Wendy's Blog

There Are No Words For Your Pain

by Wendy Keller, mother of 3 children, 1 still living

That’s my boy over there in that photo.  Jeremy Winston, a few weeks before he died, playing with leaves and dump trucks in his sandbox.  He lived for only four years, three months and ten days.  Then, a simple error in judgment ended his life and his baby sister’s in a traffic accident.  He’d be 26 now. My first daughter Amelia Louise would be turning 23 in August.

My only living child Sophia Rose will be 20 on July 8.  I am amazed she has survived to adulthood – it’s more than I dared to hope.  She was conceived after they died, because my then-husband and I figured we should start again.

The first days after Jeremy and Amelia died, I was in ICU.  All the drugs they pumped into me couldn’t dull the stark anguish and incredulity I felt.  There was no way they were dead!  We were on our way to get Jeremy some British French fries (“chips”) for dinner. I’d promised them to him.  Where was he?

My friend Lora’s son Sydney had died of SIDS a few months earlier.  She called my hospital room and gently suggested I try to go 30 seconds without crying.  It took me a few days, but eventually I mastered it.  I worked up to a few minutes within the month. A year later, I could often make it for several hours.  Now, I cry for my babies just a few times a year. It’s been more than 20 years and yes, I still can feel the weight of the pain, but the anguish has subsided.

“It’s hard to watch your child grow up…in your mind.” — unknown

If you’ve lost a child, you already know there’s nothing anyone can say.  If it’s been a while, looking back you can probably see that you did irrational, illogical, insane things in the immediate aftermath.  You started a charity you didn’t really have the energy to carry through; you removed every trace of your dead child or you built a shrine; you screamed at strangers or loved ones; or you laid in bed for days thinking you would cry out every drop of fluid in your body and find peace in your own death.When I was finally released from the hospital and able to sit in a wheelchair, I took a razor blade and wheeled myself into Jeremy’s room. I viciously sliced the smile off every last cartoon elephant on Jeremy’s bedroom walls, screaming at them that they had no right to be happy since he was dead.

What I’ve learned in all this…is that it’s OK. Your reaction is OK.  As long as you don’t kill or harm yourself or someone else, it’s OK.  I know you can be fine one moment and lying on the floor howling in agony another.  You can be hyper-productive at work and completely comatose the rest of the time, walking through layers of gauze.  It’s OK.  There IS NO NORMAL REACTION to the death of your own child.  It’s is completely against the order of things.  Someday, you’ll realize it’s far, far, far more common than anyone can bear to admit. And that you are far from alone in your plight.  But for now, be real.  Feel what you’re feeling.

But there’s a catch.

The way other people cope with their grief over the death of your child is OK too. After my babies died, my husband became a (worse) alcoholic and I became a (worse) workaholic.  Neither is healthy. I hated the way he was handling it.  He hated how I was handling it.  We judged each other harshly.  Worse, when one of us had managed to yank ourselves a half inch out of the quagmire of pain that is the loss of a child, the other would be having a “bad grief day” (as we called them) and accidentally pull the other back down.

I didn’t like how he was handling it. Nor his father. Nor some of my friends. Nor plenty of other people who should have been more upbeat, less upbeat, more supportive, more helpful, less imposing, more sad, more happy or at the very least, more something. Anything other than what they were! 

With the 20/20 clarity of hindsight, I’ve realized that EVERYONE grieves in their own way.  Everyone experiences the losses in their life the way their life has trained them to suffer so far. Most people – the vast majority – even those who do or say stupid things in the wake of your loss – are trying to be nice and helpful.  I wanted to slap the head off the woman who leaned over my wheelchair and told me she “understood what I was going through”…because her cat had died “…and he was like a son to me.” 

This is what I know is true about the death of your own child:

  1. It’s OK to grieve however you feel like grieving, for as long as you feel like it.  When you’re ready to stop or to feel better, there’s plenty of help standing by (including some of my blog posts on this topic!)  And you will reach the end of it someday. Promise. We all do. 
  2. Let the other parent, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, all grieve in their own way. Someday, you’ll be able to realize they were suffering too. Give them as much space as you can to be who they are.
  3. Don’t let anyone feed you platitudes.  If you’re polite, just listen, smile and say thanks. If you’re like me, give them a piece of your mind.  “I guess God just needed another angel.”  F*$& that! Other people’s beliefs are just their beliefs.  You have a unique chance when your child dies to examine what YOU really believe – not just about religion, but about life and your place in it.  Use it wisely!
  4. It will get easier to manage as time goes on. Time doesn’t heal anything, but it does give you the ability to develop coping skills, get over the shock and start to make some serious decisions.

