Losing a child is indescribably painful. As any bereaved parent will tell you, the death of a child leaves a huge line running through our lives with “before and after” etched forever in our memories. Days that were previously filled with promise and vitality suddenly seem empty and hopeless. Gradually, we come to accept that our lives will never return to what they once were and that some days are just hard.
In October 2010, we lost our previously healthy 21-year-old son, Matthew, to a form of virulent strep. What initially masked itself as a severe case of pneumonia was, in fact, a form of strep that attacked his bicuspid aortic heart valve, necessitating valve replacement surgery. But when they actually went in, they found the damage was far more extensive than they thought. And while Matthew survived the surgery (mostly due to his youth), he never regained consciousness. He spent the last week of his life in a coma before he died on October 22nd.
Before that ill-fated day in October, I had never known such sadness and hurt. As anyone who has lost a child will tell you, the pain is simultaneously acute and chronic. It’s so piercing and constant you can hardly breathe; it’s as if a cement block has been permanently placed on your chest. You don’t think it will ever go away. Grieving becomes a way of coping with the tremendous loss that now makes up your life. And while the jagged edges of my own grief have begun to smooth out a bit, I also know that it will always be with me and forever define my family.
One thing I’ve come to accept over the past two and a half years is that some days are just hard. During the first year, I came to fully expect that every day would be hard. Those early days slogged by at a surreal pace. Grief was ever-present and seemed to hold time at bay. As we approached the first anniversary of Matthew’s death in 2011, things shifted a bit, time picked up, and the acute days of grieving became less frequent, although the chronic grief remains.
Now I notice that there’s no anticipating when grief will sneak up and wash over me like a rogue wave. It just happens. It can be a song, a special place, a type of food, or just a memory that suddenly slides into my subconscious, and all I can think about is the tremendous hole that now fills my life. I can be having coffee with a friend and laughing one minute, and find my eyes filling with tears the next. And that’s okay. In fact, it just brings Matthew closer to me for that moment.
I think for bereaved parents, our grief lies just below the surface. Even when I’m laughing or absorbed in a conversation, if you were to scratch me just a little bit, my grief would come bubbling up. I’ve come to view grief not as the enemy, but rather as an emotion that I now can acknowledge and move into. I know eventually, she’ll go back under and I’ll just carry her around with me, hidden from other’s view, but always there.
In the movie “Rabbit Hole”, there’s a scene between Nicole Kidman (Becca) and her mother, Dianne Wiest (Nat), that stayed with me long after the closing credits. Becca and Nat are bereaved parents, and while Becca sees their circumstances as completely different (her four-year-old son was killed in an accident, while her brother died of a drug overdose), she and her mother now share the commonality of being bereaved mothers:
Becca: Does it ever go away?
Nat: No, I don’t think it does. Not for me, it hasn’t, and that’s going on 11 years. It changes, though.
Nat: I don’t know . . . the weight of it, I guess. At some point, it becomes bearable. It turns into something that you can crawl out from under and . . . carry around like a brick in your pocket. And you . . . you even forget it, for a while. But then you reach in for whatever reason and—there it is. Oh right, that. Which could be awful—but not all the time. It’s kinda . . . not that you like it exactly, but it’s what you have instead of your son, so you don’t wanna let go of it either. So you carry it around. And it doesn’t go away, which is . . .
Nat: Fine . . . actually.
This exchange sums up, for me, how so many of us carry the grief of losing our beloved children with us. I bring this up to remind people that for those of us who have lost a child, our grief is present, even if you don’t see it. It doesn’t go away, even with the passage of time. It doesn’t go away even if we seem “better.” With time the intense pain subsides, but our grief, like our love, is always there. And that’s okay. The beauty of the human spirit is that we have a remarkable ability to continue on, even in the most adverse of conditions. But we will always mourn our children. We don’t want them to be forgotten. Ever.
Our memories of them are all we have. Since Matthew died, I’ve learned that you do begin to put your life back together again, bit-by-bit, piece-by-piece. Its form is different, but it is still a life. It continues to have shape and meaning. And part of that new shape is formed by the memory of your loved one. That memory is present all the time, looking over your shoulder, helping you restructure this new reality. Grief is transformational. My grief has changed me in ways I’m only just beginning to understand. I am more mindful of things, big and small, happy and sad. I don’t take anything for granted. I’ve learned to embrace the paradox of unfathomable loss and profound gratitude for living. I continue to feel Matthew’s presence as we all rebuild our lives without his physical body here.
Some days are just hard. Some days grief rises up and reminds me that she’s still there. She reminds me that grieving Matthew will always be a pivotal part of my life. That’s okay. I also know that I will move through it and feel better soon. I know that life continues on, almost with a renewed sense of purpose. And for that I’m grateful. I’ve come to embrace yet another paradox of life, knowing that our hearts can be both full and broken at the same time.
Use the chapter locator to find out information about chapters in your area. Locate a Chapter by selecting your state and zip code.