“Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” —-Elizabeth Stone
My baby boy, Ty, passed away three years ago. Though I don’t cry very often anymore, sometimes the smallest things can trigger a grief response. I cried at work on Saturday while managing the farmers’ market. No, my job was not terribly stressful. Nobody was being mean to me. We were having a lovely, sunny Saturday at the market when one emergency vehicle after another began to go by our street. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many sirens. My manager persona was on the alert, ready to leap into action if an emergency vehicle might need to get through the farmers’ market.
Fortunately, the fire trucks and police cars went right on by our street, but they didn’t go far. People began speculating, “Someone must be in the river.” One of our vendors came walking toward me and asked the question that put my heart in my throat, ” Is anybody missing a kid?” He had walked over to the accident scene and heard that a kid had been spotted in the river. My heart started pounding and the tears welled up behind my eyes as I frantically located the vendors’ kids that I knew had been at the market with their parents and grandparents. They were all at their booths. Still, just the thought of anybody’s kid going into the river made it hard for me to hold back my tears.
The person who was rescued from the river turned out to be a grown man with mental illness. Four days have passed, but I still find it hard to shake that horrible feeling of what it would be like to have a child fall in the river. I shared my upset state with some friends down at the market. They admitted to having similar fears about their children around fast-moving water. That’s reassuring, but I’m not convinced that my reaction is completely normal. I think the exaggerated grief was like a post traumatic stress disorder reaction. Whatever it was, it wiped me out on Saturday, leaving me shaken and fragile. Hearing news stories about other tragedies involving children later that week brought me quickly to tears. I should probably be honest and say not just tears but violent racking sobs.
When somebody loses a child, I grieve for them and with them. I also grieve for myself, reliving or revisiting aspects of my own loss. I’m not sure how long it takes the average person to recover from a major loss. (I don’t want to look it up because it won’t be helpful to compare myself to a statistic.) I think it’s just important to remember to be gentle and good to ourselves. When I speak of recovery, I don’t mean that you will ever be the same as you were before the tragedy. I may always be a little fragile. I will definitely always be extra compassionate. The alternative to this emotionally connected compassion would be to stay numb, not really feeling either sadness or extreme joy. No thanks. I’ll take the ups and downs and enjoy the ride. Over time, the tears do get less frequent. The joy does get more pure.
One of the best resources I found was Faith’s Lodge, a retreat center for families who have lost children. My daughter and I stayed there for a week just a few months after losing Ty. We still keep in touch with many of the friends we made there. On our first visit to the lodge, we participated in the tradition of painting a heart shaped stone in memory of Ty. A year and a half later we visited again. Unfortunately, the wooded area around the lodge and the stones by the bridge had been all but wiped out by straight line winds. Another family in our group spent hours and hours finding the stone they had made on their previous visit. I decided not to look for Ty’s stone because I didn’t want the disappointment of not finding it. I did, however, snap a few photographs of the many stones that had been found. You can imagine my surprise and joy when I later found Ty’s little ladybug stone right in the middle of one of my photos. I think that gratitude really is the antidote to grief. I take all of these little surprises as gifts of hope to get me through the difficult times.
If you find that the tears are winning most of time, definitely seek out a good therapist. If you are like me and have occasional ups and downs, seek out a good friend. Talk to other parents who have lost children. Don’t be afraid to share your deepest fears and most unusual stress responses. You will probably find that you are more normal than you think. Grief is a long, strange process. Going through it can make you more open and more compassionate to the grief of others. Though I don’t care to cry any more at work, compassion isn’t a bad thing.
Stephanie Aegerter, a.k.a. Stephafriendly, is a wife, mother, farmers’ market manager and health coach in Janesville, Wisconsin. She has a six-year-old daughter here on Earth and a baby boy in Heaven. She blogs about a variety of topics at Stephafriendly Foods, where food is just part of the journey. She enjoys natural food cooking, environmental education, activism, gardening, crafting and, of course, writing. She is a student at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.