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How I Learned to Truly 'Survive' After My Son's Passing

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I’ll never forget seeing this line in Mattie’s obituary:

“He is survived by father, John, mother, Tracie, brother and sister-in-law, Nick and Amy, brothers, Taylor and Aiden and sisters, Isabelle, Elia and Emma.”

definition of survive


He was gone, and we survived.

It didn’t feel like survival. It felt like a crushing collapse of pain had settled on our family.

On August 21, 2014, I woke up, got my nails done, ran a few errands and packed my bags for a weekend getaway with my husband — the first one in many years, I couldn’t remember the last one. Our son Mattie was almost 4 years old. He was born with Down syndrome and had spent the first year of his life in the hospital overcoming multiple illnesses, two open-heart surgeries and a tracheostomy. He finally came home just before his first birthday, and though the years to come would bring many hospitalizations and terrifying moments, our lives had been filled to overflowing with love and joy and the celebration of his life. The 14 months prior to this day had been a dream come true. His health had dramatically improved, we went on a miraculous family vacation for the first time, and we felt that he was stable enough for us to travel away for a few days.

As I was closing up my suitcase, Mattie’s nurse gave a call for us to come. We walked in to see our son’s blue face and the familiar panic in his eyes as he struggled to breathe. I jumped in to give rescue breathing, and John called 911. I gave him emergency care and breathing treatments until the paramedics arrived. They quickly transferred him to the ambulance where minutes down the road his heart stopped. I worked with two paramedics to help restore life to my son’s limp body, but life would not return.

My son was gone. My beautiful, brown-eyed boy had slipped out of this life and into the next.

And we “survived” his death.

It has been almost a year and a half since his passing, and here we are, surviving.

We are the ones left behind. We outlived our son. I feel parents should never outlive a child.

We are the ones who “continue to live in spite of danger or hardship,” the ones who “continue to live in spite of” intense pain and grief.

I have learned grief can be as deep as love is wide, and that sorrow exists because of the power of love’s impact on the world.

I have learned there is space in the human heart for joy and pain, peace and anger, hope and sadness to all reside. And I have learned that to truly survive such unspeakable loss, we must allow ourselves to feel them each completely.

I will survive because of love. For this beast called grief is not stronger than the power of love.

I read this quote recently:

“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”

– Rumi

I remember my raw, angry, grief-filled days. I remember feeling angry that the world kept spinning. I remembering feeling like healing was impossible, like I would be forever ruined. Quotes like this would make me scream inside, “How could anything good come from this?”

I want you to know that healing exists. Sorrow can indeed be violent; it has shaken my humanity to the core and has uprooted so much in my life. It doesn’t feel good at all. It’s uncomfortable, unsettling, terrifying at times.

But I made a choice one day — a choice to allow my heart to heal, a choice to cling to the beauty of my son’s life, a spirit that is unquenchable, even in death.

And when I made that choice to seek joy, to invite the beauty of my son’s spirit into every moment, I gave myself a gift — the chance to heal. Sorrow has indeed shaken so much from my heart: judgement, perfection, pressure to fit in, the weight of measuring up, impatience and distain. Sorrow is uprooting those things in my life and replacing them with: patience, kindness, compassion, vulnerability, and a deep love for those who are broken and in pain.

As this new life comes in, as this joy appears, it does not replace the human soul that is missing from my life. It does however create a true connection to everything about him that was (and still is) pure beauty and joy.

So I choose to come alive again, because love is stronger than death.

And forever I love this boy.

mother and son lying on grass
Tracie and her son, Mattie.

Follow this journey on From the Heart.

Originally published: February 19, 2016
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