It had only been a few hours since I knelt at this very bed and whispered into my son’s ear how proud I was to be his daddy and that he didn’t need to hold on any longer. I knew he was tired yet didn’t want to leave for fear of hurting us. I also believe part of him didn’t want to leave because he loved to be alive – I mean, he truly appreciated life. I told my little boy how much I would miss him but that he would be okay and he didn’t need to be afraid.
I often hear parents agonize over saying goodbye to their children at the airport as they go to college, serve missions, or move to some other place. Though I understand the sorrow of saying goodbye, temporarily, to a loved one … I’ve come to know a deeper, inescapable, nearly suffocating sorrow when you must say goodbye to a child for life.
The morning sun had broken and I was still in a state of shock. Incredulous, I went back to Mitchell’s room, wanting to see if it was all a bad dream hoping to discover my little boy was still with us. My heart broke as I saw my dear wife sitting where Mitch once giggled just a few days prior.
Natalie was surrounded by everything that gave Mitch comfort in hopes of feeling close to him. I knew how much she loved her son and how devastated she was to lose him. Little Marlie, sensing Natalie’s suffering, jumped on her lap in the same way she tried to comfort Mitch when he was dying. Natalie closed her eyes and wept. She had a profound spiritual experience earlier that morning, under the cover of a winter’s night sky – but that didn’t take away the pain of losing him.
This sacred room had become a spiritual train station and my little son had departed on a one-way trip. Though I said goodbye, I remained unsettled that I didn’t say everything my heart wanted to say.
Our journey with grief was just beginning and things would get worse … much worse … before they would start to get better. This photo was taken a little over 4 years ago. We have healed a great deal since, but we still mourn the profound loss of Mitch. Not a day passes we don’t think of him a thousand times. However, behind our smiles and cheerful dispositions are hearts that are still tender … still mending.
It wasn’t long after the passing of Mitch from heart failure, a neighbor/friend down the street received a heart transplant. I remember visiting him at the hospital while he was in recovery, with some of our neighbors. At one point, I had to step into the hall to weep a little. I was sincerely grateful this good man had a second chance at life – in fact, I wept for his family and prayed fervently he’d survive his own struggle with heart failure. So, watching him smile softly in his recovery room brought me great joy. But, without warning, the pain of my son’s loss to heart failure overcame me and I struggled to catch my breath. In that moment, I felt like a young child who missed the bus as I saw it drive into the distance … that overwhelming sense of doom and panic that maybe I didn’t do enough to fight the system that denied my son a transplant. Agony coursed through my veins like a drug and I was in emotional hell. As my friends and I left the hospital, they were oblivious to my silent suffering – and it was then that I realized after all is said and done, the journey of grief is traveled by one.
At what point does grieving the loss of a child become decidedly sad, improper, or morose? On the surface, such a question seems unconscionable. Except, the hard truth is there is often an underlying expectation that those who grieve move on at some point. There comes a point where observers no longer feel sad with that person, and they begin to feel sad for that person.
So, what does moving on mean? I know what moving on looks like for observers … at first, they feel deeply for a season but then their mind and attention shifts to other matters in their own life. That is as it should be. Everyone has their own set of struggles and in time, those issues take center stage in their lives – especially as time passes. Moving on for the sufferer is not so easy – particularly when it comes to the loss of a child. When someone becomes a parent, they are changed forever in ways that are difficult to describe. That little soul we ushered to life becomes a deep part of our identity and whatever happens to them, happens to us. When we lose them, we lose a part of us we can’t get back.
Observing how others respond has been interesting:
- As time passes, some of those closest to us avoid conversations about our fallen child for fear it would make us sad. (Don’t worry, we’re already sad.)
- Some are uncomfortable because they don’t know what to say or how to say it. (I’ve found the most helpful thing to say is, “I want you to know I care.”)
- Others worry they’ll say something wrong and offend. (Perhaps the most powerful thing you’ll ever say is, “I’m listening.”)
- Still others avoid talking about pain because of their own struggles with pain.
- On the other side of the spectrum are those who think they have all the answers … they say things like, “Don’t be sad. Your child wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
- Some, foolishly, will square their shoulders, look you in the eye, and tell you they think it’s time to move on – as if their bold, armchair counsel can do in a moment what psychologists can’t do for their patients in months or years.
Whether people pull back or lean in, it seems to me all those things serve to further alienate the sufferer. They silence their pain and take it to a deeper place, far from view or criticism from others – often not knowing what to do or where to go. Sometimes that hidden pain becomes emotionally cancerous, other times it leads to deep depression, anxiety, or unspecified anger. This can be a dangerous state of being.
I have discovered that for many who have lost a child, talking about them is a form of therapy. In part, it helps because we don’t get to make new memories with them – we only have yesterday's. Because memories are subject to fade, I’ve observed some parents want to talk about their loved one(s) – not so much that you won’t forget … but so they won’t. We cling to details because that’s all we’ve got and they are treasures beyond price.
Suffering is hard enough. Suffering in silence, harder still.
If you have a friend who suffers, lend an ear, a caring heart, and a soft shoulder to lean on. Even if their loss was years ago – no matter how well they hide their hurt, it is there. Letting them know they’re safe with you and that you care can help those who hurt work through their struggle. With your love and heaven’s help, perhaps they can put a few pieces back together.
[This photo was taken on March 2, 2013. 7:50 AM]