Trigger warning: child loss
The other day I went for a walk.
On this walk there were many people like me. And by that I mean normal-ish people in their thirties, who struggle with horribly mundane problems like five nagging pounds and crowded Starbucks lines and premature gray hair. And by that I also mean, they have lost a child.
I’d be lying if I said I looked forward to such walks anymore: Saturday mornings and all their promise. I’d be lying if I said I never found myself looking back; that pink ribbon never shook me.
“Can I call anyone?” the nurse had asked, her hand shaking over mine. “It’s better if you’re not alone.”
I remember the words sounding strange, and I remember noting the time. Spaghetti dinner, and I would ruin it.
In the beginning these walks were like a tourniquet. Life-saving. I craved connection and commemoration and steps; the purposeful kind. The kind that offered a glimpse into the lives of others like me. The kind that provided pain but also hope, in the form of tiny feet peeking out from strollers to my left. In the beginning, I needed hope as much as I needed oxygen.
Lately, the longing to connect remains beneath the surface. At times it’s quite muted amidst the bath schedules and mid-quarter grades and pack meetings and very, very early mornings in rocking chairs. I no longer need help falling asleep or Kleenex on my lunch break. I am sure to all who know me it seems that I’m doing okay, and I guess that would be the truth. I’m okay, although there remains a massive part of me that will never fit inside that word, and so I walk.
This year a woman approached me near the end. I turned to face the river and she was beside me. “You don’t know me,” she said, “but when my son died, your writing helped and I wanted to thank you.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I thanked her in return and I asked her name and then I hugged her. Because sometimes, when your baby dies and there is a lifetime in front of you, words become small. And because always, when you meet someone who understands, words become dispensable.
I cried on the way home, but not because I was sad.
Too often anymore, she resides in afterthought. The sights and sounds of that hospital room have faded, blending too easily with the smiles in the foreground. But I still miss her, so immensely, with every breath. In the nearly five years since my daughter died, I have packed it all away for the sake of social comfort too many times to count, but it still hurts. I cried because when I close my eyes I can still feel her on my chest and after awhile, when you’ve hidden that weight behind too many sunglasses and play dates and empire waists it starts to feel heavy, and you have to set it down.
At home I composed myself in the driveway. Then I unbuckled two sleeping children from two car seats and tucked them into two beds in two separate rooms. I sat on the couch and I thought of the nurse from that night; the hitch in her voice at the welcome desk. Her grip on the ultrasound wand. The way her words were calming but her eyes were not.
Were she here, I would thank her for holding my hand, and for trying so hard to find what was no longer there. I would thank her for the paper; for helping me to write it down and I would tell her what the last five years have affirmed for me, time and again. This life is hard.
It’s better if you’re not alone.
Here are 10 more things I learned after my daughter died.
1. Death doesn’t ask.
What you’d prefer. Who should go first. When it will happen. If you’re ready or if you’re willing or what you’d give instead.
2. Life doesn’t mind.
You’ve read her autopsy eleven times. You’re afraid to fall asleep and to wake up. Your hair is falling out and you’ve memorized crop circles on the ceiling and you haven’t showered in five days. You get up and you go to bed and she’s not there. You still have to pay the water bill.
3. The true meaning of the following words, in no particular order.
Numb, Futile, Blind.
Jealousy. Anxiety. Insomnia.
4. Love conquers all.
5. Some people can hang.
And some cannot.
Call. Hug. Stay.
Sit with you on the hospital bed. On the hospital floor. On the bedroom floor. On the bathroom floor.
Hold your daughter. Wrap her in tiny blankets intently, softly. Sing to her as if she were alive.
Sift ashes though their fingers, entwined with yours, into the ground.
Hold your head in their hands, hold your heart in their words.
Check in. Send a card. Stick around.
6. This doesn’t matter.
Insert anything here. Literally anything. Whatever you’re stressing over today, whatever’s depriving you of sleep or making your insides loose or shortening your words, you could be laughing about in an instant, tomorrow, trust me.
7. This does.
Their breath on the glass. Their hands on the fridge. Their cries down the hall and their hair in the shower. Their footsteps on the hardwood. Their spills. Their smells. Their eye rolls. The tops of their heads on your nose. Their texts and their awful jokes and their fevers at 3 am. Their carpet recitals and their holey sweatpants and their toys in the entryway. Breathe it in. Rinse and repeat. Forever.
8. Forgiveness is key.
Those people who didn’t call? That person who said that awful thing? They were trying. They didn’t try at all. They had no experience. They knew better. Forgive them. All of them. Forgive yourself, too.
9. You should.
Say hello. Slow down. Eat the bread. Make the drive.
10. You can.
Say goodbye. Endure. Remember. Survive.