Chapter 6: Strained Relations

Grieving people are often urged to get on with their lives.  It is suggested that their loved one would not want them to suffer.  They are urged not to dwell on the pain.  They are assured that God “needed another angel.”  They are advised to appreciate the years they had with their loved one.  They are avoided by those who don’t know what to say and overwhelmed by those who think they know best.  Worst of all, to me, was being advised to seek “closure.”  Some well‑meaning friends or relatives may assume, after only six months or a year that you are “over it.”  You may feel afflicted by a highly contagious disease rather than a terrible loss. Some people really care and others feel an obligation to pretend that they care.  I have been asked, “how are you doing?” too many times by people who don’t really want to know.  You may be surprised to find out who your true friends are.  The ones you expected to stand with you may be nowhere in sight, while some who you barely noticed may be right by your side.

My only true comfort back then rested with others who had suffered the same loss. They were the only ones who understood.  For the rest of the world, I wore my “mask” and nodded and said, “fine thank you.”  To those who asked specific questions I may have shared a small grain of the truth.  The whole truth would have scared them away.  This is why support groups and email groups are such a lifeline.  There is a safe place to go with your grief where you will be accepted, encouraged to talk, and ultimately find comfort.

The loss of a child can bring spouses closer together, or it can drive a painful wedge between them.  Some mothers I have talked to say that their husbands hold in their grief and try to carry on as before.  Another grief-stricken dad I know pours out his heart to whoever will listen.  Since everyone on the face of the earth handles pain differently, there is no “right” way to feel or behave.  While grief is universal, it is also terribly individual.  Each of us must work through it in our own way and hope that we can find a kind soul, be it family, friend, or stranger, to hold our hand for the long run.  A mother from my griefnet group wrote a poem to the people in her life who would not allow her the time to grieve for the loss of her daughter.  She most often expressed her grief through poetry.

Blubbering

it can occur at any time

it does not have a routine

schedule.

it comes into your heart

like a nor’ easter

creating havoc 
with your emotions.

I blubber 
I sob 
I cry

if you are offended 
annoyed

then..
go away

I do not need you 
in my life

you do not have to stay

and tell me

“get a grip”

“take your pills”

“pull yourself together”

my grief is deep 
my pain goes to the very bottom of my soul

and you do not help

or ease the hurt

when you say words that are cold

I just pull back

behind my wall

it is safer there

no one to tell me what to do 
or feel

I thought you understood

I was wrong

so 
I will cry my tears alone

and not be criticized

I do not need you in my life

please go away

I need to cry….

by Judith Melanie Mershon (griefnet.org)

I know of a woman who disowned her daughter-in-law, and thereby severed ties with her granddaughter, because her daughter-in-law remarried after the death of her son. Many parents have told me about the heartaches they’ve encountered in this area.  Strained relationships between parents and sons and daughters-in-law have piled tragedy upon tragedy on many families. Just as life was forever changed by the loss of your child, life will change again when their spouse remarries.  This does not have to be another tragedy.  Continue to love and respect your children’s spouses and welcome their new spouses into your family.  It’s not easy to see a stranger in the place of your son or daughter.  Grandchildren make life worth living again.  Don’t lose them too when their living parent remarries.  They have the right to remarry and go on living.  The bond between you and your grandchildren is priceless to you and them.  Whatever real or imagined hurts you believe have been committed against you by your child’s spouse must be let go, now.  Whether you are right or wrong is of no consequence.  Swallow your pride and embrace your child’s spouse and children.  Go first.  Life, as we know, can be too short.  No good ever comes from bitterness and pride.  Your heart may be aching, and love is the only way to begin to ease the pain.

Once again, it is good to be in the company of others who have walked in these shoes.  Their support, advice, and comfort is priceless.

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Chapter 7: The Two-Headed Monster and Anger

What if I had paid closer attention, encouraged him to take a different path, forbid her to ride with her friends, gotten him professional help, called the doctor sooner?  If only I had seen it coming, noticed what was going on, listened more, taken her to the emergency room sooner, asked for help.

