I’ve spent the last month with family and close friends, which has done me a lot of good, but the conversations kept turning to all the losses among my family and friends this last year.
Beginning in mid-July with the sudden death of a lifelong friend, I have lost nine people — to cancer, to other long-term illnesses, to sudden illnesses, heart attacks and advanced age.
But last night, my son and I talked at length about my younger son, who died 11 years ago from lack of access to health care.
“I miss him a lot,” my son said. “Even now, after 11 years. Sometimes it seems longer, but more often, it seems like just yesterday I heard him make some inappropriate wise crack and then laugh.”
Danny is still in touch with some of the people Mike helped to get and stay sober, and most maintain their sobriety. They miss his wisdom, compassion, kindness and his wildly inappropriate sense of humor.
We wish he could have lived to know his niece’s daughter, Reaghan, to see his nieces and nephew grow up, to watch his beloved Yankees play, to steal all the blueberries.
Reaghan and I picked about half a pint of blueberries yesterday, but then we bought another pint so she could just eat them with cream and a little sugar — the way Mike used to — and I could still have enough for a peach and blueberry cobbler.
Even after 11 years, Danny and I cried over his absence. Even after 11 years, too many things bring me to tears and my grief is still as raw as the day he died.
After 11 years, some people tell me, I should be over it.
These are people who haven’t lost a child. These are people who’ve never had the breath knocked out of them by a flashback of sitting at their child’s bedside, wishing they could be the ones dying, because living without your child is worse than dying.
It is a heartbreak that doesn’t end, and I don’t particularly want it to.
Someone gave me a book a year ago that supposedly helps with grief. I’m sure it would have helped when my sister died, but not my son. The first chapter was all about how this book would help me get over my grief. I closed it and returned it to my friend.
“Did it help?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said. “It made me realize that there is no help. It made me understand that this is normal now because a piece of me is missing and can’t be replaced.”
There is nothing wrong with not getting over the death of a child. It is the very worst thing that can happen to a person, and you just don’t heal from that.
Our children are supposed to outlive us; that’s the natural order of things. Most of us go through life blissfully unaware that our children really might die before we do, and when it happens, we never recover.
And too often, people who think they’re being helpful say the wrong thing.
“He’s in a better place now …” “God needed another angel …” You have another child (or grandchildren) …” “He’d want you to get over it.”
That last one is a killer for me. I know my son. He knew me well enough to realize I would never heal, and he encouraged me to use my pain to work for change. He also loved being the center of attention. I can almost feel his presence every time I tell his story.
A childhood friend lost her son a couple of years ago to the opioid menace, and that very night, she was talking to the TV cameras about opioids and addiction.
My friend, Cindy Sheehan has used to pain from her son’s death in Iraq to fuel a peace movement.
Another friend in Minnesota, Nicole Holt-Smith has turned her son’s death from insulin deprivation (even with insurance, he couldn’t afford what he needed) into a movement to cap drug prices and/or allow people to buy insulin in Canada.
Still another friend whose son was murdered has spent decades working for a nonprofit that mentors at-risk youth to prevent them from entering lives of crime.
This is our therapy. Don’t ever tell us to stop because we can’t. This is what gives our lives meaning. This work for justice is the manifestation of our grief, and we don’t want to get over it.
If you want to know the right thing to say to a parent whose child has died, try this: “I’m so sorry. Tell me about him.”
Talking about our children keeps them alive to us. When my stepbrother, Marc, died in 1980, people avoided talking about him to my stepmother, who, at a family gathering, finally said, “I need to talk about him. It might make me cry, but if we don’t talk about him, if we don’t remember him and laugh about his jokes and cry about his absence, then he really is dead.”
When others experience the loss of a child, I have to be honest with them. I have to tell them they won’t get over it, that it won’t get easier, but that, with time, they will become more adept at living with the grief.
So, if you know someone who has lost a child, please, please don’t suggest they get over it, move on, be happy again … It really isn’t helpful at all.
I’m told July is Bereaved Parents’ Month. It seems like a good time to educate people about what we live with and how they can help by not making it worse.