It is a dreadful, terrible, incomprehensible thing you are enduring. It is utterly and completely wrong, unfair and excruciating.  There are legions of parents alive today who have survived what you now face and eventually found reasons to smile again – sometimes through their tears.  I promise, you can get through this.

Sending each bereaved parent who reads this my best wishes for your life to overflow with love, joy and most of all, peace.

 

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  1. zahid durrani says:

    U R RIGHT WENDY, MAYBE TIME HEAL IT,BUT THIS IS A ONCE TO LIVE LIFE AND U LOST THE DEAREST OF UR HAVINGS,MAYBE ALLAH KNOWS IT BETTER WHY HE CHOSE US FOR THIS TEST,NOTHING CAN HELP EXCEPT THE HOPE THAT IF WE AGREE TO ALLAH,S DECISION,WE LL HAVE A GOOD REWARD MAYBE IN THE LIFE AFTER DEATH, THE ONLY HOPE AND THE BEST ONE,RELIGION HEALS .WAT IF THERE IS NO HOPE OF MEETING OUR CHILD AGAIN,NO REWARD,LIFE LL BE SEEN AS A PURPOSLESS THING.WE R CHOOSEN BECAUSE WE CAN TOLERATE,AND TOLERANCE LL HAVE ITS REWARD AS ALLAH PROMISE IN THE HOLY QURAN. THX 4 UR SHARINGS,I M SO OBLIDGED,U R DOING A GREAT JOB,KEEP IT UP.

    • Zahid,

      Thank you VERY much for sharing your faith perspective. It’s my firm belief – learned the hard way through the deaths of my children – that no ONE TRUE way exists, although lots of humans believe their own path is the best. I see at the core of all faiths from Christianity to Islam this simple, pure truth: Love your neighbor as yourself. Which to me seems to indicate that we must first love ourselves (which is hard enough!) and that we are not given the right to judge others’ lives. Not their journey, not their faith, not the things that give them comfort, not the weight of their burdens in this life

      If we presuppose that a Divine Being by any name is the embodiment of love, how can we dare to hurt others in that being’s name? Your lovely post exposes the love in your heart, and I sincerely thank you for that.

      Namaste,
      Wendy

  2. Dear Wendy,your words are very inspiring. I lost my 20 year old son on the 18th of july 2011 to suicide. Everyone tells me to give it time and you will be able to coupe with his loss. We’ll one year is coming up real soon and I don’t think I’m going to make it. It’s getting harder every day that goes by.

    • Hi Dallas,

      Around the one year anniversary of my children’s deaths, I went through another very deep, deep low. I remember it clearly. I thought, “How have I survived a year without my babies?” I suppose it is the same no matter what the child’s age. I know it is blindingly painful, and that anniversaries of the death and birthdays and holidays are just pure hell for a while. I cannot guarantee you anything, but I can tell you that if you have other reasons to live, and you cling to those; and if you allow yourself to feel what you’re really feeling and recognize grief has a pattern, that it can be survived AND…this is important…you CAN thrive again. In so many ways you cannot begin to guess now. Really. THAT I can promise you.

      Nothing will EVER make it “worth” surviving you’re going through. BUT the truth is, your life will be richer, your soul bolder, and your heart more open someday in the future. It’s too soon to expect anything of yourself. But over time, you will see the truth of my words.

      Wishing you much love, peace and a return to joy,
      Wendy

    • First, I am so very sorry for your loss, your hurt and pain. My friend also lost his daughter last year to suicide. He has also gone through so many emotions. Please know that all you feel is OK. One day at a time, and if that does not work, one hour at a time. Hugs.

    • Oh, I am so terribly sad to hear Graham is dead! What an awful amount of shock, pain, grief and overwhelm, anger, sadness, anguish, terror, tumult you are now experiencing. If anyone had told me my life – 20 years later – would be “richer and fuller” I’d have slapped them – hard! There’s absolutely no way you can see or feel that hope now. None. And that’s as it should be. The unfathomable gut-wrenching pain you are now enduring IS part of the healing process.

