For as long as I've been a bereaved mother, whole, in-tact families have bewildered me.
They play together, eat together, bicker and make up afterward. I hear them talk about planning things together as a family. They casually refer to their sons as the boys. The children confidently declare how many kids they'll have when they grow up. Birthdays and holidays are happy days and are celebrated with ease and excitement. The difficulty in taking family photos amounts to will the little one get dirty, or fail to cooperate, or both? Together, the family endures the difficulties, disappointments and drudgeries of life, each one accounted for and tucked safely into bed at night.
That scenario of wholeness is long gone for my own family.
To contrast the holes in my family to the completeness of others tends to be a slippery slope into a pit of bitterness..., and it takes a great deal of effort, and an emotional toll, each time, to climb out of that pit. So, I limit my exposure, I keep an arm's distance from, the wholeness and happiness of others. I do it to protect my broken heart from deeper despair and disillusionment. I believe it's a normal and acceptable way to cope in the face of traumatic, unthinkable loss.
Since Zachary's death, there is a fresh, and often confusing, source of externally-induced pain for me.
Now that the hard-earned, re-calibrated life we created in the years after B.W. died has been shattered -- too -- it is even difficult, sometimes, to look the lives and stories of the once-bereaved in the eye. It is like looking at my former self in the mirror.
The once-bereaved people I know are my dearest friends and the most compassionate, wonderful people that exist in this world. Some are people I've connected with via my blog (and theirs) and the support groups I attend. Some are women I worked with over the course of five years to plan and prepare our town's annual walk to remember. They are friendships and authentic connections I've made around the globe, and I am eternally grateful to know each of them. They are courageous, beautifully broken people, living and coping with the awful reality of having lost a child.
But sometimes I lose the strength to bear witness to their stories. You see, I remember the years after B.W. died, when my loss was singular. I remember the emotional toll of those early years of grief, and the persistence and courage it took to learn to live with such unfulfilled love for my child. I remember surrounding myself with people who could relate, and gradually, begrudgingly, coming to accept B.W.'s death. I remember how bittersweet it was to welcome C.T. into our life. I remember the new and tentative hope, the zest for life, that he gradually redefined in my heart. And while I grew to understand I would never be healed of my grief for B.W. in this lifetime, nor would I ever feel safe from tragedy, I remember coming to know real joy again and believing that life could truly be good again. I remember the explosion of joy and gratitude I felt upon welcoming Zachary into our incomplete, but happy, family. In those days, life was truly as good as it gets for a once-bereaved family.
I watch that scenario of my former life (that ended on January 20, 2014) play out over and over again as I witness the lives of the once-bereaved people in my life, and as I read and absorb many of the virtual stories of other bereaved people I've come to know and respect. Some of them almost perfectly personify that as good as it gets life that was briefly my own. Somehow, the new life they have created, are creating, remains in tact, while my whole world has been shattered, again, with Zachary's death.
Every bereaved parent deserves her resurgence, her renewed hope, her hard-earned, bittersweet happiness..., and all of her subsequent children. But, after Zachary's death, it is no longer my story. That life, for me, is gone.
I know exactly four people in the world, personally, who have lost two children in separate instances. One reached out to me (virtually) in the early months after Zachary died, initially via a loss support site, to share her own story of the loss of her two children. I have read her emails thousands of times, just to remind myself that someone is surviving a similar existence. Another is a woman from one of my support groups who lost two adult children. When we talk, I recognize her grief fatigue, her distrust and cynicism about the future. The twice-bereaved mother I've known the longest is a woman I met while attending a support group, after B.W. died. She and her husband were with us at Zachary's bedside after we learned of his brain hemorrhage and the recommendation to remove his life support. While I couldn't believe death was coming for another of my children,... of course, I am sure she could.
More recently, I've connected with a woman whose story very closely mirrors my own. She lost her firstborn, a son, seven years ago, and a daughter, her third child, just over six months ago. Her surviving daughter, now five years old, is in kindergarten, the same age C.T. was when Zachary died. Like C.T., her surviving daughter is now flanked by dead siblings. Only dead siblings. Like our family, there will be no more children.
She lives in another country and so, we've figured out how to make good use of phone calls and texts. We share in the mockery of living in this tiny microcosm, where lightning has struck twice, taking two of our beloved children. Together, we mourn the fact that our reproductive journeys both started and ended with tragedy and death. How's your eldest? Dead. How's your youngest? Dead. We cope with our loneliness and longing, and the loneliness and longing of our living children who thought (hoped) their younger sibling would be with them for life. We share in the experience of the mostly well-intentioned, but often hurtful, support from people who have a hard time wrapping their minds around what the accumulated loss of two children can do to a person. We grieve the loss of our own hope for the future while we try to maintain some scraps of optimism for the sake of our living children, who have already suffered so much at such a young age.
A couple of weeks ago, she marked the seven year anniversary of her son's death, and on the very same day, there happened to be a memorial service scheduled at her church where her daughter's name was be read aloud, as part of remembering recent deaths in the congregation. When she told me, I could have cried with her all day long. Two memorials, for her two dead children, on the very same day. Like me, a lifetime ago, she'd planned to have her youngest daughter participate this year, and every year going forward, in remembering her brother's anniversary. And instead, her daughter is dead too.
Sometime during the first few weeks after Zachary died, I remember someone saying to me, maybe a few people separately saying to me:
Well, of course, you'd never wish it on anyone.
You'd never want someone else to know this pain.
There was a heavy fog in those early months, but I remember my guttural, pained response very clearly. I remember choking out the vile words...
I would wish this on ANYONE BUT ME. ANYONE BUT ZACHARY.
I am not proud of it. It sounds ugly, even evil, and of course we don't have a choice in whom tragedy (or twice the tragedy) strikes, but my gut response is still true, twenty-two months later.
In the years after B.W. died, I would have said yes, this pain is so horrendously awful, I'd never want anyone else to experience it in my place. In my grief, I became that heart-cracked-open, more compassionate, sacrificial person, who mostly rose to the occasion of her awful tragedy.
But then the universe laughed in the face of my once-bereaved, recreated life. Twenty-two months ago, my burden became double the loss, when Zachary died in my arms. I would have wished his suffering and death on anyone other than my own family, if it meant he would be here with me today.
I miss the person I was one lifetime ago, the one who wouldn't wish this on anyone.