Yesterday I stopped myself from mentioning his name. My heart raced, and I quickly assessed how important it was to tell my true story.
The “old” me believed I had a fairy tale life, one I had carefully envisioned and conceived. I’d had a few challenges and came sailing through, but I didn’t realize I was only in my Act One.
I believed if I was good, nothing really bad could ever happen, but I’m a different person now. Who I was before is almost impossible to imagine.
I was married to a wonderful man who was a successful television producer and writer. I had just started a book tour for my second children’s book… a fairy tale, of course, filled with whimsy, overwhelming obstacles, and finally… triumph.
Our four kids were a handful, all going in different directions because they ranged in age from 1 year to 16.
Then one day my oldest son, Garrett, woke up with a fever. “It’s the flu,” the doctor said, so I gave him plenty of fluids and some homemade chicken soup.
The next morning I found my beautiful son lifeless in his bed. It wasn’t the flu at all… it was an aggressive, deadly killer, bacterial meningitis, and it took him in the early hours of dawn while I peacefully slept.
On that day my castle walls tumbled to the ground, and I crossed over the threshold to my heartbreaking and turbulent Act Two.
Act Two… The Vigil
How do you survive the worst thing that could ever happen? You begin the vigil of grief. Any parent who has been through it will tell you, recovering seems impossible. Your old life isn’t the same. It now holds the event of your greatest sorrow; and with it is the change in every chapter of the future you thought you once had.
Someone likely takes you by the hand and defines the stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They promise you that once you get through it, you will be fine. But you are still in utter disbelief that it could even happen to your child.
Everyone’s experience with loss is entirely different, especially when it is that of a child.
You hear the word acceptance and know that it can’t possibly mean you’re done. Your child’s life mattered and he was as vital to your life as the air you breathe. Now, every breath seems shallow by comparison… you can hardly catch it.
You fight like hell to resist acceptance because it feels like you’re giving up on your child.
But you’re not, you’re just stuck in your Act Two.
Cry your tears deeply now because someday you’ll miss them.
Tears are an integral part of the healing vigil that you can touch and feel as they spill down your cheeks.
Those people who surround you, your family and friends, want to see you whole again and likely feel helpless. Accept their love and compassion. Let it comfort you.
They often say the wrong thing, like “time heals,” or “he’s in a better place.” It doesn’t make sense to you because no amount of time will return your child, and what better place can their be than your loving arms. He was your baby, your love, the center of your world.
Forgive them. They can’t possibly know what it feels like and they only struggle to find ways to comfort you. Don’t push them away… embrace their love and cling to them with all your might. They are your support, now.
There will come a day when you suddenly realize it has been minutes, maybe hours since you’ve felt the intensity of the pain. It might happen in the form of spontaneous laughter or enthusiasm for doing something that was buried by your grieving. It feels strange at first, as though it doesn’t fit with who you’ve become.
You’re now on the verge of spontaneous change.
It hits you that there can be moments without the stabbing, gut-wrenching pain of your loss. That kind of pain served a purpose; it taught you how deeply you loved your child.
However, transformation is waiting in the wings, and the end of Act Two is near. You’ve now met your grief head on and challenged it to drop the sword of daily suffering. You learn that you are in control of how you feel. You’re allowed to feel happiness seeping through the sorrow, and it does not betray the love you have for your child.
A force of nature kicks in, and it’s a force so strong you can’t deny it because it’s in your DNA. It’s called resilience. It’s the same force that causes a seedling to sprout up between a crack in a rock, or a tiny chick to break the comfort of his shell to see an unknown world.
If you can break free from sorrow for a few minutes, then a few hours, then days, you realize you’re stronger than you ever imagined.
You’ve crossed the threshold into Act Three.
Now you begin forming a new relationship with your child. Your goal in this act is to transform the love you have for your child into a beautiful legacy. You give meaning to your child’s life, not sorrow. They were born to you for a reason… no matter how long you had them.
You begin to restructure your life, just as your child would want you to. Your old life can never be reclaimed, but the future will sacredly hold the memories, the joy and the love for them, without consistently feeling the pain.
Mourning is not a plan for healing, nor does time heal your sorrow.
Healing takes perseverance, hard work, and a commitment to wanting joy again. It helps to put the focus on giving meaning to your child’s life, beyond the short time you had with them. You reach out to others and start experiencing life again. You realize it’s okay to laugh and have fun. You also search for ways to bridge the memory of your child into this new life you are building.
Transform your suffering.
“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning…” -Dr. Viktor Frankel, author of Man’s Search for Meaning
Some parents develop foundations, some plant a tree in the park for others to enjoy, or write books of hope. It doesn’t have to be so big; just learning to love harder and never taking a single day for granted with the people you love is the most important lesson of all.
Don’t worry, your love won’t fade.
As you approach healing, you’ll be surprised to discover that a parent’s love is an extraordinary connection that doesn’t diminish as time moves forward. In fact, it will continue to grow as though your child is still on this earth. They are there, forever yours, residing in your heart.
You begin to realize that we are given these tiny baby bundles to love with all our hearts, forever. Even in death. No matter how long we had with them.
If you’d asked me if I could survive such a tragic loss, I would have denied it, but here I stand, transformed into a woman stronger than I ever imagined.
And yet, I struggle when people ask me how many children I have. My struggle is not with the truth, but the complete story I wish to tell. I could never mention my son without wanting to share who he was and how he changed my life… and with that sometimes come the tears I’m not always prepared to shed. Yet, other times I welcome them.
“Let the tears come, they water the soul.”-Eileen Mayhew
Loving your child has no physical boundaries. I know it’s still there as it wells up in the sound of his voice that I sometimes hear in the wind, or his favorite song playing on the radio, or the fragrance of blooming white roses and remembering he used to pick them for me on his way home from school.
I call them postcards from above… my sweet boy, my beautiful child, my angel, calling out to his mama. I love those days. They remind me that my son’s story continues in my heart no matter how much time has passed, because a mother’s love never dies.
When you recover your life, you bestow the greatest gift to your child. You demonstrated how strong you really are, and that your love surpasses their loss. You are still mother and child.
Honor your child by healing… and your love will live forever.
A previous version of this story was published on Medium