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.   


  1. Holy cow, what a post! I too have had comments like that: "Mabel would want you to..." or sometimes more generally "What do you think Mabel would want for you?" especially as I've had up and down doubts to my career. Ive even said the words, "I dont know what Mabel would want for me. I didnt have the chance to really get to know her!" In some way it also has made me feel like a failure. I dont even know what my baby would want- and I was her mother. but six hours just isnt enough time to figure that all out. I appreciate how you figured out what Zachary wanted- to be heard, to be free of wires, to have help from pain. Made me think of what Mabel wanted. She wanted air- wanted to be able to take a full breath and get all the oxygen she needed. The only time I felt she was communicating with me was when we took out the vent and i felt like she was saying "why, mom, why?" (as in why is life so unfair? why does it hurt? why cant you fix me?)

    So what do Mabel and Zachary want? They want their moms. They want to be alive. Of course they "want us to be happy" but the only way they would see that possible is if they never died. THey wanted to live and be in our arms. They want what we want.

    great post.

  2. Grief and happiness can and do co exist. But not for a long time. And I feel the amount and intensity of our grief is a reflection of our love. Without love there is no grief. Sending you love, mama.

  3. There is so much here, Gretchen. And so much that i deeply relate to.
    I have trouble with any affirmations regarding life after death, especially if they are meant to avoid the pain of losing a loved one...
    It makes me so sad to read your account of Zachary's suffering. I am so sorry he had to live through that. And that you continue to live through it everyday. xx

  4. Babies don't want their parents to be happy. They are completely self-centred creatures. Even my nearly six year old doesn't want me to be happy because she really wants me to be happy - she wants me to be happy because when I'm sad or scared or worried, she feels sad or scared or worried - she wants to feel better herself. This is just another dumb, dumb, dumb thing people who have no idea say out of discomfort and I just hope they don't realize how much blame it puts on us. I really appreciate this post: thank you, Gretchen, for not being afraid to write so honestly about how ugly grief is.

  5. Happiness... I have come to believe it is rather worthless in and of itself. Although, now that I am hyperaware of its value in our society/culture I realize just how much we try to make it the most important thing, the end all be all, the fix... and I see how much this mindset completely falls apart in the face of tragedy. I am learning to accept this, I find it freeing somehow even, but everyone else... most refuse to let go of the lie, they say it's for my sake, but really, I think it's because they are terrified for themselves.

    1. I don't think it could be said more perfectly or more succinctly. I agree that it is probably terrifying for other people to watch this be stripped away from me. Thank you Kristin.