You know how if you are a parent, you sometimes secretly allow yourself to “go there?” How you sometimes let your mind truly imagine – just for a heartstopping moment – how it would be if your child died? Or maybe you’ve had a terrible nightmare once or twice in which your child was lost to you forever in some horribly tragic and permanent way.You know that dreadful feeling? I used to have those “what if” moments and those occasional bad dreams just like all of you do, times when I tried to even begin to imagine the pain of one of my children dying in a car accident or from cancer or at the hands of someone evil and cruel. But then I’d shake my head and turn on the radio or roll over or do whatever it took to drive the dark vision and the momentary sick feeling of dread from my consciousness.
Then it actually happened to me; my worst nightmare, your worst nightmare – EVERYONE ON THE PLANET’S WORST NIGHTMARE actually happened. The most primal human fear became real for me, like some terrible horror movie leaping off the big screen and into my lap. My beloved, gorgeous, talented firstborn baby died after suffering terribly in two hospitals for five long weeks. He died a painful, cruel death, and in the last hours of his life, his father and I held him in our arms and tried to be brave for him as we assured him that he could go on ahead to the next place, and that we would be along to join him later. But I wasn’t really brave at all. Inside I was screaming and wailing, and every fiber of my being longed to run out of the room and go find the nurse or doctor who would turn the machines back on.
So he died. And he’s gone. It’s been less than four months. Since May 31, I have done my level best to continue functioning on a day to day basis – for my other four children, for my husband, on the job, in the community. After a few weeks of complete shutdown following Henry’s death, I began to re-emerge back into the world because I knew I had to. I’m actually pretty proud of how well I’ve managed to hold it together and move forward. I hope I am setting a good example for Henry’s younger sisters and brother, who will undoubtedly suffer losses as adults themselves (although I pray to God that none of them ever experience the loss of a child).
Because I am trying to move forward and be strong, I think that on the surface, I must look relatively “normal” to other people. I go to work. I laugh. I sing along with the radio. I get haircuts. I sit in the bleachers at J and E’s games. I’ve even begun easing back into the occasional public social occasion, like lunches with coworkers and friends. This Sunday, I want to try returning to church (haven’t been able to go since Henry died).
But no matter how normal I look on the outside, the fact is that I just lost my child. He died. In my arms. As his brilliant mind swelled and swelled and swelled until it could expand no more. He opened his eyes once near the end, looking absolutely terror stricken, and then he was gone.
This is my reality. This is what I walk around thinking about every day. Even when I’m able to turn off the specific memories of what happened, there is a leaden hurt that lives in my chest all of the time. I hope and assume that one day, the pain won’t be quite so acute, but after all, it hasn’t been that long, so it’s normal, I think, that I am still hurting this much.
I have never known exactly what to say to someone after their loved one dies. It’s hard to know what to say, and every grief stricken person is different in what they want to hear from others. I know that I found it particularly difficult to know what to say when two people exceptionally dear to me lost their toddler son in an accident in 2005, and then later, in 2008 when my friend and coworker lost his gorgeous 6 year old daughter to cancer . Because losing one of my own children was so terrifying to me, I couldn’t figure out what to say to these parents who had had the Worst Thing Ever actually come to pass.
And now I am one of THOSE parents, and I find that I am in almost daily contact with people who are well aware that Henry died iat the beginning of the summer, but who likely just don’t know what to say to me, just as I used to not know what I should say when faced with the parent of a dead child. How do I know that people are unsure what they could or should say to me regarding Henry? Well, I base this observation on the fact that about 90% of the time, people I see socially or happen to run into or whatever simply don’t address the fact that Henry just died at all. The subject never comes up in any way, shape or form. They don’t ask me how I am doing. They don’t bring up his name. They don’t invite discussion of my grief or loss in any way. And I gotta tell you, that feels really weird and painful to me. If I spend time with a friend or acquaintance who is aware of Henry’s death and that person doesn’t touch on it in any way, or if they act like everything is all hunky-dory-normal with me, it feels completely bizarre. It’s like there’s a big, dead elephant in the room that nobody dares touch.
I totally understand that people are afraid of hurting or upsetting me if they mention anything related to Henry’s death, and I in no way want to make anyone feel bad for NOT mentioning him (I’ve been there with being unsure of the protocol when dealing with a grieving parent, remember?). But I am here to tell you that only a few months past my child’s death, I absolutely want and need to still be asked on a fairly regular basis how I am doing and how the other kids are doing. I welcome questions about how the criminal investigation is coming along because that makes me feel like people still care whether anyone is held accountable under the law for what happened to my child. If we both know you read a sensational and disturbing story about my son on yesterday’s front page of the local newspaper, please go ahead and bring it up. That’s far better than us both wondering what the other one thinks about what was written in the story and in the online comments appearing below it.
In other words, when you run into me at the grocery store or go out to lunch with me or drop by our house, please do say Henry’s name out loud. Invite me to say it too by asking me about him; I welcome the opportunity. Basically, what I am saying is that I would like it very much if people would actively acknowledge in whatever way they are comfortable that I am still in the fairly acute phase of parental grief. Please don’t act like what just happened didn’t happen. That hurts.
I am different. I am changed. I am in pain. It’s okay to acknowledge that. Acknowledgement won’t make me feel worse; it makes me feel better. And don’t worry; if you are thoughtful enough to bring the subject up, Henry’s death doesn’t have to be the only thing we discuss when we see one another… or even the primary thing we discuss. But just hearing a genuine expression of concern with the words, “how are you?” from someone who then takes the time to actually listen to my answer without flinching or turning away makes me feel much more whole and sane. When people proactively ask me how things are since my child died, it helps me to feel like Henry didn’t just vanish without a trace.
So yes, please do ask. It’s totally okay to mention the fact that my teenage son died not so very long ago. In fact, it’s more than okay. If you care about me, I still need you to ask.