Each mother who has lost a child has a unique path to healing. And, despite what some may tell us or wish for us, healing will never mean letting go and moving on.
For a grieving mother healing involves finding a way to walk with our grief while somehow holding the child we lost in our arms, until they become absorbed into our skin and bone, our breath and heartbeat. Forever with us; forever part of us. Re-wombed, sheltered from harm, safe.
I recommend this post below – A mothers’ day manifesto.
In life there are times and events where we find our own pain triggered by someone else’s. Witnessing their sorrow rekindles the tender place inside us where our own sorrow is held. For me the event today was the memorial service in the hospital for a young nurse killed by a random shooting in New Orleans. I sat with her parents and her teenage daughter in the front row. The daughter was handling the moment well, sharing video clips of her puppy before the service began. Her grief remained hidden for the most part. Too intense to process publically, perhaps. Her parents were more in touch with their grief and that is why, after the service, I went to my office and cried. I too have lost an adult child. I wanted to tell them, “me too.” But that wasn’t appropriate. No one can ever know the actual pain of another’s grief, however similar the cause. And it wouldn’t be of any comfort to them to let them know that they will still be hurting after 14 years.
This is one thing that chaplaincy has taught me: when someone else shares their story we should not take it as an opportunity to share ours. The problem is, this is the default response most of us have in our conversations. We wait for the tiniest of pauses while the other person takes a breath and we jump in with our tale of woe. That is not to say we don’t have legitimate pain, but we need to respect the person who is opening up to us in that moment and give them the space to share their hurts. And when the time and context is right we need to share our story, but with someone else who is not in the midst of new grief.
I was shown this prayer by a chaplain colleague. We were lamenting the fact that people feel the need to offer platitudes to the grieving: “It was God’s will.” “There is a Plan.” And we both agreed that if all that happens is indeed because God willed it, then we cannot believe in God, or at least in that God. Because how do you tell the parents of a 3 month old that just died that her suffering and death was God’s will, and then in the next breath expect them to pray to that God for strength?
They say there is a reason, They say that time will heal, But neither time nor reason, Will change the way I feel, For no-one knows the heartache, That lies behind our smiles, No-one knows how many times, We have broken down and cried, We want to tell you something, So there won’t be any doubt, You’re so wonderful to think of, But so hard to be without.
It’s been 12 years now. 12 years. Half as long as the lifeMalcolmlived.And as the anniversary of his suicideapproaches,I am swept under, overwhelmed – again. Last year was especially bad – I went under for 5 weeks and had a slow return to functioning. This year I made it all the way to a week before the date.But I am struggling now.
The dreams begana week ago, stupid,“bad” Mum dreams:Malcolmis in grade school anddoesn’t have the rightuniformto start the yearbecause I forgot to shopover the summer; I forget his birthday andmy in-lawsturn upfor a partyand I haven’t done anything toprepare for it.There are lots of these dreams. Thingsthatnever happened but I must have worried aboutthemat some point. And the message is always: I wasn’t a good, or good enough, mother.
Along with the dreams are sudden memories, associations with places and events that hit me with an emotional punch:likebeing at the grocery and rememberingthe time he tipped overa full grocery basket by doing a wheelie and getting thecart’swheels stuck in a drain. I got so mad and scared that he had hurt himself. ButI fussed at him when I should have shown him concern.I couldn’t even go to that grocery store for a whole year.I still feel such guilt when I pass that spot.Andthen there are memories Iask my husbandabout, “remember when Malcolm” … and he doesn’t remember,and I realize our memories are drifting away, drifting apart.
I have to go to work tomorrow andI want to takea photooff the wall and put it in my bag,thephotohe carried in his backpack and had next to him when he shot himself in the heart.
I want to talk about him to my friends, my coworkers,my support group,but how can I explain that the pain is still so intense – not every minute theway it was that first few months. Not every hour, the way it was that first year or two,or every day, evenevery week. But certainly, every birthday, every mother’s day, every Christmas, every Villarrubia summer vacation…everyMarch.
This morning was a regular morning, checking that I had turned off lights, fans, heater. Checking that I had my ID, watch, earrings. Checking to make sure I had used deodorant, that I had taken my morning meds. Never being a morning person, I have a little difficulty, more since losing my son.
