|Seamus in April 2010, visiting Grandma and Grandpa in Colorado|
It’s still so painful. Five years and one day ago, 22-month old Seamus came running full speed into our bedroom at 7am, demanding breakfast, wanting to play, yelling “Mommy! Mommy!” Roughly 30 hours later, I crawled into a hospital bed where he lay bruised, broken, stitched together, and clinically dead, to say goodbye to him forever. The shock of the accident still resonates. Scenes from the hospital run though my head on a loop this time of year; they are vivid and irrepressible. And so I spend a good portion of early November giving myself “get it together” pep talks when I have to be cheerful for my children or participate in some stupid webinar at work. It’s just hard. I miss him.
Get it together, but remember to fall apart later. It always has bothered me when “experts” make it seem as though we are somehow less evolved if we suppress our emotions. Sometimes we just choose not to feel like shit, and sometimes it’s absolutely necessary to stuff our feelings away in order to function in life. I think that better advice would be to acknowledge the existence of the bad feelings when they arise, stuff them if you need to and are able to, but (and this is key) make time and space in your life to experience them fully – not because there is any inherent value to the feelings themselves, which are horrible and ugly, but because experiencing them is necessary if you want to learn something, grow and heal.
In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back. -Albert Camus
Grief is multidimensional – Poet Khalil Gibran said “the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” This has certainly been my experience, though I would add wisdom, compassion, humor, love, gratitude – everything just feels so much bigger and more meaningful now. I know I hit on this point a lot, but I can’t think of anything I have ever learned that has been so astonishing and counter-intuitive. I think this perspective would have helped me in the early days after the accident when I basically assumed that my life was over, too.
Stephen Colbert, who lost his dad and two brothers in a plane crash when he was 10, said in a recent interview, “I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.” That sentence took my breath away when I read it. How confusing to love an experience that is so utterly devastating. But it rings true to me – I am a much better person for having gone through this, and I am grateful for the many ways losing Seamus has enriched my life.
I am an atheist who believes in some things. I have in the past referred to myself as an atheist-leaning agnostic, but at some point it occurred to me that agnostics typically don’t outright reject religious narratives as false, and I do. (That is not to say they are without value.) I recognize order and I can entertain the notion of some governing force in the universe, but I don’t believe in “capital G” God, and I think that rejecting theism makes me… well, an atheist, in the most technical sense of the word, not an agnostic. So I’ve decided to embrace the label.
A popular misconception that I would love to light on fire and run over with my minivan is that atheists “don’t believe in anything.” It’s true that when Seamus died I didn’t have a spiritual framework to process the loss, and there were many times that I longed for the capacity to accept the comfort of religious explanations. But I am a hard-wired skeptic. Notions of life after death, heaven, and hell are completely absurd to me – I felt that way back then and if anything, the experience of losing a child has hardened me in that regard.
But… just because I don’t have religious faith doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in anything. And not believing in God does not mean that I don’t have hope or that I put 100% of my trust in science and materialist explanations of the world. (I believe in love, which is a thing I have experienced but not something that can be scientifically verified, for instance.)
I am well aware of the limitations of science, and I take great comfort in knowing that scientific and medical research has yet to unlock the mystery of human consciousness. So, I hope that my relationship with Seamus continues in some way after I die. And that’s actually good enough for me – I can breathe here. My solace has come from accepting the limits of human understanding.
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.
(From Blackwater Woods, by Mary Oliver)
Grief is empowering. A couple of years ago, I read a book by Andrew Solomon, called Far from the Tree, about parents who are different from their children in some fundamental and often tragic way (there are chapters on children who are autistic, deaf, transgender, dwarfs, criminals, schizophrenic, etc.) As the parent of a child who is dead, I found myself relating intensely to the struggles of the parents profiled in the book. I was so moved by their ability to find meaning in these experiences, some of which made my situation seem easy by comparison.
In a subsequent TED talk, Solomon expanded on this theme, talking about the human tendency to construct narratives of personal triumph out of our tragedies. The message of his talk, which is borne of Solomon’s personal experience as well as his journalistic pursuits, is simple: Out of painful events, he says, “Forge meaning. Build identity.” It is my hope that every person who runs around telling traumatized people that “Everything happens for a reason” will watch this talk and adopt Solomon’s mantra instead.
This year, I testified in front of a legislative committee in support of insurance reform that will help people who are injured in auto accidents. The bill passed and was signed into law in March. I was told afterward that representatives who had long opposed this type of legislation changed their votes after hearing my story. It was incredibly empowering and made me think about other ways I can channel my grief into something positive and helpful. I’m going to keep working on this and other things I can do to forge meaning, because in Solomon’s words, “We cannot bear a pointless torment, but we can endure great pain if we believe it is purposeful.”
Be vulnerable. Five years later, I still lose sleep over whether/how to tell people that I lost a child. I remember thinking after the accident “Thank God I have good friends, because I will never make another friend as long as I live.” That probably seems like such a strange thought, but I felt it with absolute clarity at the time. The way I saw it, making new friends would be impossible because the thought of dropping the “My son is dead” bomb into a conversation was horrifying, and yet I could never feel emotionally at ease with anyone who didn’t know this important fact about me.
Not surprisingly, I spent the first couple of years hiding from everyone and everything that was not familiar, even missing a good friend’s wedding. At work and in social situations, I was completely preoccupied with keeping track of who knew and who didn’t as a way to gauge my comfort level – a task that became harder as time passed.
Gradually, though, my anxiety has eased and I’m so grateful for the handful of new friends who have come into my life since the accident. An interesting thing happens when you tell someone that you lost a child. Almost without exception, the person responds by sharing a story about his or her own loss. In the fog of our own grief, it’s easy to forget that everyone is carrying something painful, and it’s so rare to have the chance to talk about it. I think we all crave that connection with other humans, and when it happens, it is amazing and powerful - another way we can forge meaning out of terrible loss.
There are many important things. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where a parent who loses a child throws herself full throttle into parenting subsequent children, at the expense of other things that are important to her. This has not been my reaction, though, and I’ve thought a lot about why I don’t have more angst about parenting or some pathological desire to spend every single moment with my children.
Here’s what I’ve figured out. After losing Seamus, those other important things (my marriage, friends, family, career, hobbies, interests, etc.) were the only things left. And these other important things carried me through the worst of it. So, to anyone who is surprised at the energy I devote to work, exercise, reading, writing, spending time with people other than my children, I guess I would say that this is absolutely intentional. It’s important to make time for all the important things, children being one of them of course!
My story is not finished. Tonight, we light a candle for Seamus to honor his place in our family, probably fielding some difficult/funny questions from Gus and Greta. And tomorrow, the twins will turn 3 - cue the emotional whiplash! But I am grateful for all of it, and to everyone who has supported us in ways big and small over the last five years. You all have eased my pain in ways you will never fully know.
I was going to say, there are no words, but obviously there are so many words -maybe too many! Thanks for reading, and thanks for thinking of Seamus this time of year and always – nothing is more comforting than knowing that he is still loved and remembered by so many.