When I was a girl, I would read a lot and one of the things I remember reading about were the traditions associated with loss. One that I remember thinking was particularly reasonable was the tradition of lopping off a joint from the little finger if you lost a child. Rather than serving to remind the parent, who of course didn’t need reminding, it would serve as a constant reminder to others that the person had lost a child.
Now that I have come to realize there isn’t even a word in our language for a parent who has lost a child – nothing comparable to “widow” or “widower” for those who have lost a spouse – I recognize how hidden this kind of grief can become. Imagine: We don’t even have a word for it. Talk about a taboo.
It is no wonder those in the circle feel such relief as they walk in the door. Here is a place they are known. Here is a community that greets them as parents and who recognize them as parents who have lost a child.
Our society has no marker, no way of commonly and kindly acknowledging this kind of loss. We are, for a time, parents who have lost a child, and then and forever, our child’s name becomes forgotten – along with our parenthood. And when that happens, we become unknown.
This is what I fear most: everyone else forgetting.
In the circle, someone always seems to mention a marker, a birthday, anniversary, something that made one day last week unbearable. And just as invariably, no one else knew. The parent would get up, go to work, move through their day – and no one would mention their child or their loss. No one would know that this day was the day that their child was born… or the day that their beloved child died.
This has been a hard couple of months. In succession, I have faced Camila’s first birthday since her death, my first Mother’s Day, the anniversary of her “second birthday” – her transplant day, and right around the corner is the anniversary I most dread: the anniversary of her death.
Over these few weeks, it seems I have felt sadness more often than any other emotion. I know I cannot spin her death day, cannot celebrate it as I celebrated her birthday with her friends. It will be a hard reckoning, a rough day.
And so I have made no absolute plans, save one. I will move through the day however I move through the day, with tears or laughter, with or without watching videos or looking at pictures, in bed our out, walking or not. I don’t know what I will need, what I will want – beyond the one thing I do want.
Though I am attracted to the tradition, I have decided against lopping off a joint of my little finger. I gave this some thought a few months ago and came to the conclusion that no one – perhaps not even those in the circle – would understand. Just imagining the conversation with my doctor was enough to put me off the idea. And while I am being light here, a part of me deeply wishes there were a standard social way to acknowledge my loss, my sweet girl’s death. I want a marker. I want to be marked because I feel marked.
And so I have decided to act on a private tradition, the tradition to which other parents who have lost a child quietly prescribe. I have made an appointment at a tattoo parlor. I am going to put a coded image on my body, a marker to acknowledge this hard, bad day – and Camila’s sweet, loving life. It feels right to feel some physical pain that day, and it feels right to take hold of a symbol that will help me through all the other hard days to come, something I can look at that will remind me of her life and her loss, long after everyone else has forgotten.
And when someone asks me about my tattoo, I will tell them about my daughter, Camila.
My tattoo will be something I will look at on those days when I most need to know that, even though there is no word for my loss, there is a sign, there is a mark – for any to see: my public mark of love and loss.