Those of us already initiated call it the Club No-one Wants to Join. Others call it being a bereaved or grieving parent. We bleed from a wound that never heals. At best, this wound is scabbed over, seeping just a little. At worst, our souls are sucked out of it when there’s no blood left to flow.
Losing a child, they say, is the worst pain a human can suffer. “They” don’t know the half of it. The enormity of the loss doesn’t hit you at first. You’re in denial, thinking they’ll be home any time; or they’re just upstairs, napping, and will be down soon. You’re angry, thinking this is too horrible to be true. You think there is balance in the world. Why not take me instead, you ask. Why take this tiny soul who only just began to live? Why couldn’t they have stayed a bit longer, you wonder. You never even knew their favorite color. Then, the whole heart-wrenching reality sets in. You will never, ever see them alive again. You will never again hear them breathe when they’re peacefully sleeping at night. You will never again sit with them and read to them the stories your parents read to you, as your grandparents read to your parents, and so on.
In this terrifying time between sadness, anger, denial, bargaining, and acceptance, everything looks bleak. You wish that you could move back in time to one of the previous four stages of grief just so you could see the sun rise again, because in your world, everything is black as pitch. If you have other children, you must go on, day by day, and struggle to find new meaning in life while continuing to raise your surviving children. If you’ve lost your only child, you must go on, day by day, and struggle to redefine yourself. Not a parent anymore, what are you, exactly? Your existence becomes utterly meaningless and you must fight each day to rise above the sorrow which threatens to drag you down.
The worst part is always the part you are currently in, because each stage hurts worse than the one before. Once you reach the point we laughingly refer to as acceptance, your existence acquires a kind of charade-like feel. Others ask, “How many children do you have?” Do you answer one, and admit verbally that your child has fallen beyond your reach? Or do you say none, thereby denying the existence and life of someone you’ve loved more than anything else in the world? If you have remaining children, it is a question of three kids, or two? Deciding how to reply to this is difficult. You must trust your own instincts about how much you wish to share of your sorrow with other people.
Then, there are the responses and reactions you invariably receive. “Oh, that’s so sad. But at least you’re young. You can have another.” How would they feel, you wonder, if they lost a child and someone told them that? That you can just replace a lost child like replacing a lost driver’s license or a well-loved but falling apart book? How can you even explain to them the misstep, without sounding angry or offended? Because you are angry. You are offended. And you’re pretty sure they didn’t mean to hurt or offend, but it happened. The two responses I’ve found most difficult to reply to or even comprehend are: “Well, at least they’re with God now.” and “They’re in a better place.”
At least they’re with God? How do you know that? You can’t know that. You don’t even know if God exists, or if he does, why would he let tiny souls suffer so much only to die before they even live? They tell us that if we put our trust in God, it will make it easier. Nothing makes it easier, especially not belief in an invisible God who doesn’t hear prayers, who doesn’t help the helpless, and who seems to revel in having every single person you ever meet ask you about your children.
As to they’re in a better place, my only reply is this: What better place is there for my child than with me?
I was once asked if it gets any better. This was from a mother who had lost her son two years earlier. I told her the truth – no. It doesn’t. Sometimes it gets easier. Not much, but enough that you can move on with your life a bit. Enough that you can sleep at night. Enough that you can talk to other members of this horrid club, and perhaps find a bit of peace in your shared tragedy. But there are just as many times when it gets worse. When it hurts so bad, emotionally, mentally and physically, that you just want to curl up in your bed and close your eyes. You want to rest, maybe not sleep because then the dreams come. Just to fall into unconsciousness for a good while and forget that the world ever happened.
They say that everyone experiences grief at the death of a dear one, but luckily, most people these days don’t experience the death of their own children. Those of us who do lose children continue to struggle and live “normal” lives. We try to hide the loss and pain from some, and we share it with others. But no matter how many friends and family one stands beside, the loss is always felt alone. Always. Even between two parents who lose their only child. Because everyone experiences life differently, the individual loss is like nothing nobody else has felt or will ever feel.
Life after loss is always different. The trick to living it again is to find a way to put meaning into your experience. Find some way to help others who may have, unfortunately, found themselves in a similar situation. Educate and listen. Help how you can, and listen. Give comfort, but most importantly, listen. Don’t tell them you know how they feel, even if you think you do. Just tell them that you care about them, and their trials and traumas. Tell them you’ll be there, if they ever need to talk, or just a shoulder to cry on. Maybe if enough of us believe that it’s better to just be there, to say nothing if you have nothing helpful to say, and provide what comfort we can, then the human race might become a more understanding, compassionate, and solidified creation.