It was neither voluntary nor temporary.
I've taken day or weekend classes here at Grief University before - failed relationships, two heartbreaking miscarriages, the death of an uncle, grandparents, a great friend, a precious aunt. But after losing my child, it's permanent. I am here for the long haul.
I am new to this kind of learning. I'm definitely a freshman here. There are so many things I don't know. I have so much to study. Books to read. A whole language that I'm just learning. Everyone enrolled here learns something. However, because we each have different kinds of loss, different personal histories & experiences, it's not always the same thing. So - here's some of the things I have learned in the almost 3 months since I've been permanently enrolled:
- Timeline myth. No one puts a limit on the amount of JOY you have when your child is born. How can you put a limit on the amount of GRIEF you have when your child dies? Every time I am reminded of the missing joy in our lives, I feel a deep sting of that grief. Every time I see a baby boy Link's age, doing the things Link would be doing, I feel it. You look at my grandmother, who lost her 7-year-old son almost FIFTY years ago, and still cries when she talks about him - you talk to her and then you tell me that grief has an end in this life. Here is a quote shared from a couple of friends who have lost children:
Grief is not linear. People kept telling me that once this happened or that passed, everything would be better. Some people gave me one year to grieve. They saw grief as a straight line, with a beginning, middle, and end. But it is not linear. It is disjointed. One day you are acting almost like a normal person. You may even manage to take a shower. Your clothes match. You think the autumn leaves look pretty, or enjoy the sound of snow crunching under your feet.Then a song, a glimpse of something, or maybe even nothing sends you back into the hole of grief. It is not one step forward, two steps back. It is a jumble. It is hours that are all right, and weeks that aren't. Or it is good days and bad days. Or it is the weight of sadness making you look different to others and nothing helps. Not haircuts or manicures or the Atkins Diet....Grief doesn't have a plot. It isn't smooth. There is no beginning and middle and end. -Ann Hood
Another quote I love & identify with (from Mitchell's journey):
There are many well-meaning people, as if to throw an emotional lifeline, who try to remind us life is but a “speck” in the eternal scheme of things. Or that they’re sorry for our “temporary loss” as if the wave of a hand and a simple utterance will assuage our sorrow. And while I understand the eternal nature of the soul – being mortal, life is the longest thing I know. The years ahead seem to stretch out into infinity and seem so very long without my son. I miss him terribly.
-Guilt and Grief are no respecters of time. People tell me to let go of the "what ifs" - and I do strive for that, but it is harder than you could ever image. The feelings of guilt attack me at any time of the day or night. I could be sweeping the floor or trying to get the girls to bed & the thoughts will come "what if I would have not swaddled his arms? He would not have rolled and he'd still be here!" "what if I would have checked on him 5, 10, 15 minutes earlier? He would probably still be alive!" - and on and on. I know that these thoughts do not accomplish anything. I know they aren't really healthy. But I will also tell you that they are HARD to control. Grief is the same way. Washing Dishes. Sitting at church. Getting the girls out to the car to go someplace. Driving. It doesn't matter where - sometimes my mind goes back to that day and the same all-consuming shock, despair, incomprehension and sickness overtake me. And I am left helpless & dysfunctional. I do not understand why it happened any more today than I did on that day.
-Outward way to show inner grieving. Some days I wish we lived in a culture where for a period of time we had some sort of outward display to show that someone very precious to us had died. A black shawl over the face. A special pin. I don't know. It was - and still is - hard to be around people that don't know that I've lost a child. The light-hearted laughter. The joking and talking of trivial things. Especially in the first days, it was almost oppressive. It would also be nice to have that outward display, just so people could have an understanding of why you might be short with them - or not be able to remember something - or cry at seemingly anything - or be unreasonably angry at something small. And it might help them refrain from judging when you walk around town without makeup with three little girls who don't have their hair brushed. Also, as I have met more and more angel moms, I realize how many people around me on any given day may be going through deep grieving and I may have been insensitive to them and what they are going through.
-Mourning Brain. The inability to process or remember things. It is at least TEN times more severe than pregnancy or new-mom brain. It's worse in the first days and weeks, but I still struggle with it. This was definitely something new that I've learned since I've been enrolled here. I had no idea how all-encompassing grief was - not only to your body, but to your brain. It was (and sometimes is) just SO difficult to make any sort of decisions through this thick fog of grief. To remember things. That's why it's seriously amazing to me how many decisions the bereaved are expected to make in such a short period of time. Choosing a casket? Picking out a plot? Putting together a slideshow or program? It was ALL I could do to push through that fog and make a decision about anything. There were many times I just couldn't do it & waved my hand & said "whatever you think is best."
