Nobody can really explain what the pain of losing a child is like. It’s a pain that only those experiencing can understand. Undeniably, it’s the worst pain anyone will ever go through!
Naively, I thought the pain of losing my son would feel a lot better in year two. Was I in for a heart-wrenching surprise! That second year knocked me to my knees and left me feeling so empty that I didn’t even know if I was truly alive on most days.
I marked the date on my calendar months ago. I’m feeling the pressing ache in my heart more and more with each passing day. Mother’s Day used to be such a day of celebration, but not any more.
This is the second Mother’s Day without my son, and the pain has grown increasingly worse with each passing day. I keep telling myself that this is just another day, but that’s a lie. This is Mother’s Day, a day is is supposed to be celebrated. Instead, I’m facing it with a brokenness that is unable to be fixed!
We’ve all heard the expression that a person turned gray overnight. Well, I didn’t turn gray overnight when my son died, but I turned into a different person — a person I don’t always like. Yes, my physical appearance has changed. When I look into the mirror the twinkle in my eyes isn’t there. My hair doesn’t shine any more. My skin has a strange color — dull, and has lost elasticity. In a word, I aged overnight. That’s what a broken heart will do!
Garbage. Garbage. Garbage. I’m cleaning files at my office, and tossing out files from fifteen years ago. It was getting late, and I was grabbing one more pile of papers to toss into the garbage, when I stopped — frozen. I looked. I stared. As I began to read the words my tears began. Tears poured from my eyes. I began to choke on my sobs.
Any way you look at child loss it ends up being the same. It hurts like nothing else in the entire world. We get to the point of where we think we just cannot go on any longer because we miss our child so bad. Others try to help us. They try to do everything in their power to take away our pain, but really there’s nothing that anyone else can do to “fix” this hurt. Child loss is the “unfixable” loss.
Following the loss of a child, we become familiar with the term “new normal.” We read it in books, and we hear the term in grief classes we attend, from our Pastor, and many times we hear the words “new normal” from our doctor. When I became a bereaved mom, the words “new normal” were words I held onto tightly. Why? Because any kind of normal following the loss of a child would feel good! When child loss take place, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — that feels normal anymore!
We all know that the possibility of death is always there. We understand that, but somehow we just never combine that possibility with the death of a child. We’re thinking in terms of other people than children — grandparents, an aunt who lived to be nearly a hundred, or the neighbor we knew who lived in the nursing home for the past twenty years.
Never, ever do we think death is going to touch us in the form of child loss! And, when it does, our first reaction is often, “This is not real! It can’t be! My child is alive. This is some kind of mistake.” We freeze and won’t allow reality to enter our minds just yet because it’s just too painful. The thought of our child being gone forever is more than our hearts can bear to imagine!
Never in one million years did I think I’d ever be faced with the agony of how to celebrate my child’s birthday after his death. Yet, it happened to me just as it happens to thousands of parents every year. Yet, strangely enough, we don’t talk about how to do this. Why? Because truthfully, society seems to shun talk of death — especially the death of child. Add to that the fact that we want to honor our child’s “birthday” after death, and we often get stares from people like we’ve gone totally crazy.
Today, let’s push aside all thoughts about what others think. I’m going to share some thoughts with you about how I celebrated my sister’s birthday (she died at age 13) as well as my son’s birthday (Samuel was born still). Maybe this will help you feel less “odd” and more at ease with finding a way to honor and remember your child without feeling the pressure from others to simply let the day pass by as another day.
My sister Carmella died on June 5. Her birthday is January 24th. The birthday before her death was so special. She had been sick with pneumonia and was in the hospital. Lots of people sent her cards, and a group from church and from the place where my dad worked collected money and put the money towards something she really wanted — some Barbie dolls and lots of Barbie outfits for her dolls. My grandmother baked a cake from scratch (as she did for all of our birthdays) and the celebration was wonderful!
When January 24th came around again (the first birthday after her death) my family was silent. Nobody knew what to do. This was new territory for us. We had never walked this path before — never had we been in the shadow of death and we were scared. And hurting. And, so confused. We were dreading January 24th!
My grandmother, a very humble lady and so wise in her ways, never said a word. She did something, though, that set the plan for us for years to come.
She baked Carmella’s birthday cake just as though she was still here with us. I won’t be untruthful and say it was a good day because it wasn’t. It was horrible. My mother was paralyzed with grief. She sobbed for hours on end and then drank until she passed out. It’s the only way she could get through the day. At that time we didn’t have books available to use about how to get through grief. We didn’t have support groups. And, sadly we were not encouraged to talk about death. My mom was so alone in her pain!
