Answering the 'Why?' After Losing a Child

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It’s inevitable.

You are trekking through life, minding your own business, and then, bam. Life sucker punches you in the gut when you aren’t looking. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, then lucky you.

When that train derails, trailing steadily behind is a little red caboose with that smokestack of a question: “But why?” The answer may as well be swirling away in the atmosphere in a puff cloud of dirty black smoke.

Almost from our infancy, we are designed to want answers.

I have four voraciously inquisitive kids under 10 years old, and they are constantly throwing questions at me like I’m a dartboard. These days, if you don’t know the answer, it’s so easy to just say, “Let’s Google it.” But what if the question you are grappling with has no hard and fast answer? What if, when you ask it, you can hear your voice echoing back at you from the four corners of the universe?

Nine years ago, when my perfectly healthy infant son died in the delivery room, that question was seared onto my brain with a branding iron. The question with no answer. The harder I tried to reach and grasp it, the further away it seemed.

So far, this is what I’ve been able to come up with…

#1: My husband and I didn’t do anything to deserve losing our child.

#2: God was not punishing us for some offense we have committed.

#3: Other people are not more deserving of a child than we are.

#4: And no, we were not cruel to animals in a previous life and deserving of bad karma, nor do we subscribe to that philosophy.

Here’s what I do know:

I may never fully understand why I had to lose my child when others didn’t.

But here’s the thing:

Why is not the most pressing question. When you are being crushed by the weight of your own grief, why will not save you. What may save you is how.

How now shall I live? Now that the world as I know it has been obliterated. How now shall I pick up the pieces of my shattered heart and make it through another week? Another day? Another hour? Another minute?

At some point, you have to make a decision.

Am I going to waste away in my pain or am I going to uproot the dry, dusty fields of my heart and plow through the hardened, cracked dirt? Is this going to become a toxin running through my veins or am I going to use this stench to fertilize new soil where good things can grow?

I don’t know about you, but I want to plant rows and rows and rows of green fields upon green fields as far as the eye can see. I want to witness hope spring eternal. I even want to reap where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed.

Because even with all that I have been through, I still believe “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no heart has imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him.” And, no matter what, I still believe my God is a good, good Father. Without question.

Image via Thinkstock.

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When Silence Becomes the Enemy After Losing a Child

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In the wee small hours of the morning, if you listen closely, you can hear it.

Silence.

Silence, when there should be a baby crying for a 2 a.m. feeding.

Silence, when my husband and I should be debating whose turn it is to get up.

Silence, instead of sweet moans of contentment as a baby sucks down warm milk.

Some would say silence is golden. No doubt, there are some haggard, overworked parents at the point of exhaustion who would give just about anything for a moment’s peace. But for us, silence means a death sentence. For us, silence means we walked out of the hospital empty-handed. For us, silence feels like a cruel joke.

Sometimes silence feels like the enemy.

Sometimes silence happily mocks my pain.

Sometimes silence is the loudest sound I’ve ever heard. For a while, that silence tried to consume me. It slithered up and surrounded me so there was no chance of escape. It coiled itself around my neck in a stranglehold and squeezed so tight I could barely breathe. After rendering me powerless, it rammed itself down my throat and possessed me, body and soul.

And there are those who liked me that way. They would much rather me suffer in silence and play the quiet game. They think it’s time for me to “get over it.” They want me  to “buck up and move on.” They don’t like being made to feel uncomfortable by the mentioning of his name.

But losing a child is not something you get over. You can’t just move on when your flesh and blood is buried beneath the ground, or turned to ashes in an urn above the fireplace, or scattered in the wind and waves of a turbulent sea. They continue to speak to us with voices that are otherworldly. Changing us from the people we used to be. The old has gone. We are being made new.

This new me can’t suffer in silence. That’s not how you win this quiet game. Because he lives each time I write about him. He comes alive when I say his name.

Cohen.

Son of Charles and Andrea. Little brother of Chad. Big brother of Sarah, Hannah, and Savannah.

He’s a part of us. A family of seven. One of us just so happens to live in heaven.

Forgive me if you feel uncomfortable. Just scroll past me in your news feed. I don’t mean to be an inconvenience. This is just me being the new me.

