Marked by Death, for the Rest of Our Lives

After my four-year-old died, I was certain my family would never be the same again. It is true and has been proven over and over that we will no longer be the typical family living at the end of the cul-de-sac. We may look the same (only because I have not been daring enough to don all black as our Victorian ancestors) but our hearts have been mangled and our future dimmed. Through death we have been marked—for life.

In the course of any given week, I can clearly note how the changes have come and stayed with us. Events that seemed insignificant when Daniel was alive now hold powerful and emotional memories. Seeing the boxes of Cocoa Puffs on the grocery store shelf, hearing the lyrics to Toy Story’s theme song, You’ve Got A Friend In Me, and driving past the local McDonalds bring jolts of pain to my broken heart.

People may feel uncomfortable as they see my eyes well up with tears during these times of remembering some of the things a lively little boy with an infectious grin enjoyed so much. The neighbors may be bothered by my woeful cries as I stand on my deck and stare into the night sky, wondering where Heaven lies and what my child is doing.

Yes, we have changed. I, as the mother, can no longer promise (as I used to) that nothing bad will ever happen to any of us. Nor can we believe that if you pray hard enough, and just hold onto faith, your fervent prayers will be answered as you desire. For now, a year after our son’s death, all we can see is a little boy with cancer who died one cold winter night though surrounded by the prayers of church leaders and believers.

At first when Daniel left us, I seldom went to the cemetery, but now we often take a picnic and venture to the grassy lawn beside his marker. We named the cemetery, Daniel’s Place, and the kids and I leave messages for my husband to meet us there after work. We eat, decorate Daniel’s grave, and the older two run and do cartwheels. The baby picks at blades of grass. Now, whenever my two-year-old passes a cemetery with flowers on the markers he says, “I wanna go playground and play.”

No, we are not the same. How many two-year-olds say they want to watch their deceased brother? I am not sure if Benjamin understands exactly who Daniel is but he loves to tell me, “I wanna watch Daniel,” and I know this means to pop a video of his older brother into the VCR. Benjamin sits in his highchair, his pudgy face round with a big smile.

How many seven-year-olds write on their list to Santa that this Christmas, they want things to remind them of their brother who died? How many of them have to tell you that the line “if you wish hard enough, it will come true” is not a true statement, and they have proof it is not?

Our innocence has been lost, and we will never be able to have that sunshine existence that many like to hold onto (I know I sure did). But I like to believe that in spite of our devastation due to Daniel’s death and our yearnings to have him here as a part of our family again, we have, though broken, grown to be strong people of character. More than ever before, we are able to mourn woefully with those who are in despair and pain. We are able to comfort with truths like “I don’t understand” instead of “Well, it will get better.”

I know I have been to the bank of life where death meets us and begged death to take me, too, for I knew there was no way I could live without my son. I have since learned that living and thriving on this difficult earth takes much more than just being happy. I have extended my view to see that I am not the only one who suffers or feels life is unfair. I’m sure both my neighbor who has a mentally handicapped child and my friend whose husband suddenly left her and their children feel life is no bowl of fresh peaches.

Through Daniel’s death, I have learned life is really short, and so I argue less with my husband and children and when I do lose my temper, I am much quicker to apologize. I eat more ice cream and not just the generic brand, for I think after all I’ve been through, I am worthy of Haagen-Dazs. (This is quite an achievement coming from one of the world’s most thrifty people.) I want to send more cards to friends, just because. I want to spend less time working on trying to get grouchy people to like me and instead focus on those who appreciate my love.

And now at family get-togethers, I hug everyone tighter when I tell them good-bye, not just my 86-year-old grandmother. For in this extended family we have, over the years, seen death take three children and therefore know that death cares not about one’s age. Anyone could die before I see them again.

Sometimes I get so excited when I let myself think what I would do if Daniel were to come back to live with us. I think for the first day, I would want to spend it in intervals of hugging him and making pancakes with lots of maple syrup for him to eat. But whether I like it or not, and as marked and wounded as I am, life still calls me to live.

So I don’t want to just be the “lady whose child died.” I want to be the lady who gained wisdom, enlarged her heart, supplied the box of ‘Puffs’ to those with teary eyes and daily seeks to love like the Bible passage of I Corinthians 13. And when seen talking to the starry night sky, I want others to hear not just the anguished yearnings over a precious four-year-old son, but the great revelations that have been received—knowledge of how to really be alive, teachings of life that can only be discovered from the death of a part of us, the death of a child.

Copyright 1998, a year after Daniel’s death.

Alice Wisler

More Articles Written by Alice

Alice J. Wisler, founder of a grief-support organization, Daniel’s House Publications, is a full-time writer and author of contemporary novels. In 1997, her four-year-old son Daniel died from cancer treatments. Since then, her writing focus has been on how to help others in grief. She gives Writing the Heartache workshops across the country. Through her organization, she designs and sells comfort cards/remembrance cards and at her Carved By Heart imprint, carves personalized remembrance plaques. When she isn't writing or speaking, she is promoting her novels---Rain Song (2008), How Sweet It Is (2009), Hatteras Girl (2010), A Wedding Invitation (2011), and Still Life in Shadows (2012). Her devotional, Getting Out of Bed in the Morining, offers comfort and purpose for those dealing with grief and loss. Her cookbooks of memory---Down the Cereal Aisle, Memories Around the Table, and Slices of Sunlight, contain stories of food and memories of children who have died. In 2009, Alice married Carl in Las Vegas, and they live with her three children in Durham, NC. To Listen to Alice's Radio show To learn more about Alice visit her website: http://www.alicewisler.com and go to her blogs: http://www.alicewisler.blogspot.com and http://www.writingtheheartache.blogspot.com/

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  • Maria Brown says:

    I just read your article and know how you feel. My son passed away on 11/18/09 at just 10 mnths old.
    His first b-day is on 1/13/10 and it is really really diffclt to know his first b-day is coming up but he is not here.
    Your article helped me realize that thru time I will be a stronger and more caring person.

    Thank you,
    Maria

  • Alice Wisler says:

    Maria,

    Thanks for your comment. Be gentle with yourself as you go through these difficult days. You are doing some of the hardest work ever, and most days, it just plain stinks. But, yes, I do believe that, if we allow it, our grief and love can make us the kind of people the world needs.

    Alice

  • Brenda says:

    I too suffered the unimaginable nightmare of the death of my first born at the age of 7 years many years ago. The scars of loss will always be there but I too found that my grief could be channeled to compassionate understanding for others suffering the same grief. Thank you for bravely sharing your deepest feelings. Reaching out past your own despair could not have been easy. God bless you and your family, including Daniel.

  • Alice J. Wisler says:

    Brenda, hugs across the miles to you as you celebrate the life and love of your first born. Thank you for your kind words here.

    Alice