Early in my grief, I wanted to do something to help others in their grief. I wanted to start a support group or be involved in getting one started. But what I didn’t understand at that point was that I couldn’t even help myself, much less anyone else. There were so many things that I had yet to experience in that first year for which I was completely unequipped to handle, and there were feelings that I had yet to experience that I had never felt before. I know that my experience isn’t over, but there are a few things that I’ve learned throughout this first year that I can share with others that might help a parent to know that you aren’t going crazy, as you often feel. I can share the abruptly changing emotions that quickly turn you into a crying, heaping form on the floor. I can share my first year’s journey with parents that are just beginning their journey to offer you support during one of the most difficult events you will ever experience. Here’s my experience.
One of the first emotions I grappled with was the unexpectedness of my son’s death. Call it a state of denial, a state of disbelief, a state of numbness, a state of fogginess, or a state of shock. Whatever you label it, it’s really a mixture of all of these states of mind rolled into one massive blob of pain, sadness, disconnection, and denial. And when you have all of those emotions vying for your attention simultaneously, it’s completely exhausting and depleting, and makes your existence intensively unpredictable. I believe my whole first year has been spent in this dazed and confused frame of mind. Living through the shock of the initial news and then to experience all of those dreaded firsts are enough to leave you in a state of disbelief and denial. Through almost every first I have experienced, I felt like…”This all has to be a nightmare. Surely I’m going to wake up and Aaron is going to call me and say everything is ok.” I even had dreams about it….in one, the Navy called me and said there had been a mistake….that Aaron was alive and was seen getting on a plane. I remembered feeling relieved that he was alive, but concerned about where he was going, because the Navy didn’t know where he was going either. In another one, I dreamed that Aaron walked into my school and I introduced him as…Aaron….my son who was thought to be dead….but he’s alive. Waking up from those dreams and realizing that those were just that….dreams…and that I WAS living a parent’s worst nightmare was so overwhelmingly emotional that it almost physically takes the air from your chest. Expect to dwell in this place for some time. I truly believe it is a form of self protection….that your body and mind just take over and react in a way that is needed to absorb the news at a pace that allows you to grasp gravity of your situation in manageable increments. As much as it feels like you will not survive…you do…I have thought that I would never make it after Aaron’s death…but I’m here. Maybe I’m battered and beaten…but I’m here.
I have only been through a year and and 2 months of the most excruciating pain of my life….and just when I think that I’ve dealt with the sadness…and the hopelessness…it hits full force again, abruptly forming a wave that completely consumes me…pulling me under the water…tossing and turning me as I’m slammed into rock ledges and coral reef structures that slash my body into gaping wounds from head to toe. Eventually the wave releases me on the shore…and leaves me heaving from the exhaustion of fighting against the power of the wave itself and it’s ability to keep me from breathing for an extended period of time. I am left on the shore beaten and battered and unable to catch my bearings. My body aches from the battering….my heart aches from the emotional turmoil of being tossed and turned and slammed against the obstacles that led to the wounds that left me bruised and shattered. The day after, I feel the effects of the struggle….I have some vicious wounds that need some attention…my body is physically sore from the interaction. I might even walk with a limp…longer than I might think.You see, grief battles with us…and many times we walk away with noticeable physical scars and disfigurements. How could we not? We’ve lost one the most precious gifts in our lives…our child. But one thing I’ve noticed throughout this first year is that the good days come a little more often…sometimes even a couple of days in a row. I have been able to feel joy in spurts and to think of my son with joyful thoughts that make my heart smile. Despite the waves that come, good days also come…they just may be spaced out. But I’ve learned to cling to those days with everything inside of me. I’ve learned to look at things from a deeper perspective than I ever before. Blues are intensely blue now…the sun glistens with strikingly golden, white light…the birds sing louder than I’ve ever noticed. I feel and see more deeply than I ever have. Through this loss, I have learned to appreciate every single moment I have with my loved ones…to cherish those talks over lunch and conversations in the car. I feel more deeply, I love more deeply, I cry intensely, and I experience joy intensely…and yes…I still experience sadness intensely. But the good news is…I do feel joy and I have learned to treasure the moments I have with my loved ones that are still here. That doesn’t mean I have forgotten my son…it just means that I’ve learned to feel some happiness despite the pain.
