When our son, Timmy, died at age 20 from a skateboard accident, many of our friends, searching for words, said “I can’t imagine…” And of course they can’t. It is beyond our expectations, beyond our understanding of reality, that a vibrant, young person could be plucked from the world so suddenly.
It was certainly beyond my imagination and shook my worldview to the core, leaving me disoriented and feeling very vulnerable. The loss of a child is a passage through a portal into foreign territory. The landscape changes. The ground shifts beneath our feet; we find ourselves at new junctures, new shores, consciously navigating new terrain. We connect with other travelers in this terrain, other parents who have lost a child, who suffer the unimaginable, the shocking, sad, unnatural. There is a deep heart connection—beyond words.
We had experienced loss of children close to us before Timmy died. My sister lost her only son at age 11 to brain cancer in 1988. My sister-in-law lost her son to suicide at age 15 in 1999. Our dear friends lost their vibrant 4-year-old son to a mysterious and sudden illness in 2005. We were present to each of these traumatic losses, grieving deeply together, providing emotional and practical support. But we remained safely on our side of the portal.
Now when I learn of another child’s passing, I can imagine all too well what the parents are going through. Sympathy becomes empathy. Recognizing that each child and each loss is unique, and that each grief journey will take a singular path, I also know we are on a shared journey and that there are common markers and milestones.
At Timmy’s Celebration of Life, many of his friends gathered to remember him, friends from elementary school, high school and college, friends from Chicago and Switzerland. And one friend came from Kauai. Jessie Monroe, the sunny, perky blonde in cut-offs and Kauai tank top. She brought us sand from the island and her lovely sunshine. She had put together the money for her plane fare from her savings waiting tables in Hanalei.
She was embraced by Timmy’s friends in the circle of love and grief. Talking with her after the ceremony, she was as bubbly as I remembered her at 13 when she and Timmy were in 8th grade together on Kauai. She was part of their little posse of five, three beautiful girls, Timmy and his buddy Andrew. They were inseparable most of the year and when it came time for us to return to California, she and the other girls had made Timmy a precious scrapbook of their year together. She asked if I had the album and I promised her I would find it and bring it with me to Kauai next time.
Just a few months later, I traveled to Kauai for a few weeks on my own. I had indeed found the treasured album featuring Jessie’s artwork, fun email exchanges, silly photographs. When I arrived on Friday, I sent Jessie an email to see when we could meet while I was there. On Sunday morning, I received a call from my husband in California telling me that Jessie had been killed in a car accident on island on Saturday night. He had gotten the news from friends on Kauai who did not want to be the ones to tell me. I was shocked and saddened to the core, the coincidence overwhelming. And so, three months after Timmy’s death, I was called to be present to Jessie’s grieving family.
I contacted Jessie’s mom who I had known briefly 7 years earlier when the kids were in 8th grade. I took the album and created a duplicate copy of it for Jessie’s mom and for each of the other girls, who were reeling with the loss of two of their little posse. I sat with Jessie’s mom at her home and then at mine, talking over tea about our children, their deaths, my little but hard-earned wisdom on the immediate path ahead. I attended Jessie’s memorial where I saw many of Timmy’s island friends. And even as we remembered Jessie’s sparkle, we learned that another island youth had been killed the night before in a motorcycle accident on the highway. And the wheel turns.
Not quite a year after Timmy died, a colleague approached me at a professional seminar to tell me he had been thinking about us a lot in the past months, and that they had also lost their younger son a few months after Timmy died. I was completely surprised, and confused as I did not remember hearing about his son and thought I must really have been out of it to not remember. Then he confided that they had not told anyone in the professional community, and I understood the very personal nature of this confidence. He knew I knew. That we were now companions on this journey neither of us had chosen.
This conversation goes on and on. Ever unfolding, never ending. This colleague and his wife have become dear friends. We have wonderful connections with them, sharing about travels, their older son, our other two children and all the milestones, and then we drop into deep waters. It is always comforting, illuminating, connecting with ourselves as much as with them. Now it has been almost five years for all of us. And the conversation continues.
“Suffering gives us an extraordinary intimacy with ourselves; it produces a form of introspection in which the spirit penetrates to the very roots of life, where it seems that suffering itself will be taken away…. Upon the meaning we can give suffering, will depend the meaning the world will have for us.” Louis Lavelle (2/1/2011 Magnificat).
Recently, we learned of another young man’s death, and then slowly realized that his father was a college classmate of ours. Although we had not known him well before, we now had a deep sense of connection. As we reached out to him and his wife, attending the memorial service and through email, I had many mixed emotions, reflecting on their son’s life, their loss, with reverberations of our loss of Timmy. In my reflections what came through was a heart-felt desire to share something that might ease their path.
Our paths cross as we find ourselves together on this grief journey. Your journey touches ours and helps us to continue to unfold and understand ourselves. We are not experienced or sage on this journey–it is always fresh and unfolding. This loss is shattering. It is not a jolt that you recover from or “get over”. It demands a complete rebuilding and reintegration of everything and everyone in our lives. We see everything with new eyes, I would say open eyes, all veils of illusion have fallen. We live with the knowledge of life’s beauty and fragility.
“The reality is that you will grieve forever,” wrote Elizabeth Kubler Ross. “You will not get over the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourselves around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.”
I think of it as healing from the inside out, having our hearts broken wide open and rather than healing over that deep wound, giving it air and allowing it to heal deeply from within, until we have rebuilt ourselves from the inside out. A grueling process we would all agree, but ultimately life affirming.
Then, just four months after their son’s death, these friends learned of another young man’s death, a childhood friend of their son whose parents they had only vaguely known. But the depth of the loss and the circumstances of their sons’ deaths compelled them to reach out, to be present to these newly bereaved parents. And the wheel turns.
I encouraged them: “It is powerful that you are reaching out to them. I am sure it will be so supportive for them to connect with you at whatever level they can at this time and I believe it will be healing in some way for you as well. Human connection is, as we have found, and especially on such a lonely path.”
Having companionship on this difficult journey is comforting and supports our courage to continue to unfold our own grief. We are now on this sorrowful and soulful journey together.
Suggestions for reaching out to newly bereaved parents:
1. Be gentle. Be patient. Trust that they will respond when they are ready. The loss is so devastating and the influx of people, friends, and family can be overwhelming. Wait and they will let you know when the time is right.
2. Be clear. You have a special relationship to grief from your own loss experience. Take time to attend to where you are with your grief process and how this new loss touches your grief. Separate that from your sharing with them. Do not impose your experience or your grief on them.
3. Be supportive. Be clear that your intention is to be present to their grief and then follow their lead. Come in under their grief to support them, not on top of their grief as burden. Tread lightly, framing your sharing as, “For me…”; “What I found helpful was…”
4. Be present. You need not do or say anything. Be present to what they are going through. Listen.
Reaching outside of ourselves to support someone else can help our own healing process and solidify our learnings and growth. Over time, it becomes a more mutual relationship, but in the beginning you are placing your grief in service of their healing. A gift of presence.