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The Everyday Trauma of Losing a Child No One Talks About

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As much as I joke about what I endured as a middle child, growing up the middle of three was pretty great. I learned so much from my younger and older siblings. As I got older, I always imagined I would also have three kids of my own. It seemed like a good number. A number that would complete our family. So I was elated, and a little nervous when I discovered this year that I would finally be a mother of three. I was now facing my 39th year on this earth, so unlike the other two pregnancies, we decided to wait to tell anyone because that’s what people do, though it never made too much sense to me. 

We even waited to tell our families. It was so hard not to tell the kids or to share the news with our parents. I wanted everyone to share in the joy and the journey. I wanted to rub my belly in public and stop hiding my growing tummy. I wanted everyone else to wonder about the baby, who she would be, and who she would look like. But we waited until we knew the baby was healthy and strong. Then we started to tell people.

two young brothers standing and smiling
Jolene’s sons Lourson (right) and Jax wearing their “big brother” T-shirts

This picture to the right is from the day we told the boys, gifting them with shirts to celebrate the new baby. It was to be the picture I would eventually share in the obligatory Facebook announcement. I looked at this picture and wondered how being a big brother would be different or the same for my son Lourson this time. I laughed at how my other son Jax would come to accept being a middle child as he navigated the same challenges I did growing up sandwiched between the firstborn and the baby. I wondered about the first picture I would take with all three of my children and if everyone would be smiling as brightly as they were in this picture.

It is with the heaviest of hearts, and I do mean the very heaviest, that I am now haunted by those wonders. Those wonders wake me at 3 a.m. and pin me down in bed in the morning when I would normally be getting up. They follow me around as I wander from room to room crying. They are bold and present when I am praying the day will end so I can crawl back in bed. They stare back at me when I look at the face of the man I love, the man who has been scraping me off the floor and enduring my pain, much of it very loud and sloppy. 

Loss is ugly and mean. It is the absence of something that truly belongs. Sometimes it taps you on the shoulder and scurries away, only to revisit you from time to time in some watered-down version of itself. Sometimes it holds your face, staring at you, daring you to look away first. Then sometimes it bursts into your home uninvited and screams at you, threatening to hold your hand for the rest of your life. But eventually it dulls a little.

The loss of a child is all that and more. This last week I have tried to string words together to describe that horror. I couldn’t. I couldn’t imagine how this loss would ever be manageable or dull, even a little. I talked to a friend who has experienced the loss of a child and he said to me something that you always hear, but don’t want to believe when it becomes the reality you are facing: “The pain never goes away, you just learn how to live with it.” F*ck. I imagined having to hold the hand of loss for the rest of my life. I wanted it to leave my house. I wanted to “get through it.” I wanted my mind to overcome the pain in my heart. That’s the thing about grief, though. Logic doesn’t stand a chance against grief. It can’t fill the hole left by the absence of something that truly belongs. 

As I write this I am barely emerging from the worst of it and wondering why nobody ever talks about this part. I can’t bring myself to cook a decent meal for my kids or be completely present in a conversation…And then there’s the horrible crying. It comes out of nowhere and is constant. It makes you ugly and burns your face. It is so heavy that it chokes you and you find it hard to breathe. And nobody ever talks about the trauma of the worst physical pain a human can feel. The trauma. The actual physical pain that makes you scream, stumble, pass out. The kind of intense physical pain that serves as a cruel reminder of what you are losing, in case there was ever any doubt. Yet somehow in the middle of this nightmare, there is still the capacity to feel a tremendous amount of love, because it is love that is in fact the reason for this hell. Nobody talks about what you’re supposed to do with that. 

Maybe one day I will find a way to not spontaneously cry while waiting in line. Maybe I will be able to walk through Jaxon’s daycare without thinking about the crib his little sister was supposed to occupy. Maybe I won’t feel the weight of Lourson’s empathy telling me he is worried about what will happen to me now that the baby is gone.  Maybe I will be able to look at the love of my life without seeing how much he is hurting for me and postponing his own grief. Who knows. For now I miss waking five times a night to pee. I miss the swollen breasts. I miss the cravings and aversions. I miss outgrowing my clothes and needing a nap. I miss how brilliant and sharp everything was. I miss being with my baby, and dreaming, and completely loving all the possibilities this life held. 

Each morning now seems to start with missing; the kind of missing that you try to bargain with and talk yourself out of. The kind of missing that you fear will start this strong every morning for the rest of your life. It is the kind of missing that you wish would disappear because it hurts so damn bad, but you can’t let it go because you think it has to exist to honor your child and remind your heart. It is the kind of missing that has changed you, and you will be tethered to that forever. It is the kind of missing that reminds you that hell and resilience can coexist, but it is a constant, hostile negotiation. It is pure love. It is heartbreak.

