the most important lesson I’m learning in grief: Love Lives Forever.
When we walk through the graveyard or read an obituary, we almost always look for those two dates that bookend a life-for Mama it is September 23, 1938 and September 27, 2019.
Lots of sermons have been preached about that dash in between-about that what we do or don’t do, who we love or don’t love, how we use the years we are given as either a blessing or something else.
And that is very, very true.
We tend to think that the last date-the date when breath leaves the body and the soul escapes the trials of this world to enter the glory of Heaven-as the end. We can hardly help it because our relationship to the one we love changes so dramatically.
I can’t hug Mama anymore, I can’t hear her laugh, I can’t call her up and tell her, “I love you” or greet her in the morning with a “Hi Girlie!”.
It creates a giant void for me and an unfathomably huge void for Papa. We are going to have to find a way to live with that empty space in our hearts and in our lives.
It takes lots and lots of work, lots and lots of tears and lots and lots of time. There’s no shortcut through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
My Mama lost HER mother suddenly, to a stroke, when she was just ten years old. So she lived with that giant hole in her heart for over 71 years. She could have allowed the pain to make her cold and bitter, closed off and unavailable. It certainly would have been an understandable response to a traumatic loss.
But she didn’t.
Without exception, every person who has called, written or come by to pay respects to Patty Hart describes her as gracious, lovely, kind, generous, welcoming, cheerful and bright.
Mama chose love.
In just the past few weeks, before this last hospitalization, I got to see Mama begin to pour that love into a new generation. She had two visits from her great-grandson. One due to Hurricane Dorian (they had to evacuate) and one that was scheduled to give her the chance to meet him.
I won’t fib and say that having overnight visitors in the house was easy for her or Papa with all her medical conditions, but you’d never know it by the grin on her face when I put that chubby little stinker in her lap.
For a few minutes, she was Nanny again-singing, cooing, laughing and making eyes at him. She even got to be the first one to see him turn over. That tickled her!
Truth is, that last date isn’t the end. There’s no period after Patricia Ann Landrum Hart’s life. Of course she lives on in Heaven with Jesus, her mama and my Dominic.
But even here, on earth, love lives forever.
It lives in the lives she touched and will continue to touch through her friends and family as they honor her legacy of love.
Our circle is broken today. Death is awful and it’s hard. It’s a reminder the world is not as God intended it to be and we walk a broken road toward the promises of redemption and restoration.
But the chains of love forged in our hearts are never severed.
If you think that time makes a difference to a mama’s heart that’s missing a child who ran ahead to Heaven without her, you don’t know as much as you think you know.
Time does not heal all wounds-especially the kind that shatter a heart into a million pieces.
It takes time for the wound to scar over, but it doesn’t undo the damage.
So if you are wondering why your coworker still takes the day off on his child’s birthday or the anniversary of her child’s homegoing, I’ll let you in on a little secret: Years disappear when those milestones loom large.
It’s just as painful today as it was on THAT day when a bereaved parent has to face an unavoidable reminder that his or her child is gone, gone, gone.
I’m not diminishing anyone’s loss when I say this but child loss is unique.
If we lose a spouse, we cannot replace that person, but we can enjoy the same type of relationship with another one.
When we lose a parent, we cannot replace that individual or that relationship, but we all know age eventually makes a claim on every life. We anticipate (even if subconsciously) that younger folks will outlive the older ones.
A parent’s heart is not equipped to outlive their child.
And yet, some of us do.
“IT’S so WRONG, so profoundly wrong, for a child to die before its parents. It’s hard enough to bury our parents. But that we expect. Our parents belong to our past, our children belong to our future. We do not visualize our future without them. How can I bury my son, my future, one of the next in line? He was meant to bury me!”
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son
So if the bereaved parents in your life need extra space, extra grace, extra accommodation on those days when the loss is unavoidable don’t be surprised.
What SHOULD astonish folks is that we are able to function as well as we do on all the other days of the year without additional help.