Every once in a while I let my mind wander. I allow myself to imagine what it would be like if June 20, 2005 was erased from our family’s history. What would it be like to have a boy on the verge of being a teenager? Would he be taller than his oldest sister? Would his feet be huge? How much would I have to spend on groceries? Would he be playing football? or soccer? or trumpet? Would he still love hugs and to torture his older sisters?
For such a long time this picture represented the last happy day of my life. It took a really, really long time before I was happy again. This picture… this day still represents a naivety that will forever be gone. This was June 19. 2005. On June 20 my life was irreparably changed. No matter what we have done or do since, our family will have a pretty massive, jarring scar.
Like a lot of medical emergencies, grief starts out with a layer of numbing and sedation. That moment when you think the pain is pretty bad, but what you don’t realize is that the anesthesia hasn’t quite worn off yet. I remember talking to some loved ones a couple of days after they had lost their son. They told us that they thought that they were through the worst of it. My husband and I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the anesthesia still hadn’t worn off.
You know how there are some times when the doctor doesn’t sew you up? When the tissue is infected and they have to install tubes to drain stuff and leave your incision open to keep it flushed and clean. I think that might be the best visual for the next part of grief. Wide… Open… Gaping… Hole… Maybe even with some guts hanging out. There is no way to hide the pain. There is nothing that anyone can do or say that can fix it. It is something that truly has to heal from the inside out and people who are around have to accept that they are going to see the gross bits. The squeamish will inevitably fall away.
Excruciatingly, slowly, you begin to heal. By this time people are so ready for you to move on. Even the loyal people who have been by your side are growing weary. With all of the strength you can muster, you try to limp out into the world. People cheer on your progress. They look at your limp and tell you that it isn’t that bad, when they don’t realize how much effort it is taking just to get to that limp. This is a frustrating time. You are still in so much pain. You don’t really want to show it and other people don’t really want to see it anymore. I remember just not wanting to be sad anymore. I think that this is the period when most grieving people really start to wonder if things will ever turn around. You wonder if you will ever be able to feel happiness or joy again.
Ten years later, I would say that we have healed as completely as we ever will. I am not sure when we reached the healed point. It happens so slowly and there is no real finish line. There is just a point when you realize that you are happy again and most memories of your lost loved one are warm and happy and not brutally painful. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a pretty ugly scar, a scar that can still be tender to the touch. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments of pain still after all these years. That takes me back to where I started. It is only on a rare occasion that I let my mind go back to that time or I let myself consider what life would be like if our world had jumped over June 20, 2005 because THAT is painful. When I let myself linger on the what could have beens I get very, very sad… even after a decade.
I knew… even when Austin was in PICU and they were doing everything they could to turn things around, I knew if we lost him, I wanted to have another child. Not because I thought I could replace him. I knew myself well enough to know that I WOULD dwell on the what if’s and the why’s. I would get stuck. I couldn’t see myself ever getting past that. I knew that I needed to make the cost too great. You see in a world that skipped over June 20, 2005, I am not sure I would have my three youngest children. As much as I love and miss Austin, I can’t imagine my life or our family without Addison, Sydney and Griffin.
Lately, I have seen so many different facebook posts about what not to say a grieving person (or to a cancer patient or other things). I can’t speak to the other things, but as for the grieving person, there really is nothing to say. From what I have seen, grief is so very personal. What might be uplifting to me, might come across as offensive to someone else. For me the phrases that bothered me most were:
“You’re so strong” – Didn’t choose to be strong. If I were weak, would I be able to have my son back?
“I don’t think I would be able to get through this like you” – Really? I questioned whether I was some sort of heartless monster that I had continued living and caring for my family.
“I can’t even imagine…” – YES you can imagine. You probably even HAVE imagined. It was awful. It hurt. It made you sick to your stomach. You had the luxury of being able to shake off the image and go back to your normal life.
I know other people who didn’t have problems with any of these phrases and struggled with other ones. Really, truly, I think that the only thing someone can say to someone who is in the middle of grief that is of any comfort is “I am here for you” and “I love you”.
Grief isn’t anything that anyone can fix. A grieving person doesn’t need someone to try and heal them, they need someone to accompany them on the long journey. Someone to walk beside them, hold their hand, maybe to pack and maybe even carry their bags for a while. You would think fixing someone would be harder than just being there for them, but walking alongside someone on the grief journey takes amazing strength and endurance. There are certain people in this world who are phenomenal “fixers.” When put into the grief environment, it is they who are the most uncomfortable. Grief cannot be fixed.
It would make sense that people grieving the same person could walk together, but ask any couple who have lost a child, and it doesn’t work that way… at all. How can a person support another when they are too weak to support themselves? Not only is walking with someone on their grief journey only a task for the strong, truly, supporting a person through their grief journey is actually too big of a job for any one person.
I was so blessed to have an amazing team of people that supported me and accompanied me on my journey. To them I will forever be grateful. Some of the greatest comfort came from people who simple came over and walked me through the normal activities of the day. Other comfort came from the people who just listened to me ramble. It was so much more about presence than it was about accomplishing anything.
10 years later it still sucks, but is very much a part of who I am. New people I meet might not notice my scars or perceive my limp but people who have known me for a while, recognize it as an integral part of me and my story.