The Grieving Garden
LIVING WITH THE DEATH OF A CHILD
By SUSAN REDFERN, SUSAN K. GILBERT
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc. Copyright © 2008 Susan Redfern and Susan K. Gilbert
All rights reserved.
How did you ...? What did you ...? Part 1 focuses on the agonizing days and weeks immediately following a child's death. Most of us weren't at all sure we could survive it. We look back and wonder how we made crucial decisions, even planned and carried out the funeral, while in such pain. Stathi Afendoulis calls this phenomenon an "autopilot kind of thing."
Then, as we slowly emerged from our state of shock, feeling raw and vulnerable, we found ourselves in situations for which we were entirely unprepared. One of the first dreadful moments all of us encountered was being asked by a stranger how many children we had. Initially tongue-tied and stricken, we eventually developed strategies to field this dreaded question, but we still struggle with it.
Another unthinkable but inevitable challenge, which a few faced early on, was how to mark the anniversaries of our child's birth and death. You will learn that even after many years parents still experience waves of sadness as those days approach. As Michele Phua wrote in her journal on the second anniversary of Ryan's death, "It is just another day to the rest of the world and is such a life-changing day for our family." Some describe the ways their family has found to commemorate these milestones with rituals and even celebrations.
Finally, we explore the bittersweet experience of being in the company of friends of our children, and find that most parents seek out that company despite its poignant reminders.
Those people who answered questions in part 1 say that going back to the beginning was very hard, yet healing. They were grateful to have had a reason to remember the first days and, in a sense, to honor them.
As you venture into the recollections of people's early grieving and on into the book, please keep in mind that some are remembering from a distant perspective—twenty years or more after the death—and others after only a year or two. Because grief is an organic experience, we all grow through it. If we were asked the same questions today, many of our answers would be different. The reflections you will be reading, vivid as they may be, are only a snapshot in time.
Surviving the First Few Days
In the period following a shocking loss, people survive the only way they know how. To those around us, our behavior may appear either utterly bizarre or eerily normal. One friend reports being unable to cry after her son was killed except in church, where she sat wordless, Sunday after Sunday, awash in tears. Another, having lost an infant, stood at the playground every morning telling all the other mothers—friends or perfect strangers—about her baby boy. During the first days and weeks after your loss, how did you survive?
I don't remember being conscious of anything that helped me cope with Lainie's death, especially in the days immediately following her passing. We always talked about keeping life "normal" and that's what I did. It was really an autopilot kind of thing. I could barely think about getting out of bed in those early days, let alone pick a coping method. Although at her memorial dinner following the funeral, I toasted her and spoke of the courage she displayed during her battle with cancer. I talked about so many things, even describing to the mourners the actual death and what happened. What I really wanted was to share with everyone there the experience we went through, not only on the day she died but the whole ordeal. I wanted everyone to know my pain, to share it with me and make it their own, so I wouldn't feel so alone.
Loneliness is what I felt the most in those early days. An isolation so profound it seemed to envelop my whole being. At the dinner, I spoke of starting a foundation, Lainie's Foundation, to help the parents of children who have cancer and blood disorders. It was something I had been doing at the hospital before Lainie's death and I wanted to continue. I don't know why, but it seemed the only logical thing to do. The only thing that made sense to me was to go back to that world. Most parents want to leave it all behind, but it was the one thing that still connected me to Lainie in a concrete way. For most of her illness, I was her primary caretaker, and in that time we spent together I experienced the most intimate and personal relationship I will ever have. The privilege of caring for this child was the pinnacle of my life. I could do no more good than to care for her. When she was gone, I had to keep on caring. I just couldn't turn it off.
My wife Emily was very angry, as I was at that time, and this further created a sense of isolation and emptiness. Work was a terrible place to be, especially since we are self-employed and our employees are our friends. It was so tough to face them every day. The early days are so enshrouded by grief that every waking moment is about the loss. Friends and relatives always warned us to be careful, to go slowly, but it's silly advice, because you're already at a dead stop. Like being in a waking coma. It's amazing I got anything accomplished during those first three months. Lainie died in June, on the last day of school, and we had the summer to escape. We fled the confines of home and work and headed out to other places, where people didn't know us or we were more alone. It was easier to deal with the constant ache of loss by being alone.
