I’ts been years. Why don’t I feel better yet?
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
From a reader: “I’ve experienced two mothers in the last couple of weeks that had to bury their child. It’s been 18 years for me and it brought back the intense pain. I just wanted to lay down and not wake up. Some days I just get sick of carrying around the emptiness. This blog only speaks of initial grief, it doesn’t speak of years later and how it can feel like the day it happened. Family and friends don’t understand so you feel so alone in your grief.”
When I visited family in Arlington, Texas, which is far from where I live, the first thing my cousin Buddy mentioned was his sorrow for the loss of my son, which now has been years and years ago. We hadn't seen each other since young adulthood but he hugged me tight. In turn, my first thought upon seeing him was that he had also lost his adult son, Matthew. I asked Buddy how he was doing with his own burden. “Some days, it still feels like yesterday,” Buddy said. “I still wrestle every day with how I parented him, why I couldn’t stop him from overdosing. I wonder if how I tried to handle him — to bully him into rehab and to stay on him afterwards — if that didn’t backfire. I just keep reviewing the days before his death and then reliving the actual pain of finding him, of giving him CPR and of watching him die twice…. I thought I’d be over it by now. The rest of the world sure seems to be over it, but I live with it every day.”
Reviewing and reliving. When you are put into a traumatic environment, it is normal to review your own similar experience and to relive the emotions as you felt them then. The truth, as we longer-term veterans know all too well, is that we never get past the death of our child. We just get better at camouflaging our grief. We get better at pushing it down most days. We get better at answering the question of how many children we have without always mentioning the one who is no longer with us, after years of seeing how off-putting it is to the casual inquirer when you say, “I had four children, but one is no longer with us, so now I have two daughters and a son.” This leaves the person wondering if they should inquire what happened (they don’t want to know, really), but would it be callous or impolite of them to just move on? Neither response works and then we feel bad for creating their discomfort. So we learn to omit a mention of our other child altogether, holding each little betrayal close to the vest as another small failure. How could we possibly deny our own child’s existence and memory? But we do.
The truth is not black and white, either, as to whether or not you are alone in your grief. No one else can ever feel what you feel, not even your spouse who has also felt shock, sorrow, denial, and anger. Every relationship is unique to the two people involved, and every person brings different strengths and experiences to the table, so the way you feel the loss is uniquely yours. However, while your sorrow is your own, you don’t have to walk the aftermath alone. There are support groups of other grieving parents and the option of a grief therapist. Perhaps you’d benefit from the counsel of a religious personage or help from special friends or family — not help to carry your load, because they can’t carry what they don’t understand — but help to carry you through the darker days.
And also, there is the ability to express yourself here. To say what you can’t say anywhere else. We’re listening.