Sound familiar?  What If and If Only are the two relentless monsters that will keep you awake at night and cause you untold misery. Their sole purpose is to drive you mad.  There is no point in advising you to ignore them. They will terrorize you in the middle of the night, on your way to work, out of the blue during the day, on the way home and on and on.  What If and If Only squeeze the life out of parents target parents who have lost children to drug overdoses, suicides, or alcoholism.  Parents, under any circumstances, will find ways to blame themselves for any harm coming to their children.  A parent is supposed to protect their child, and when bad things happen to that child, a parent will take the blame. The worst can happen to the best of parents. You did the best you could at the time.  As parents, we have no control over life, whether we like it or not.  Children cannot be locked up until the world is “safe.”  Safe never happens.  At some point you must let go of these monsters. The agony will not bring your child back.  Honor their memory.  Live for them.  Know that you are not moving farther away from them, but that each day brings you closer.

Anger is another monster that sometimes sinks its teeth into grieving parents and won’t let go.  It may stay only a short time or may take up permanent residence and turn into bitterness and hopelessness. This rage may be directed at God, a person responsible for your child’s death, the system, doctors, hospitals, police, drunk drivers, terrorists, or nothing obvious at all.  Grieving parents may feel an unreasonable resentment towards strangers and even friends whose families are whole.  You may hate the person who survived the accident that claimed your child. You may despise your co-workers who go on and on about their trivial problems, as if a broken fingernail could be considered a tragedy.

Don’t ever think you are alone in your anger, or that to be angry about your child’s death is unreasonable or unnatural.  The force of your rage may be frightening, and you may need professional help.  Don’t be ashamed to talk to a doctor.

A counselor told me that it is very important to get this rage out of the physical body.  Beat on a pillow, hit baseballs, scream as loud as you can, run, walk, or dance, play tennis, golf, racquetball, anything that requires physical exertion.  Anger over the death of your child is normal, it’s natural and you are not a freak.

At some point, either alone or with help, you will begin to feel the anger fade.  Anger may be beneficial for a time, but left unchecked it turns into bitterness and hate.  Remember and honor your child.  Celebrate his or her life and bask in the warmth of their memories.

Chapter 8: Signs

There are those who firmly believe in the possibility that after a person dies, they are able to communicate with loved ones left behind.  Others do not believe in “signs” at all.  I don’t know for sure that my son personally comforted me in the days and weeks after he died, but I do know that the experiences I had were not easily explained by science or logic.

When my son and his wife traveled they would bring home a set of wind chimes from each place they stopped.  I have bamboo wind chimes hanging on my back porch, and it takes a stiff breeze to move them.  The first time I noticed anything unusual going on with them was the night my little dog barked at the back door at three in the morning.  I got up to let him out, and walked outside into a night so still that you could hear a pin drop.  I stood on the back porch watching Buttons moving around in the dark when suddenly the bamboo piece hanging down in the middle of the chimes began to move steadily back and forth, gaining momentum as it moved.  It finally struck the bamboo pieces hanging down around it and it continued to move slowly back and forth like a bell striking the bamboo for about ten minutes.  As suddenly as it started, it stopped and all was still again.  This happened many time in the months that followed, sometimes during the day and other times at night.

One mother told me of a beautiful blue heron that landed in the yard at her daughter’s home in the desert.  The Audubon Society assured her that the Blue Heron is NEVER seen in the desert.  Yet, there it was. Her deceased daughter had received a figurine of this bird on her wedding day.

Another mom told me she waited for months for a sign from her daughter. Finally, one day she was changing the sheets on her daughter’s bed when a music box on the shelf began to play.  “It’s about time!” she told me she said.

Another friend who lost her son to heart disease receives “reminders” on her cell phone.  She believes it is her son’s way of letting her know he is okay.

From butterflies to dimes grieving parents have told me stories of lost sons and daughters comforting them through signs.  They are always positive that these occurrences are spiritual.

Perhaps signs are simply created in the minds of grief-stricken parents as a way to cope with the pain.  Or maybe God allows our children to send us a last comforting goodbye to let us know they are okay.

Whatever they are, and wherever they come from, they are a blessing and a hopeful reminder of our children.

Chapter 9: Birthdays and Holidays

There is no getting around it or past it.  After a child is gone birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries that only come around once a year, and used to mean happy family gatherings, joy, good cheer, excitement, good company and good food, become nightmares. They are dreaded for weeks before they arrive, are survived rather than celebrated, and leave the bereaved parent in an even deeper pit than before.  A woman from Canada who lost her daughter to cancer refers to holidays as “hell-a-days.”

