(W)hole

When I found the foot high statue in the image above . . . I was struck by what it said to me. A perfect depiction of the hole left in a mother’s chest when her child dies. The gaping wound every bereaved mother suffers when her baby is taken from her. You may not be able to see it, but every single one of us has it. And we all protect it, for the rest of our days.

Over the past few years, finally being strong enough to venture out of my safe little world, I’ve met other mothers who have lost children in as many different ways as you can imagine. But don’t imagine them . . . they will break your heart.

One of the often discussed truths is whether it is easier to lose a child when you’ve had the chance to say goodbye before they go, or when their death is sudden, with no preparation or last words. I lost my daughter in an instant. In the time it took for a car to flip and break her neck. She was here, then gone. I didn’t watch her suffer bravely through a long illness. Holding her hand and telling her I love her as she slipped away wasn’t an option for us. On a Thursday I hugged her, not knowing it would be the last time I would touch her while she was alive. The following Sunday, she was dead. I am thankful for the conversation we had Saturday afternoon when we both said we loved each other. At least, I have that.

I know mothers who did spend their child’s last moments with holding their hands. Telling them it was ok to go. Stroking their hair and kissing their foreheads and easing them into what comes next. At times, I envy this seemingly peaceful farewell. Most times, though, I can not imagine having to watch my child circling toward their death. I don’t think I would be strong enough. Would I have been able to tell Becca it was ok to go? I’ll never know.

Then there are those of us who have someone to blame for our child’s death. A person(s) took the life of our precious child by their actions. There is deep rage when our child’s death is the outcome of someone else’s choices. I’ve shared in prior writings the fact that the drunk driver that killed Becca had been arrested just six weeks prior for a second drunk driving offense. His choice to drink enough to show an alcohol level of .28, then drive, took my daughter from me. From the life she was building.

When I wanted to see her, touch her, I was told she was “evidence” of a crime, so I could not. Later, I was informed that the driver would not be charged with vehicular manslaughter because killing someone while driving intoxicated is an intention-less crime. Intention or not, my daughter isn’t any less dead. A law that benefits the guilty. You better believe there is a deep anger inside of me.

Then there is the horrible truth of murder. The person had intent to kill another human being. Someone decided that your child didn’t deserve to live. That they had the right to decide to cause them death. I don’t know how to even begin to wrap my mind around this truth. There is another level of complicated grief when there is an actual person to place blame on for our child no longer being here with us.

What about the soldier killed in war? Who do you place the anger on then? Where do you direct your rage? Toward an entire people? Ideology? I don’t know. I’m not sure there are any adequate answers for these questions.

The one thing all grieving mothers have in common is the hole blown through our chest . . . the space where our heart used to be, whole. Every one of us lives with this state of being. The individual facts that surround each death make our grief journey our own. The smallest truths we have to grapple with, over and over in the still dark of the night, are what we must find a way to heal intimately.

The answers we need to find are most often within ourselves. You can’t give them to us. We need you to help us remain strong enough to keep walking this path. To know that, even as we sit quietly, our minds are racing over the facts that surround our child’s death. Very rarely do we have a waking moment that is not influenced, in some way, by our child being gone.

We all have an empty space and we are trying to repair it as best we can.

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Fearful

When the phone rang in the middle of the afternoon, a few years ago, I was surprised to see it was my son. Excitedly, I answered the phone and said hello!! My son’s first words were, “I’m gonna need you to not freak out.” That’s when I heard the sounds of hospital monitors in the background. And I did, indeed, freak out.

I started yelling, asking him if he was ok. Not taking into consideration that he was speaking to me, so he was ok. He told me to stop yelling, he couldn’t talk to me when I was like this, or he would hang up. You can probably guess he eventually hung up on me. With the promise he’d call back when I could be calm. When he did finally call back, I learned the details of the car accident he’d had on the slushy highway a few hours earlier. A crash that left him crawling out of a car, that had landed on it’s roof, in oncoming traffic. His only injury was a snapped collarbone, thankfully.

