Sunday, September 28, 2014

In memory of B.W., at (almost) eight years

You were not a pregnancy loss.  You were not a fetal demise.  You were not "a stillborn".  You are not defined by what happened to you, by the circumstances of when and where you died.   

I do not love you less because I have fewer memories or because I didn't know you in the sense that parents desire to know their children.  On the contrary, and because my love for you is equal to the love I have for your brothers, my grief is often more bitter at the enormity of the missed opportunity. 

Your death is not easier to stomach because you died before you were born, or before some arbitrary point in time when a son becomes worthy of a mother's unconditional love, worthy of her grief.  

Your death was not redeemed with C.T.'s safe arrival in our lives. 

People feel they need to believe these things, sometimes say these things, to assuage their own fears about the death of a precious baby.  I often wonder if they actually consider these presumptions to be comforting to the person whose son or daughter has died.  I remember each and every time that someone demeaned your life (intentionally or not) or minimized my grief over losing you.  The wounds from that kind of ignorance have left many additional scars on your mother.     

You are my son, my firstborn.
You were a whole person, so beautifully and miraculously made.
All of your organs formed and perfectly placed.
You had fine and plentiful dark hair. 
Tiny eyelashes, sleepy baby crevices beneath your eyes. 
You had my lips and ears, your dad's eyebrows and long, beautiful fingers.
You had so much potential

I would have given my life so that you could have lived yours. 

I will always grieve the loss of your precious life and secondarily, the child, adolescent and adult you would have become.  I am so sorry that my body failed to keep you safe.  I still want to protect you and mother you, and the only way I know how to do that is to keep your memory alive.  I am still in disbelief that I must now do the same for your brother Zachary. 
In just a few days, you would have been eight years old. 


(In the photo above is a hand-crocheted pillow, made by a friend, as a gift on C.T.'s birth, six and 1/2 years ago.  Notice the beautiful tribute to C.T.'s deceased brother B.W., in the bear's sweater.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


There is still so much about this grief that I cannot comprehend.  So many complex pain points swirl around and around in my head, rendering me unable to think of anything else.  Layers of embitterment seem to grow and calcify as reality sinks in.  Sometimes it feels like it's edging out the beauty that I know existed in our brief two weeks with him.  A desperate series of questions, with no answers and no chance for meaningful resolution, has me on circular loop.   
Why didn't they listen to me? 
Why did I leave him that night?
Did I really not bring my baby boy home from the hospital?
Was that me who allowed them to remove his life support?
Should we have waited longer for a miracle?
How is this my life?
I sometimes fantasize that the life I'm living now is actually the dream.  I imagine that Zachary reappears.  In our home, at his current age.  We are at the kitchen table having dinner and suddenly our dead boy is there, alive in the flesh, in his infant car seat.  All three of us are stunned.  A commanding voice tells us we should forget the events of January 20 and beyond.  That a terrible mistake has been made and our son has been returned to us.  Of course, we recognize him - now eight and 1/2 months old - and take him into our arms without asking another question.  I don't even think about asking if B.W. will return.  I don't want to get greedy.  I am overcome with pure joy, as I kiss all over Zachary's precious face.  I am not bothered at all that I have missed eight months of his life.  We start living our life again immediately.  Together.  

I guess it's a coping mechanism, a moment's break from the relentlessly intense pain of coming to terms with Zachary's death. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The after

A few weeks ago, I attended a talk given by author, activist and former Sierra Leone child soldier, Ishmael Beah.  As soon as I saw it advertised through the website of a local bookstore, and despite the fact that I hadn't yet read Beah's memoir, I knew I had to be there.  Seeking out stories of suffering, and in particular, stories of child suffering and death, of parental grief, seems to be one of the ways I'm coping with Zachary's death.  I seem to need to hear, over and over again, that despite the cacophony of rainbows and butterflies that disorient me day in and day out, Yes, it IS that bad.  I need to see my disillusionment, my rage at Zachary's suffering and death, reflected back to me in the lives of others.  I want to reach out and touch the tragedies and traumas of others, observe how (and why) those who remain go on with life.  I need to know that I am not crazy. 


