By midnight of the day on which my youngest son was killed in New Orleans, my two older children and their spouses arrived home. The sorrow in our home surrounded us like humid air on a summer day. It clung to us, oozed from us, bound us. As a mother, this was the hardest moment of my life, harder than telling them their grandmother was dying. How could we go forward without their brother, Josh?
As I look around at weary eyes on Zoom calls, hear from friends, and sense myself, this is a time of deep grief. All that we have lost makes us feel lost. We have lost some of the moorings that anchor us to our routines, expectations, habits, and responsibilities. If someone could tell us -truthfully- when this would all be over, we could hold out to that finish line. But without an end date, with some of our moorings cut, we are stranded in the uncomfortable place that looks and feels like grief.
That first night together with our older children, I laid out three rules for the immediate road ahead. First, we would not drink alcohol during this week of grieving together, leading up to Josh’s funeral the following weekend. For their dad and me, this rule would extend for the next month. As a family, we certainly did like to live together: great cooking, good wine, laughter, card games, cigars. But this time, there was no time for fun. We were in survival mode and I wondered if we could successfully fight the grief that felt like it would drown us, and fight the very human desire to numb our pain? To fight on two fronts at once: pain and the desire to kill the pain would be too much of a combat. We shouldn’t be so cavalier to think we could or would, with certainty, win that fight. We had to take a stand for our survival. Alcohol was eliminated.
Second, we declared out loud that from this moment forward emotions would not be criticized. Someday, one of us would be in grief’s deep well when another was above the surface, able to breathe. The one who had caught his breath would not emotion-shame the other. There would be no, “But think of it this way…..”. Whatever was felt, was felt. No shame.
Third, their dad and I had unwillingly entered a new category. Parents who have lost a child are more likely to divorce than those who have not lost a child. Perhaps the death of a child is the final weight on top of a house of cards. At that moment, I didn’t care about the statistic or the root cause. Instead, I promised them that dad and I would get whatever help we needed to keep our marriage together: therapy, time off from work, whatever we needed. For their marriages, we asked them to do the same.
What are the Rules of the Road under this collective grief we are now experiencing?
We do not know when this will end. We do not know when we will feel better, less afraid, less concerned about basic social interaction. What can we use for guardrails on this journey?
First, take a collective stand against whatever can drown you. This may be alcohol or food, mindless TV. Wasting time is not the problem. Grief is exhausting and we need a way to rest. Beware of what does not bring rest, and what, instead, is creating an additional battle to be fought at a later time.
Second, allow your emotions to be, and other’s emotions to be. We will be in different emotional zones at different times. Let’s have grace and let’s hold off emotion-shaming.
Third, get help to navigate the lost moorings. They are real, and you may need help from someone who has lost similar moorings and learned how to hold on when so much has been lost.
Rules of the road do not eliminate grief. They eliminate some of the drift and the feelings of helplessness against a strong tide. Use them as anchors as you go forward into the unknown.