Being alone is a good thing, at least for me. I had time to wrestle with all the emotions boiling inside of me. My anger was so strong, my bitterness so deep, my loss so painful.
I could barely stand it. I used to sit or stand somewhere and be overcome by this feeling of helplessness so powerful it rendered me mute and frozen. Incapable of doing anything, I wanted to scream and punch and kick and destroy everything around me. I wanted to blame something and then destroy it for taking my girl away from me, but there was nothing. Nothing I could grab onto and crush to dust. In fact, that's what I felt like, dust. Ashes. Totally burned away yet still living. I remember when Lainie was diagnosed and I had this physical reaction to the news. I felt like my body had been gutted, like when you clean a fish. Somebody just took my guts out. My torso felt empty! There was nothing inside me. I would stand with my fists clenched, thrusting them upward to heaven, waiting for God to help me and cursing him with every fiber of my being. My mouth would be wide open, but my rage choked any sound I could make. It was like the painting The Silent Scream. I had a physical body with no soul. I was just an abyss.
I shared these feelings with very few people. Most, when they heard me speak of it, immediately jumped to conclusions about my wellbeing and worried after me. It's not what I needed. I really needed them to stand there and scream and cry with me, to be as sad as I was, but it's impossible. Even my wife grieves so differently from me. Understanding another person's grief is a huge mystery. Now, when I meet people like myself, I make no attempt to understand or even help them. In fact, I am mostly silent, and when I do share, it is to share grief and nothing more. I cannot bring back for them what they have lost. When I realized that for myself, it was the end of one kind of grieving and the beginning of another.
[From an interview]
I was at the end of a pregnancy and went to the doctor; I was a young, pregnant woman.
The doctor put this monitor on and I could see her face and I knew. She asked if my husband were there. I said, "No," and she said, "Why don't you call him?" The baby died on Monday and I did not give birth until Wednesday. The autopsy people and the doctor said that the blood stopped flowing and it got clotted, but that was not necessarily the cause.
The doctor gave me options. She said, "You can just stay in the hospital if you want." She would schedule me to come into the hospital and induce labor or do a C-section if I did not want to go through labor. I decided to have the induction, and it was hard, really painful labor. It was weird. They tied me up to a monitor; there was no concern about the baby. And I was going into this despair and suddenly I felt her spirit like it was out there. It was almost like I saw her. I felt she was still around. I felt her support.
The hospital I had her in was very sensitive. They let me bathe her and dress her, take pictures. So at least I have those memories. My mother says they never even brought her the first daughter to whom she gave birth. She didn't know the baby had died—they told my father first and then my father had to tell my mom, and the doctors and nurses never did say anything. Some people might think, Oh, it's morbid, I don't want to see the baby, or they might not have the courage to ask.
On the day of the funeral service, we brought her coffin to the house; we made an altar and people brought flowers. In the Latino culture there's that wake where you stay with the baby. We had her there all weekend.
I have a whole album of her pictures, and that's all I have. In her short life, she really touched a lot of people. My sister-in-law already had three children and was expecting her fourth. It taught her to be grateful for what she had.
Her name was going to be Camila or Camila Angelita. And my husband wanted to change it. The fact is her name is Angelita, little angel. She gave us so much, not just her dad and me but others who know us.
I remember how hard it was when I first went out after her death. I was seeing strollers and wondering where they had all been before.
Mary Lou Coffelt
When Mattie died, I was joyfully eight months pregnant with our second son. Life was at its peak for us. We had been happily married for fourteen years and, after a lifetime of working for other people in the ranching industry, we had finally been able to successfully maintain our own cattle enterprise, a great accomplishment in this sometimes tenuous business. We had just purchased our first home, a fixer-upper with six acres, and we were ecstatic land barons! Our lives had reached the "top" and we were grateful.
Then, The Day. Our world completely stopped ... dead in its tracks. Never, ever to return to the "normal" we thought we once knew.
(The good news is people do return to life if they can make the treacherous journey and tough choices. It has been nine years now. I am a survivor.)
The beginning of our ordeal was surreal. Much of it is a blur for me, although I remember some things as clearly as if they are happening to me this very minute. I feel fortunate that instinctively, from the very beginning, my husband and I made choices and took actions that allowed us to work through and live our grief. Bob was able to hold our dead son for a long time, alone and at the sacred place that he passed. I was able to go there too, and as horrible as it was at the time, hold him and be present to that experience. Had I not been allowed to go to the scene of the accident, I think I would have had a much more difficult time accepting the reality of his death.
