Friday, October 27, 2017

When Your Friend's Child Dies

As a parent, I can't think of anything worse than losing a child. It is a fear that grips me at unexpected times, wakes me in the middle of the night and brings me to my knees in prayer. Children should always outlive their parents, yet every day, for the parents of some 21,000 children worldwide, this is their reality and their nightmare. It's easy to distance yourself from this statistic when it doesn't reach you. Yes, in some way we are affected when we learn of the news or in our social media threads of a child who has died, but if we don't know them, it's easy to shed a quick tear and/or say a quick prayer and move on with our lives. But when we know them...well, it's an unexpected navigation that has no clear direction and no clear destination.

This August, my dear friend, lost her daughter who was hit by a car three days after arriving at her university. I had just dropped my own daughter off at her university and was in the middle of a 12-hour drive home when my daughter called and told me the horrible news. I couldn't believe it. For the next 6 hours, I drove in complete silence, waffling between tears and prayer. I had planned to stop somewhere along the way and sleep, but after the news I had to get home, knowing I wouldn't be able to sleep anyway. What do I do? Do I call her? Text her? Do I hop on the next plane and go to her? I was honestly paralyzed with a fear of doing or saying the wrong thing that it kept me from doing anything at all.

When someone dies, there is no "one-size-fits-all" approach to comforting those left behind, just like there is no one way to handle grief when it is you who is directly impacted. A person's faith, personality, and history all play a significant role in how they deal with their grief. And yet, even if we think we know them intimately, there is no guarantee we will know how they will react to the tragic event or what they need. So what are we to do? We go with our gut. We push through the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing and do what we feel would comfort us the most if the tables were turned. For example, I would want to be surrounded by my friends. I would want them to just be present so I wouldn't feel so alone. I would appreciate the calls and texts, even if I didn't answer them, take in the hugs sent in many ways, (flowers, prayer cards, silly things that make me laugh), and I would want to hear every story they have about my child.

It has been over three months since my friend's daughter's death and I have taken my own advice yet, there are so many things I find myself struggling with as I navigate this new terrain. First off, I can't physically be there to help my friend due to my recent move across the country. While so many are able to bring meals, stop over with a smile or get her out of the house, I can only offer texts or phone calls. I want to be there and the fact that I can't makes me feel helpless.

Second,  I believe I am suffering from a form of survivor's guilt. I wasn't aware of it at first but as I reflect on these painful months, I see that this survivor guilt started the minute I heard the news. Normally, I would have posted the picture on Facebook of my daughter and I that I took just before I left her at school. But after the news, I just couldn't. And since the accident, I've only posted a handful of times, always concerned at how my post would affect my friend. I felt like any post I made, especially about my kids, would be a punch to her gut and I didn't want to cause her any more pain. But it isn't only guilt that has pulled me away from interacting on Facebook. It's also the shallowness and hurtful posts that make me think people have forgotten how precious life truly is and the impact their words can have on someone else. When your friend loses their child, all that bullshit doesn't matter anymore. What matters is that I am kind in a world where kindness is not the lifestyle of choice these days.

Third, depression has been my constant companion. Before this news, I was already going through some big changes. I was moving across the country, leaving my son behind and dropping my daughter off at college. I was going from a family of 5 to a family of 3 in two short weeks. It was as though I was wading in the shallow end of the pool and reached the drop-off, unsure if I could doggy-paddle my way to safety. It was all too much at one time and then add my friend's daughter's death. When I was in the process of packing up my house, I was asked if I was sad. I was asked if it was strange to see my house empty, to watch the moving truck pull away, to close the door for the last time. But I didn't have time to be sad, or mad or nostalgic--I was up to my eyebrows in logistics and I knew that if I lost my shit, I would never get through it. So I bagged up my emotions, figuring I would deal with them when the dust settled. I would have a good cry, feel sorry for myself for a few days and then move on. But when tragedy struck, those bagged emotions were sealed because there was something bigger than my own bag of crap.

I am still waiting to open that bag. I thought at some point it would explode, but it appears I am suffering from some kind of emotional constipation that keeps me from moving forward. It's been months since I have written a blog post or worked on my novels. But I am determined to put some holes in that bag, to unleash the contents, accept all that has happened and turn what has bound me into what will lift me. It will be a slow process, I'm sure, but as I have learned, there is always the opportunity to grow, to be a better, stronger, kinder human being.

Growth comes from our experiences, the good the bad and the deeply tragic. What we do with that growth, who we become from those experiences is up to us. We can either let them pull us down and make us into miserable people, or we can allow them to mold us into a more understanding, gentler person who can make a difference in this world. I will leave you with this saying I found on a plaque that I sent to my dear friend:

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