I have learned first hand that everyone in the circle has two stories to tell: the sad, hard story of their son’s or daughter’s death and the story of their child’s life. But there is a third story we are crafting, even as we come together to talk: the story of our survival.
Just as everyone grieves differently, so too does everyone survive differently. There seem to be two distinct schools of thought and feeling: One suggests that we celebrate the life we loved and the other suggests we mourn the life we lost. Both are reasonable responses. Both are heartfelt and no doubt come upon each parent with the power of a personal default, innate. Or at least it seems to feel that way.
Do you remember hearing about the “ground-breaking” study on optimists and pessimists that came out a few years ago? The big news was that a pessimist will respond negatively to good news and an optimist will respond positively to bad news. The street response was, “And they spent how much to figure that out?!” It would seem obvious, wouldn’t it? By definition, an optimist thinks positively while a pessimist thinks negatively. It seems pretty straightforward.
And it usually is – until something happens that can break the spirit of a person, something that has the power to turn them against life and the living and choose, instead, to focus on death and dying. Something like the loss of a child.
No one will tell you it’s fair. No one in the circle seriously toys with concepts of design or fate. You know the obvious argument: There is never a sufficient explanation for the loss of a child. Neither is there a comforting panacea for this loss. We simply aren’t supposed to survive our children.
But everyone in the circle did.
And most of them have surviving children whose needs have not changed – while their ability to respond to those needs may have radically changed.
All we have, as in everything, are the choices we choose to make, the tack we choose to take. And sometimes it feels like we have no control over those choices. But we do.
We know, going in, that some things we have to do won’t be easy. I’m not going to be able to spin my daughter’s death day, which is tomorrow, into a rosy experience of fond remembrance. I know I will spend most of the day battling bad memories, trying to avoid looking at those pictures in my mind of her suffering, or holding back my animal cry, re-living my own suffering as I watched her die.
But I will also be working to remind myself of her life – her childhood smiles, her adolescent jokes, her young adult discoveries. I will be working to remember that her illness and death were short-lived compared to her trajectory of life. She had many, many, many more good days over the course of her life than bad days – and those days are the ones I’m going to be pushing into my brain tomorrow.
Because I want to be happy I had her. Because I want to remember her happiness. Because I don’t want to forget that her life was wonderful. And I don’t want to lose the spirit we shared.
I know I have the power to completely alter my disposition. I know it would be so easy to become bitter and isolated. On some days, living with despair feels like an attractive option.
But I don’t want to live like that.
And so, instead, I have been working to find a few things that help, a few things I can do to keep my despair at bay, to remind me of what I want to remember rather than focus on what I hope to forget.
Here is My Personal Help List, one year in:
- Looking at a group of pictures as I get dressed, each one of Camila smiling and engaged in something she loved doing, reinforces her happiness as I begin my day.
- Deliberately doing something we did together, in my case, singing in the car, helps me feel close to Camila and reminds me of the feelings of joy we shared – as our voices soared.
- Having silly pictures around the house that I can glance at as I walk from here to there remind me of her nature and her comedic spirit. They lift my spirit and sometimes even make me laugh.
- Giving myself permission to continue to grow, to add new experiences to my life – to try new foods, cook new cuisines, make new friends, take trips to new places – reinforces the sometimes simple pleasures of living.
- Laughing every day, allowing myself to feel humor and its lightness, helps me hold on to a happy spirit, the very spirit my daughter knew and loved.
And finally, the one thing I want most to recommend:
- Tapping out my feelings on the computer, taking the time to articulate them through writing and revision, has made me more aware of my feelings – and less controlled by them.
Surviving a child is not easy. It is hard and it is work. But it is work to be done. I hope all parents in the circle will give themselves permission to survive and will, in their own way, once again thrive. Our children loved us and loved their lives. My hope for all of us is that we never forget to “Love Life!”