Even after I knew what had happened, I was still mildly hysterical, and a complete mess. My child was safe. He was hurt, but he would survive this. When I had calmed down enough to process what had happened, I realized I would never be the same when it came to my children being hurt. Bereaved mothers nearly always feel the fear that another one of their children may be taken by death.

Late last week I was talking with another grieving mom I know. She told me her very young son had been sick all day. High fever, lethargic. One of her sentences was heartbreaking. She shared she had been a nervous wreck all day, beyond worried. The truth that she’d had to bury one of her young children already was far too real to not take into consideration when her other child was so sick. This mom’s son was killed by a distracted driver. An adult who was checking his social media. Nothing this mother did led to her child’s death. He wasn’t sick. But even though the two situations involving her children were not the same, her mind circled the truth of child death. We go to the worst that can happen because we know it’s not impossible.

Even now, when my children travel to and from where they live and when I live, I am a ball of anxiety. They’ve had their licenses for years. They are both good drivers. Millions of people travel the roads of Michigan everyday without dying. But part of me is certain they will die, like their sister did, well before their time. When my son had a serious illness over this past Thanksgiving, I started to cry uncontrollably when he said he was going to play soccer, against the doctor’s orders. I begged him not to. Again, I was worried it would lead to his death. So much of the grief path is spent walking in exhaustion. Worrying about our surviving children, KNOWING death takes the young, we are always on guard. Always hoping to see the thing that might end their life before it reaches them.

Others, trying to comfort us, will say “oh, you’re worrying for nothing . . . everything will be alright.”. In our broken hearts, the truth courses through our veins with each heartbeat. No, it’s not always alright in the end. Like so many other things about child loss, unless you’ve been through it, it won’t make much sense to you. We don’t want to be a worried mess. We don’t want to struggle with allowing our child to live a normal life, one not full of our fears for them. However, we are forever changed.

I’ve shared before the fear I have for my twins who just turned the age my daughter was when she was killed. On January 11th, they officially became older than their sister ever did. For me, their life is delicate and could easily be taken at any moment. I wrestle with this truth and the other truth, I have to allow them to live their lives.

But it’s so difficult to know there is the chance that we may lose another child. To know this and to attempt to remain optimistic about the children we still have here. It’s hard as hell. Please understand this.
I want to take a moment to mention the mother who lost her only child. I can not speak to what it’s like to live in this reality. I haven’t experienced it. I do know one mother who did lose her only daughter. Her strength and courage amazes me daily. Maybe one day she’ll be able to share her feelings here as a guest writer. I think she has a story to tell . . . one that can reach the mothers I can not.

There is beauty in the broken. I see it everyday in the women I know.

All Our Children

My entire life, I’ve not liked meeting new people. I carry matching luggage filled with insecurities and self doubt. Since I lost my daughter, I’ve added new contents to these bags, which go everywhere with me. Though there are many additions . . . tonight, I will talk about just one. But it’s a really big and difficult one. For most people meeting others, it’s a question that’s asked an answered without much anxiety. Not so for bereaved mothers. We grow to dread this particular inquiry.

The question? How many children do you have. A common question for those meeting each other for the first time. I don’t like having to answer it. The situation can go one of two ways and either is stressful for us. Only one is stressful for the other party. I’ve reacted both ways, but there is a price I pay either way.

At times, we can simply answer with the number of children we have and the conversation goes no further. Often, however, the follow up question is asking us to share the ages of our children. This is when grieving mothers really start to panic. How do we answer this?

We can simply give the ages of our living children, then the age our deceased child left this world.

Ages are a weird thing. My twin boys just turned the age their sister was when she was killed, twenty three. In fact, on January 11th, they passed the age when she was the oldest she was ever going to be. They are older than their older sister. I can barely wrap my mind around this truth. If I answered in the way I’ve mentioned above, it would seem I have triplets, which isn’t the case. And the thought of answering in this manner has always made me feel uneasy, so I’ve not chosen to do it. I don’t fault mothers who do. We each have to choose what is best for us, no judgment.

