I am the parent of a child who has died. The real significance of that fact is that it took me so long to come to terms with the ultimate reality of it, to accept that which is true. You don’t get over the loss of a child. You don’t replace him. Grief will surface unexpectedly, softer at the edges with the passage of time, but grief nonetheless. Like many of the components of each of our lives, the death of a child is something that finally you incorporate into yourself. Instead of waking up one morning being healed from your grief, you learn to live with it.
There is no easy way to lose a child. There is no disease or event that is preferable, and no age or point in time
that makes a difference. Although parents who lose children may frequently empathize with others and say things like, “I’m glad that didn’t happen to me in addition to what did”. As time passes, we feel an almost universal kinship with anyone who has lost a child and have a strong sense that of all our grief experiences, the death of a child is the most difficult. We all have the conception that in the scheme of things, parents are not suppose to outlive their children.
I am a different person from the young woman I was just before my child died. I don’t feel changed in a radical sense, but I am changed. As I look in the mirror I see the many new lines across my face, the sudden abundance of white hair and a total weight gain of eight kilos. Sometimes I have difficulty remembering that young woman who was the mother of two children, a daughter of 4 and a son nearly 6 months, a person who could resent the moments when everybody was cranky and hungry at once and sleep seemed a remote experience, and a person who also reveled in the joys and experiences of motherhood. Tucked into those days were the joys and strains of every day living, my husband starting a new business, and me trying to find a place for myself in the working world. It was a good time, laced with the happiness and minor dissensions that are part of living.
And in one hellish moment, all of that changed. Changed as swiftly as if a bomb had been dropped into the core of our lives. Changed on a bright sunny winter morning when I picked up the rigid, lifeless, distorted body of our young son. Changed as swiftly as he must have died. Part of the hell was the fact that his death was not expected. Part of the hell was the fact that the year was 1987 and after many years of research, medical science can not agree on a cause or find a cure for SIDS, a phenomenon that kills thousands of young children all over the world. Most of the hell came simply from the fact that he was dead and all the events that followed because he was dead.
I’m grateful for the haziness that enveloped me from the beginning of that terrible moment. The attempts of both
my husband and myself to resuscitate the tiny little body, and my own rejection of the deadness of him. After that first moment of discovery my inability to touch him. The horrendous anger and denial that the cold body could ever have held the personality of our son. The decision of what to do with our 4 year old daughter, who was sick with a high fever afraid to move from her bed, but aware that something was wrong. The loud scream that came from deep inside of me, the confusion of the arrival of the ambulance team followed by concerned neighbours, all I could think of was how will I be able to explain this to my daughter, that her beloved brother will no longer be here. I didn’t understand it myself.
The calls we had to make to family across the country and abroad. Only two hours after finding my son dead we are
on the way to the cemetery. I remember my husband laughing and saying to me, “this has to be some sick joke or dream, I just don’t believe this is all happening.”
Before noon we were back at home which marked the beginning of Shiva. Those 7 days I was in a fog as our many friends, neighbours and family came to be with us many not knowing what to say or how to say what they felt inside. I really don’t know how I smiled and made small conversation to things that had very little meaning. I know that I just wasn’t really there. I performed as carefully as a well-rehearsed script, except that the performance was staged in unreality, done to ease the pain of others but done mostly because it really wasn’t happening and tomorrow I could wake up to my two children and only think of the nightmare I must be dreaming.
The first twinges of reality came the day after the end of Shiva, came with the onset of a thunderstorm and the realness that my son was out in the rain, sleeping in a small grave among other children. I had never left a child in the rain before and the franticness of that reality was a reality in itself. The haziness was comfort: reality was sheer terror.
There is discomfort in looking back and remembering the endless days that followed the Shiva. The discomfort comes from the human desire to acknowledge the fragility of others, but not of ourselves. They were days that passed for living, just barely going through the motions of day to day life.
The sudden death of our beloved dog, Tanya who was ‘accidently’ poisoned by the city’s dog catchers, came only weeks after my son’s death. That fact that she had been a part of our family even longer than my son brought with it my own thoughts that we were locked into a bizarre twist of fate where all the members of our family would die. I checked sleeping people in our household with regularity of an intensive care facility and felt singularly responsible for their ability to breathe.
As a non-working mother I had to face long quiet mornings at home, the emptiness overwhelmed me. When I look back, one word describes it best of all. Lonely. No matter what the activity or how many people were around, it was a lonely, vacant time, disruptive to our total sense of living. I like to think that we did a good job of covering up our feelings, that on the surface we performed normally. It was the feelings just under the surface of that cover that held that enormous void. In the beginning only a mention of good times involving him could bring conversation to an uncomfortable standstill.
I became the perfect overprotective, smothering parent to my independent daughter. I was afraid to let her from my sight for long periods of time but also afraid to accept the responsibility for her care. I tried to become her constant companion and playmate, even when she was begging to go off to play alone with her friends. I was using her to fill my void. I marvel that either of us survived those early months.
As winter turned into spring, I was preparing my daughter’s Purim costume thinking only of the costume my son will never have the chance to wear. At the Passover seder I couldn’t help thinking what it would have been like if my son were there in my arms – such empty arms.
I wanted another baby, but I was terrified of having one. It disrupted my relationship with my husband in many
subtle ways. We talked, but we didn’t talk. We shared, but we didn’t share. He was alternatively strong and compassionate and angry and unfeeling. Our sex life was marred, tenderness and need can get lost in the fear of pregnancy and the fear of being incapable of good parenting. And just fear in general.
Much to my surprise I did become pregnant. Just as I was getting over the thoughts and fear of can I really go
through with this, I mis-carried, which was the lowest point of all. The pain was real almost as if I lost another child. The months that followed were as sterile as my inability to become pregnant again.
When do you start to “get better”? The landmarks don’t exist until you can get far enough away to start to look back
at them. Landmarks are really events that you are finally ready for. For me it was the urge to fight back, I looked for a support group for parents like us and after not finding one I started my own. After putting an advertisement in the newspaper, I found myself talking on the phone to many other parents. For each of us it was the first time we had ever really talked to anyone “like” us.
The release inside of me, of so many locked up feelings can only be described as nearly exhilarating. It was a strange blend of hearing other people say what I had been feeling and feeling along with them what I was hearing them say. When we finally met as a group, it can only be described as a warm reunion of very old friends, we were not strangers.
To get involved with other parents was landmark in itself. The help and support I received from relatives, friends and community professionals to begin my group was positive. We all work out our greatest pains in our own ways, and there is no right or wrong for each of us, just different ways. Grief is very self-centered. I sometimes feel a sadness for the too many lonely days that might not have had to be if I had known the simple truth, that I need not have been isolated. I’m only grateful that somehow I learned it.
I am writing this two days before what would have been my son’s 1st birthday and again I can’t help but think about the party I’m not planning nor the cake I’m not baking nor the future he might have had. I know I have a long road ahead of me but I am not alone because I am also a parent of a child who has died.