It’s tempting to try to hide our tears and fears from our living children and grandchildren.
Who wants to overload a young heart and mind with grown-up problems?
There is definitely a place and time to shelter little people-it’s never appropriate to offload onto small shoulders what we just don’t want to carry ourselves.
But it is neither helpful nor healthy to pretend that sorrow and sadness don’t follow loss.
When I stuff feelings and insist on keeping a “stiff upper lip” I’m telling my kids that it’s not OK to admit that they are struggling.
When I act like it’s no big dealto set up the Christmas tree and deck the halls without their brother here, I’m encouraging them to remain silent instead of speaking up if their hearts are heavy instead of happy.
When I never voice my discomfort with certain activities or social events I am modeling a false front and fake smiles.
Of course, there are times we all have to suck it up and suck it in along this path. But that shouldn’t be the norm. As I’ve said over and over before-if we stuff our hearts full of unreleased feelings, we leave no room for the grace and mercy God wants to pour into them.
I can tell you that many, many folks have interviewed surviving siblings years and decades after their brother or sister left and have consistently discovered that most of them tried hard to live up to whatever standards their grieving parents set.
If Mom and Dad refused to talk about the loss, then they refused to talk about it too. If, on the other hand, the family observed open communication, they were able to process feelings in real time instead of stuffing and having to deal with them later.
One of the greatest challenges in child loss (or any profound loss) is creating space within our closest grief circle to allow each person affected to express themselves whatever that looks like.
But it’s so, so important!
Don’t hide your tears.
Don’t shut down the questions.
Don’t lock away the uncertainty and anxiety child loss brings in a trunk and only bring it out when no one’s watching.
Because the little people (and not so little people) in your house are ALWAYS watching.
I’m pretty sure that every single grieving parent I know has gotten at least one private message, text or phone call that starts like this, “I know that I haven’t lost a child, but…” and ends with some sort of advice that seeks to correct a perceived flaw in how the parent is grieving (in public) his or her missing child.
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.
I remember as a young mother of four working hard to keep my kids safe.
Next to fed and dry (two still in diapers!) that was each day’s goal: No one got hurt.
It never occurred to me THEN to add: No one got killed.
Because the most outlandish thing I could imagine was one of them falling or touching a hot stove and us having to rush to the emergency room.
Then I became a mother of teens and one by one they acquired a driver’s license and motored away from our home.
That’s when I began to beg God to spare their lives.
One particularly frightening test was when all four went to Louisiana-my eldest driving and the rest in the van with her. I made them call me every hour and tell me they were OK. It was the first time I realized that I could lose every one of them in a single instant should they crash-all my eggs in one basket.
I was glad when that day was over. Although the irony is they were no “safer” at the end of those 24 hours than they were at the beginning.
Because what I know now, but didn’t know then is this: There is no such thing as“safe”.
Not the way we like to think of it-not the way we add labels to devices, seat belts to cars, helmets to everything from bicycles to skateboards. Of course we should absolutely take precautions!Many lives are saved by them every single day.
Life is more random than we want to admit.And there is no defense against random.
There is no way to screen for every underlying physical abnormality, no way to drive so well you can stop the drunk or inattentive driver from plowing through a stop sign, no way to anticipate every foolish choice a young person might make that ends in disaster instead of a funny story.
My first response when Dominic died driving his motorcycle was that I wanted my surviving sons to sell theirs. They did so out of respect for me. Neither of them wanted their mama to have to endure a second knock on the door and the same message delivered twice.
I receive it as a sacrifice offered in love from them.
Because it was.
Since Dominic left us almost four years ago, I have had to deal with my desperate need to keep my living children safe.
And it is a real struggle.
Each child is involved in a career that includes inherent risk. None of them are foolhardy, but they are exposed-perhaps more than many-to potential bad actors and dangerous circumstances.
How I long for those days when I could tuck everyone in, turn out the lights and sleep soundly because all my chicks were safe inside my own little coop! How I wish the only danger I thought about or knew about was a bump on the head from hitting a coffee table!
How my heart aches for one more moment of blissful ignorance!
But I can’t live in some imagined water color past. I have to live in the world as it is.
So I remind my heart that safe is an illusion-no matter where we are. Life is not living if it’s only about preserving breath and not about making a difference.
I never thought it possible to love you more than I already did.
But I do.
Your brother’s untimely departure has opened my heart in a whole new way to the glory that is your presence. It has made me drink you in like water in the desert.
No more do I take even a moment for granted. Never again will I be “too busy” to listen to you, to hug you, to greet you on the porch when you decide to make your way back home.
I promised you when that deputy came to the door we would survive.
And we have.
I promised you that I would never raise Dominic onto a hallowed pedestal that obliterated his orneriness and only kept track of his laudable qualities.
I pray I have lived up to the promise.
We are changed-every one of us.
I am so very proud of you for continuing to live. It would have been easy to give up. It would have been easy to “live for the moment” and give in to hedonism.
You haven’t done that.
You have had to carry more weight than you should. I am so very anxious to see how you take this awful pain and weave it into your own stories-how this dark thread helps define who you become and how you choose to impact your world.
You have lent me your strength when mine was waning.
You have checked on me and loved meand borne patiently with me and with one anotherwhen it would have been easier to walk away and try to create a life outside this place of brokenness and vulnerability.
I am always cautious when ascribing feelings and words to our departed Dominic-it’s easy to make him say or feel whatever is most convenient since he’s not here to dispute it. But I am certain of this: while he would never, ever have wanted us to bear this awful burden, he would be so, so proud of the way we have supported one another in doing so.
Like always, our family has closed ranks and lifted together the weight that would have crushed us individually.
It’s who we are.
It’s who we have always been.
*I am absolutely convinced that Dominic is very much ALIVE today in the presence of Jesus. But for now, I’m denied his daily companionship.