People usually end something like this by saying “Hug your babies tonight.” That is valid. Yes, do that always. For me, it would be to share your happiness with people, and your grief for that matter. Tell people when something wonderful happens. Let people share that with you for as long as they can. I hate the fact that word of my daughter’s life comes now in the form of an announcement of her passing. I would go back and redo that in a heartbeat. I would give anything to have others share those months with me wondering and smiling and talking and loving and celebrating her.

And if the time ever comes, share your grief. Openly “miss.” Validate the pain. When this began almost a month ago I thought I was completely losing my mind.  It took an hour long conversation with my doctor to assure me otherwise (although that still comes into question at least twice a day). He said to me, “We have a strange approach to grief in America. We hide it and we try to do it alone, very quietly without disturbing other people. You lost your baby. You get to grieve.” It was at that moment that I confronted the way I have grieved my whole life and knew it was not sustainable, not after this. This one I can not do alone.

I am very fortunate to have good people in my life who continue to amaze me with their kindness. They have sat with me, cried with me, listened, held my hand, and refrained from telling me how it was all going to be rainbows and unicorns again one day. They have not run from the grief, as ugly as it has been. Instead, they walked toward it and doused it with love. Thank you. 

Until the day I die, I will remember every detail of this. I will remember the date, I will remember the last place I went before it happened and what I was wearing. I will remember the headache that would not go away, the bizarre headache that told me something was wrong. I will remember the words I spoke to God on the way to the hospital, and I will remember every single second I was there. The doctor’s face, his voice, and every horrible word he said to me. Every single cruel detail. 

But I do not want my daughter to be remembered as the reason for my grief or for why I am changed. She was not this experience. I write this now to make sure of that; to speak about what she was during this very short time and about the love she grew in us. She was Ruby Grace Foster. She was joyfully anticipated. We smiled thinking about her. She was feisty and she kicked my ass. I knew she was smarter than me, and that scared me. She slept every night with my arms wrapped around her, and she was loved completely. 

I will now honor her life with honest joy and honest grief. And I will love her forever. Under the weight of so much pain, I will love her forever.

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Why Mornings Are the Hardest After My Daughter Passed Away

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Two months, one week and two days ago, my world ended. I have been doing my best to get up and do something productive every day, but it’s so hard.

Many days all I want to do is lie on the couch or stay in bed and just cry. I know that would be the last thing my daughter, Casey, would want me to do though. I feel like I’m missing a large part of myself. When I look in a mirror, I expect to see parts of me blurred or faded. Everything I do makes me think of Casey. I hear a song and think, “Casey would like that” or see a little girl her age and wish Casey were here to make a new friend.

Anytime something brings me joy, my first thought is that I wish Casey were here to share in the joy, and then I am left feeling this bizarre guilt. How can I feel joy when I am mourning the loss of my child?

There is no handbook on the proper way to grieve. Everyone does it the best way that they can. It’s OK to feel joy. Mourning doesn’t mean that you have to be sad all of the time. I think mourning is a time of reflection, a time to look back on the life of your loved one and appreciate all that he/she was and did.

I think it’s OK to smile when you recall happy memories. I think it’s OK to turn off your brain and go watch a silly movie, maybe even laughing a little, too. I think most of our lost loved ones would want us to find joy again. I know Casey wouldn’t want me crying all the time. She hated when people cried or argued.

I would give anything to be able to talk to Casey right now. I want so badly to know that she is happy, free and not in any pain. I want to know that she wasn’t scared and that her new world is beautiful and peaceful. I want to know that she knows how much she was and always will be loved. I know these things in my heart, but I would give anything to hear it from her.

I talk to Casey a lot. Her ashes are in the living room, and I tell her good morning and kiss her goodnight each day. I tell her goodbye when I leave the house, and I tell her how much I love and miss her many times throughout the day. I know she won’t answer, but I hope that she can hear me.