This morning I felt the need to say goodbye to Malcolm and tell him to have a good day, and that I love him. These words were part of my morning ritual in the months before his death, because Malcolm had moved back home for Graduate School and in the mornings I left while he was getting up, his dad already gone for an hour or more. But on his last day of life I don’t remember saying “I love you.” That still hurts. So some days, like today, I tell him anyway. I like to think he hears me, and in my mind I hear his voice replying, “Bye Mum,” and I smile and my throat chokes up.
In the top drawer in my bedroom chest of drawers there is a packet of cigarettes. I tried to smoke one once. Bad idea, coughed like hell! So why do I have them? They were in my son’s backpack, the one the police brought to our house when they came to tell us – “We found his body.”
So they are a connection to him; he smoked some of this pack. And I can’t bring myself to get rid of them. But, you know, I don’t have to.
For those of you who are grieving – let go of things when you are ready; keep things that are most meaningful. And don’t ever feel you have to apologize for holding on to whatever you need. There are no rules, no time-lines. Be kind to yourself.
“Death and its aftermath is such a painful and disorienting time. I understand why people — both the griever and those witnessing grief — want some kind of road map, a clearly delineated set of steps or stages that will guarantee a successful end to the pain of grief. The truth is, grief is as individual as love: every life, every path, is unique. There is no predictable pattern, and no linear progression. Despite what many “experts” say, there are no stages of grief.”
“Grief is the natural response when someone you love is torn from your life. It is a natural process: a process of the heart being smashed and broken open, of reality shifting and hurling in place. It cares nothing for order or stages.
The truth is, you can’t force an order on pain. You can’t make it tidy or predictable. The stages of grief are a net thrown over a fogbank — they help neither to define nor contain.
To do grief “well” depends solely on individual experience. It means listening to your own reality. It means acknowledging pain and love and loss. It means allowing the truth of these things the space to exist without any artificial tethers or stages or requirements.
There is no set pattern, not for everyone and not even within each person. Each grief is unique, as each love is unique. There are no stages capable of containing all the experiences of love and pain. There are no stages of grief. “
Excerpted from “The 5 Stages of Grief and Other Lies That Don’t Help Anyone”
This March there was a completed suicide at my place of work. A young man a few years younger than Malcolm, and I hadn’t saved him. This event, coupled with the timing around Malcolm’s anniversary, sent me spiraling into the grief vortex.
I have chosen a profession where death is a daily occurrence and this recent depression made me question my choice. But the fact is most of the time I feel I make a positive contribution to the care of patients and families. Nonetheless, I have to work consistently at maintaining emotional boundaries, and there are some situations where I find myself triggered: the death of a young adult man, or when a man is sobbing at the bedside of a dying family member. Men’s tears, the sobbing body-wracked kind, move me incredibly. I want to comfort them. As I write this I realize that the only time in my life when I have witnessed a man’s profound, physical grief was watching my husband and my youngest son grieve for Malcolm.
Regardless of your chosen profession, when you have experienced a profound loss triggers are everywhere and daily living can seem like an emotional mine-field. It’s not just the special days like birthdays, anniversaries, vacation time, and religious holidays. It’s the daily news feed, the video clips on social media, Facebook “memories” that appear unbidden, and TV shows about families – the comedies as well as the dramas. And then there are the commercials: loving families, parents hugging their children – happiness, joy. When I first came to live in America I would get homesick and cry at the AT&T commercials, especially at Christmas time – lonely mothers waiting by the phone.
We can’t avoid all of these triggers, but we can make conscious choices to avoid the avoidable ones. I am a victim of childhood sexual abuse, so I choose to avoid Law and Order Special Victims Unit. But sometimes the theme of childhood abuse enters unexpectedly in TV shows and movies, and suicide and losing a child are sadly common themes.
I am trying to create better self-care. For one thing, I have promised my therapist that I will request coverage by another chaplain if a suicide attempt case surfaces at work. And I have to monitor my daily mood and provide myself with breaks at work. I tend to work through lunch and that needs to change. Today I am taking a break to write this blog post. To me that is a refreshing break, especially when coupled with mint tea.
My challenge to you is to examine your daily life and your calendar and identify potential triggers, then be proactive in creating emotional boundaries and providing yourself with support, breaks, healthy distractions, and self-nurturing.