One of our neighbors, Julie, made a big pot of homemade spaghetti sauce and delivered it to our door. She remembered it was my sister’s birthday! How wonderful that was, and it is a gesture that we will never forget!
My dad was a man of very few words and by this time my mom and dad were divorced, so I don’t know what he did other than grieve by himself. Our hearts were broken in a million different ways.
Being sixteen, I was not about to talk to my friends about this. They wouldn’t have understood at all. But, what I did was follow my heart. I secretly took a piece of cake and some noodles and sauce (my sister’s favorite) and I went alone to the cemetery. It was cold outside and I was sobbing. Just the thought of visiting the cemetery alone made my stomach feel sick. I thought I was going to throw up from a combination of nerves, sadness and fear. But, I remember that day so well.
I sat on the ground and talked to my sister. I cried as I told her how much I loved her and missed her. I said, “Grandmom baked your cake. It’s got lots of icing on it just how you like it. And, Julie brought your favorite noodles and sauce. I brought you some.” I had written a birthday letter to my sister and as I sat the cake and small dish of pasta on the ground, I sobbed while reading the letter. My tears flowed like a river.
It was so important for me to recognize that day — to “do something” in honor of my sister. It was awkward and felt weird, and it hurt so bad that I thought I was going to die. By the time I left the cemetery my eyes were tiny slits from crying. I drove the mile up the road to home, ran though the house, made it to my bedroom and sobbed for the rest of the night.
But, I did it. I honored her day! And, that felt good!
I have no special traditions that I keep each year for honoring Carmella and Samuel except one thing that I do religiously that is comforting to me and brings me great peace.
Every year I plant a few perennial bulbs in memory of each of them. I plant them in the fall and wait all through the long winter in anticipation for spring to come when I can see them blooming. To me, this represents the fact that love can never be broken — not even by death and life is eternal and goes on forever and ever and ever.
On each of their birthdays, I set aside time for crying. I know that sounds a bit bizarre, but I already know that I’m going to cry so I plan for that, and it’s okay. I remember. I reminisce. I think about the good moments that are now the memories that I cherish. Sometimes I pull out pictures of Carmella. (Sadly, I have none of Samuel — something I will regret all of the days of my life!) And, I always, always light a candle and allow it to burn for a full 24 hours on their special day!
There is no right or wrong way to honor our child’s birthday after our child is gone. We have to find what is right for “us” — create our own traditions.
Throughout the years, I’ve talked with thousands of parents of child loss and they have shared some amazing ways they have celebrated their child’s birthday — a day of remembrance. They have made some new traditions, and I’d like to share with you just a few of those ideas.
I encourage every parent to do something — anything — on your child’s birthday. As painful as it is, it will help you to know that you have set aside special time just for you and your child.
Here are a few ways that others have celebrated and honored their child’s life:
1) Write a poem and read it at the cemetery.
2) Visit the cemetery and decorate with balloons.
3) Gather together some close friends and family members and have a balloon release.
4) Have a birthday cake with your child’s name on it, and gather together with a few of your child’s best friends to share stories of your child — happy stories. And, allow yourself to remember and smile through your tears.
5) Release a lantern with your child’s name on it. I just did this and it was so healing as I watched the lantern float peacefully through the evening sky!
6) Set up a special place in your home with your child’s picture and a candle and burn that candle on your child’s birthday.
7) Buy and wrap a gift and give it to a child who has been forgotten or is sick and in the hospital. If you don’t know of such a child, check with your local ministers for help in finding a child who needs love. Do this in honor of your child!
8) Gather your family and/or some close friends together and create a memory box. Decorate it and keep it in a special place where people who visit you can place a special memory of your child in the box each year on his/her birthday.
9) Have a butterfly release. Invite friends of your child’s to participate.
10) Create a memory garden and each year on your child’s birthday add something new to the garden.
I love you Mellie (Carmella) and Samuel — forever 13 and forever my baby boy! I will always remember you, always honor you, and always cherish the day that you were born!
Please feel free to share any ideas that you’ve used to honor your child’s birthday.
If this is a “first” for you, I strongly encourage you to do something. As painful as it is, it will make you feel better when you have some kind of plans for your child’s birthday! Use this day as a way of hugging your child, keeping your child close at heart, and letting others know that they are free to celebrate the specialness of your child with you!
“What happened? Where are my friends?” Those are probably two of the most pain-filled questions that parents and families of child loss ask following the death of a child. This seems to be the one thing that is misunderstood the most by grieving parents. Prior to the death of the child, life was full and happy and friends were calling, stopping by the house, planning fun outings, picnics, and planning vacations together. But, it doesn’t take long following the death of a child to realize that those very same friends seem to have disappeared.