      If you yourself are still alive 8, 16, 32 years from now, then you’ll see what I mean. You cannot now, and that’s normal. But truly, 8 weeks is the blink of an eye, and the best you can do is try to hold on and know that one day – frankly, many days from now – you will be able to take a breath without that stab in your heart feeling. Promise.

      Wishing you and your family peace, love and someday, joy again.
      Wendy

  3. Thank you for your story. Our son Paul died by suicide 4 years ago: March 1, 2008. He was 26 years old. The last 4 years feel like both an eternity and the blink of an eye. I dont know how we managed to keep putting one foot in front of the other. But we have found support in The Compasionate Friends support group and have found and joined a church.
    But I wonder, am I wallowing in grief? The future holds little prospect for joy, more like years of life less full without him. My job has more frustration than reward. I question a lot ofthings. What am I meant to be and meant to do? I feel stuck.

    • Hi Donell,

      Thank you for writing. I’m so sorry Paul decided to end his own life – I have observed the special devastation that causes in a family. I am not a therapist, just a mom who buried two children, so my advice is as that of a friend, not a certified counselor. From my own experience, Compassionate Friends was damaging to my spirit because it kept the grief so fresh and alive. I had to drop out after only three times. I kept thinking eventually they’d talk about how we’re supposed to survive this kind of calamity. Then I figured out it is about repeating the story to purge it from our souls. You’ll know if the time comes to leave that enclave yourself. It works for some people, but didn’t work for me.

      As for “little prospect of joy”, like they say at CF, you have to get used to the New Normal. Candidly, my life is not and will not be “more” joyful than it was before they died. Not because I’m depressed over their loss so much as that I have realized that life is incredibly fragile and everyone and everything is at risk 24/7. I don’t trust that my living daughter (conceived with the same dad after they died) will be alive in a week. Or that I will be. Or anything else. I think those who are lucky enough to be innocent are extremely fortunate. It’s a different kind of life, of peace, of joy, of moments of serenity. And it takes a long time to get here. My kids died in 1991. At four years, like you are, I was still incoherently sobbing at times, still contemplating suicide, still lapsing into moments where my brain just stopped working and I lost all touch with my surroundings.

      You know by now that time won’t heal your pain. It just turns it into scar tissue, which is ugly but easier to deal with. I believe that one teensy way to make this time easier on yourself is to BE easier on yourself. Let yourself feel it when you do, and let yourself laugh when you don’t. Pretend you a leaf on a stream and just go with it. Your soul will know what’s right if you listen to it.

      I haven’t sugar-coated the experience of post-post-traumatic-stress, I’ve just told it how it is for me. Only you know your next step on the journey, but looking at bleak years ahead will only make the Now feel worse. Stay present, breathe, and let yourself flow with it.

      Wishing you peace, love and a return to joy,
      Wendy

  4. ‘Feel whatever you feel’ is particularly apt. Gregor would have started school on August 14th – I’ve just linked to your blog from my FB page to try to help to explain to people that it is not only that day which i will struggle x

  5. Wendy, while on vacation my son drowned 15 days shy of his 4th birthday. He was the youngest of 3. I sometimes feel okay, like I can do this for my other children. However these last few days I have been overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness I’ve never experienced before. It seems impossible to move forward with a lifetime of heaviness. I miss him so much.the innocence if our family is shattered. This is something that is part of our story, part of my children’s story. This is so hard to do.

    Thank you for telling your story it helped me to feel encouraged.

    Rebecca

    • Dear Rebecca,

      I’m so incredibly sorry to read of the death of your precious son! You didn’t say how long ago it happened, but I know the tremors last for many years. The hopelessness you feel is common to all of us who have lost children. My experience in the years I felt like that was just to “batten the hatches”, take it easy on myself (whether that meant using paper plates so I didn’t have to also do dishes; take long walks in the woods; read encouraging or even just distracting books; go out with friends; whatever), and to allow it to roll over me.

      There’s really no one way to endure what you are enduring, except to allow the passage of time to help you improve your coping skills. I often say I don’t believe time heals anything. It just gives us the opportunity to test and find the strategies for enduring the loss that work best.

      I have spent 21 years now watching my subsequently-concieved daughter deal with never having known her siblings. I’m sure for your other children, it is a difficult journey. I’m going to write a blog post for you today. It will be called “The Story of Francis”. I hope you’ll find time to read it.

      Wishing you a return to love and joy,
      Wendy

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