Posted by: Jody Glynn Patrick | 08/19/2009

The second hardest thing after your child dies.

The three hardest things to do at all, in my experience, are:

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 and your surviving family].

I have been with four children when they died, and attended many more children’s burials. When I worked as Manager of the Chicago Ronald McDonald House, I attended services with the parents I had come to know, oftentimes for children I had come to love. Later, I went to many more funerals as a police crisis interventionist, a first responder to critical calls. I did death notifications and provided initial services to families on behalf of the department (body visitation, funeral arrangements, standing by parents until after the funeral, and then referring them for ongoing counseling, if requested, and following up with them for special holidays and anniversaries).

And then, of course, I attended my son Daniel’s funeral when he died in a car accident at age 16, which made me a full member of “the club no one wants to join”  instead of just a professional bystander.

I haven’t seen it all, but I’ve witnessed more than most folks.

I have witnessed most forms of parental grief. Parents have refused to open the door when I knocked in uniform, because they knew their child had not come home and, almost instinctively, many had a gut feeling I was on their doorstep to do a death notification. Some later told me that they thought that if they refused to open the door, they could perhaps superstitiously ward off the event as well as the notification. But eventually, after our dispatcher called and insisted they open the door, they did. Sometimes it took several hours, in which case I sat on their doorstep and waited, figuring they were calling the people they needed to come and help them meet me. And that was as it should be, if that was what they wanted.

Many times, when doing death notifications, I had an ambulance already positioned discretely a block away, waiting, ready to come if the parent should really go into physical shock. It happens. And I almost always had an officer standing respectfully off to my side who understood not to interfere or “help” me, but to facilitate in in whatever way I asked following the notification (parental reactions were always unpredictable).

I usually insisted that any siblings be present when I told the parent(s), and so we gathered the family together first. Otherwise children feel they were not important enough for an adult to tell. Also, most parents had no psychological training or the mental preparation for talking to a child about their sister or brother’s death, or to do it alone, when they are most vulnerable and had no answers themselves. Our calls were grounded in proven griefwork methods, and I rarely deviated from best practices learned through additional police chaplain’s training.

After I told one or both parents and step-parents as well, I always discretely offered to take the adults to view the body, if requested; we always left the harder decision — of whether or not to include the children in that viewing — up to the parents.

I have seen knees buckle and fathers faint. I have held sobbing mothers in my arms, and also screaming mothers, and some muttering  muted denials. I have been called to “handle” mothers who refused to give up their children who died at home, and to “work with” one mother who threw things (every thing she could grab)  when an officer was sent to help the coroner take custody of  her infant’s body after he died of SIDS at home. All of those very normal reactions happen during step one, when belief is the first impossible thing these broken hearted people are asked to do.

A frank discussion — about to get even more so

Those descriptions likely seem harsh to those reading them who have not lost a child to death. To those that have, they are a fact of life. The shock value is gone. And we need to be able to have some straight talk about how hard step one is. We can’t find our own way through grief if everyone tries to cushion it (1) for us or (2) because it makes them too uncomfortable to discuss.

The second hardest thing is equally impossible to expect a parent to do — to walk away after burial or cremation or notification (if a body isn’t found).

The best funeral directors could benefit from this advice: You should not run the show according to a pre-set expectation when a child dies. You should (and I almost never “should” on people, but I’m making an exception now) — you SHOULD discuss with a parent how they would like to handle that final parting and respect their wishes to the extent that reason (dollars?) and the law allows.

I went to a child’s funeral which began routinely, and (up to a point) proceeded very much as expected. The service was for a little boy, five years old, who died of cancer. Upon arrival at the visitation, we approached the small coffin single file, and we all shed tears as we first saw him. He had a favorite matchbook car and stuffed puppy dog placed in his little hands, and letters from his family were tucked in the satin around him. All of the parents in the room mentally substituted their own children in that spot (admit it — it’s natural to do it) and they cried from the horror that they could, at best, only allows themselves to feel a little vicariously.

This was before my own son died, and so I thought I would never know a sadder day in my life. I felt physically sick and a little faint myself as I hugged those friends close. I sat down, but they stayed close by their son, greeting the endless line of friends and neighbors, trying to smile through their tears.

