I have not lost a child, but I know grief.
I know what it’s like to have a community come together to offer support and comfort and to celebrate a life taken too soon. I know that this comfort can be the thing that holds you up and keeps you from falling apart when you’re hurting.
We could use a little more community these days. We could make an effort to judge less and love more. We are more connected than ever. Some use those connections to support and build others up. Yet others use the access to cast about blame and condemnation on broken hearts.
If you fall into the category of blame and shame, if you find yourself reacting to a tragedy with judgement instead of compassion, please listen to my story…
I have not lost a child, but I know grief.
My brother’s 16th birthday was followed by a cancer diagnosis. A few months after his 18th birthday he lost his battle with cancer.
I know what it’s like to watch your parents say goodbye to their son for the very last time. To hear pain in their voice so palpable you could reach out and touch it. I know what it’s like to feel sadness turn into agony and take over your whole body and make you feel weak and broken down. I know what it’s like to look through eyes clouded with tears and see your parents letting him go. Watching as they have a part of them ripped away forever. I know what it’s like to feel unspeakable pain in your heart and know that it doesn’t even come close to the pain they are feeling.
I know what the aftermath of losing a child looks like. I know the shock that descends upon you. Making your movements slow and heavy, shutting down a part of your heart. And I know that that numbness is only a thin veil. That at any moment a fissure could slowly creep across that veil until there’s an opening big enough for the pain to come rushing out of you. And I know that you hold tightly to that numbness as long as you can, because you know it’s only temporary. You know you could crack at any moment. At any place.
I know the thoughts that go through a parent’s mind after losing their child. The questions they ask themselves. The what ifs, the hows, the blame they will heap upon themselves every day. Self immolation of blame and shame. I know the rationalizing, the thoughts of wanting to welcome their own death. Of not having to walk one more minute on this earth without their child. The warped reasoning that tells them their other family members will be fine without them. They’ll understand. They still have each other.
I know what it’s like to call your mother from your desk at work, every day at the same time. To make sure she made it through another torturous night of nightmares and flashbacks and anguish. To force her to meet you for lunch so that you could try to distract her from the suffocating pain she feels every second of the day.
I know what it’s like when she doesn’t answer the phone and you panic. And you call again. And again. And you call your sister and your Stepfather to see if they have heard from her. And maybe you leave work to go to her house and knock on the door and the relief that you feel when she answers the door in her bathrobe. And you want to curl up against her soft robe like you did when you were little because you’re scared too. And you’re hurting too. And you know that this time your parents need you more than you need them.
I know of the incredible amount of effort it takes to get out of bed every morning after you lost a child. The struggle to find the will to keep going. The struggle that never really goes away. Because even though years have passed and you’ve found ways to stay busy and even ways to find joy, there are days where you are right back where you were that first year. And you find yourself not wanting to get out of bed. You start having the nightmares and the flashbacks again. You start blaming yourself, again. You replay every doctor’s visit and every decision made and wonder what if… I know that this carousel of grief and nightmares and pain will be spinning for the rest of my parent’s lives. That it will slowly ebb up and down for years to come.
And that some days the pain is just as fresh as it was the day we found out it was cancer…
The day they told us it was Stage Four…
The day they told us their were no other treatment options…
The day we had to call Hospice…
The day we had to say goodbye even though we couldn’t imagine ever saying goodbye…
This is just what I know of losing a child, what my parents have experienced. There are many reasons they are still here 16 years later. Still functioning and thriving. They have me and my sister and six grandchildren. They fought through so much of their pain for us.
But it’s also because of my brother. He was very clear about his wishes, in the days and months before his death. There were quiet moments, in the middle of the night at the hospital, when he would tell me and my sister to take care of my parents. To make sure they would be ok. I would nod, a huge lump in my throat because I didn’t want to believe he’d ever be gone.
There was the time that he told my mom, You and Dad have to stay together. You have to take care of each other. He knew. At the tender age of 18, he knew what was coming and how hard life would be for my parents after he was gone. He knew that they needed each other and that so many parents don’t stay together after losing a child.
He knew that it would take all of us to get through it.
He knew that none of us would get through it alone.
At the age of 18, with tumors eating into his bones, causing unspeakable pain, he was thinking of us and looking out for us. He was a beautiful soul who loved even as he was staring death in the face. His words and wishes are the thing that kept my parents going. He’s the reason they are thriving today.
If we could all find a little of that love, a little of that giving and selflessness… if we could all do just a tiny bit of what my brother did and look out for others. If we could think about what they are going through… maybe we could help instead of hurt. If we could all follow his reasoning… that none of us can get through it alone. That we all need each other… maybe we will build the community I think we all really want.
If we could all look past our own pain and fears for just a moment, maybe we would help each other instead of throwing hurt on top of scorching pain.
I promise that you will feel better if you reach out in love to those are hurting. That your heart will be nourished every time you turn to someone with compassion instead of judgement. I promise you that these parents, and every parent who’s lost a child, is beating themselves up in ways you can’t even imagine. What they need is someone to step in and stop the beating. Not throw more punches.
I promise that feeling love and compassion towards others feels a lot better than feeling anger and judgement. You will be happier for it. You will be doing good instead of spreading hate. Let’s try love… just try it on for a little while and see how it feels.
One day, you may find yourself in pain and needing a loving hand. And you will be glad that you extended yours when someone else desperately needed it.
I promise you that love wins, if you let it. Let’s build a community, not burn down the village.