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Over 5 Years In

It has taken me a long time to come around to the perspective Alan Pedersen so eloquently shared with me, “Don’t be angry at those who say, ‘Get over it.’ Rather, be happy for them that they are blessed to have never experienced a loss like yours, so they simply don’t understand.” It is an evolved perspective, filled with grace, achievable only through tremendous love for our fellow human. I am pleased to say that I am probably 90% there. Of course, that leaves me with a healthy 10% of reflexive, jealous, bitter anger when I hear someone offer up one of those empty, careless platitudes. I am working on it. I swear. Really, I am.

My 10-year-old son, David, died in 2009, but he is with me as much today as he ever was. “Normal” life has resumed for my wife Leslie, daughter Abby, and me. We live our lives and pursue our dreams, building a future of hope and love. There are no outward clues to the nightmare we navigate. In fact, even if people come into our home and see David’s baseball cap wearing urn, and the variety of pictures of him on the piano and on our walls, most are afraid to ask. I’ve come to the understanding that death, especially the death of a child, makes people uncomfortable. Apparently, the thing most people fear is asking questions that risk reminding us that our child has died. I don’t know a bereaved parent who ever forgets that their child died.

I can, however, offer a different perspective to those who cannot comprehend the extent of a bereaved parent’s grief. What follows is a chronicle of my thoughts in a typical day, five years after David’s death. Hopefully, it will also serve as a reminder to all of us still struggling to move forward, that we do not walk alone. Your grief is not abnormal or strange, and the fact you think of your deceased child all the time is completely and totally normal.

6:05 a.m. – My alarm goes off and I reach for my iPhone to turn it off. I rub away the last of the dream images as I bring the day into focus. It’s Tuesday. I need to get Abby up for school. Gotta let the dogs out. Catching my breath…I remember…David is still dead.

6:08 a.m. – I turn on the lights in the kitchen, unlock the back door, and try to quiet the yapping dogs so they don’t awaken the neighbors as they run out to do their business. I turn around to go upstairs to rouse Abby and see the pictures of the trip we took to Yosemite in 2007 hanging by the basement door. I’m standing on a riverbank in my tie-dyed camping best, with David and Abby. We’re holding fishing poles. It wasn’t a great day of fishing but it was a great day of fun and laughter. I had so much more to teach David.

6:15 a.m. – I turn on the morning news. I make a cup of tea for my wife, as I listen to the local TV news anchors bantering about the local NFL franchise, and the millions of dollars being paid to a star athlete. David died at football practice. I wonder if he would still be playing now. I wonder what he would look like. I wonder if he’d be taller than me yet.

6:20 a.m. – I remove some bread from the pantry, and open the fridge to get sandwich fixings to make lunches for my beautiful ladies to take to work and school. Turkey, cheese, mayo… No wait, not mayo. Abby likes honey mustard… it was David that liked mayo.

6:30 a.m. – I yell upstairs to Abby again to get her butt out of bed. Some mornings she is harder to get moving than molasses on a frosty winter morning, just like my wife. David was more like me –he used to hate getting up in the morning, but he’d always get right out of bed and get started with his day. It would always help when David got moving because it would get Abby moving, but …he’s never getting up again.

6:35 a.m. – I let the dogs inside from the backyard. I tell the big dog, “Go get Abby”. She runs upstairs and jumping on Abby’s bed, licking her face with that horrible “breath” she has. I gaze at the photos of our Yosemite trip, and smile, and then my eyes wander to the plaque above the basement door. It has one of my favorite quotes on it by A.A. Milne, from Winnie the Pooh. I was unfamiliar with the quote until David’s cousin used it when she spoke at David’s funeral. “If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.”

And then… that familiar feeling of tears begins to swell behind my eyes. I feel the rising wave of grief and sadness threatening to disrupt my day. I redirect those tears to pool in a special compartment in my heart for a time when it’s more “convenient” to wallow in my sorrow. It’s a well- honed skill I’ve acquired these past five years. I have been awake on this typical weekday morning for a staggering 30 minutes, and the reminder that David has died has gone through my mind a minimum of six times. He’s been dead over five years.

We no longer live in the same state. The dogs that run about the house never knew him. My daughter, who is three years older than he ever lived to be, wears braces and lives on her smartphone texting her friends about boys. David was still totally unaware that girls even existed. In these five years we have done a great deal of healing, but we have not gotten over it. Abby has discussed with me how it feels disrespectful, knowing that some of the good things she has in her life may never have happened if David had not died. I always hug her and assure her that it’s okay; it’s all part of the life we are fortunate to still be living. David would want us to be happy and enjoying all the good things he no longer can.

David is with me always, and always will be. A big piece of my life now is helping others through my non-profit organization Healing Improv. I would not be in a position to help others if David had not died; it’s simply not a path I would have taken. It is incredibly rewarding, but, and no offense to any of you reading this, I’d trade it all to have him back. If you’re a bereaved parent you understand that. You too, are on the same journey of survival and life. We do not walk alone. Peace, Light, and Laughter to you.

 

 

Bart Sumner

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