Mitch had passed a few hours prior and we each spent sacred time saying goodbye to our boy. His body was beginning to change, and it was disturbing to see. I was frightened by the spectacle of it all. So, I called the funeral home and asked them to hurry. Soon, in the dark of winter, I’d hear a soft knock on our door that would usher a kind of trauma we weren’t prepared to experience.
The funeral home employees were kind and professional and went reverently about their work. They entered Mitchell’s room and slid a sheet under his body, then lifted my sweet boy onto a gurney, then strapped his body in. They covered his cold form with his blanket – not to keep him warm, but to show respect for a little boy who had gone too soon. I suppose the covered him, also, to soften the blow.
Natalie stood at the foot of Mitchell’s bed with a look of horror and disbelief on her face. Indeed, it was a horror show. In the long nights that would follow, my dear wife would weep and say, “I don’t want to live.” The long night of grief had just begun – and a long night it would be. As a husband and father, I scrambled to keep myself, my wife, and children together.
In truth, I don’t need this photo to remind me of this horrible, yet sacred event. The memory of this night is seared into my mind and soul – written in the most permanent of inks. I keep it, however, not to wallow in sorrow – but to stay sober about life. To stay centered in the heart and soul.
The other day I had a lunch appointment with an old friend and colleague. We talked for a while and covered a lot of ground. It isn’t my practice to talk of Mitch or grief with people unless they ask. But, somehow our conversation turned toward Mitch, and we started to talk about life and loss. My friend had lost his sister many years ago, and though he grieved her loss, he didn’t understand the degree of sorrow his parents felt. He tried to understand – but until you experience it – it cannot be fully understood.
At one point in our conversation, I observed the spectators of grief – you know … the ones who, from the comfort of their own life say things like, “Isn’t it time to get over it?” Or, “Just be glad you’ll see them again in the next life.” These, and a million platitudes like them, only cut deeper into tender wounds of the soul.
I said, “There is a kind of darkness one comes to know when they lose a child. And when you walk through that wilderness, you eventually come out the other side a different person. You change. Suddenly, the world is different. The pettiness of people and so much of what consumes society is both pedestrian and trivial. It’s like someone who knows only simple math is trying to tell you how to solve an abstract problem with theoretical physics. Suddenly, their level of understanding is elementary – and you are in graduate school, whether you’re ready or not.”
I went on to say that when I hear people talk of people ‘moving on’ I want to say, “Okay, here’s a thought experiment. What if I told you to leave your young child (or grandchild) on the corner of a busy road and never look back? What’s more, you only have a few weeks to stop loving them – then, you must never feel after them. You must stop talking about them and act as if they never existed. Move on. Get over them. Impossible, right? Why? Because we love them – and that love is forever. So it is with grief. Yet, so often, grief feels a lot like love with nowhere to go – and it hurts to hold it in.”
We both had tears in our eyes. He could see my pain begin to surface and he said, “I think I’m beginning to understand what my parents felt … and feel.” I smiled and told my friend that grief, like love, doesn’t end. Though our conversation was met with tender feelings – it was also healing and bridge-building. Talking helps. Remembering can be soul-soothing.
The death of a child is exactly similar to the birth of a child. It changes you forever. In the same way, your life is multiplied by their very existence, it is divided by their absence.
A grief remembered is only love trying to find its way.