After the religious service, the funeral director asked the parents, who by then were sitting in the front row with their other child, to say their final goodbyes first — in front of the public assembled. You can imagine that most of the town had turned out and it was a capacity crowd. Imagine further having to say that final goodbye in front of your entire world, and then being expected to gracefully walk out the door first, leaving others to follow in your footsteps.

A parent rarely opts to leave first, and that particular set of parents was no exception. The father barely maintained his composure as he tried to accomodate the funeral director’s request and gently tug at his wife to take that first step aside, but the mother smacked at her husband as he tried to pull her away. She began wailing and crying that no, she was not ready to leave. She begged to stay. The funeral director tried to talk her into it, instead of helping her back to her seat. Meanwhile, the daughter started crying, seeing her mother so distressed. And it went quickly downhill from there.

Everyone in the crowd turned an angry eye on the man. Obviously, that ending had not been discussed with the parents beforehand. I was personally outraged that he was such an insensitive ass and that he made their hardest day ever so much harder.

My own experience was my hardest day, of course.

Daniel was buried by his grandfather, who was buried in Galesburg, Illinois. We lived in Milwaukee, so we had a first memorial service there, followed by a funeral service in Illinois. My police family were at my side in Wisconsin; my mother and my extended family joined me in Illinois. According to plan, I arrived in Illinois before other participants, and although the service would be held around a closed casket, due to Daniel’s many injuries in the accident, the funeral director opened the casket so that I and my three children could kiss Daniel goodbye in private.

When the director closed the coffin that last time, I thought it would be my hardest moment, but I was wrong. It was just another excruciating minute in a series of many to follow on its heels.

The funeral director offered me a rose during the service, which made me choke back sobs — I hadn’t expected that. Daniel’s stepmother leaned forward in her chair (she was seated behind me) and whispered in my ear, “You know, Daniel really loved you so very much”.  The remark was likely intended to be a peace offering of sorts, as our families had, at best, been acrimonious over the years. I didn’t need her to tell me that my son loved me, and it stung that she would be so presumptuous, but I choked those feelings down, too, and in turn thanked her for being a part of his life and for giving him a younger sister herself. I knew she had grown to love him as a son over the years, too, and we were both grieving mothers that day. Intellectually I knew that she was honoring that bond with her remark as well, but still, everything said that day hit a raw nerve.

That is what grief is like. It is a black hole that swallows you. Even though it swallows everyone around you, too, it compartmentalizes you in separate holes. I was trying hard enough to hold on to my other children as we were pulled into our separate grief holes over and over; I didn’t have the strength to really concentrate fully on anyone else’s needs.

Eventually, you really do have to walk away

Though I had helped scores of parents walk away from gravesites during my careers, I didn’t know how to walk away from my son’s grave. So I made darn sure that the funeral director (and Daniel’s father) knew I expected to do it privately with my children, after everyone else had left.

I’d taken two Valium just to make it through the service, and I was getting a little foggy by the end of it — though not foggy enough. There were awkward goodbyes with people I hadn’t seen for years, including my adoptive father, Lawson (who adopted me when I was 7, but didn’t want to stay for lunch with my mother, who by then was his ex-wife) and a step-father, Bob (my brother’s father, and my step”daddy” until I was six). My mother didn’t want Bob invited to the luncheon, though he had driven to Ilinois from Iowa in a borrowed junker car, with money borrowed for gas. I hadn’t seen Bob since he’d come out of a coal mine to see Daniel when he was a baby. That he would also come to help me bury him really moved me, as did his present to me — a silver bracelet with large turquoise stones set it in. I looked up at him, bewildered.

“My mama was part Indian and she give it to me,” he said. “It’s the only thing I ever had worth anything, and I want you to keep it to remember me, Sissy,” he said.

It would be the last thing he ever said to me; that was the  last time I ever saw him. Mom, who was still mad because I’d told her to leave her present husband back in Denver, took Bob aside and suggested he skip the lunch. She later told me that she didn’t want him to embarrass me in front of Amie, the police chief who had kindly driven the children and me to Illinois.