For background (having now actually read the book)...
Beah's first book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, which is now required reading in at least some U.S. high schools, painfully recalls how his peaceful childhood dissolves when rebel forces sweep across the Sierra Leone countryside in 1993.  He is left orphaned and wandering alone, at age twelve.  For months, he struggles to find food and shelter, to keep moving to escape the violence, as he comes to terms with the fate of his parents and siblings.  By age thirteen, Beah is picked up by the "government" army who ultimately forces him, and several other orphaned boys (one as young as seven), to become soldiers, under the brainwashing that they must serve their country and avenge the deaths of their families.  The boys are given drugs to ensure they don't tire, and to numb any lingering fear about killing or being killed.  They are haphazardly trained and sent out to ambush, then to confiscate the ammunition and supplies of, groups of rebels and civilians.  It is a kill or be killed environment.  Trying to live to see the next minute becomes status quo for Beah and his child peers. 

After three years of drugs and brutal violence, sixteen year old Beah, and others easily identified as children, are removed from the fighting by UNICEF.  Severely battered, with virtually no humanity left in them, these children are "rehabilitated" and then thrust back into society with distant relatives or bounced around in foster homes.  Beah eventually has an opportunity to represent the plight of the children of war (in Sierra Leone) at the United Nations, in New York City.  After that trip, while still a child, Beah begins the lengthy struggle to escape his war-torn country and to start a new life in America. 


With the opportunity to hear him speak first-hand, I was really hoping to hear how Beah copes, how he is able to truly participate in life after the loss and traumatic experiences of his childhood.  I wanted to know: How do you live in this world, live a normal-ish life in a country that is not your own, a life amongst innocents, when your entire family has been murdered in the midst of war?  When, as a child, you were forced to slaughter other human beings?  How do you live in the after? 

As I suspected, and really this point seems too obvious to acknowledge, the loss and trauma of Beah's childhood is absolutely the lens through which everything is seen and approached.  There are nightmares and insomnia that must be battled.  There is frustration with others' perceptions and uninformed, unsolicited opinions about his home country, his family, the war, his experience as a child soldier and his memoir.  There is deep lasting sorrow and debilitating guilt.  It is difficult to form real relationships, to trust.  There is no easy way to start a conversation with people, to allow information about family and history to be conveyed simply and succinctly.   

Beah attributes his ability to survive and thrive in the after to the resilience of his youth at the time of his escape.  Over time, he begins to feel safe again and learns to cope by embracing and educating others about the horror of his past.  By writing, by speaking out on behalf of children affected by war, and by helping former child soldiers reintegrate into society through his own foundation.  While it might seem like this is the rationalized "something good" that has come from Beah's suffering, he was quick to share that in 2014, there are still thousands of child soldiers being forced to fight, in up to 50 conflicts around the world.  It is staggering and sickening and we are, in our first world busyness, so incredibly insulated from the cold hard reality of the situation and from the individual people and families affected by it.   


B and I ask each other daily how we will cope and live beyond Zachary's death.  The life and hope we created from scratch in the years after B.W.'s death has been blasted to bits again.  We are stripped bare, with nothing recognizable except for C.T., our home and the family and friends who have not given up on us. 

I am too paralyzed with grief to think deeply about how my life will matter, how I will thrive, after Zachary's death.  When I make too many plans, someone in my family (one of my children) usually dies.  So, I'm going to play it safe for now and continue to simply cope, day by day.  And if you're a bereaved parent, you know that is a daily struggle and commitment.  I'm going to allow the morsels of survival and hard-earned hope I see in stories like Beah's, in the stories of other bereaved parents, to ruminate in me and see if, over time, something of value, something beyond survival, emerges. 

For now, eight months out (and almost eight years out), the after is truly about putting one foot in front of the other.  

Friday, September 19, 2014

Birthday letter

Dear B,

Do you remember the 30th birthday party I threw for you, nine years ago?  Before children.   Before September, and both of our birthdays, became predominantly a prelude to the anniversary of B.W.'s death and birth.  Before grief became a constant companion in our life together. 

I cannot look at photos from that birthday.  It is too painful to see the old you, the old me - twice over, former generations of us.  Do you think we would even recognize ourselves?  I am sure there is an effortless confidence in our faces.  An ease of relative happiness and stability, diluted only by the disease and divorce in our respective families.  Some of the people I remember being in those photos are now completely absent from our lives, casualties of our devastating loss and their impatience with our grief, with the new us.  Perhaps those losses are for the better, but it still hurts.

Today, on your 39th birthday, in the year of the death of our Zachary, I wish I could protect you from the Happy Birthday(s)! you will receive.  C.T. and I know it is not a happy day.  In our home, it will be recognized that this is your most painful birthday yet.  Your grief, your dead boys and this first birthday without Zachary - the wound still so, so fresh - are not invisible to us.  We will not force happiness or celebration on you today.  We will love and embrace you in whatever form you come home to us tonight. 

