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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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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