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“The first thing I want you to know…”

November 7, 2011

There may be no loss so out of sync as the death of a child.  And as if that monumental death alone is not enough, the death of our child brings a partnership with loss that spans our lifetime.  I heard an interview a few years ago with a mother whose young son had been killed in a bicycle accident.  She described the breadth of this loss by saying,

“When I woke up the next morning, I was surprised that I was still here.  I couldn’t imagine how I could have survived his death.  A year later, I was still surprised.  It’s been 10 years, and I still don’t understand how I’m here.”

She voices for every parent, the perpetual dance of grieving for your child while continuing to live your own life, and theirs.

My first experience with the permanent impact of a child’s death on a parent came when I was twelve years old, sitting on the bed in my Grandma’s bedroom.  She was cleaning house as I followed her from room to room.  There was a group of photographs on the wall by the door.  They were the last pictures of my Dad’s older brother, Junior, taken a week before he died at age 13.

He came home from school, saying he didn’t feel good, and in less than two days was dead from spinal meningitis.  His funeral was held at home under quarantine, with only family present.  He was something of a mystery to me, made more so by the black and white photographs that had been enlarged and hand painted in pale, transparent colors.

Grandma cleaned and I sat on her bed, staring at those pictures.  Then I said, “Grandma, tell me about Junior.”.  She opened her mouth to speak, and instead began to cry.  I have no memory of what happened after that, of what she did or didn’t say, of how I got out of the room.  I just felt the power of my question to make her cry, and the depth of her wound.  Later, after I was grown, I wondered if her tears were only tears of pain, or also tears of thanks, of relief, that someone remembered and asked about her son.  I knew my Grandma as a hard-working, caring woman, with a delightful, childlike laugh.  Somehow she had continued living, while carrying this loss just below the surface.

Doug Manning, author and speaker on grief, tells about a friend leading a group at a local funeral home, for parents who had lost a child.  An 80 year old woman was the first person to arrive.  The group facilitator asked if he could help her, assuming that she was at the funeral home for visitation.  She told him she was there for the group, but was uncertain about whether she should stay.  He asked her if she had lost a child.  She told him her story.  That her son had been stillborn at a time when people didn’t talk about grief.  That her husband and family refused to talk about the loss.  For nearly 60 years she had been grieving in silence.  She went on to say, “My husband is dead now, and it’s just me.”  The man asked what she would like for him to know about her son.  Her response…”The first thing I want you to know is his name is Tommy.”  She had never spoken his name aloud.

Maybe my Grandma was waiting, just like the 80 year old woman was waiting, for someone to ask about her child.  To join her in giving her child’s life meaning and significance, sometimes through the simple gift of speaking a name.

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