By Jill Ann Schwartz
This article is a reflection about my journey, with my son, through the first years of mourning the death of my beloved and my son’s father. Each day, I am struck by the profoundness of our loss and the effort required of us to face the future. Primarily, I am a mother striving to create a safe haven of love and trust for my young child who was unprepared for letting go and grieving the death of his father. Simultaneously, I am, now, a woman in mourning, a single parent, and the family breadwinner.
Prior, to the homebirth of our son, I trained and then volunteered my services as a bereavement counselor for Hospice. For three years, our team of volunteers ran a “littles” group for 5-8 year old children who had lost a parent. Certainly, this work has provided me with some tools with which to honor my son’s process through grief.
Our death was a sudden shock whose impact will continue to reverberate throughout our lives. It is a slow, often grueling process, to face each day without your loved one. My objective, in writing, is to offer some insight into the subtle tremors of pain that follow tragic loss within a culture so fearful of death and its aftermath. I have slowly begun to stand upright again and begin to entrust myself to the unknown of each day.
It is no mistake that our son, Raphael, has a particular fascination with planes, fire, and rescue trucks. As he says, “I am interested in all kinds of vehicles.” Clearly, a large majority of boys choose “vehicles” as an instrument with which they can map their world. A child’s passion can express their aesthetic landscape, their heart filled devotion, and/or an impressionable event. Raphael’s dramatic play with vehicles challenges the innocence of childhood. His scenarios guide him as he unravels his early life story. He is reflecting on and remaking a harsh reality of early loss.
Dennis, his dad, my beloved, was a pilot. Dennis died when Raphael was a year and nine months old. It was six days before 9/11 when his plane nose-dived and crashed into ‘mother earth’. Dennis was flying home, solo, after routine maintenance was performed on a commuter twin engine plane. Dennis was airborne for less than ten minutes when he attempted to return to the airport due to “some trouble.” Now, two and a half years later, there is no probable cause for the crash. Perhaps, “why did daddy’s plane crash?” will always be an unanswered question for Raphael. Each year, Raphael formulates new questions, which he wants me to answer. I search for more adequate language with which to describe the accident and his father’s death. Raphael and I resonate with each other emotionally as we attempt to negotiate this minefield of mourning.
The week following Dennis’ s death Raphael started to create his first sentences. He was determined to find out what had happened and to decipher why our life was in upheaval. Why is mommy always crying? I listened to him say “dada died” repeatedly for hours each day throughout the initial months following the death. His repetition brought me face to face with the fact of Dennis’ s death on a daily basis. I affirmed his redundant statement “Yes, dada died”, through my tears. There was no escaping from the pain because I was still mothering as I mourned. I was amazed to witness Raphael find language and devise questions to construct his, daddy-less reality. He developed a firm grasp on language as we moved through the fog of that first year. Raphael and I wrestled with particular expressions and words such as a ‘dead end’ and ‘transformation.’ He taught me to be thoughtful and selective when choosing my words. He reminded me how to trust the deep love we had cultivated as an intact family. We were shattered by his absence but our deep love was our only hope and relief from the pain of separation.
Being a toddler, still breastfeeding, Raphael was very attuned to my emotional life. Some days, I fear that my grief was like an emotional tidal wave consuming him. As I sobbed, I explained that I had to let my sadness out, so that it would not make me sick inside. Within the confusion and devastation of the pain, I have tried to maintain a refuge of love for my son. I do not know how Raphael experienced this shock at the age of twenty-one months. I expect that the loss will express itself at unexpected moments and landmarks in his life. With each new year Raphael is more consciously aware of his father’s death. As is true with grief, each season expresses a new aspect of life without our loved one, his daddy.
As September 2002 approached, the anxiety of facing the first anniversary of Dennis ‘s death became palpable. The month of August was excruciating as we approached the end of the year. I decided in mid-August that Raphael and I should not remain at home in anticipation of the day of death. We took a car trip to visit some friends who offered us respite by the sea, until early September. During the two weeks that we were gone I gained clarity about where I needed to be on the actual date, at the last minutes of my beloved’s death. I needed to go to the crash site. At this point, I had not told Raphael about my plans but wondered where he would spend that day and what I might tell him about my journey. I was full of anticipation driving home to an empty house. As we approached the tollbooth, just eight miles from home, I heard Raphael slowly and deliberately formulating a question, in the backseat of the car. His voice was so evenly paced, that time was suspended, as he said “I…am…trying…to…figure…out…WHY… my…daddy died.” Silence. Breathe. My response was to repeat what I had told him before “He died in a plane.” “I know that.” “His plane crashed into ‘mother earth’.” Obviously frustrated he said “I know but I am trying to figure out why he died.” I took a deep breath and asked him if he wanted to know more? He said “yes” so I continued. “Something went wrong while daddy was flying home. He radioed back that he was returning to the airport.” Raphael inquired “Were the wheels broken?” “No” “Was the engine broken?” “I do not know.” I was so dumbfounded that here we were minutes from our home, days before I would make a pilgrimage to the crash site and Raphael wanted to know about the end of his dad’s life. It seems more than coincidental that he was ready to hear more details when I was ready to face the site of Dennis ‘s death. Raphael and I travel in tandem as we crawl out from the wreckage of shock and trauma. I have taken Raphael’s lead. When he asks me for information about his father’s death, the accident, I offer him answers. He asks because he is repairing his world. He demands clarity in this process.
Many people believe that children should be “protected” from the truth. I do not believe that this is possible or healthy. Children intuitively know the truth and they deserve an honest, compassionate explanation about death. I am guided by my training and work at Hospice, my perceptions of my mother’s early loss, and my awe and respect for honoring my son’s confrontation with death. It is undeniable that in a supportive, loving atmosphere children modulate what they can handle hearing without being further traumatized. My knowledge has led me to a conviction that Despite his early trauma, my son does not have to lead a tragic life. Perhaps, his early loss will support him in living a life, which is not fearful of death. It is our ability to meet death with some grace that ultimately allows us to re-enter life, into a world of hope and promise. When people try to ease my mind by saying ” He is young, he won’t remember, or children are resilient”, I know it is for themselves that they speak. For the mourner, the intimacy of loss, is a permanent imprint. Whether Raphael remembers “consciously” like an adult is irrelevant. His loss is a deeply cellular one.
Raphael was born at home on his daddy’s birthday. We stayed at home, in the privacy of our nest, for seven weeks. As Dennis embraced his son, he communicated his love, he offered him security, protection, and a core connection as he held him to his chest. Dennis hiked with Raphael in a baby-sling, he slept with his son nuzzled to his chest, breathing heart to heart. The love emanating from Dennis’s heart and eyes will always shine in Raphael’s face. As I tell Raphael, “Daddy’s eyes will never die.” “Your Dada’s love is forever.”
Jill Ann Schwartz, is a choreographer, performer, and a movement educator with a master’s degree in Dance from Wesleyan University. Creating new choreography and writing about loss has been essential to her healing process. She and her son Rapahel live in the Hudson Valley in New York State. Communications can be sent to: email@example.com