Sometimes, in an attempt to keep the follow up question from being asked about our dead child, we don’t mention them. At all. It’s just easier, we think, to not have to make anyone else feel uncomfortable with our reality. This is a dangerous way to go, I’ve learned from experience, because we are left with a new guilt. We carry enough guilt for not saving our child, somehow, and now we are being disloyal to their memory by not admitting their existence. Internally, we are bleeding to death because of their absence, but we don’t let this fact show on our faces lest we cause discomfort in another.

I’ve chosen this tactic, early on in my new life without Becca, I am ashamed to say. The pain I saved the other person from feeling was heaped upon that which I already carried. The half dozen times, maybe more, I’ve done this have left me crying in the dark begging my daughter for her forgiveness. I don’t hide the fact she existed anymore. Not for anyone’s comfort. Not anymore.

We can, and eventually do, answer the question in a truthful manner. Not ashamed of the fact we have a dead child. No attempt to soothe their nervousness.. I’ve seen the look in people’s eyes when I’ve said my child is deceased. A mix of panic and uneasiness. They don’t know how to respond. And, I’ve learned, it’s not up to us to care how they respond. They’ll figure it out, or they won’t, but either shouldn’t change whether we talk about our child or not.

This is how my most recent conversation with a new person went:

“How many children do you have, Diane?”

“I have three. Becca, Gabriel, and Matthew.”

“Beautiful names! How old are they?”
“The boys are twins, they turned twenty three late last year. My daughter would have been thirty three.”

“Oh . . . would have been?” (that’s when the panic first flickered in his eyes.)

“Yes, she was killed ten years ago, by a drunk driver, she was twenty three.”

I saw his face grow red and he stammered something about having to get back to work.

Generally, this isn’t how uncomfortable this conversation can be. Most times people say they are sorry for my loss. I thank them and we move on. I have learned I can either chance the possibility that the other person will not react well by my answering honestly or I can omit my daughter’s having existed by leaving her name off the list. For me, the choice has become quite simple.

I won’t ever keep the life of my daughter to myself because of how others may react. I don’t care anymore. She’s my child. She was here. Her life mattered. Her death happened. I will say her name any and every chance I get.

When we begin walking the path of child loss, we are still finding our way in everything, because all we know has been replaced by our new reality. It takes a while for us to become strong enough to stand up to society’s expectations of a grieving mother. We have to find our legs and stand again. We must find our voice and speak again. We are the keepers of our child’s life. There is no shame to be felt for this.

For those of you who are on the side of the conversation, where you could feel discomfort, please don’t let it overwhelm you. We know we make you uneasy. That our child’s death forces you to face the fact children die. That if it happened to us . . . it could happen to you. The horrifying fact is: it can.

It happened to us. Please don’t add pain to our already anguishing journey. Stay with us and let us talk about our child. It’s the greatest gift you can give us.

You Can’t Stop A Boulder

Once a week I have the opportunity to talk to other grieving parents. I don’t always avail myself to said opportunity, but when I do, I am stunned at what we have in common. No matter how we lost our child . . . many feelings are universal.

The one that is most often mentioned: guilt. We find a way of taking whatever happened and making it our fault. One mom shared a story with me. The story is of a little boy who was sleeping soundly in his bed. One night a boulder, that had been firm in the side of the cliff for hundreds of years,  came loose. The massive rock rolled down the hill, gaining speed, eventually crashing through a wall. Instantly killing a little boy as he slept soundly in his bed.

How had the boulder become free? A storm, years prior, had caused the river to flood and weaken the earth in that area. Somehow, the surveying team missed the danger when they inspected the area for homes. Four years later, the boys parents had chosen the home because of it’s good school system and close neighborhood. It had taken them a long time to find the perfect place to raise their child. As a condolence, people said that there was no reason for this to happen, it was after all, an act of God.

Those of us who have lost a child know what the parents did to themselves, don’t we?

They blamed themselves for their son’s death. If they hadn’t chosen that house, on that hill, with those rocks that had seemed so beautiful in the sunset, he would still be alive. If they’d never left their previous home then this would not have happened. For the rest of their lives, they will carry the guilt of what happened.