One of the strongest and most confusing emotions I have dealt with throughout this year is anger. This isn’t the kind of anger you feel when your child breaks a rule or the kind of anger you experience when someone at work makes you mad…this is an anger that wells up from deep within…it rises from the bottom of your soul and displays itself in some very ugly ways. This kind of anger is hard to tame and hard to hide…and most of the time, you can’t hide it nor tame it. You feel angry that the rest of the world continues to go on while your world has come to an abrupt halt. You’re angry when you see other families celebrate graduations, weddings, birthdays, or if you just see families with all of their children. It’s like a smack in the face to view the happiness of other families, while your family has been torn apart. Then there’s those clever sayings that are meant to give you comfort….but they make you so deeply angry. For example, “Grief never ends, but it’s a passage, not a place to stay.” The rest of that quote is really quite comforting, but early in my grief the first part of this quote used to make me feel so bitter inside, because at that point in my overwhelming grief…I couldn’t imagine my grief being a passage….for me it was a place to stay for a while. It was a place that I needed to stay for a while…and each of you will need to stay in that place longer than others might…and that’s ok. We all deal with and handle grief differently. Another source of anger that is often looked down upon is the anger I have felt towards God. I hear so many people that say they never questioned God…they never wavered in their faith…that they never felt angry towards God. Well…I believe that more people experience that kind of anger, but they just don’t admit it. They don’t want people to know that they are questioning the Maker of the universe. Why??? I don’t know, but I think part of it is because that it’s not an accepted response to grief…it’s looked down upon to question or to be angry with God. Well….when you have prayed over your child for years and even ramped up the prayers in the month before you child’s death and the answer to your prayer is the exact opposite of what you had prayed for, you feel some anger. You feel some betrayal…you feel disappointment…..and you feel extremely angry. You also lose some trust, because you put your full and total trust in God and you placed your child in God’s hands. So to those of you that say you never lost trust or questioned your faith…I’m glad you haven’t experienced the anger that I did….but don’t judge me because I did. I think many of those that say they haven’t felt that way…deep down inside probably have felt some of that anger and disappointment…they just don’t want to admit it. What I can say to those of you who have felt this way….it does get better. You just have to learn how to work it out between you and God. My counselor encouraged me to write a letter to God and to tell him about my anger, my disappointment, and the betrayal I felt. So, I did just that. And you know what…it has helped more than anything. EVERY single thing I wrote about, God responded to with songs, pictures I had taken, and poems that people had sent me. Some may think of me as crazy…but God does answer…sometimes in the most unexpected ways. His responses have helped repair much of those feelings. I’m sure I might deal with them again at some point, but I know that I won’t feel them as intensely as I did in the beginning.
Beyond the anger, confusion and sadness, I have often felt like I was losing my mind. The range of emotions that you feel simultaneously can leave you bewildered and lost…like you are in a maze with no way out. Throughout my first year, I experienced this almost daily, and I often just wanted to crawl into a hole and just stay there. Some of it has passed now…but it hasn’t completely left me. I still have days….sometimes several in a row…where I experience all of the emotions on the spectrum of grief. When they come, they overtake me and I’m down for the count for a few days. But then, the sun comes out again and I feel its warmth and its healing power…and once again, I’m resting in the honor of Aaron’s memory, I’m smiling at the memories of him, and I feel the warmth of his spirit with me.
So from one grieving parent to another….yes the pain is debilitating and overpowering. But good days are out there and they will come. It used to make me so angry when people told me that…but believe me…..it’s true. Having better days doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten your loved one, it just means you are learning to love them in a different way…we’re learning how to love them from a different realm. They may no longer be with us physically, but we have to think spiritually now….and we have to figure out how to love them through the spiritual realm now.
My heart, love, and prayers go out to any parent that has suffered the loss of a child. It’s a journey that we walk together…that we learn together….and that we all walk through the journey at our own pace. Never let anyone tell you that you should be over it…or that you shouldn’t talk about your child anymore….no one has the right to tell you how to react and how to feel when you lose a child.
Love and hugs to all who reads this.
In memory of my beautiful son…