To protect their privacy, I won't give his name or exact details of his death, but he died accidentally, just kids being kids. No one really at fault, just a freak accident, a bolt out of the blue. It was unexpected and devastating.
This death affected me so strongly; I'm not quite sure why. Obviously there is tremendous sadness and empathy for parents whenever a child dies; it's just something that seems so wrong and so contrary to what the natural order of things should be. And who could be unaffected by the pain of parents losing a child? Yet it seemed to have deeper echoes for me.
Intellectually, I know the fact that it fell near the first anniversary of the death of a member of our own extended family amplified the sorrow I felt. I was already raw and bracing myself for the anniversary of that death; to suddenly have this death happen so close to that was even more overwhelming.
And because our school is a very small, closely-knit community, this death echoed more deeply than it might have elsewhere. This child had older siblings who are in classes with my own children. I've worked with these siblings in special activities. We see them at school functions constantly.
In fact, we saw them the night before the accident at a school function, and I think that amplified the sudden nature of it all. We had just seen him happy and playing and romping about like everyone else the night before, only to get a call the next morning that he was dead.
The timing of it all just emphasized the fickleness of fate and how quickly things can change at any time, for anyone. As parents, we try to live in denial of that---an understandable coping mechanism---but this brought home that lesson very quickly and very hard, and made us all feel that much more insecure in our own lives.
Perhaps the strongest factor in my own grief was the fact that I too have a little one, not quite the same age as this boy but close enough. In fact, they might have been classmates eventually. Losing him was like vicariously losing my own youngest and most vulnerable child. It ramped up my fears and made me paranoid, wondering what unavoidable disaster was around the corner, waiting for my little one, waiting to break my heart. The grief and fear of that still lives with me, even now.
And oh, the sadness of it all was so hard. We went and sat with the family the next day, visiting with them, bringing them food for the freezer, etc. The issue of pictures really hit me the night of his death.....Oh my God, they now have all the pictures of this beloved child that they will EVER have.....so I spent a bunch of time searching out any images of this child from our own photos, enlarging and framing them for the family. They were only images from the backgrounds of other photos, nothing really good, but I figured if it were me I'd want ANY image I could get, anything more to remember him by.
One of the most heart-wrenching things was sitting with the mother, going through all her pictures of her little one. We were smiling over some of the pictures, reliving some happy moments, when she said sadly that she kept looking at pictures of him over and over again, trying to remember what he looked like in life instead of what he looked like in death. She was the one who held him in her arms as he died, and she said that all she could see now when she thought of him were all his injuries and what he looked like with them. She hoped that someday, if she looked at enough pictures of him from life again, she'd remember those healthy-and-alive images instead of the images of blood and trauma. Oh God, that just broke my heart. Imagine having trouble remembering your child whole.
So I write this in memory of this little boy, to honor him and everything his family has gone through. I honor the fact that they have made it through the first year, despite a health crisis in the father, difficult moments for all the siblings, and such soul-crushing loss for the mother that she almost seemed to waste away in front of our eyes for a while.
I am pleased that they are beginning to regain some sense of balance again, though I know their grief will always be with them and there is still much work to do. Sometimes the second year is harder than the first, because the denial and the shock and the magical thinking start to wear off and you are only left with the stark realities of the loss. We will do all we can to be there for them, but in the end of course, no one can walk this journey for them. They must find the way themselves, their own unique way of grieving, their own way of honoring and remembering this precious little boy.
I woke up early this morning, unable to sleep for thinking about this. It was a year ago it all happened, and we will be going to a memorial/celebration of his life this weekend, so I'm sure that's why it's so on my mind. But also, I recently ran across a post at the blog, The True Face of Birth, linking to an essay about death and loss by Robbie Davis-Floyd, a birth activist and author. It certainly echoed and focused the thoughts that were already on my mind as we approached this anniversary.
Davis-Floyd's own daughter, her eldest child, died just short of her 21st birthday. She died in a car accident on her way home to celebrate her birthday with her family. Davis-Floyd wrote this essay several years after the loss to describe her own perspectives on birth and death and on living with loss.
Twenty years and 361 days later, after diapers and walking, blissful breastfeeding, chauffering her to gymnastics and dance lessons, and sharing her joys and sorrows late at night while she poured out her heart to me from behind the shower curtain, I stood by her body in the hospital room, surrounded it with my arms, and poured out my own heart to her corpse. She had been dead for 22 hours, but my mother’s heart could not believe that I could not call her back until I tried. I talked, I screamed, I sobbed, I begged her to live and breathe again. I told her I could not live without her. I touched every part of her body and begged the skin to twitch, the head to turn, the legs to move--anything to show me that this wasn’t reality, that this inert but gorgeous body lying in front of me was not really lifeless, that those stunning dancer’s legs were never going to plié again, that those graceful hands would never again arc, that those lips would not move to kiss mine or to smile, that her voice would never again say, "Mommy."
...I have been happy all my life, living out of a deep wellspring of joy bubbling up within me. When Peyton died, I lost that deep bubbling happiness--it comes back now only in fleeting moments all the more precious for their scarcity. I have a wonderful son, many friends, and a fulfilling career. But I have lost the very most precious thing in my life, and no platitudes about how I will see her again in heaven, or we will be united past this life, or she is always with me in spirit (which I know to be true) can alleviate for more than a little while the exquisite agony I always feel about her death. I thought I knew the meaning of suffering before she died--I had already experienced a good deal of pain and loss in my life--but I had absolutely no clue what real suffering was.
The rest of Davis-Floyd's essay can be found here. I highly recommend reading it, but you should know ahead of time that it's a hard read. She graphically describes seeing her daughter's body after the car accident, spending time with its wounds, washing the body and cleaning it up, but she also describes the things that she and others did that helped her along her way in those first days of shock and grief.As painful as this essay is, it's also powerful and even healing. I sobbed and had to take a few breaks to get through it, but it was profound and deeply-affecting reading. I know that many people will not follow the link and read it (and if you are in a fragile or vulnerable place, feel free not to), but I hope some people will go there and check it out, because really, who among us will not experience the death of a loved one at some point? Or the death of a friend's loved one?
It's an amazing essay, gut-wrenching but also thoughtful and ultimately affirming. She concludes:
When I gave birth to my son at home, I learned the power of surrender to the tremendous force of life. Now I am learning the power of surrender to the tremendous reality of death. May these two kinds of surrender balance and sustain me, teach me to let go of my fight to understand, and embrace the paradoxes my life encompasses. Like a mother who has just had the courage to give birth without knowing who her child will become, I am here, not knowing who I will become, but open, cracked wide open, to whatever life may bring.
There is a saying that is passed around so often on the internet that it has become trite and mundane, yet there's a reason why it's become so well-circulated---it speaks to a universal truth. I am reminded of it in this situation:
"Making a decision to have a child- it's momentous. It is to decide to have your heart go walking around outside your body." Elizabeth Stone
Yup, it really is like that. You feel THAT vulnerable. And yet, think of all the beautiful and wonderful things you would have missed had that child not been a part of your life. It is the greatest blessing that can be given to us, which is why it can be the greatest grief that happens to us too.
The capacity for joy is also the same capacity for loss, and it's so hard to acknowledge that double-edged sword. It's why pregnant women feel so vulnerable, it's why we check our baby's breathing 4,972 times a night, it's why reading about other people's losses is difficult, and it's why watching another family go through your greatest fear is so incredibly hard.
God grant strength and healing to our friends who are mourning their little boy this week, God grant peace to all families who have experienced such a loss, and God grant strength and wisdom to all of us who fear such a loss and must watch others endure it.