I often contemplate death. I think about the one-way threshold, and how no one wants to talk about it. An even more avoided conversation is the grief following losing a loved one. Before you assume I am macabre, I often think about death and grief because my 2-year-old son passed away, and the experience flipped my life on its head.
Before my son died, I had a normal response to death and grief. I acknowledged it. I showed up in the appropriate ways. I attended funerals, viewings, celebrations of life, sent flowers, etc., etc. But beyond that, I tiptoed around the delicate nature of death and its bedfellow, grief.
Yes, death is uncomfortable. The aftermath is complicated. And losing a child upsets life’s natural order and the idea of safety and security.
This Mother’s Day will be two years, four months, and 12 days since my son’s passing. Time hasn’t diminished the pain, but has allowed me to sit in that discomfort and realize what I need.
Do give and receive all the grace.
If you remember nothing else, try to give yourself and others the grace to make mistakes. You might not be able to show up for a friend who has lost a child for many reasons. You may have forgotten to call, or your discomfort on a particular day clouded your compassion. Treat yourself with kindness when you don’t hit the mark.
I missed the first anniversary of a friend’s child’s passing. I felt awful. I woke up in a cold sweat at 2 a.m., ruminating over what to do and cursing myself silently until it was an appropriate time to call. My first thought was to hide in shame, as the truth was I simply forgot. When I did call, my friend was gracious and kind. She shared a sweet story of her child. We laughed and cried. Her grace allowed me to show up and be present. Giving it to yourself is equally necessary.
Do offer specific help.
Grief is overwhelming. There is unseen emotional labor. You can go weeks without eating or sleeping and somehow still survive. When someone asked me, “What can I do to help?” I replied, “Nothing,” because I couldn’t think beyond my next breath. However, offers of specific help (dinner, childcare, a shoulder to cry on) were lifesavers.
I remember one day when I was in desperate need of a lifeline. My daughter had millions of questions. She lost her brother and didn’t understand why. I thought my heart would tear apart, and I needed to have my meltdown alone. My phone rang. I answered to the familiar voice of a friend asking if she could take my daughter to the park.
I had an escape. I held it together, got my daughter out the door, and then lost it. My friend didn’t know it, but offering specific help allowed me to process my son’s death when I needed it the most. It didn’t fix anything, but it gave me time to cry.
Don’t only focus on the positive.
On my first Mother’s Day as a bereft parent, I went to brunch with family and friends. I probably should have canceled. I had a rough week at work, and Google Photos kept sharing beautiful, albeit tear-jerking, videos of last Mother’s Day with my children. I was stewing in pity. But I did want to celebrate with my daughter. I mustered a smile and put on my Sunday best.
It didn’t take much to tip the scales. At one point, my daughter leaned over, asked me to hold her, and said, “I miss my brother.” Game over. As my eyes welled with tears, a well-intentioned family member told me to stop crying. They commented that I should be grateful for my time with my son and even went so far as to say crying would age me. Umm. No. Toxic positivity is not only unrealistic, but can be damaging.
Grieving parents learn to walk the tightrope between joy and grief. Our gratitude for our children, living or not, should be implicit; our pain accepted and, if requested, witnessed.
I’m learning to acknowledge that tricky balance between grief and joy, gratitude and pain. I’m allowing room for the full spectrum of emotions.
Do ask me about my son.
A few weeks ago, I received a text from my cousin with a photo of her with my son when he was four months old. She had flown from California to Virginia to support us during his chemotherapy treatments. In the picture, my son is propped on a Boppy, and she’s crouched, smiling, next to him.
She said she hesitated to share the photo, worrying it might upset me. But, living in the balance of grief and joy, I was also elated. She was grateful to have met him, and the message reminded me that my son is important in other people’s lives, not just mine.
I love talking about my son as much as I do my daughter. Even though my child isn’t present, I still want to share him with the world.
Ask me about all my children. Nothing lights me up more.
Don’t try to fix it.
I say this with love, from one problem solver to another: except for when specifically asked, do not try to fix anything. I understand offering advice. It’s terrible watching someone you love in pain and wanting help. But, there is no fixing what happened to me — unless you know how to raise the dead.
Being an overzealous fixer, I have failed to heed this advice. After my son’s passing, I connected with a fantastic therapist who gave me specific tools for surviving without him. Around the same time, I had coffee with a friend going through a rough patch. I couldn’t help myself. Instead of being an active listener, I offered one suggestion after the other. I thought I had found the path to enlightenment and could end all her suffering. Once I climbed down from the mountain top, I realized how intrusive my actions were and called to apologize. I offered my ear, and not my mouth.
There is power in listening and offering a safe space for tears, hugs, and the sometimes silent acknowledgment that life is unfair.
I would happily live a half-life to see my son again, but I can’t bring him back. The unspoken notion is that after the first year, the griever is on their way to recovery. Life moves on, but grief moves too. Two years later, his loss still feels like a flashing neon vacancy sign reminding me he’s no longer here.
I had to fill the gap left by his passing. My partner and I co-founded Rawr for Kian, a non-profit dedicated to furthering pediatric cancer research and supporting families in treatment. We have the opportunity to offer specific help by delivering meals to families, asking about people’s children, living or not … and silently acknowledging that life is unfair.
This year between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, follow Rawr for Kian on Instagram where the community will share practical, laughable, and honest ways to support caregivers and grieving parents.
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