1. When I hear her name. My daughter’s name is Natasha; I love hearing people say her name; I wish they’d say it more often. I love seeing her name on her possessions, including (inexplicably) her medications that we continue to hoard. I even like seeing new spam sneak into her inbox, or junk mail addressed to her in our mailbox. Recently a former classmate recognized me at the pool where my younger daughter was taking classes. “Are you Natasha’s mother?” Those words made my soul sing. Her name: Thank you! Reference to me as her mother: Thank you! Use of present tense: Yes, I am Natasha’s mother –- always will be. Thank you.
2. When people acknowledge her life. A Christmas gift and birthday card for Natasha that were sent after her passing gave us a brief burst of joy; they validated our drive as grieving parents to keep at least part of her alive. But both senders were almost apoplectic with regret: they were so sorry, it had been a ghastly mistake! Why is it that people think that if they act like our daughter is still with us, we will be terribly insulted? Did they think that we’d forgotten that we'd had a daughter who had died and that the card and gift would be unpleasant reminders?
3. Hearing, "You’ll never get over it,” from my bereaved aunt who lost her teen son in an auto accident many years ago. That assertion rings true to us and it gives us peace. Conversely, non-bereaved parents seem to cling to the conviction that we will get over it.
4. Other parents who have lost a child to cancer. We speak the same language: CT scans, MRIs, CBCs, IVs, chemo, radiation, "artificial nutrition" ... It takes a cancer parent to understand the turmoil invoked with each of those words. Bereaved parents don’t respond with panic when they see us cry — something that shocks many people, especially if a father is crying. Bereaved parents know that tears don’t mean we’re having an unusually rough day, any more than laughter means we’re having a good day. Crying is just something bereaved parents do –- possibly every day and possibly copiously. Bereaved parents get it. Tissues over here, please.
5. Hearing from people who read my blog. Thank you to everyone who has shared their own stories with me, either privately or on this blog. Writing about Natasha is my therapy; thank you for reading it.
What doesn’t help:
1. Anti-depressants. Disclosure: I’ve never taken them. Would I be open to taking them? Perhaps and I certainly see their benefit for some types of mental illness. But child loss is not an illness. I think I feel exactly the way any bereaved mother who loves her child should feel: desperate grief. Prozac et al are off the table, at least for now.
2. Therapy. I haven’t closed the door to it (yet) but I’ve never met a bereaved parent who claims to have been helped by it. I’m open to hearing other opinions.
3. Celebrations, vacations, barbecues, “girls nights out,” your child’s graduation, bridal showers, baby showers. I can’t do any of them. Sorry. Thank you for inviting me, though.
4. Playing “at least she wasn’t.” My daughter wasn’t abducted and strangled at knifepoint by a psychopath; she didn’t die suddenly in a head on collision caused by a drunk driver; or on a ventilator after months in the ICU. She died at home in the arms of her family. She knew that she was loved and that we had tried to protect her every day of her life. This I don’t doubt. I’ve played the “at least she wasn’t …” game with myself and other bereaved parents and it doesn’t work. The truth is that there is no good way for a 12-year-old to die. And if I’d have gotten the chance to pick, I wouldn’t have picked the cancer card: the operations when her surgeon drilled through her skull to get to that vicious tumor, the fruitless cycles of chemo and futile irradiation of her entire brain and spine. There is no “at least she wasn’t.” Its dreadfulness is insurmountable.
Suzanne Leigh is a freelance health reporter, a Huffington Post blogger and the mother of two gorgeous girls. She blogs about her family at: www.themourningafternatasha.wordpress.com