Life’s celebrations after your child’s death
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
Comment from a grieving mother:
“The wedding plans swirl around me and while I hear myself talk colors and flowers, I feel like I’m bleeding to death. I am braced at all angles and don’t know how to actually face that wonderful day without one son. They talk about the family photos, I gag at that thought. Only one son will stand up there with his brother. The other is missing. Please talk about that.”
A future is born with our child. We imagine their first steps, first birthdays, first day of school. We imagine them learning how to drive, their high school graduation, perhaps college. In our mind’s eye, we see their wedding and ultimately, the birth of their own children, our grandchildren. We have perpetuated life, and we have all of those wonderful celebrations and rites of passage to look forward to when we bring that child home.
Then something goes horribly wrong. Our dreams are shattered with a diagnosis, with a discovered failing on our part to make a perfect body. (We, of course, will assume the blame for any abnormality). Or we get a few of those celebrations under our belt (enough to believe in “happy endings”) but then are blind-sighted with a medical surprise or an accident, a murder, a suicide. The future is ripped away from our child and us as well.
Then the first family event looms, as it will – an obligation to attend (or even to plan!) a graduation, a child’s birthday party, a holiday gathering, a wedding. How can we set our grief aside for a day to “celebrate life” when another life we cared so much about has ended? How can anyone even expect this of us?
The hardest notion to come to grips with, in the aftermath of a child’s death, is that every life is precious and deserves to be celebrated. One child’s death should not claim another child’s wedding day. One child’s timeline has ended, but the world does, indeed, move on. Our greatest challenge is to live in this parallel world where we coast along with it, even though our own believed purpose in life has been forever altered.
Holidays were hard for our family, yes. Daniel’s birthday came and went. Sometimes I went to church on that day, sometimes I celebrated and mourned alone; later I called daughters who had grown up and formed families of their own – a rite of passage denied my oldest child, who will now forever be the youngest, having died at age 16.
One of my most challenging days, as the years went by, was my daughter’s graduation from the Chicago Police Academy. It had been Daniel’s dream to become a police officer, which I believe truly motivated his younger sister to pursue that occupation. How could I get through that day, knowing Daniel couldn't walk across the platform at Navy Pier?
After my daughter gave the graduation speech (she was top of her class), after the bagpipes and drums played (which also hit my heart hard in remembrance of Danny Boy, sung at his funeral), we sat down to lunch. My daughter removed her police hat and set it on the seat beside her. Inside the plastic lining, I noticed a photograph of Daniel and a copy of the police prayer (in his handwriting) that he always kept in his wallet. In her way, Brook had brought him along with her on her most special day.
Our grief is private, yes, but it is also shared. We forget that because we are taught by Western society that death is a final parting and that we should “move on” and not speak of it after the few weeks granted to us to grieve. But a parent’s grief for a dead child never ends. It only moves deeper into our hearts, further below the tissue and the surface. The same is true for siblings; we can never know the depth of their pain because there are no words for them to express it when all the well-meaning people around them will discourage it, anyway.
The very thing that would have hurt Daniel far more than the injuries he suffered in that god-awful car crash would have been my never-ending pain on his behalf. Or Brook’s pain at his absence. I believe we are still connected in spirit, and so I want to now experience joy again, and to be his channel to those events, too.
The answer to your question, dear reader (dear mother), is that you will be shocked at the strength of your grief, of your reactions, to those first family obligations and celebrations. But you will eventually find a way to bring your child with you into the future. Attend the gathering and try to wring out every sliver of joy you can, and then come home and light a candle and share the experience as best you can.
We are here for you and you are here for other parents as they enter our community in search of encouragement as well as understanding. By our example and our sharing of these questions and experiences, we form a bridge for the newly bereaved as well as for those who have suffered for many years with the same feelings or anxieties. Thank you for your question, and for sharing it here.