You’re doing whatever you have to do to survive. Some of you are in bed, or on the couch, or crumpled up on the floor. Some of you are running errands and baking cookies and attempting some semblance of a typical holiday. Some of you are doing your normal traditions, because they’re familiar and perhaps it’s too much to figure out what else to do. Others are planning something that feels intentionally unlike the way things used to be. And sometimes you’re walking in parades, because your city and job call for it, and because you are a courageous, bold woman and mother.
She doesn’t know me, but I think about her often and silently include her in the small circle of people who “get it.” I marvel at every move she makes, journeying through bereavement while holding an exceptionally public and demanding role. She’s my city’s mayor, Megan Barry, and she’s about to experience her first holiday season without her son, Max—her only child. Since hearing the news of his death, I’ve carried the mayor in my heart and mind with deep empathy. I now view her first as a mother, then as a mayor.
This weekend I went to a Christmas parade. Mayor Barry made an appearance. She was graceful and vibrant, walking the entire parade route in the bitter cold, interacting with the crowds along the sidewalks. As she waved to families, I wondered if she recalled the years when she took her own child to events like this one. I’m amazed that she made it to this parade at all, how she clearly arrived on time and did her part. I will never take for granted the effort and courage in every small task a bereaved mother undertakes.
I can’t know exactly how it felt to smile and participate and engage that day, whether it was a sweet lift from the pain for a few minutes, or pure torture, or simply a day on the job. What I do know is that the bereaved mother’s heart sees another bereaved mother’s heart and literally, physically aches for her.
Last year was my first Christmas without my daughter, my only child. There is no sweeter or nicer or prettier way to describe it, other than it was pure and utter hell. My husband and I made the long drive back to our hometown, our car filled with everything except our infant. Despite having both of our childhood homes available to us, we stayed in a hotel. Staying there matched the tone of the rest of the holiday season: it felt wrong.
On Christmas morning, we drove to our first get-together of the day. I began weeping as we entered the neighborhood and wouldn’t get out of the car when we arrived. After my husband got out, I crawled over to the driver’s seat, turned the car around, and drove straight back to the hotel, where I stayed in bed for days. In moments like those, I don’t know what to do except to flee. I was certain I would be a blubbering, inconsolable mess from the moment I made eye contact with someone, until I finally left. Am I really, truly wanted in these circumstances? Kindhearted people of course say yes! But I know I cast a pall on otherwise-special events. My broken heart requires enough energy to carry around, so I don’t feel I can also handle the responsibility of changing the tone in the room, or the pressure of trying not to.
I tried to sleep the days away, deep under the covers. In my waking moments, I was texting my loss friend, Nina, and trying to muster an interest in Gilmore Girls on Netflix. Anything to pass the time. I imagined the gatherings I was missing out on, and I was glad I wasn’t there, despite these formerly being my favorite events all year. It’s not that I didn’t want to be there. I did want to be there, with Cora. Without her, the events, the holidays, the year, my whole life… none of it made sense anymore.
Far from being a time of yuletide cheer and warm fuzzies, Christmas escalated my anger and brought out my less-than-jolly side. I wanted to scream “F you” to any family who hadn’t lost a child. I was mad at the many people who cut me from their Christmas card lists, as though I was not already ostracized enough from normal society. Yet when I did receive cards, I wanted to rip them into tiny shreds, furious at the sight of happy faces and ordinary lives. I took the most hurtful ones to my therapist’s office, trying to reconcile others’ happiness with my raw pain. I resented any interaction that contained moderate to high amounts of cheerfulness, during a season when I was questioning my will to live. I could not have cared less about gifts and treats and stockings. I didn’t want to be in rooms where anyone acted like the whole family was present, when I knew the most important person was missing. I didn’t want to smile, didn’t want to talk, didn’t want to pretend, didn’t want to exist in this world.
And if there’s one thing I know I wouldn’t have wanted to do, it’s walk in a parade and wish hundreds of people a merry Christmas while my heart was in bits and pieces. But when you’re the mayor of a big city, the job doesn’t stop even though life as you knew it did. I have nothing but deep, deep admiration for the herculean effort Mayor Barry summons to show up for her job.
I know you’re out there, ready to pull the covers way over your head this holiday season, hoping to wake up only after “the most wonderful time of the year” has passed. I see the way you quietly choke back your pain in everyday settings, and I know the pin-prickly feeling on the backs of your eyes as you finally submit to the hot, stinging tears. There’s the awareness that there will never be another holiday with your child, that in some way this otherhood will always exist, even if time or circumstances eventually bring you a little closer to a recognizable way of life. There’s the lonely and lovely truth that we knew, loved, and now miss our children more than anyone else does—that no one else feels the breadth of our child’s absence like we do.
My husband yelled “We love you, Megan” from the crowd. I asked him to. I would want that message shouted to anyone who lost a child. You are loved.
I’m sure the kids in the parade were cute, that the cheerleaders and marching bands were entertaining. I barely noticed them. What I saw was far more impressive and breathtaking than any float or performer: a bereaved mother, brave and beautiful, simply walking down the street.
What would you say, given a moment, to the bereaved parents you know closely or distantly? What do they signal for you? What do you see in them?