Posted by: Jody Glynn Patrick | 08/16/2009

The third hardest thing after your child dies.

1. Believe it.
2. Walk away from the grave after the ceremony.
3. Understand that the world can and will go on, as if nothing has happened to your child [and by extension, to you].

It’s this third point I want to talk about first.

On the night of my son Daniel’s death, after my other three younger children finally (finally!) fell asleep curled up together on blankets in the living room in a makeshift cocoon, I put myself on the front door steps.

It was July 1991, and I left the front door open, screen door closed, so that I could hear if one or all of the kids woke up. I sat on the porch steps and chain-smoked menthol cigarettes. I was all cried out (or so I wrongly thought), and I was trying very hard to think nothing thoughts. Meaning not to think at all. Rationally, I knew I couldn’t scream as loud as I wanted to, or hit something as hard as I needed to. I couldn’t turn back time. I couldn’t will him home with us instead of lying on a … I couldn’t even think about where my baby boy was lying that night. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, either. So I had to stop thinking period. Except I couldn’t do that, either.

Certainly, I felt like I was losing my mind. Actually, I think I did for awhile. The safest place to be seemed to be on the porch steps, away from my gun in the bedroom and my knives in the kitchen – both of which held a very seductive promise. But there remained three traumatized children mourning their big brother; that was the reality that kept my butt on that porch instead of in the bathroom with a bunch of pills in one hand and a glass of water in the other.

Still, I couldn’t go to sleep. In truth, I was terrified at the idea of ever sleeping again, as I knew my first waking thought would be that Daniel, 16, was dead. Why would I do that again – face it again? So I would not go to sleep. And I would not think, because all I could think about — if not about Daniel — was how to keep my other kids safe. How could I lock my remaining children in the house until they were adults, so that none of them could ever be in danger? I couldn’t quit my job to home school them, because I was their primary financial support. And it occurred to me that they could still get electrocuted from a bad outlet, burned in a house fire, or pulled out by a tornado. Most accidents happen in the home.

Anything and everything horrible that I had never let myself think before was suddenly comprehendible and possible. And yet I knew these were irrational fears that no friend would want to hear. These were fears I could never express aloud, because people would tell me that I was just in shock. They would dismiss me as a grieving mother and talk about me to their group of friends or, worse, talk about me to our mutual friends. Say things like, “Jody’s really lost it; I’m worried about her. Do you think the other kids are okay with her right now?”

But really, they would also tune me out. What I needed to say would make them afraid for their children, too, and so they would try to avoid my calls in the future if I told them my thoughts. Put some distance between the messenger and the message.

Eventually, the sun came up. My neighbors, mostly strangers to me, woke up, got dressed, backed cars out of driveways, waved if they noticed me, and went to work as if it were just another day. I really resented that it WAS just another day.

For them.

For me and my family, it was Day One: “After”.

It was the day I’d have to pick out flowers, call extended family, and make arrangements with the pastor. It was the day I’d send Daniel’s beloved police jacket (he was a police explorer scout) to a mortician. The day I’d encourage his siblings to write special words to be read at his funeral. The day I’d ask my mother not to find fault with my ex-husband at the funeral, and not to bring her new husband with her from Denver, if possible.

Friends would show up to help walk me through the steps. They would sit and drink coffee with me and smoke with me, and tell me that time would lessen the pain, if I could just get through the day, and blah, blah, blah, so many words. So many people reminded me that I was “lucky” I had other children. So many stupid remarks backed by broken hearts and good intentions and casseroles…. So many words… after awhile, I stopped listening. I watched their lips move and waited for the lips to stop moving, and then I would whisper, “thank you” though I had no idea what they said. It didn’t matter. Words meant nothing.

The doctor gave me sleeping pills and Valium. I took them. Not all at once, like I wanted, but enough so that I could read to my youngest without sobbing, thinking back to what it had felt like to read to my first born all those years ago. Adding (compulsively) to my mental list of all of the things I’d never do again with Daniel.

Today, it is years past that first night. And even my world has moved on.

The nights that it feels like Daniel died very recently, I take an extra sleeping pill. Some nights, I remember what Dr. Seuss wrote, and I repeat it to myself. It has become my mantra: Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened. [Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.] Most nights now, honestly, I fall asleep thinking about something going on at work, or upcoming plans with grandchildren. Or I think nothing at all — I real until I’m too tired to think and fall asleep with my glasses on my face and the light shining on the bed until my husband wakes and turns it off.

I still self-censure what I say to other people – all of those who have not lost a child, anyway — because people really do expect you to “get over it” in time, even if they say they don’t. Most of my friends today, after a couple moves to new cities, never knew Daniel anyway. I remarried years after Daniel’s death, and even my husband never knew him. My parents have since died, and a brother. Daniel’s life means less, if feels like, every time a family member dies, because another person’s memories of him die with them. It makes my grief for them all so much more profound, because it deepens my grief for him, too, which I never think is possible, but somehow it always is. So I talk about him to the neices and nephews who will never know him, and I show them his picture. I put up his memorial on to perpetuate him just a little longer….

In Madison, to all the people I know and love here, he’s just a sad thing that happened to their friend before they knew her — Daniel is not, for them, a beautiful boy who had a black belt in karate. They don’t know (or care) that he was an Eagle scout, won first place in state for playing the drums, and wanted to be a policeman. They don’t know that he was the best big brother who ever lived [in his siblings eyes] and a magnificent son. But now you do.

The good news is….

The good news is that I’ve gotten over my guilt for enjoying the high points of my life “after”. Even a bigger surprise is that we’ve come to a truce, Grief and I. I now acknowledge Grief so that it doesn’t have to sneak up behind me to get my attention so often. Usually I see it coming and we now deal with each other on familiar terms, alone and in private.

Though… at a women’s retreat only a couple weeks ago, we were sharing our job histories, and I burst into tears while telling my lifeline, since I changed jobs after Daniel died. The women actually cried with me, hearing it, and I was ever so grateful that they did, because the opportunity to cry with other people for him is a rare gift.

But don’t cry [forever] because it’s over, I remind myself. Smile because it happened. And I do, to honor all of the love, laughter and light Daniel brought into my life.

I do.

Thanks for visiting the Bereaved Parents Watering Hole. Hope to see you again soon.


©2009: Glynn Patrick & Associates. All Rights Copywritten and Reserved. No part of this article may be reprinted without permission of the author.

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