They say that childbirth is a pain you forget, but nobody ever says that about child death. Losing your child is like having a piece of broken glass jammed into your heart. Permanently. Over the years, the sharp edges are often worn smooth, like sea glass, and cut less sharply. You learn to breathe through the pain. You survive. But you certainly never forget. And the younger your child was when you lost them, the longer you live with the remembering.
It has been 22 years now since the terrible day when our fifteen-month-old son, Noah, was run over in my in-law’s driveway. Noah was our fourth child and my husband and I were 35 years old, still getting our marriage, family, and careers on track, when our world was shattered. It has also been 21 years since the day, nine months after Noah’s death, when our fifth child, Jonah, was stillborn. We buried two babies in the space of ten months. And two decades later, we are still recovering. In many ways, we will mourn their absence for the rest of our lives.
I’m pretty sure two decades qualifies me as a long-term griever. Certainly, there was a time when I never thought I’d last this long. Whenever I attend a TCF conference and they ask for a show of hands, although I’m much younger than the oldest bereaved parents in attendance, I’m definitely among the longest. Indeed, those of us who lose our children to miscarriage or stillbirth, or as infants or toddlers, will likely live for many decades with our grief. We are the ones for whom that blessed “normal” life we once knew was shorter than the one we’ll live long after we’ve crawled through the valley of the shadow of death. We are the bread and butter of the grief world, the stalwart attendees of support groups and conferences forever after our children’s funerals are over. We will live to power wash the lichens growing on their gravestones, time and again, as the trees we planted in their memories reach ever closer to the sky.
Part of my responsibility as a long-term griever is to assure the newly bereaved that they, too, will survive and, yes, even thrive, again. Which is what we all need to hear when our worlds come crashing down around us. But there will always be work to do. As much as I hope that some day I’ll wake up to find all of my rough edges worn smooth, that day has yet to dawn. Jagged shards keep breaking off, exposing sharp, shiny edges. Some are new cracks, but some are the same old worn spots I’ve glued back together many times. And I must confess to three that I find myself having to repair, again and again. Forgiveness. Anger. Regret. All have persisted. And along with cupboards full of things considered fragile, like wedding china and crystal, it seems I’ll have a relationship with these three nouns for far longer than I ever had my sons.
F is for Forgiveness and I feel like I’ve earned a PhD in this particular field of study. Noah was run over by my sixteen-year-old niece, which was an accident. But that didn’t make it any easier for me to forgive her. Especially when she didn’t take responsibility for her actions, nor were there any apparent consequences. Jonah’s death resulted in a medical malpractice lawsuit in which we prevailed. But that didn’t mean the doctor took responsibility, either. On the contrary, she fought us in court. I teach my kids that there are three parts to an apology: “I’m sorry,” I did this,” and “Here’s how can I try to make it up to you.” The people responsible for the deaths of our sons said none of those things, but we couldn’t move forward without figuring out some way to forgive for our own sake.
I have learned that forgiveness isn’t necessarily forever. It’s fluid. Relationships change over time, things resurface, and sometimes the people we forgive are lost to us forever. Sometimes self-preservation means excommunicating people we once loved. Sometimes the people we need to forgive are ourselves. We can talk all day about the “if only’s” because we all loved our children more than ourselves and “if only” we’d known better, we would have done better. We’ve all learned the hard way that we’re not in control. It’s not our fault. We are only human. Extending that grace to others becomes our mandate, difficult as it may be, even if we simply stand on the shore and shout it out to the sea.
One of the many disappointing things we experienced in our hour of need was that the people we expected would be present for us didn’t show up. And yet, they’re still in our lives all these years later. People don’t always behave the way we think they will. Sometimes they behave much, much worse. Conversely, others show up whom we never expected, strangers even. And so we learn to be grateful for the kindness of strangers, to embrace the gifts we do receive. And for the things we don’t, we try to relinquish our expectations and forgive.
Sometimes we are still Angry. Yes. We are. Anger still exists, right in between what we’ve lost and what remains, and how the world goes on, regardless. We might be angry with people, like family and friends, or with institutions, like the medical system or insurance companies, or with the higher power seated on the throne of our particular house of worship. We might not be angry but our anger might be triggered by what people feel the need to say, even all these years later. We may still be angry about the specific circumstances of our child’s death or the fact that people’s attitudes haven’t changed or that the people responsible are still driving around or practicing medicine. Or we might be angry about people’s behavior towards us. We might feel they treat us like pariahs, like we’re the problem and it’s our fault that our child died. We’ll always be “those people”. And that’s why they can’t be our friends or let their child sleep over at our house.
But we have to remember that others are trying to find the fault line, to rationalize why this would never happen to them. Even though all of us, here, know that it could. Sometimes we have to talk ourselves off the ledge. It’s okay to throw yourself a tiny pity party. But when the party ends, sweep up the mess and move on to a happier place.
Regret is really difficult to live with. It’s insidious, seeping deep down inside of us and hiding in our cells, erupting as broken heart syndrome, digestive disorders, or hypertension. When Noah died I remember thinking if anything should cause cancer, it’s this. And maybe it will, some day. In the meantime, live with our remorse we must. Regardless of the circumstances, we all failed, as parents, to protect our children. And we have to make our peace with that.
Regret may last forever but time creates the space to live with it and cushion the blow. So, breathe. Every time we inhale deeply, straight into the anguish we’re avoiding, and then exhale with gusto, we release a little of whatever we’re holding onto. And we create a tiny space within which we can replace our sorrow with joy. Then we can begin, again, to smile, laugh, and enjoy our lives.
We are all works in progress. Forgive yourself. Release your anger. Manage your regrets. Over and over, again. Rub those broken edges between your bloody fingers until they’re worn smooth. Every day is a new day. Keep gluing yourself back together. As Leonard Cohen said, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
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