the language of loss

A colleague of mine lost her son last month. His car went off the road on a beautiful Saturday afternoon and he passed away from his injuries.  Another friend lost her 8 year old niece recently in a similarly unexpected and tragic accident.  Their deep sadness echoes within me and I've spent many moments living in their skin when I think about their grief. Or maybe it's the other way around.  Maybe it's that suddenly I could see them wearing the same stretched skin and hollow eyes I know so well.

I hated seeing it on them and in them.

I never knew Silas as a grown boy or young adult.  I never knew him as anything more than the potential of everything we were about to become.  I felt his kicks and saw him grow behind the veil of Lu's bulging belly, but I never had him all to myself, not even for a moment.  My friend knew her niece, saw her grow and develop.  My colleague had 23 amazing years to share with her son.  All three of our experiences are terrible beyond words, and I'm certain none of us would like to trade with the other, for any reason at all, ever.

How do you qualify for being one of us here at Glow?  What are the parameters for Medusa-hood, for babylost?  Those people were their babies even though one was a man as well as a son and the other was not her offspring but still her child in so many ways.  Does a miscarriage at 10 weeks count?  How about a father of 80 who buries his son of 40?  Or by that time does the father already know that the Universe is far from fair and things like that just happen?

I went to Tommy's memorial and heard the amazing things his friends and family said about him.  As I absorbed the stories of this wonderful friend, brother, son, man, I wondered what people would have said about my son.  And then I wished I would never know because he would have died after me, after a long life together where I could nurture and cherish him and teach him to be a good person and a great friend like my father taught me.

The twisted layersof 'what-if' and 'what-should' and 'what-isn't' were nearly overwhelming. At the end of the memorial that was 400+ people strong, I gave my colleague a long, deep hug and told her how sorry I was that her son was gone.  I could barely even look at his younger brother, the loss and shock etched into his face was terrible and so all I could do was tell him to hang on and hold on to his parents and just hold each other up, any way they could.

A few weeks later when I saw my colleague again I gave her another huge hug, but I didn't ask her how she was doing.  I always hated that question in those first days and months and years after losing Silas.  I know it is just something people say because they have no idea what to say, but I still hated it so I didn't ask.  Instead I just told her how we have been thinking about her and her family and that I hoped they were holding up as best they could.  And then later that day we talked.  We talked about how some people we knew well were quick to pull away in our times of loss.  How people we never expected were able to stand right up next to us and hold on tight.  How getting up and taking a shower could be counted as an enormous accomplishment, to say nothing of getting back to work, back to the World, back to the everyday experience where our offspring were not.

I could look her in the eye and hold her in my heart and I was not at all afraid of what she had become or what she represented.  This wasn't some theoretical possibility in my life.  In some way that transcends Tommy's age or Silas's even briefer life I knew to the core of my marrow the filthy chaos and shocking confusion that gripped her tight despite her ability to stand there and talk about her son that was gone.  The pit that was hollowed out within me nearly three years ago is so deep and black and awful that her pain just slipped right in and swirled around comfortably.  I hoped that by standing there with her and using his name and letting her speak about her new awful life that I could lessen her burden minutely, if only for a moment, perhaps until the conversation ended, if that.

For so long, the despair I felt seemed larger than me, something I could never contain.  But somehow I've managed to grow and now it fits into my life without overwhelming me.  It doesn't seem less, not at all.  Instead I had to change the shape of my soul so that everything about losing Silas is in me and a part of me.  Speaking to my friend about her son Tom, I realized that I could stand with her and listen and absorb a bit of her grief because I know how to digest the truth of death.  That sick, awful feeling is to be expected, that it will not destroy me, and that hopefully this loss won't destroy her either.

I hoped that I could serve as a signpost along this path of sadness, that somehow by engaging people in their time of grief that I was doing right by Silas.  It is always better if he were here, but since he's not I have to find scraps of good and use them to the best of my ability.  I will never shy away from people when they are confronted with death because I know how important it was to me when people would talk to me and listen to me and help me to pretend that I was not losing my mind during my worst times.

I can talk to people when they are stricken because I know this language, all too well.  It is a terrible gift from Silas but if it helps one other person pull back from the brink I am more than happy to make use of this awful knowledge.  Even though it feels like we are each all alone with our absent child, the fact is it is all too common.  The death of a child, no matter how old, is always exceptionally shocking and wrenching.  It is something no parent should ever have to experience.  But as we know, 'should' doesn't count around here, just what is and what is not. 

Silas isn't here, and now Tom and my friend's niece are absent, too.  And so for those of us left here, devastated and alone, we have to help each other face each day and grow into people that can survive what we should have never had to endure.  We can only do it together because no one can withstand this alone.

Are you able to speak with people that have lost children or relatives?  Is it something you encounter often, sometimes, never?  Do you feel specially qualified to engage in these types of conversations, or do you prefer to keep your grief and experience private? What words do you use?  How do you speak to people when they are raw with sadness?