I saw him walk away, shoulder’s slumped. I turned to Amie to ask if it was okay to take another Valium yet. He said no. Too soon. I didn’t have the strength to take on my mother’s issues, or to reassure Bob that although he was a hillbilly, he was still MY hillbilly, and I wanted him there.  I didn’t even want to be there.

Eventually I looked around and there we were, according to plan. Just me and the children, the police chief and the undertaker. Everyone else who was going to the luncheon were likely at the restaurant, waiting for us.

“Would you like me to offer a final prayer?” the funeral director asked kindly.

I was sort of prayed out, frankly. I just wanted somebody to stop all this foolishness, call it a day, and hit the rewind button to when my son was alive. I glanced at my children’s tear-stained faces, picked up my youngest son and took the girls’ hands. “It’s time to go, ” I whispered, and our friend Amie literally took my arm, and I leaned on him and he helped tuck us all into the car.

It’s what people expected me to do, after all. And it’s what I promised the funeral director I’d do. So I did. I hobbled away.

Much of my heart was buried that day, in a grave dug for my son.

The rest beats in the chests of my other three children and their children. It echoes in my husband’s heart, but it beats in time with my children’s hearts. My mother is gone, my fathers gone — all three of them. A brother has died. More of my childhood family are gone than remain, and every time another dies, they take more memories of Daniel with them, and I mourn anew that a little less of him remains in our collective minds here. But I take comfort that I will be reconnected with his energy when it is my turn to join them all again.

Meanwhile, I give my surviving children what they deserve — a mother who is present. A woman capable of authentic laughter and love and joy.

And I know, friend, that being expected to reconnect with the world your child left behind is the fourth hardest thing asked of you after your child dies.

But it is possible. I hope you will do me the honor of trusting the promise of this counselor and this stranger who has much experience with many bereaved parents.

It is possible.

I hope to see you at the watering hole again soon.

Jody

This article is copyrighted by the author. All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reprinted without permission of the author. ©Copyright 2009: Glynn Patrick & Associates


Responses

  1. It is not over, yet.

  2. You touched me so perfectly. Everything you said was so right on. It pertained to me. It feels like your statement was customized for me only. It made me feel lighter. Made circumstances a lot easier to deal with.

  3. Everything you said is the same as I feel my daughter died of intentional or accidental suscide on 4/27/15. She was my only girl and at age 42 because she abused alcohol we think she made a grave error I. Judgement. She had been researching how Robbin Williams died and possibly in s drunken stupor she didn’t believe it and thried it herself which ended the life of my precious child’s. Oh that night. The night my son whom is 37 came screaming into my room Deanna is dead I can’t believe it why why why was I such a bad brother. I didn’t really comprehend what he was saying and ran to,her room that was across from mine and found her laying face down on the floor as my son begged me to not see her that way. I tried to pick her up but she was so cold and hard and one of her legs was slightly elevated in the air my baby was dead. I immediately went into protective mode for my son and blocked out what just had happend to protect him. At,one point he cried you always loved he’d more than me and I’m afraid I’m not enough to,keep you alive. I assure him I never loved her more she just needed me more,and he was the only thing keeping me alive because I swear without him im would have joined he’d.

    My son and I his wife and their daughter were in no shape to handle what was ahead of,us so I called their father whom has no sole and told can him what happened. He is a major asshole but in situatuons like that he is good and he made all the funeral arrangements. After asking myself and my son for money

    But neither if us cared we weren’t in any kind can of state to handle what had just happend to us.

    Now it’s been 8 months since my precious baby has left me and I have grieved so long but I had to finally get to the point that I had to be grateful for what I have instead what I don’t have for me and my son to survive.

    I still miss my baby girl every days to,the point that I gasp for breath but I must move on because if I fall everyone else will fall I haven’t been able to go to her grave I,don’t want to see a rock in the ground that is supposed to me my daughter I think I would lay on her grave till I died myself.

    It,is the hardest thing I have ever had to do but I have to realize she is gone and no matter how much i,cry she still will be gone so i have to be thankful for what I have instead of what I don’t have and as my son said “easier,said than done”


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