Twice-bereaved mother Gretchen, of Lost: Boys and Bearings, is our guest writer today. After her first son B.W. was stillborn in 2006, life was shattered and then slowly and arduously rebuilt. In January of 2014, Gretchen's third son Zachary was born prematurely but almost fully expected to survive and thrive. On Zachary's eighth day of life, he contracted a bacterial infection in the NICU environment. At fourteen days old, after suffering tremendously and having graced his family with more love than they ever imagined, Zachary died. It is our distinct pleasure to have Gretchen writing at Glow today.
It is strange and surreal and brutal to be here again. Now, after having lost our son Zachary, on top of having lost our son B.W. more than seven years previous, here is at once eerily familiar and completely foreign.
I remember this flavor of devastation so intimately. The raw, desperate longing for my son. The instantaneous shattering of all that was, of long-held, treasured beliefs, of an entire imagined future. The unmistakable reinforcement that the universe will dole out some horrific shit, with no regard for merit or implication. The deep, aching sorrow, the guilt, the anger, the inability to make sense of any of it. And over the course of several years, the clawing back, the attempt to create a new meaningful life despite the tremendous and permanent loss.
At the same time, I don’t recognize at all where I am now. In the aftermath of watching Zachary unexpectedly suffer and die, the devastation on top of seven-year-old, scabbed-over devastation, the absurdity of what I’m living now, is a nearly indescribable low. Two of my three children are dead. Just as I had learned to really embrace life again, Zachary died. I am doubled down with grief, mocked and shamed at having hoped again. The grief work I did to assimilate B.W.’s death into my life feels absolutely irrelevant. Wasted. The patches I created and tended to in those years after B.W.’s death don’t even begin to cover the newly broken and reinjured places.
I don’t think I can (or dare to) muster the same resilience this time, after Zachary has died. What’s the point when I fully expect to be violently pummeled again? The loss of one child felt random, but I find that I can’t relate to the concept of randomness anymore. The loss of my two children, to two completely different set of circumstances, no longer feels random. I glance around in terror now, paranoid and panicked about a target on my back or on the backs of my husband or living son.
I can’t fathom who I am, can’t imagine what my future looks like, anymore. What I used to think of as my after—the me who emerged in the years after B.W.’s death—now looks as unfamiliar as my before looked, just one year ago when Zachary was still alive.
Every Tuesday, my living son C.T., comes home from school to report who will be the next Top Banana in his first grade class. The name is drawn randomly out of a bowl and the selected student, the Top Banana, is to prepare a poster about himself, his family, and share it with the class the following week. This is not an unfamiliar exercise for us, having participated in a variation of the idea in both kindergarten and preschool. Preparing for it has never been the effortless, mostly fun activity that I assume it is for most other kids and parents. Nonetheless, we have always found a way to incorporate B.W. into C.T.’s poster and into his somewhat rehearsed comments about his family.
Before Zachary died, C.T. would say that there was a brother he never knew who came before him. That B.W. was a loved and cherished brother and family member, even though he was dead. He would mention one of the special things we do in B.W.’s memory each year. He would share how we light a candle for him every night at dinner. It was never easy, never painless, and always a bit anxiety-inducing for the three of us. But, each year up until this one, we walked away from the experience with a bittersweet sigh of relief, satisfied that C.T. was able to share honestly about his family, and this one sad thing in his life.
I just cannot fathom how we will do it this year when C.T. is chosen as the Top Banana. As open and innocent and curious as children tend to be, there is no way we can feasibly pretty this up for presentation. Not anymore. How will C.T. get up in front of his classmates and explain that he is now flanked by dead brothers? Only dead brothers. After watching Zachary suffer and die this year, his two week-old brother, his only living sibling, yanked from his life so cruelly—really, HOW will we paint an acceptably positive picture of this, for C.T. to share with his class?
After Zachary died, C.T. has said how sad and angry he feels to hear his classmates talk about their living siblings. He knows what a massive mockery it is to be here, to have lost Zachary too.
Is your grief reminiscent of, or compounded by, other devastating blows in your life? Where do you find yourself in your grief journey? How do your living children cope, when sharing about life/family is required?