Why does this happen? Why do so many of our friends disappear following the death of our child? I’ve wondered about this for many, many years beginning with the death of my thirteen-year-old sister and then later on with the death of my son. It was something I didn’t understand then, but I’ve grown to realize that the trickling away of friends is fairly universal among those of us who have lost a child.
Talking about child loss makes others uncomfortable. It’s not fun. Grief seems to put a wedge between friends making it difficult to talk and enjoy each other’s presence any more. During the first months following the loss of a child, parents live in a deep, thick fog where it’s almost impossible to see even a sliver of hope. They look to their friends for solace — for listening ears — for comfort, and soon come to realize those faces that once were so familiar are no longer the faces that come knocking at our door. In fact, nobody comes knocking at our door!
Life picks up its regular pace for others — back to the routine of work, soccer games, movies, running errands, and doing all of the other things that fill up time almost immediately after our loss. I’m not saying that our friends don’t care. I’m just saying that life goes on for them.
For the parents of child loss, time stands ever so still. We are frozen in that moment of hearing those horrible words, “I’m so sorry.” Our hearts never beat the same after that.
To say it’s disappointing and hurtful to have our friends move on without us, is putting it mildly. The absence of our friends burns our hearts right to the core. The pain stings and hurts and pounds and throbs. This is when we need our friends the most!
Following the death of my son, life was bleak for a long, long time. There were days when I thought I was going to die — very literally die. My blood pressure shot up sky-high from stress and grief. I was weak and dehydrated from not eating and sleeping. Depression swallowed me and kept me in a sea of drowning tears. I plummeted into a deep, lonely hole of loss.
My phone remained silent. I prayed that somebody — anybody would show up with some food and words of comfort. I had other children that needed to eat. They needed to see a bit of normalcy in their lives. I’d forgotten what it was like to smile. Just to see a friend’s smile and hear a reassuring voice would have meant so much. But, it wasn’t to be so.
Sadly, being a preacher’s wife at the time, there were expectations of me displaying a “greater faith” (what does faith have to do with grief?), and instead of comforting friends, I was expected to give comfort to others. I didn’t have the strength to carry on through each hour, let alone be any kind of strength to others!
During that time, I nearly had a mental and physical collapse from the weight of grief, depression, and loneliness.
What I did find was something quite amazing. There was a young man who bagged groceries who noticed my puffy eyes and slumped shoulders. He never failed to ask me how I was feeling and I knew he genuinely meant it. He made going to the grocery store a little bit of an easier task for me.
My doctor was genuinely concerned. He took the time to sit and talk and explain the many emotions of child loss while I cried. He never judged me or thought I was crazy.
A total stranger saw me crying while walking through the children’s section in Walmart and she offered me a tissue. She didn’t say a word, but she was there.
I learned through the years how to find new friends — the kind of friends who are there through the thick and thin of life. Isn’t it amazing how we can openly and honestly share our hearts with strangers who are feeling our same pain of child loss and instantly they become our friends?
Many years have gone by since the death of my sister and the death of my son. Most of my old friends are gone. I now think of them as past acquaintances who simply didn’t “get it.” They didn’t understand the depth of pain that is caused by child loss.
Today I’m an advocate for parents and families of child loss. I want us to speak openly and freely about our children. I don’t want us to feel alone in the “club” that we now belong to. I want us to be able to grieve in our own way, in our own time, and know we’ll be given tons of support.
I want us to be friends!
There is a chapter in the book “Silent Grief” that I’ve written called, “Where Are My Friends?” and it has been deemed the best chapter of the book by many. If you don’t have a copy of Silent Grief, you can order one here. I know that it will help!
Twenty five years ago something happened in my life that I didn’t think I could live through. One day I was happily pregnant anticipating a new baby joining our family. And, then without warning I didn’t feel any of the kicks and somersaults that I looked forward to all throughout the day and night. My body was so still and it was frightening. I was too afraid to move. Too afraid to say anything. Too afraid to allow my thoughts to enter that dark chamber where I knew my heart was going to receive news that would cause my heart to break in two.
I waited ’til morning to call the doctor. Maybe I was only imagining the stillness of my body. Maybe this child — my child — was just taking an extra long nap. Maybe……….maybe I was just too afraid to make the phone call that I knew would change the course of my life forever.
When I walked into the room, the doctor was waiting for me with a somber look. He asked how I felt and I said okay. “I don’t feel the baby moving, though, and I’m really worried.” I could tell he was worried, too. He wouldn’t allow me to look at the monitor and I knew he was expecting the worse.