One of my favorite times of the day with Casey were our mornings together. The night shift would leave at 6:30 a.m., and the day shift wouldn’t get here until 8 a.m. I would get up just after 6 and get a report from the night nurse. Then from 6:30 to 8, it was our time. Some mornings Casey would sleep in, and I would sit in the chair in her room, watching her sleep and waiting for her to wake up. Other mornings if she was up, I would move her to the living room and get her situated on the sofa. She would typically fall back asleep, and I would sit next to her. The morning was peaceful, quiet and our time. I would watch her sleep, drink my coffee and read the news.

Sometimes my husband would join us if he didn’t have to get on a work call or dive into emails. Mornings are the hardest for me now. The house is so empty and quiet. I still sometimes go sit in her room, and if the weather is nice, I go sit in her garden and watch her wind chime blowing in the morning breeze. It’s the closest I can come to the mornings I shared with her.

Everyone tells me it will get easier in time. I know I will find my new routine, a new purpose, and I will get through this. It will never be easy, though. There won’t be a day/moment that I won’t be thinking of her. I try to stay away from the what-ifs and focus on the good memories. One day I will see her again.

Until then, I just have to do my best to make her proud and to share her story so the rest of the world knows how amazing Casey Barnes was.

Follow this journey on Casey Barnes.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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The Phrase That’s Hurtful for Me to Hear as a Mom Who Lost a Child

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Summer has arrived, and with it comes memories of summers past. Glorious ghosts of days gone by when my family was whole and my oldest son was healthy and alive. They are followed by the merciless summers of fear and desperate hope when the reality of his prognosis was upon us.

When your child has cancer, I found that fear is like a rabid dog that has been unleashed upon the safe haven of your life. It is ever present, lurking just beyond sight. Things can change on a dime, sometimes within the hour. I’ve lived it so many times; the sudden icy fear that grips your heart and the dread you have to hide. Feeling like you cannot possibly go on, but you do — for them.

We did this for years for our son, Noah, and I know he did the same for us because we soon learned that fear was our enemy. It made things one hundred times worse. And so we broke a thousand times and put the pieces back together, again and again. Because if this is the life your child has been dealt, the only thing you can do is help make it the best life you can.

But understand this: Grief in the loss of a child goes far beyond fear. It is the crystallization of your worst nightmare, and you can never, ever wake up. Fear is replaced by a more insidious feeling of irreplaceable loss and utter despair. I think it can be so difficult for others to understand how debilitating such a loss can be without experiencing it. It is isolating and cruel.

When you lose a child, the pain runs so deep that it will never be truly healed. So often others are at a complete loss and feel helpless in the face of such deep pain. This is when tired, well-meaning platitudes make their way into awkward silences, especially the phrase “Time heals all wounds.”

As a parent who has lost a child, please, please understand why this phrase hurts me so much, and why it pierces my broken heart and leaves me silent in response.

For while it’s true time helps heal some wounds, this is one instance where time will not heal this devastating loss. Instead, as time goes by, the memories of our loved ones get dimmer and those last embraces become more distant.

Can you remember with perfect clarity what you were doing with your family almost six months ago? Now think about what you were doing 20 years ago; it’s very difficult to remember the details. Consider how this might feel if you are trying to remember a beloved child and memories are all you have.

Don’t you see?

One of the most difficult things to deal with in losing a child is facing the long empty years ahead without their physical presence. As time flows by, memories blur, people forget and life goes on for everyone around you. The distance between that last embrace widens like the gaping wound that is left in our broken hearts.

Now suppose for a moment that time could heal the pain of losing a child. This is the true paradox of grief — as difficult as grief is to live with, as heartbreaking as the pain that consumes your very soul is, I don’t think one parent would ever wish time to heal it. We are as connected to our child’s spirit just as deeply as you are connected to your living child. In the case of losing a child, time gradually creates a space for the grudging acceptance of this separation as we learn a new way of being.

But just because we own this grief doesn’t mean it’s something that has passed or healed. I think parents dealing with grief are often silent, not because they have nothing to say, but rather because there is so much pain inside, it’s difficult to voice. To lose a child is to lose a part of your soul — the very essence of your being.

Although I am able to laugh and smile and appear to be whole to the world, I miss my child every single day and live with an indescribable loss. It strikes without warning, and I expect it always will.

I know many of you are hurting deeply from loss, your grief as different and unique as the beautiful souls you grieve. And while I do not pretend to know your unique pain, I just want you to know this: I see you.

From the depths of my broken soul, I hurt with you.

I understand that no matter how hard this life is, none of us would ever have traded the time we had with our children for an “easier” life. Life is not perfect for most of us. It is laughter and sorrow, beginnings and endings, darkness and light. And that’s the way life is — perfectly imperfect.

