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Confessions of a Long-Term Griever

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 painYou 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 monthsAnd 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 handsalthough 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, athe 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, againWhich is what we all need to hear when our worlds come crashing down around usBut 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 smooththat day has yet to dawnJaggeshards keep breaking off, exposing sharp, shiny edgesSome are new cracks, but some are the same old worn spots I’ve glued back together many timesAnd 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 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 actionsnor 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. Weve 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 sayeven 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 endssweep 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 dayIn 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 wcreate 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.”  

Kelly Kittel

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Comments (16)

  • Oh my this is probably the most intense and specifically targeted to my broken heart and emotions…EVER. Thank you!
    I Lost my Only SON 11/13/11. BUDDY will be FOREVER 27. I cant stop missing him. He was my baby..my Buddy! I miss him beyond reason. This grief is real and those sharp edges feel like they are getting sharper. I have had every emotion there could possibly be. All i can say is this is the best article on the pain of losing My Son.

    I am deeply sorrow for your sons lives ❤️

    Thank You

    Buddys Mom ❤️ Judy

  • Kelly that was beautifuly written. I became the mother of an angel 21 years ago. My lil man would be 30 this August. You hit it write on the nail with everything. I couldn’t have said it better. Thank you so much for sharing. Sending hugs.

  • Thank you for such clear and deep insight….I am a bereaved parent going on 8 months now…my youngest son, ADAM, forever 30 left us 10/29/18…..I struggle daily with so much sorrow. 31 years ago our sweet daughter, our first child, was diagnosed with leukemia…..just 2 weeks before her 6th birthday. I prepared myself– if that’s even possible, for the possibility of losing her……..The good news is she is a survivor… I know full well there are no categories in losing a child to death…whatever the circumstance…illness, accident, suicide, overdose…young, teenage, young adult..older adult….none of those titles matter…the bottom line is OUR CHILD IS GONE!! Gone before us!! Your words are so comforting….and I will reread them again and again thru this LIFE SENTENCE I am living with….I had 2 very terrible miscarriages before and after our daughter was born….no one acknowledged them…I suffered alone….and today, so many years later….I suffer alone again…my husband just doesn’t seem to feel a thing….my survivng kids don’t really know what to do…..so I depend on other grieving moms to be my support…thank you for your work…hugs to us all….

  • Beautiful but I disagree with the sentence that says “the younger they are, the more you miss them.” Not true.

  • After the loss of my son I realized how fragile my world is. I hold it close and treasure it in ways I’d never done before. The pieces of my life that were held together by my confidence that life was safe were scattered and lost. I have picked them up and glued much of my life back together, but some pieces will never be found. Not many people can see the cracks…but they are there, and after the first crack, the world is never whole again..

  • So Beautifully written Kelly , You put into words exactly how I feel too… My little son Timothy drowned in a drain outside out home in August 1990.. He was 20 Months Old.. he was the Youngest of my 4 Sons and had found his way out looking for his brothers.. So much pain to learn to live with and as you say, Anger, regret and so many “If Onlys” Life and time sweeps us along even though for many years we don’t even care.. I know we carry our Children in our Hearts, Loving and missing them forever till our Last breath .. Thank you for sharing, sending Love Hugs and Empathy xxxxxx

  • Kelly, it’s been 4 years since our daughter died and it is so very clear how chronic our grief will be. We expect to bury our parents, or possibly our siblings or spouses, but never a child, no matter their age. How to head into a future with a huge part of your family missing.?! The anger I feel at times, I realize is from watching “normal” families complain about a too busy schedule with the child, or the need for new clothes, braces or whatever…..I would do anything to complain about the price of Olivia’s school supplies ever again. Some of my best advice has been from other grieving parents, so thank you.

  • I too lost my child, daughter Helen aged 21, she would now be 32. All that matters in the end is how we love ❤️ and that love goes on and on as we try to do what you, Kelly so eloquently describe in your article. But there are some aspects that become harder edged and we have to accept our own limitations. Be kind to yourself is what some said and that is my ongoing stone which I have to keep pushing up that mountain, thank you for sharing, x

  • My wife and I had twins. One was healthy, and the other died after two weeks. My wife and I were devastated. Still, I told my wife, “We have one baby boy who needs us, and one we simply can’t help! Lets focus on the one that we have, and later have another!

  • Thank you, your sharing helped knowing I am not alone in my feelings. I lost my Daughter Summer in 1979. I month shy of her 20th Birthday.

  • Tears! Your article is wonderful. My son died on March 16, 2018, unexpectedly. My husband and I found him in the morning. We thought he was still sleeping. He had Cerebral Palsy, so we had to turn him over. We went into his room and I looked at him and I told my husband that I thought he was dead. I was right! It was, and, still is a nightmare! He had been sick, but, was getting so much better. It was a horrible shock. He was, and still is, the love of my life. He was full care, physically, but, he had a volunteer job, so, was out of the house all day and was loved by so many. I miss so many things about him and I will never be the same. He was one in a million and I still cry every day just thinking about him. Thank you for your article. It meailenefaye@yahoo.comns so much to me. I’m sorry for your losses.

  • My daughter and best friend died March 31st, 2018 3 days after her 41st birthday. I am trying to live with the loss of not just my daughter but my friend and confidant. I have learnt the hard lesson that I do not have control of anything or anyone. I cannot stop what others do. Gwen was in chronic pain for 16 years and under doctor’s care. Unfortunately the medical care we receive today is not as good as it once was. I got a copy of Gwen’s medical file from the doctor and no where in that file was the mention of a 50% blocked heart, acute chronic pancreatitis and acute chronic fatty liver that the coroner found. Gwen went to bed and did not wake up. Why were none of these issues found while Gwen was alive even though she was seeing the doctor on a monthly sometimes weekly basis? So yes I have a great deal of anger that I am working on resolving. I cannot express how much I miss Gwen. All I can hope for is we will one day meet again, hold each other and know we are together forever.

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