A dear, close friend asked me the other day, “Where are you with your grief?” It is rare that anyone asks me so pointedly about my grief since our adopted son, Grant, died unexpectedly, since our daughter, Catherine, was born premature and did not survive, since our previous attempts at starting a family ended in miscarriages. It is rare that anyone will raise all that ugliness. Most are relieved to think that we’re getting on fine and that things are better now, maybe even back to before. The typical avoidance is symptomatic of their discomfort, not really in the interest of protecting our hearts. There is no shelter from the pain of losing a child.
I read recently on this site about “re-mapping” our lives, altering the journey so that somehow we can continue to move forward. We build a different life than we imagined and – at least – we haven’t wholly shriveled up and died.
Five months ago, my wife and I showed great resolve and courage and adopted another son. Bradley is happy, healthy, and has brought so much joy to our world.
My friend continued in his inquiry with, “how has the relationship with your son impacted your grief?” And I thought about that a lot. Has it healed me? (No.) Has it distracted me? (Yes.) Has it made me more guarded? (Perhaps.) Has it given me hope? (I think so.)
The truth is that our infant son requires constant care, love, and attention. That cannot be denied – denied to him or, perhaps more importantly, denied from us. To realize our dream of a family we had to face our greatest fears and commit to love. That’s not to say we’re not paralyzed with anxiety sometimes. How could we not be? But we have re-mapped and there is a path before us. And so, we’ll make our way in that direction – forever changed, but not hopelessly broken.
The other piece of that relationship is that sometimes there is terrific guilt. It’s easy to be critical of yourself that you could even possibly re-map a life with so much devastation in the past. You ask yourself, does living today in the present deny the significance of those precious lost lives?
To many it may look like we’re all better, that our grief is over. (If only!) I’m sure they’re relieved and happy for us. I appreciate the sentiment, even if it is misguided. We’re who we are as parents today because of Grant, Catherine, and our unborn children. Our love for Bradley encompasses the wholeness of our experience.
I’m so grateful to have an understanding friend who recognizes the complex layers of grief and life, of pain and love, of both honoring and taking steps forward – baby steps. I’m touched that he actually asked and more that he listened. I hope you have that kind of support in your life. What’s that question for you – one that’s been asked or one that hopefully will be – the one that gets to the heart of your journey?
By Thom Gonyeau
“I Can’t Breathe”
I have my blog set up to send me an email every time a new comment is posted. I do this so I can make sure there are not inappropriate or hurtful things being posted. A couple of weeks ago I was sitting at my desk when a notification popped up to let me know a new comment was posted from a fellow grieving dad. I gave it a quick once over since I was at work and wouldn’t get a chance to really review it until I got home that evening. There were several paragraphs of text, but the following statement really stood out to me:
“I feel like I am walking around under water; everything is muffled and blurry and I can’t breathe.”
I caught myself mumbling the words “fuck, I know that feeling” under my breath when I read it. Just reading those words took me right back to those days I felt like that. I remember those days when no matter how hard I tried, I could not shake those feelings. This feeling of being “underwater” and everything seems muffled sounded very familiar to me. In fact, I wrote about these similar feelings when I first sat down to right my book Grieving Dads: To the Brink and Back. I went back to my original writing files and found some text that never made it into my book for whatever reason. I think it’s powerful and it captures how I felt about these “muffled” feelings:
The loss of a child permeates every aspect of your life. Your world becomes turned upside down. Things you thought were important are no longer. Everything you thought was under your control isn’t.
It’s like being dropped deep into a body of water blindfolded at night, you are alone and in complete silence except for what you hear in your head, you just don’t know which way is up. The fear sets in and you start to experience psychological and physical symptoms you may have never felt before. Fear turns to panic as you try to make sense of it all, grasping for help. Your nervous system has been impacted with almost irreversible damage, trauma, I’ve heard it described. Call it what you will, it doesn’t change the way you feel inside.
After you lose a child, you may no longer recognize the person in the mirror. You look vaguely familiar in physical features only. The look you see in your own eyes displays so much pain, pain that no one on the street recognizes and if they do, they haven’t inquired. That would make them to uncomfortable.
Some people close to you become concerned. They say things like “you just have to get over this”. In return you ask them “Would you get over it if your child died?” They stare at you with a blank look, offended that you would even ask such a question. If you have lost a child, you know this isn’t something you get over. Only those that have lost a child can understand the depths in which this pain travels.
It’s been a couple of years since I have read these 3-4 paragraphs, but just reading them takes me back to when I was writing them and trying my best to provide a glimpse to a non-bereaved parent what this journey feels like. Although the journey and pain can never be captured in words, I think it does paint a picture of what it might feel like for those that hopefully will never have to know.
Can you relate with this topic? If so, please explain how.
The following was sent to me by a fellow grieving dad. I really like this posting because it is an example of someone that is showing signs of healing, but stills carries the pain of losing a child. He is transforming from the deep darkness where many of us have been and where some still live.
“Reflect on the Love”
In less than a month it will be 5 years since my son Kieran died. I never thought I could survive to this point, but I have. I still experience the acute pain that comes with having a child die but I can also allow myself to remember the happiness he brought to me and our family. The happiness is what brings on the flood of tears, not the pain I live with. I am glad that his smile and the things that made him special to me allows me to cry through the pain of not having him here. I know the tears and the release they bring are tears of love and joy.
As a strong minded and independent 17 year old boy he never had a problem with giving me a hug and saying I love you. As a dad you hope that you can teach your children how to be a good person, but sometimes your child without trying makes you a better person. I feel like Kieran did that for me. It’s taken some time since his death for me to realize the influence he had on me, because I have been so busy grieving. I know I will never stop grieving but I hope I can balance the grief with joy of having Kieran as my son.
5 years is a “milestone”, but then I think every day is a milestone. Another day I have survived without him here with me. Another day I can reflect on the love we have for each other.
When I was a boy I would look forward to my dad coming home. No matter how tired he was from work he would always muster the energy to play catch during baseball season or throw the football around in football season. Those are great memories that I carry with me to this day. I had the opportunity to be the head coach of a football team in our local league. As the coach Kieran was assigned to my team. I always made sure we got to the field a little early so we could throw the ball around before the rest of the team arrived. I felt this would give him memories that he would someday pass on to his son. Little did I know that I was the one who would have these memories from my son, that he would never live long enough to have his own son to play catch with.
It still doesn’t seem real to me that he died, but the reality is he did and I will try to live the rest of my life making him proud of me.