When you lose a child, grieving is a lifelong experience
When our first child is born, a loud voice says, “Runners, take your marks!” We hear the starting gun and the race begins. It’s a race we must win at all cost. We have to win. The competition is called “I’ll race you to the grave.” I’m currently racing three sons. I really want to win.
Not everyone wins.
I’m here at the national meeting of Compassionate Friends, an organization offering support and resources for parents who lose the race. I’m wandering the halls during the “break-out” sessions. In this room are parents whose children died in car accidents. Over there is a room full of parents of murdered children. Parents of cancer victims are at the end of the hall. Miscarriages and stillbirths are grouped together, as are parents who have survived a child’s suicide. And so it goes.
In a few minutes, I’m going to address Compassionate Friends. This is the toughest audience of my life. I mix with the gathering crowd, and a woman from Delaware glances at my name tag. Her name tag has a photo of her deceased son. My name tag is absent photos.
“So … you haven’t … lost anyone,” she says cautiously.
“My three sons are yet alive, if that’s what you’re asking me,” I say gently.
She tries to nod politely, but I can see that I’ve lost credibility in her eyes. She’s wondering who invited this speaker, and what on earth he could ever have to say to her.
My address is titled “The Myth of Getting Over It.” It’s my attempt to answer the driving questions of grieving parents: When will I get over this? How do I get over this?
You don’t get over it. Getting over it is an inappropriate goal. An unreasonable hope. The loss of a child changes you. It changes your marriage. It changes the way birds sing. It changes the way the sun rises and sets. You are forever different.
You don’t want to get over it. Don’t act surprised. As awful a burden as grief is, you know intuitively that it matters, that it is profoundly important to be grieving. Your grief plays a crucial part in staying connected to your child’s life. To give up your grief would mean losing your child yet again. If I had the power to take your grief away, you’d fight me to keep it. Your grief is awful, but it is also holy. And somewhere inside you, you know that.
The goal is not to get over it. The goal is to get on with it.
Profound grief is like being in a stage play wherein suddenly the stagehands push a huge grand piano into the middle of the set. The piano paralyzes the play. It dominates the stage. No matter where you move, it impedes your sight lines, your blocking, your ability to interact with the other players. You keep banging into it, surprised each time that it’s still there. It takes all your concentration to work around it, this at a time when you have little ability or desire to concentrate on anything.
The piano changes everything. The entire play must be rewritten around it.
But over time the piano is pushed to stage left. Then to upper stage left. You are the playwright, and slowly, surely, you begin to find the impetus and wherewithal to stop reacting to the intrusive piano. Instead, you engage it. Instead of writing every scene around the piano, you begin to write the piano into each scene, into the story of your life.
You learn to play that piano. You’re surprised to find that you want to play, that it’s meaningful, even peaceful to play it. At first your songs are filled with pain, bitterness, even despair. But later you find your songs contain beauty, peace, a greater capacity for love and compassion. You and grief — together — begin to compose hope. Who’da thought?
Your grief becomes an intimate treasure, though the spaces between the grief lengthen. You no longer need to play the piano every day, or even every month. But later, when you’re 84, staring out your kitchen window on a random Tuesday morning, you welcome the sigh, the tears, the wistful pain that moves through your heart and reminds you that your child’s life mattered.
You wipe the dust off the piano and sit down to play.