The pictures flash painfully through my head, brought up by the slightest provocation, but I have learned to replace them with kinder, gentler ones. This was a conscious decision. The horror of our pictures of our precious little Mattie, his "misshapen head" (as Bob called it), and the accident that ended his life. We knew that there was no hope for any semblance of peace if those pictures continually flashed in our heads. So in the beginning when they flashed, we cried and talked and died a little more inside each time. Then one day we talked of how we had to "turn the channel on our TV," "flip the page," and make the decision to change the horror thoughts. It didn't always work at first and then, when it was appropriate, we would gently remind the other to try to turn the page. I say appropriate because this exercise was not about denial, but survival. I did not want to be consumed by the horror. We needed to have some sort of "control" of our life back (although I realized at the moment of Mattie's death that we don't really have control of our lives, but we can control what we do with the life we are given). I believe this page-turning "exercise" was the beginning of an effective strategy that helped us walk through our first days of grief. It was the first step that allowed me to walk the treacherous journey, but keep myself from being swallowed up in it and drowned.
Our first days were numb, of course, but somehow—probably because both of us are doers by nature—we took action. In ways that I look back on and marvel at. We encouraged our "whims." Our first step was to choose a casket. We had a masterful, rugged, almost-four-going-on-fourteen-year-old cowboy to buy a "box" for, a final resting place, symbolic of his uniqueness, and what we saw were a frilly white odd-shaped box and a cold vinyl-looking one. We stood in the mortuary, stunned. It had never occurred to us that we would ever be standing in that place. John, our funeral director, looked at us and softly said, "There are no rules. You can make your own casket if you want." Well, we were off. We would make our own. Of course, the reality was we had very little energy or ability to function at that time. Our minds designed a beautiful box for our little Mattie and we shared the idea with friends. Our dear friend Ed offered to help us. He was an incredible woodworker who lived on a neighboring ranch. Ed and his cousin Marty and Bob and I would create this masterpiece. Bob and I gathered the wood and met at Ed's wood shop. We designed the box, but they did most of the cutting and fitting. We pounded a few nails and sanded a bit, but mostly we cried and talked and stood there silent. The love poured out. Our Mattie was there, I could feel him smiling at us. It was magical. We placed our cattle brand on the outside in two spots. We each cut a piece of our lariats and tied them on the end for handles. For the inside we each gave up our favorite saddle blanket, and my husband's worn flannel over-shirt became Mattie's pillow. Ed's wife Pattie, who had been in the process of sewing Mattie a special cowboy quilt for his room, crafted a smaller version of the quilt she had hoped to give him and laid it on him.
It was beautiful. It was fitting. And it helped us send our child out in style. These things were and still are important to us. We did not stop at that. In the days before our service, we visited our child regularly and often, something the typical funeral director would not encourage. It was an infringement on his life, I am sure. We dressed Mattie ourselves, one last time. Our family visited and brought important mementos and placed them with Mattie, in his beautiful casket.
We put some energy into the service, although my sister and our priest did all the work. I am very aware that in those early days it was very important to us to ritualize the experience as fully as we could. However, we were not physically capable of executing much. We needed and had friends and loved ones with legs. We had the need, they made it happen. And when and where we were able, they somehow had the grace to leave us alone, to do it ourselves.
Those first days were a blur and a blessing:
To have a "perfect" goodbye.
To have the love and support of an entire community.
To have no regrets.
All of this gave us the strength to begin our wake-up call and to realize what had just happened to us.
[From an interview]
Ronnie was twenty-three and got murdered. He died only a block from my house. And I was away on vacation—that was '88. He died the day before Thanksgiving, so Thanksgiving to me was a tumultuous journey. I didn't celebrate Thanksgiving for about ten years. I left and I started helping feed the homeless. I just wanted to be anyplace but home, because that was his favorite holiday—not all my other kids—that was his favorite holiday. I don't care where he was, he'd come back and eat. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Grieving Garden by SUSAN REDFERN, SUSAN K. GILBERT. Copyright © 2008 Susan Redfern and Susan K. Gilbert. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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