As he moved the doppler across my swollen belly the silence was killing me. I was praying so hard to hear the swoosh-swoosh sound of that sweet baby’s heart beating as I’d heard so many times before. But all was quiet. Not a sound in the room except the panic that was heard in every breath that I took.
Finally, he said, “I’m so sorry. Would you want to look?” As I turned my head to see the lifeless body still attached to me, hot tears ran down my face like lava on fire. There are no words to describe that moment when all of life stopped for me — frozen in a timeless pit of hell. My heart no longer beat in sync with that of my baby, and he lay still and lifeless inside of me letting me know that his soul was already gone.
My heart dropped into a pit of dark, lonely despair and remained there for a very long time. So much of life as I thought it would be ended on that tear-stained day in May. The journey has been rough. There were days when I didn’t want to open my eyes. There were weeks when my legs felt paralyzed with grief and didn’t want to carry me from the couch to the kitchen. Many days it took all of my strength to get a shower only to climb right back into bed again. Depression is such a sad place to live.
I won’t talk about the weeks and months following this loss today — that will be for another time. What I will say is this. Grief is different for each and every one of us. The loss of my son, Samuel Adam, was a loss that reshaped my life — literally. I stopped living for a while. I couldn’t go on. There was nothing left inside of me. I was an empty shell — at least that’s how it felt.
But, little by little, one day at a time this twenty year journey has been traveled to a place I call “now.”
A year ago while cleaning out some dresser drawers, I came across that lump in the left upper drawer of my dresser and I thought I would do as I’d done for the past nineteen years — touch it, but not look. But, this time was different. I paused. I reached in and pulled out that little bundle of things wrapped ever so neatly in a tiny, soft blue blanket.
I held the banket up against my face and tears started flowing, but they were more gentle. They were not hot and raw as they were the other times. Dare I? Should I open the rest of the package?
There was the little package of diapers that had been bought for my sweet Samuel. I had held on to them for all of those years.
And, my pregnancy test. I remember how my heart was racing with excitement and immediately filled with so many dreams when I saw those two lines appear! This is a moment in time that will be forever frozen!
And, the baby lotion. Isn’t it amazing what we mamas save? I always loved the smell of a baby after a bath with some lotion rubbed on their already soft-as-angel skin. I opened the lid and took a smell. After all of these years, it was still there — the scent that I had longed to snuggle with and hold close to my heart.
There was one final item in that little bundle stashed away in my dresser drawer — this is the one that I longed to use the most. This is the one that broke my heart to see. I’m not sure exactly why, but seeing the little blue hat tore open my heart again and again.
I guess I just always assumed that this little sweet baby of mine would be born healthy and alive and would live with us forever. How wrong I was!
There was something special about this day, though. I was finally able to open up the contents of that little bundle that had been so carefully stashed away — hidden — in my dresser for all of those years. Today I felt a bit of peace for the first time. Peace in knowing that Samuel is okay. No, he’s more than okay. He’s actually fine! He’s in heaven and is surrounded only by love and warmth and beauty. I have a son who sits in heaven waiting for me, and I have his little blue hat to take to him when we meet again!
Child loss is a difficult, long and painful journey. This particular journey has taken me twenty years to get to the point being able to unwrap my secret hopes and dreams that were lost on that day when Samuel took his wings. I’ve finally been able to let go of a lot of the pain, and it feels freeing to be able to say that.
No longer is there a secret in my dresser drawer, but I do have Samuel’s hat, and I will keep that forever. I often pick it up and hold it and smile. “Samuel, I love you so much! I see you in the sunbeams that dance on a springtime day. I see you in the evening stars that light up the darkest night. I feel you in the warm summer breeze. I see you in the smiles of little children as they are running and playing. And, I am so glad that I was chosen to be your mom — if only for twenty-eight short weeks.”
It has been such a rocky road to travel to be able to finally say those words, but I can finally say them and mean them, and for me that is wonderful! I hope that somehow these words with encourage other mamas who are traveling this journey of child loss to not be so hard on yourself. You can’t rush grief. You can’t make it go away. Every day is a challenge, and every time you pull out your little “secret stash of hopes and dreams” the tears will flow. But, one day there will be a bit of a change. Yes, you’ll always, always, always miss your sweet child. But, mixed in with the anguish of missing your child there will be sweet tears of hope for that day when you meet again.
PS When extra lonely nights surround me, I sleep with Samuel’s hat next to my face. I can almost feel his sweet breath against my cheek saying, “Mama, it’s okay. You’re never alone. I’m right here with you.”
If you live in the Somerset – Johnstown, PA area and are free the night of November 14, I will be speaking to moms who are facing the holidays without their child. I’d love it if you would join me! You can register here!