I've been thinking about the words of our support group leader.  The woman who said that the death of a son or daughter closes the door on the former us.  That on that devastating day, we become like infants again.  That we must re-learn everything, must experience and perceive everything afresh.  You know, I appreciate this analogy because from our experience, I think it is so very true..., and honestly, utterly terrifying that you and I are forced to do it all over again with Zachary's death.   

Know that I love you and I will stay by your side, for this and all future birthdays, as we grieve and re-create our life in Zachary's absence.    


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Wishes from the dead

He would have wanted you to be happy. 

I have encountered variations of this phrase over and over, through the years.  I've observed it from afar, spoken at funerals, in movies.  Sometimes it comes out of the mouths of the bereaved themselves, a grief catch-phrase used to describe the coaxing required to go on with life.  It seems to be presumed that there is some comfort in this idea that the deceased would (want to) propel the bereaved beyond their grief..., to an existence where happiness resumes as dominant.      

I can see how, at a surface level, this thinking appears to provide some encouragement for the bereaved.  Particularly if the death in question happened according to the natural order of things, where grandparents precede parents, who precede children, in death.  I think most people would agree it's realistic to assume that the former generation would hope for their children and grandchildren to be happy, even in their absence.  The bereaved might actually be able to visualize the words coming from the lips of the deceased, may have even heard him/her impart this notion at one point, before or during the dying process, if it wasn't sudden.  But does the plausibility of this thinking actually lessen the grief experienced or hasten the "return to happiness" for the bereaved?   I don't know.  Maybe, in some cases, it is possible. 

Or maybe it's just another way that society ensures that the bereaved don't outwardly wallow too much or too long, cleverly disguised as a "wish" from the departed.  I mean, the dead really have no say in it.  Maybe it's a way we are accidentally perpetuating the western world's obsession with happiness.  People seem to like to have something positive come out of something viewed as negative, and so it is generally accepted as a comfort to the grieving.    

Whatever it is and wherever it originates from, when someone suggests that Zachary would want me to be happy, it tends to strike me as a smoothing over of my very real grief and my need to actively and intensely grieve his death.  Also embedded in the suggestion to be happy despite the recent death of a loved one is the subtle idea that grief and happiness are mutually exclusive.  That if you are grieving, well then you are the opposite of happy.  And ultimately, you will return to a state of relative happiness when the grief has alleviated.  For bereaved parents, who will perpetually grieve their deceased child(ren), this implies that they will never again have happiness.    


Would Zachary want me to be happy? 

I don't know.  I don't think it's fair to put this on him.  He cannot speak for himself.

I will tell you what I do know.  I will tell you precisely what Zachary wanted.  And what he wanted has broken my heart.  

On Tuesday, January 14, on his eighth day of life, Zachary wanted someone to hear his moaning, his cries of pain.  He wanted his mama.  He wanted to be fed.  He wanted to be rid of the restlessness and agony that kept him awake throughout the day.  My sweet, helpless baby wanted someone to DO something to make him feel better.  He tried everything within his infant abilities, to show us.  On Wednesday and Thursday of that week, he wanted that ventilator gone, the full-body pain to stop, the needles to stop bruising him.  Until he could no longer show us what he wanted because he was medically paralyzed and heavily sedated. 


For me, the idea that Zachary would want me to be happy fails to create an illusion of peace around the horrendous circumstances of his death.  I am just as shocked and devastated, even if it were true.  I still rage at the senselessness of his suffering and his death.  I am still as broken by the reality that we only had two weeks together, that I won't mother him as he grows up and becomes a man.  I am still filled with sorrow that I can't see and touch and hold him each day.  I still want him back. 

I am grieving.  And right now, it is intense.  Happiness is not even attractive to me anymore.  In fact, happiness repels me..., even as I believe that grief and bits of happiness can feasibly co-exist.   

If I'm honest though, I don't think Zachary (with his now eternal wisdom?) would wish me happiness above all, anyway.  I am pretty sure happiness is not the thing I should have highest hope for, as I strive to live my life, to honor Zachary's and B.W.'s memory and to raise C.T.  My gut says that I should be living my life authentically (my grief, a part of it) and work towards purpose and meaning.  And, if and when bits of joy and happiness present themselves along the way, I should take them, be thankful.   

