Friday, October 2, 2015

From One Grieving Parent to Another

Yesterday the horror that most people felt at what happened in Oregon was a passing thing.

It was disgust and anger that yet again something in our system had gone wrong. Grief that innocent lives had been lost.

It was a rallying cry for gun supporters ("If everyone had concealed carry this wouldn't have happened.") and advocates of more gun control ("He shouldn't have been able to get a gun or get it into a classroom.") and for those who realize our nation's mental health system is badly broken ("Someone should have seen the warning signs and he shouldn't have wanted to get a gun into a classroom."). The world looked at it in horror. There were prayers and candles and for most of the world, this morning life went on.

But for the parents of the young people who died yesterday, life will never be the same.

Although I'm ususally sensitive to these things in my community -- car crashes, cancers and other diseases that claim young lives -- it didn't really hit me until a fellow griever on Facebook posted a picture of a candle.

Then, as they say, the chickens came home to roost. Suddenly I was feeling, just as I have dozens of times since my son died, the waves of sorrow I know they were all feeling. I sat in my living room thousands of miles away from the scene of loss and cried. How would I answer his question?

What would I want to know? Instead of the platitudes from people who've never lost a child, or had a sudden out of sequence loss, what would I want to be told?

And this is what I've come up with for the parents of those lost yesterday (or any other day).

I know how you feel. No matter what anyone says, only a parent who has lost a child can ever comprehend the place you are at right now. The best people for you to talk to are other grieving parents. Not those who have just lost a child like you because you're all hurting too much to help one another, but those people you may have known for years and always been thankful you didn't have this in common with. They will be your best friends in the coming months because they know. They understand and they will listen to you repeat the same litany of pain over and over because they know.

Nothing prepares you for this. You've survived other losses and you can survive this one, but nothing has given you even partial immunity to this pain. Just accept that. Don't wonder why you feel the way you do. Why losing other loved ones didn't give you some perspective on this. Even if your child had been suffering a fatal illness, you couldn't have been prepared for the reality of loss. To lose them suddenly is like having gravity disappear. There is no frame of reference and no way to prepare yourself.

You cannot change what happened. No matter what tragedy took your child's life, you cannot change the past. You can repeatedly grapple with the what ifs, but don't let them consume you. There will be times when that's all you can think about, so don't get too aggravated at yourself. Life is full of what ifs and these are big ones.

This is your grief, no one else's. No one can put a limit on how you grieve or how long except you. (I metaphorically put my grief away sometimes when I cannot let it overwhelm me, like pushing it down into a box and sitting on the lid. Eventually I have to let it out, but there are days and times when I cannot deal with it and so I don't. Other times I cannot get it to leave me alone and I cry as though my son had just been found dead.) You will NEVER get over this and you shouldn't. You will have good days when you catch yourself and feel guilty because you aren't sad and maybe haven't been for a little while. Don't. Your grief will come back. At the same time, your child would want you to laugh and be happy again. If anyone tells you differently, don't listen. They obviously don't know what they are talking about.

Every relationship in your life will be tested by this. Your relationship with your spouse, your God, your friends and the rest of your family. No, this is not what you want to think about now, but it's the reality. Your dead child is always with you and some people cannot deal with that. It's hard to resume intimacy. You cry and people don't want to deal with tears. Whoever stays with you through this is really there for you. Treasure them and hold on to them. Also be aware that you'll make new relationships out of this. Those fellow grieving parents may become people who not only prop you up now, but understand and still care in six months or a year.

It's OK to question God. He's big enough to take it and He feels our pain. He had a son who died. It was not His choice that our children died, but the world and the choices of people in it. Yes, there were times I railed against Him because I had prayed for a different outcome, but I didn't get it. I told my son "no" many times and it didn't mean I didn't love him or desire to give him everything he wanted. I had to accept that from my God as well. If your faith survives this, it will be stronger and it will help you through. I've accepted that this life is just a little piece of who we are and what we're meant for and I know Ethan has gone on to the next phase.

Take care of yourself. Your child cared about you and would want you to do that, beyond anything else. You're fragile and need to be treated that way for a while. I felt like I needed a t-shirt that proclaimed it to the world because some times I walked through the grocery store crying. That's just how life is going to be for a while.

Survival is your choice. You have to choose to keep living, not just breathing, but living. You don't have to make that choice for a while but eventually you will. Right now you can sit in the dark, or stay in bed. You can do without food and take medication to sleep. Whatever you need to get through right now is ok as long as you realize that this probably shouldn't be the way you spend the rest of your life. There are other people who love you and need you in their lives -- even if you don't even know them yet. Eventually you have to decide how you are going to live for them. Try to find a healthy habit and keep living, find your voice and your life again and be the person your child would have wanted you to be.

In the months to come, there may be days or weeks when you hurt as bad as you do right now. No, you don't want to hear that either, but it's true. There will always be a hole in your heart that no doctor can see or heal, but you learn to live with it to some degree. What helped me was my blog, which became a sort of shared journal and I would encourage you to keep a journal. Pour out your pain when no one else wants to hear it. As time passes you can use your journal to measure your healing -- or determine that you're stalled out and need help if it comes to that. Eventually start to look for something good every day, even if it's something little. I found that helped me tremendously to realize that everything was not the dark cloud that it felt like sometimes.

Although it's your grief, don't try to get through it alone. Whatever took your child (mine was drug addiction), deep down you share a connection with anyone else who has lost a child because your heartache is different from anyone else's. You lost not only your present, but your future and the dreams you had for your child. At the same time, you share a connection with anyone who has suffered loss, when you feel strong enough to recognize it. Spend time with people who will really listen and hear you, shore each other up for going on with life, and allow yourself to hug and love and smile again.

Life will never be the same, but it's up to you how to live it.