When I listen to other parents talk about the death of their child, I am amazed at how easily events can be described in a way that illustrates their responsibility. As their words spill from their mouths . . .  I want to cry out: It’s not your fault!! Yet, I do it to myself, too. I can manage to weave the recounting of Becca’s death into a tale that makes me the guilty party. Why do we have such an intense need to be culpable. Society isn’t blaming us, we are blaming ourselves.

I’ve heard parents say if they hadn’t sent their child to school that day, they wouldn’t have died in a bus accident. Or if they had kept them home when it began to snow, their child’s car wouldn’t have skidded off the road. If they’d said no to going to the movies, their child wouldn’t have been drinking in the parking lot and  succumbed to alcohol poisoning. The truth is, as parents, we can do everything right, and it still doesn’t matter.

If you are reading this, and haven’t lost a child, please don’t become terrified of allowing your child to live. You can not wrap them in a cocoon and keep them safe. If we are alive, we have to live life. Don’t change that. But, please, if you know someone who has lost a child and is struggling with this massive, and very common, guilt . . . share this with them.

A lot of times we won’t listen to ourselves, but it helps to hear it from someone else. We can let the guilt go.

Our children would want that for us.

 

Confronting Guilt

Guilt is a monster that demands to be fed. No matter the cost . . . it’s going to find what it needs and take it from you. We are better served by looking it in the face and asking it’s reason for existing. There is always a reason. Often times, the reason isn’t our responsibility. Especially the reason our child died. But, somehow, we still carry the guilt.

The moment my daughter was killed I was sleeping restlessly in my bed miles away. Earlier in the evening, while I was at work, an ominous feeling settled on my shoulders. I tried to shake the feeling of impending danger but I just couldn’t. Even going so far as to tell my manager I wouldn’t be back to work there again. How did my subconscious mind know this? And if it was going to warn me . . . why not go all the way and tell me exactly what was going to happen so I could stop it?

As I lay safely in my bedroom, as my sons slept downstairs, my child’s life was ended by a drunk driver. Why did I go to sleep? How could I not pay closer attention to the feelings I was experiencing? I knew my boys were home that evening. They had no plans. I should have called my daughter and made sure she was alright. I had time. I left work near midnight. She wouldn’t be killed for just over two hours. If I’d acted . . . she might still be alive. If I had demanded she tell me where she was, then driven to get her, she would still be alive. If I’d picked her up and brought her to my home, tucked her into bed next to me . . . she’d still be here.

As her mother, I should have known this was the possible outcome of the night. I didn’t. Was this because I am not a good mother? Or I didn’t love my child enough? I failed her. I cost my daughter her life. And I have to live with this truth for the rest of my life.

When talking to others, and expressing this thought, I’m always told I have no responsibility for her death. (But I do.) I wasn’t the driver who chose to drive after drinking. (But I could have changed the course of events.) Physically, I had no hand her dying. (But I should have known my child was in physical danger.) You see how our mind works? How we can find a way to feel responsible for something we had nothing to do with? The weight of the guilt we carry can crush us and force us to our knees. It lives in our chest so fully we can’t take a deep breath. Our heart beats are restricted and our blood flow is weak. We are dying, ourselves.

Guilt will take what it needs, and we are left to exist on what’s left, unless we confront it. It’s parasitic existence must be ended. In truth, we most likely, couldn’t have stopped our child from dying. In our heads, this fact is acknowledged. Our hearts, however, don’t always know this. We spend our life, our child’s life, keeping them safe and preparing them for a future of their own. We baby proof our homes, walk them to school, get vaccinations and physicals, feed them healthily. Teach them about strangers, lock our doors at night, talk to them about safe sex. Their safety is entirely our responsibility. Except, when it’s isn’t.

I’ve not met another grieving mother who didn’t carry some guilt. It’s part of the whole package. Emotions you didn’t know you would experience. That you don’t know how to deal with. As I’ve said before: you can’t heal what you don’t acknowledge. Find the source of the guilt. Where you tell yourself you went wrong. And look it in it’s eyes. Question it. Examine it.

When it doesn’t have an answer for you . . . tell it to go.