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


The morning cold and raining,
dark before the dawn could come
How long in twilight waiting
longing for the rising sun

You're so amazing you shine like the stars
You're so amazing the beauty you are
You came blazing right into my heart
You're so amazing you are...
You are

(Select lyrics from "Amazing", by Janelle; the accompanying music to the photo/video montage we shared at Zachary's funeral)


A hand painted, watercolor work of art from a fellow bereaved mother, who couldn't have known how perfectly her vision for Zachary's painted name aligns with who he was (and thus, with the song we chose for his funeral).  Oh, how bright and brilliant it was to welcome him, in the cold of January, just eight months ago. 
Thank you, Typhaine.  We will treasure this one. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Am I insane?

At first, though, grief made me insane.  It's true.  I have been there.  I am the one woman standing on the street on a Thanksgiving afternoon, screaming and pulling out my hair.  That is my mother coming out the door, yelling my name.  That is me, running from her, running down the beautiful street where houses wear plaques announcing how old and important they are.  That is me making that sound which is both inhuman and guttural and the most human sound a person can make: the sound of grief.  My hair is coming out, not in fistfuls, but in painful tangles, ripped from the root, from my scalp.  That is me running, zigzagging, trying to escape what is inescapable: Grace is dead.

I have been there.  At the brink of losing my mind.  Unable to sleep for more than an hour or two.  Unable to think of anything except what happened: how it happened, how it could have happened, why it happened.  I ask my friends over and over how I could have stopped it, changed it, seen it coming.  My mind only has these questions.  Hospital images.  My own screams echoing in it. 

~ Ann Hood, from her memoir Comfort


Going on with this life makes me feel crazy.  I open a desk drawer to attempt to organize the clutter and I gather up six greeting cards I have purchased over the last several years.  Beautiful, unused, death-of-a-child sympathy cards I have hand selected.  Good ones.  Cards that acknowledge the unfathomable, the senselessness, and simply convey the only comfort there is: I am so, so very sorry.  I thought I'd need them one day, to give to someone else.  To a new bereaved parent.  But, no.  It is my child who died.  Me who received the sympathy cards.  Again.  I throw the cards on the floor in disgust, my weeping face in my hands.    

I go online to purchase C.T. some new fall clothes.  The children's clothing vendors are advertising the obligatory "Best Little Bro" and "Coolest Big Brother" long sleeve T-shirts.  C.T., my middle child, although he is both a little brother and a big brother, has never been able to (acceptably) wear either of these shirts.  I missed the damned window.  The two weeks when C.T. could have proudly worn a Big Brother shirt during Zachary's life.  I roll back on the carpet, knees to my chest in shaking, suffering sobs.   

We are invited to the annual block party.  I don't have words to describe what a ridiculous idea it would be for us to participate in this event.  Yes, it is a lovely night.  Oh, right..,. we haven't seen you since last August.  Yes, our son Zachary was born early in January and was doing so well.  Then E.Coli killed him at two weeks old.  Yes, our son died this year.  No.  Really, it's okay.  We are ready to party.  How has your year been?  B disposes of the invitation before I can even see it.  We collapse on the couch in disbelief, tears blinding our attempt at TV watching. 

B.W.'s eighth birthday is coming up on October 1, and the anticipation and dread of this time of year must be submerged daily.  Over the next month, we will purchase memorial gifts to donate in his memory on his birthday.  We will write on balloons and release them.  We will cry as we sing happy birthday to our firstborn, and eat his cake without him as we've done every year since he died.  And then, what?  I guess we will wait another three months and six days and do it all over again, but for Zachary's first birthday, and then something else for his death anniversary two weeks later.  I am physically ill as I think about the reality of this.  Somehow I imagined that Zachary would be with us, would be included in all of our B.W. remembrance activities throughout each future year.  I feel that I may be truly insane.  How is he dead?  How do we now have two dead children? 


I am tired of being polite.  Tired of pulling myself together, tidying up and making everything appear presentable.  Tired of people asking me what we've been up to, as if the wreckage of Zachary's death doesn't exist, isn't worth acknowledging anymore.  Tired of reserving my tears and outbursts, my misery, for my home, in isolation.  I am so tired of talking about minutia, putting on a half-smile, while my mind fixates on my very dead son, on how everything and every medical non-intervention aligned so perfectly wrong, to take him from us. 

I feel like taking a bat to something, to something expensive, something deemed important.  I want to collapse on the sidewalk, my soaked cheek to scrape against the concrete.  I want to sit in the scalding sun, let it sear and ruin my skin.  I want to scream at the next person who prays for good weather, for schedules to align, for God to bless an event.  I want to throw rocks at the reckless drivers who speed down our neighborhood street.  I want to wear the blanket that held Zachary as he died, around my shoulders everyday. 

I think what I have been dealt is insane.  I think Zachary's illness and suffering are insane.  How can I be expected to pretend it is okay?