Last week, I received the heartbreaking news that a friend’s very young son had died. This child was a tiny warrior with an old-soul demeanor. He endured more challenges in his short time here than many of the rest of us will face in a full lifetime. Despite his suffering, however, he seemed to float above it all– Zen-like, calm and full of love. When I heard of his passing, I was stricken with an immediate and crushing sadness, not only for his death but also for what I knew my friend is now going through. I went through it myself 23 years ago.
The death of a child is perhaps the most singularly devastating ordeal that a human being can experience. It is the deepest and gravest soul wound possible. It is an evisceration of the spirit. The despair for a bereaved parent is all-consuming, relentlessly intense and stubbornly non-negotiable. We are on our knees, adrift and suffocating. Our days are surreal, bewildering and tender.
Grief is the precipice we must scale in order to be whole again. I believe it is nature’s way. There is no how-to handbook or trustworthy guide for navigation. In my experience, grief is nonlinear. There are no predictable stages. It winds and twists, churns and rages. Sometimes, it comforts. Grief is the ultimate irony. We are disoriented but poignantly clear. And in our deepest suffering lies our most profound grace. Still, grieving a child is the most difficult, vulnerable and lonely work a parent can do. It is the ultimate act of surrender.
When your child has died, you feel a disconnection from the universe. All around you is “normal,” that other reality that you’d give anything to feel again. While you are barely hanging on, people are reading newspapers, talking on their cell phones and picking up carry-out. Your precious baby is gone, and the world goes about its business.
Platitudes are empty, even hurtful. There is not a reason for everything. This is not a part of some greater plan. God did not need another angel. Well-meaning people tell us that we are “so brave,” as if we had a choice. People do not mean to be insensitive. They simply flail. Language is anemic in the ominous face of ambiguity. The death of a child is raw and it is real. A thousand words, no matter how genuinely articulated, cannot create a happy ending. But I believe that people are also inherently good and that their unconditional love is the critical lifeline that keeps us from drowning completely.
Even though it’s been 23 years for me, I still remember so many details: the nurses binding my breasts to stop the flow of milk; the sad faces of my friends; the flowers– so any flowers–and the cards; my father crumpled over my hospital bed and weeping. There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think of my son and wonder who he might have been. I grieve both the baby that died and the young man I never had the chance to know.
I used to look for him everywhere– in every errant gust of wind, or blazing sunset or seeming moment of divine synchronicity. But over time, the raw longing subsided, slowly transforming into quiet acceptance. Another bereaved mother once said to me, “Maybe they’re closer than we think.” To this day, I still take comfort in that possibility.
For the child to die before the parents is an aberration. As such, everything we thought we knew– about life or God or existence – is called into question. And every single veil is stripped away. We see things exactly as they are, without buffer or the illusion of hope. This space is both wrenching and beautiful.
Our survival is incremental; one day at a time, one minute, one breath. We never “get over” the death of our children; we simply assimilate them into our being. They linger deep within us, on a cellular level. And somehow, against all odds, we move on. Since our children cannot be here, we live on their behalf. It is the highest way we can honor and hold them.
If I could carry some of my friend’s anguish for her, God knows I would. If I could give her even a moment’s respite– to rest, to eat, to sleep undisturbed– I’d do it in a heartbeat. But all I can offer her is perspective and the promise that she will be okay. The pain will ease over time, and peace will gingerly tiptoe back into view. Light will return. She will regain her equilibrium and find a new normal. And when she least expects it, joy will burst in again, like the loud crazy uncle crashing a party. She will smile. She will laugh. And sometimes, she will cry. She will never be the same, but she will be whole once more.
With courage, uncertainty and a heart full of love, she will turn her face upward and begin again.