On the first Thanksgiving, when my son had been gone for a little more than 2 months, I spent the morning sobbing and watching a video clip I have of him at his sister’s wedding, over and over.  In the afternoon my husband stuffed a turkey and stuck it in the oven and we went to see a Harry Potter movie.  Since we had no family nearby, this was a good solution to get through the first tough holiday.  A griefnet friend in Australia, who lost her son in a traffic accident on Christmas Day, has spent all day every Christmas Day since his death watching Star Wars movies.  They were his favorite.  For some, it is impossibly painful to gather with relatives who still have their families and try to enjoy a holiday.  Some parents ignore holidays, some travel, some break tradition and do something entirely different than they have ever done before. One parent put up a Christmas tree with angels bearing the names of each of the children of the parents in her support group.  Some feel most comfortable with family and friends.  Do whatever you need to do for yourself.  This is not a time to worry about hurting people’s feelings.  Take a trip, stay in bed, help someone less fortunate, ignore the day entirely.  Switch it to a different day. The best you can hope for in the beginning is survival.  I used to put up a Christmas village every year.  It was an idyllic little scene with a lighted house, a church, a lighthouse, and a store.  There was an ice rink and street lamps and benches.  I used cotton for snow and made hills for the little people with sleds. The year after David died, I took out only the village house.  I put it on a table next to my bed, covered it with “snow” and kept the light on 24/7.  At night I would lie in bed and look at it and imagine my family in that little house, whole, safe, snug, and enjoying the holiday together.

At Christmas, which for many is the worst holiday of all, you might try some of the ideas other grieving parents have adopted:

  • Light candles
  • Help a less fortunate family
  • Donate to a favorite charity
  • Make a memory tree
  • Connect with others – especially those who understand
  • Share stories
  • Include your child in celebrations – reminiscences, toasts, stories
  • Make new rituals,
  • Ask family members and friends to write something about your child – put the envelopes in his or her stocking and open them on Christmas morning
  • Buy a gift for your child, wrap it and take it to Salvation Army or other charity
  • Buy a gift for his or her best friend

Time will help you find a way to celebrate your child’s life over the holidays.

Birthdays may be the most difficult days to suffer, even worse than anniversary dates.  My internet friends kept a list of all of the birthdays of the children whose parents joined the group.  On my son’s birthday after he died, I received an inbox full of e-mails remembering him and me.  They lit candles in his memory and sent off balloons for him.  I went to a park and sent off some birthday balloons with a card tied to them.  Once I ate an entire birthday cake.  These things don’t relieve the pain, but they are something to do to recognize and celebrate the day and the child.  One year on my son’s birthday, I visited a local conservation area in Missouri where I live.  It was a cold sunny February day and not many people were out.  I walked down a path to a pier on the Mississippi River.  It was so peaceful and quiet; all I heard was the water rushing down the river.  I imagined what it would be like on the day that I go to join Dave.  I imagined arriving at an airport after a long journey.  It was like the days before September 11 when loved ones could meet travelers at the plane.  I walked down the jetway and there were Dave and my parents and an old friend who died at a very young age.  I could feel the joy of seeing all of them again.  On my way out of the park I spotted an animal loping along the road. I drove up next to him and stopped.  It was a coyote.  He sat by the side of the road and watched me while I watched him.  I wondered if Dave sent me a coyote to remember the day.  Always be open to comforting thoughts and signs.  It helped me to pick up some kind of object, like a rock or piece of wood, to remember the days when I felt Dave with me.

Chapter 10: Memorials and Headstones

What can be more heart-wrenching for a parent than to see their beloved child’s name engraved on a headstone in a cemetery?  One grief-stricken friend wrote, “there is something about seeing your child’s name engraved in stone that tears a parent’s heart out.  The finality?  The cold hardness of stone?  The permanence?  It hurts so badly.” My son is buried 900 miles away so I don’t get to visit his grave often.  There is just no way to prepare for that first visit to the cemetery after the stone is in place. The founder of TAPS wrote that she and her friends who had lost husbands in a plane crash, knitted little hats for their husbands’ tombstones.

Many parents lovingly tend their child’s grave.  Some go each day or week and plant flowers and leave mementos, depending on the rules at the cemetery.  Some just visit on special days and release balloons or butterflies.  I have discovered that there are numerous companies that sell personalized items.  There is a place that personalizes seed packets.  You can also order memorial stepping stones.