-Different Person. I love the quote “The moment a child is born, the mother is also born. She never existed before. The woman existed, but the mother, never. A mother is something absolutely new.” How very true. And it is the same way for losing a child. Just as I changed and became a new person the minute my first child was born, I changed and became a new person the minute my last child died. I am not the same person that I was on March 25th. I am now a bereaved mother. I live in a different world. In this world, your children can and DO die. In this world, anxiety and fear about losing another child can take over your thoughts and actions. In this world, your innocence is gone. You don't laugh at the same jokes. You don't listen to the same song in the same way - everything has a different context. In this world, things that might have brought you joy, now bring you pain.
-NEED to talk about him & hear his name! Probably the most surprising thing I've learned since I've been enrolled is the absolute NEED to talk about Link and hear his name! I have had friends that have lost children and I always assumed that bringing up the person that died would bring them more pain and heartache, so I would avoid it, but OH - how wrong I was! And I am so sorry to every person I know that has lost someone dear to them & I didn't talk about them! I don't think it's the same for everyone, but for ME, it's the NOT talking about Link that brings me pain. I LOVE to talk about him! I want to tell you about his bright blue eyes. I want to tell you about his hospital journey. I want to tell you how he laughed and smiled and brought more joy into this family than I thought was possible. If you come to my home, I want to show you his book, show you our "Link wall" and share some favorite memories. I even need to tell you about how Link died. I know - so strange that I should want to talk about it - but I do! It's all been a part of his journey. And his name. I said this on Facebook, but I'll add it again here: "When we keep the names of our children silent they die a second death." -Mitch Carmody. I have so much gratitude to all of you who continue to use Link's name! When I hear my son's name, it's like sweet, precious food to this starving mother's soul. Hearing his name. Talking about him. It validates his existence here on the earth and brings joy to me.
-Sleeping is not peaceful. In general, I think it's true that most people who have lost a precious person to them - especially a child - do not find sleep peaceful. There might be bad dreams. Or tossing & turning. Or just that the deep, blissful sleep you once knew is gone. But on a more personal level, it has become something terrifying for me. Finding Link dead after he was supposed to be sleeping has been the most traumatic experience of my life. And now, I do not see my sleeping children as a sweet, blissful, thankful time anymore. My heart pounds and I dread going to wake them up after a nap or in the morning. I see them in bed & no longer do I smile and just cherish the moment. Instead, with panic in my heart, I come close and check the color of their face. I feel their cheeks to see if they're still warm. I watch the rise and fall of their chests to make sure that they still have the breath of life. My brother sent me a text the other day of Kezia sleeping. Instead of thinking how sweet it was, it brought fear into my heart. Is she okay? was all I could think of. Because... in my world... your children can go to sleep and never wake up.
-The Glass. I know this is going to be a lifetime struggle - and right now I think I'm focusing more on the glass half empty. I'm focusing more on the time I DIDN'T get to have with him rather than being thankful for the time I DID get with him. That fluctuates. But I hope one day, I will consistently see that glass half full and my heart will swell with gratitude just that I got to carry him, deliver him, kiss him, spend precious time with him and even see a few milestones before he left us. I will be grateful that he came to our family and changed us forever and motivated us to be better people. One day, instead of staring at that mom holding that baby boy with longing and ache in my heart, I will focus more on the three beautiful daughters beside me and my heart will be full.
-GOOD People. Some people here have been enrolled for a LONG time - like my Grandma. I'm sure she has earned her doctorate degree many times over - though I don't think any of us really "graduate" until we die ourselves. Sometimes I feel like this university is on the other side of the world. On March 26th, I felt like someone plucked me up and set me down in Siberia and said "Okay - now you need to survive." But I did not know anything about that country. I didn't know the language. I didn't know where to find food. I didn't know how to survive. How thankful I am for people who have been here and have held my hand and showed me how to survive in this world. Lena, Robyn, Gayla, Molly, Anna, Andrea, my grandma, the ladies in the SHARE group here - just to name a few. As we have gone to the temple and prayed & fasted, I have thought much about Eve. She was the first woman on the earth to lose a child. A son. And in such a horrible way. There was no one there who had been through it before to hold her hand and teach her how to walk and breathe and survive through this grief. I am forever thankful for the women who have, with sadness and love in their hearts, welcomed me to this dreaded club. I am also so thankful for the people who really try to understand what it's like over here - true sympathy. One of those amazing people is my sister, Cindy. She has not let a day go by without calling or texing & asking "how are you feeling right now?" "how is your heart?" She asks me specific questions about what I'm going through & I truly feel her love and concern for me.
This is only a tiny part of what I continue to learn. I feel myself growing in ways I had never imagined. It's a little ironic, but I compare this process to natural childbirth. It's stretching. It's so very, very painful. And there comes a point where I scream "I CAN'T DO THIS!" over and over. And - in every fiber of my being - I truly believe that I can't do it. That I've expended every molecule of energy that I have. That I will die if I have to endure one second more. But, just like my midwife, the Lord knows my abilities more than I do myself. And at the end of the labor process, you hold your baby and you realize that something good came from all that pain. I don't get to hold my baby, but I hope that one day I will hold this precious knowledge, this growth in my heart and I will know that something good did indeed come from all this pain & anguish.