Grief is a journey. It is a series of ups and downs. The path can be like a hilly climb. Sometimes rocky and sometimes smooth. Or the journey can feel more like peaks and valleys. One day you feel up and the next you are laid low.
One thing is for certain…when a parent is grieving the loss of his or her child it is devastating. It is my observation that many parents of a single child might suffer an even greater cruelty when their only child dies. My dear friend April had to come to grips with the fact that her little boy died and also that her perception of her identity as a mother had changed. She said one of her first thoughts was, “I’m no longer a mother.” Once the numbness started to fade she realized that of course she is still a mom but that her son was not able to be with her.
I have met so many parents who have faced this same issue and it is always heartbreaking and sometimes complicated. I once knew a woman who was dealing with the death of her only child. She chose to pretend that her child had never existed. When she met new people who did not know what she had gone through she just never mentioned him. She removed all evidence in her home such as photographs, toys, mementos. She didn’t want to have to explain to people. While I respected that she could cope however she chose to, I knew instinctively that she could not keep up the pretense forever. You cannot avoid the pain of grief by pretending it isn’t happening. It took a few years but it did catch up with her eventually and the effects were overwhelming.
Many parents with multiple living children do not include the child who died when asked how many kids they have because they don’t want to be reminded of what they went through or they don’t want the person who asked to feel badly for having brought it up. Many of these folks who don’t mention their deceased child feel incredibly guilty afterwards. They feel it is a betrayal. Please do not feel as if you can or should deny that your child existed. Grief doesn’t work that way. You have to grieve. It cannot be ignored.
My friend April is one of the healthiest grievers I have ever known. She allowed herself to cry and be angry. She searched her soul and analyzed every emotion. She remembered every fun thing they ever did together. April did not focus on the treatments and side effects and the loss – no, she acknowledged those things but chose to celebrate the good times they had. To this day, when people ask April if she has any children she answers honestly that yes, she is a mother but her child is with God. This usually makes the questioner uncomfortable. She is proud that her son was here and understandably sad that he is gone but April loves that she was his mother and isn’t remorseful if whomever asked her whether she has children feels badly. She is honest. I wholeheartedly encourage grievers to be honest and not try to protect the feelings of others.
It is hard to lose one child to death even while blessed to have a surviving child. You may not question whether you are still a mom but you might ask what kind of mom you were. I know I did. And sometimes I didn’t like my own answers to that question…but I always honored his memory. When people ask me how many children I have I usually reply, “Two daughters on Earth and a son in Heaven.” I too chose to always acknowledge that Cory is still very much a part of who I am. His presence in my life made me the person I am today. Cory told me, “I chose you to be my mom and to put you on your path to help other mommies and daddies to understand that death isn’t the end – it’s just a new beginning.” He inspired me then and his messages flood my thoughts daily even now.
I am also inspired by two dear friends. Both have bravely dealt with multiple losses. One had to endure the horror of losing her little boy, her husband and a few months old baby all within approximately18 months. Then, years later her surviving child died too. Another dear one lost her husband and little girl very close together – both from cancer. She had a few years to grieve and then unbelievably one of her two young sons got cancer too and joined his dad and sister. Both of these courageous women struggle with the pain of their losses daily and neither has ever denied the existence of her precious children. They both honor their children by working with sick children or with grievers. And like April they remember to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward.
Grief is what it is no matter whose death you are coping with. I hope the stories of these mothers and their children can help you move forward along your path no matter where you are on the journey. Whether it be peak or valley don’t forget to take care of yourself.