There may come a time when you want to do something special in memory of your lost child.  For some it may mean something on a large scale like setting up a scholarship fund or organizing a golf tournament for charity.  It may mean writing a book or a poem.  It may be planting a tree, a flower, or a whole garden.  Some have set up websites with pictures and letters from friends and family.  There are websites to help with this.  One woman places a notice in the local newspaper every year on the anniversary of her son’s death.  My niece is putting together a book for my son’s children.  She has gathered stories and pictures from family and friends.

It may take time for your heart to tell you the best way to memorialize your child.  It may be that the memorial you choose is simply in your own heart.

Chapter 11: Return to the World

There is no timetable to follow to determine your readiness to return to work, school, the world of the living.  Even a simple trip to the grocery store or mall is a big deal.  The best advice I can give is to get in and out as quickly as possible in the beginning. There will be painful reminders everywhere.  There will be foods at the grocery store that your child loved to eat. There will be clothes and gifts at the mall you want to buy for him or her. The worst part for me was seeing young families together with their long lives in front of them – children who would grow up and know both their parents, parents who would not outlive their children.  Once again, as painful as these outings will be in the beginning, it will get better.

If you are under the care of a physician, he may set the time for you to go back to work.  You may have no choice.  I returned to work four weeks after the death of my son.  I was terrified.  How would people behave?  Would I be able to function?  Would I cry at my desk?  It’s something that, if you must work to eat, you must take a deep breathe and plunge in.  Some grieving parents take long extended leaves and others feel better about getting back to work to stay busy.  My co-workers responded to me and the September 11 tragedy with open hearts and unbelievable generosity.  I received an avalanche of sympathy cards and well wishes.  Still, it was so hard to walk into that office.  There are those who, to this day, look sad and downcast when they pass me in the hall.  I can’t figure out if this is genuine or a behavior they believe is appropriate.  Some greeted me when I returned to work as if I had just returned from a vacation, all smiles and cheer.  Some avoided me completely while others were wary, as if I might explode.  A very few were direct and open in their expressions of sympathy.  Some were overly direct and curious to hear an eye witness account of how it was to be effected by 9-11.  There were prying questions about me, my son, and my family.  I was surprised to find that people I barely knew were sometimes more aware and sensitive than those I had known and respected for a long time. You can choose to respond or not, it’s up to you and you are the one who’s been hurt.

I read once that grief changes your address book.  Old names are crossed out and replaced by new names, the names of people who you can talk to about your child, cry, laugh, and wonder with, without telling you to move on, get over it, or find “closure.”

Chapter 12: LOL

LOL is computer speak for laugh out loud.  You won’t believe this now, but, inexplicably, at some point in your dark journey, a spark of humor may ignite.  I was not prepared for this phenomenon, and it startled me the first time I experienced it.  Unconsciously, I wore black or gray clothes to work for a year.  I firmly believed I would never laugh or even smile again. As I formed bonds with other parents who had lost adult children, eventually a spark of humor would creep into conversations.  My good friend and fellow traveler from New Jersey and I began an e-mail relationship through a 9/11 e-mail support group.  Adele also lost her son that day.  In the beginning we were going back and forth between hysterical and comatose.  Our messages were filled with despair.  As the months went by, we were still grieving as much as before, but a bit of humor would creep in.  She would joke about howling at the moon and disturbing the neighbors.  I would threaten to punch the next person who asks me how I am.  We even “joked” about driving over a cliff like Thelma and Louise.  We were, and still are soul sisters.  We conjured up all manner of novel ways to do ourselves in.  Yes, it was dark humor, but humor nonetheless.  I’m sure was part of the trauma, but it was healing too.  When one of us is having a terrible day, the other will cheer her up with some outrageous comment.  We joke about our anger and somehow it becomes less venomous. We joke about relatives who haven’t a clue to what we are going through and this makes them easier to bear.  It may seem impossible that you will ever smile again, but someday the corners of your mouth will curl, and the smile you thought was gone forever will break out in spite of itself.

After ten years, Adele and I still have our dark days.  Each anniversary of September 11 brings new hurt and reminders of a day we wish we could forget.  As good friends as we are, we wish with all of our hearts we’d never met.  We live in a different world than we did ten years ago.  We are still searching for where we belong now.  We take joy in our grandchildren and love to talk about our sons and remember the good times.  Sometimes we still revisit the darkest days and wonder if the world will ever stop reminding us of September 11.

Healing may sneak up on you, be sure you don’t miss it.