‘Moving Forward’ After the Death of a Child

I’ve often wondered what the recipe included when mothers were created. Part superhero, part superhuman, “moms” surely have many ingredients: one wrist that can test the temperature of baby formula, three measures of skinned knee fixability, two cups of tear catching, zero sick days, little nightly sleep, a dash of fever-gauging with a kiss on the forehead, many heaping tablespoons of patience, endless pickups, drop-offs, and grocery lists, and several thousand sack lunches and dinners. Topped with the wave of one giant problem-solving wand sprinkled with magic glitter from up above, a mom is born. Mothers have strength beyond muscle, wisdom beyond intellect, magic beyond wands.

Until a mother loses a child.

I wasn’t superhuman or a superhero on April 19, 2003, when my 11-year-old son Steven Brian Malin, Jr., was struck and killed by a cross train down the block from our home in Lake Forest, Illinois. Our only son, wedged between two dancing, soccer-playing sisters, was simply walking back from a quick chicken nugget Happy Meal at our local McDonald’s when I never saw him alive again. I couldn’t fix the biggest tragedy of our lives with a band-aid and a kiss. I didn’t have an ounce of magic to change the fate of our child and our family that ominously windy spring afternoon. I was a mother who lived by the tried-and-true recipe for what a mother should be, and completely crumbled in a matter of moments. A million pieces of confused, furious, crumbled nothingness.

Superhero? Super zero.

There are absolutely no words to describe the black abyss you fall into when your child dies. The hole has no bottom; the descent has no final destination. Life goes from busy and noisy with the demands of a full family to the silence of a world entrenched in death. You want to rise back up to the light, past the whispered condolences, the endless “I’m sorry’s”—back to “normal.” The only problem is that life has no “normal” after you lose a child.

The four of us initially moved like zombies, no longer “living life” but “living death.” We found it impossible to inexplicably have Steven “erased” from our lives, somehow deal with the permanence, and move on. Grief books told me that our family would get over these horrendous, anxiety-ridden feelings. I didn’t want to get over death. I wanted death to go away. I prayed about it. I journaled about it. I just didn’t believe that following the rules of death would bring us back to “life” again.

When we finally got through the shock stage and ventured back out in our everyday world, we’d run into little reminders of Steven’s life. His favorite number at the deli counter. His favorite commercial on TV. A favorite story shared by a classmate. What might be painful encounters for many actually felt like little “hellos” to us. For our daughters, it was a refocus on the funny, active brother with whom they wanted to stay connected, and further away from the details of the accident, which physically stripped him from our lives.

The more we looked for signs and symbols of Steven’s life, the more that came our way. Instead of spending our days in bed under the covers, we found ourselves out looking for hope and a continued connection to our little boy. It would’ve been easier to say good-bye and let go of his place in our lives. Instead, we worked hard to find healthy, well-adjusted ways to keep him close.

Some of the “signs” we’ve received over the past seven years have been quite impressive, and we acknowledge them as confirmation that Steven, our little guardian angel, is watching over us. Rainbows at the most unlikely of times. A double heart in the snow with no footprints around it. Getting on a flight last-minute and being assigned row 13, Steven’s favorite number.

We started to call our steps toward hope and healing, “moving forward but hanging on.” Going on without our little boy cheated us all. Moving forward with him still spiritually and symbolically close was the true answer for our family. Following this path led us in a new direction on the road of grief, one in which our daughters are thriving, and we are “living life” again ourselves, not “living death.”

Four years ago, I began writing the story of our journey back to light and life after the darkest days we ever knew. It is not a tale of magic wands that can bring back our loved ones or how moms can turn tragedy into triumph with a kiss on the forehead. It is, however, the truth of what good can happen when you decide that you love someone so much, you just can’t say good-bye. I feel that it’s especially true when the “someone” you’ve lost is your child.

Visit www.movingforwardhangingon.com to order my book of hope entitled, “When You Just Can’t Say Good-bye, Don’t – A Mother’s Personal Journey After Losing a Child,” or to inquire about a personal speaking engagement for your group.

Maria Malin 2011

Maria Malin

Maria Malin

More Articles Written by Maria

Maria Malin of Lake Forest, IL is a certified PEACE™ Coach, assisting clients facing life crises, with a specialty in grief recovery. A bereaved mother, Maria is the published author of the book, “When You Just Can’t Say Good-bye, Don’t – A Mother’s Personal Journey After Losing a Child” (www.movingforwardhangingon.com), Chicago based newspaper columnist, and motivational speaker on the topic of finding authenticity, purpose and gratitude after life-changing loss. Maria inspires other bereaved parents to return to a focus on their child’s life versus their death, thus helping grieving families return to “living life” again themselves. When parents have been given the most hopeless news imaginable, Maria gently guides and offers practical, everyday tools to seek hope and a return to a positive focus. When “going on” without your child seems unimaginable, “moving forward” with your child still close in heart and mind can create a true path to healing. Maria is available for both in-person and phone coaching sessions, with complete information on her web site.

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  • sue-anne says:

    its been 10 years and i cant cope, i still just trying to kill myself, where can i find the strength to go on, even though i have 5 other children and now 7grandsons. it was my only son and he was only 7yrs 6months and i day old. i founded foundations and reseach instute but it means nothing, i even brought in a national vaccination programe but it makes no difference. how do you do it, without the greatest joy in your life. i just want to give up

  • Martha Sweitzer says:

    I lost my firstborn son James to suicide on 06/29/2013; I was so blindsided by it. James was a very successful young man, recently made partner in his architecture firm in D.C., newly married, I had no idea he was so depressed. My younger son and I have been trying to pick up the pieces ever since. I lost both my parents a few years ago but nothing ever prepares you for the death of a child. Only someone who has experienced it first hand can understand the severity and depth of this loss…this is a wonderful book…

  • tina says:

    My son also died in a bizarre way. And you are the only one who had a similar story. He was killed on march 10, 2017, he was 15, waiting for his school bus, on the sidewalk, and a heroin addict, on drugs, came out of no where and ran over my sweet boy. He died instantly, they couldn’t revive him at the hospital. I have very severe depression and I don’t know how to function in most areas of my life. Everywhere I go was somewhere that I went with my son, we were very close, and I also worked daily at keeping him alive, since he had health issues. Like he was hospitalized 3 times at Doernbechers hospital in Portland Oregon. And all it took to kill him was a selfish drug addict. I wish someone would tell me how to go on. Everywhere I turn is nothing but mountains and obstacles and a whole lot of sorrow. I sure do miss my son.

  • Rachael says:

    I lost my 6yr old girl two weeks ago and I’m still suffering. I have 3 other children and am trying to keep strong for them but it has not been easy. She had health challenges but nothing prepared me for her death as I had been hopeful she would one day recover. She was such a sweet girl and very loving. Always giving hugs and blowing kisses. I don’t know how to move on without her. She was the highlight of our home.
    I’m a Christian and I believe God always has a plan for us. But this one really shook me. I pray for all parents out there who have lost a child. May God give us strength to continue living.