So grieve your indescribable loss.

Cry, scream and mourn your innocent children.

When you are able, pick yourself up.

But know this: You are not alone.

Follow this journey on Noah’s Blue Ribbon Brigade.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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We Bring Our Son’s Unspoken Absence With Us Everywhere We Go

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This past Sunday was Father’s Day. It was my third without the son who made me a father.

There was a time when I reveled in my fatherhood. I had some epic times on Father’s Day courtesy of my son Jake’s immensely generous spirit and boundless imagination. We also had boys’ days throughout the years — times for him and me to hang together, play catch at the park, go to a ball game, launch rockets, golf, shoot pistols, have lunch or just chill. Those days are long gone; there will be no more of them.

We recently returned from a trip north for the wedding of the daughter of long-time friends. The wedding took place on her mother’s “farmette,” a gorgeous property near Sebastopol, California. Lovely late afternoon ceremony by the pond, spectacular reception “on the lahwn” with dining, dancing, speeches, music and general revelry.

As expected, for us, it was a bittersweet time. Intermixed with the joy we felt for the bride and groom was the constant tug on our hearts from our son’s absence and the knowledge we would never dance at his wedding.

As we sat at our table with old friends and some new faces, somehow the topic of “your passion” came up. We went around the table with everyone describing their passions. As the discussion got nearer to me, I began to panic. What was my passion? Well, once it was my son and my family. Now… Mercifully, we were interrupted by the speech from the bride’s father just as my neighbor finished her spiel.

I was never a person who knew what they wanted to do at an early age. I somewhat envy those who do know and pursue their goals with the single-minded purpose that has always eluded me. I have done many things throughout my life, but the moment Jake was born, I felt my purpose on earth had been fulfilled. I finally had a passion to pursue.

I didn’t have a close relationship with my father, and I vowed I wouldn’t replicate that with my son. I would devote myself to forging the relationship with Jake I would have liked to have had with my dad. And I did. Jake and I had a marvelously close relationship. I rejoiced in Jake, watched him grow into a wonderful person — talented, imaginative, caring, brilliant, empathetic, funny, resourceful, creative, all the things one wishes for one’s child.

I always said Jake was the very best thing I ever did. Our family was strong and vital. Even though we went through the absolute worst of trying times together toward the end, we all knew we loved each other, no matter what.

Then one day nearly three years ago — poof. It all vanished in a puff of smoke.

I ask myself daily, “Now what?” I am struggling to regain a purpose of direction, a passion for anything. As I have remarked before, my emotion-o-meter is stuck on 4. (Until it plunges to negative 100 on occasion. That happens more infrequently than it has, but it still happens.)

We managed to extend our trip north into a mini-vacation. We originally planned a three-week road trip all the way to Seattle and back, but had to truncate that due to our cat Dudley’s illness and impending surgery. We stayed with a friend in Santa Rosa for the wedding festivities, then drove south along the Sonoma Coast through San Francisco to Los Gatos to visit other friends who also lost their adult son to a tragic accident some years ago.

We sat with them and talked about our loss, our progress or, in some cases, our lack of progress. We continued down the California coast the following day driving the storied Route 1 through Carmel and Big Sur to Cambria, along some of the most breathtaking shoreline scenery anywhere. Stayed in Cambria overnight and spent my birthday by the ocean, wine tasting in Paso Robles and driving home.

It was lovely but still lukewarm. There is always something missing, and I know what it is. The unspoken absence we bring with us everywhere we go. There is no escape, no matter how beautiful the scenery, how good the wine is, nor how fresh the seafood. He is always with us.

So it’s back to the grind. The daily routine — 20 million things to do, and sometimes all I can do is think about Jake and what might have been. All the might-have-beens.

I am preparing for surgery of my own — I’m getting some new hips. That provides somewhat of a distraction from the day-to-day routine. And it’s still just that. Day. To. Day. One at a time, yet I plan for a limited future. At least three weeks into the future when I go under the knife. I guess that is progress of sorts — the admission that there will be a future.

We are also tempted by the beauty of Sonoma County to chuck it all, cash in our chips and head north. Shake the dust of Los Angeles and all the memories that cling to this house and trade it in for a new life. We’ll see if we can manage that.

Follow this journey on The Infinite Fountain.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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