Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Letter to a Newly Grieving Parent

Perhaps this pamphlet was included in the manilla envelope that the social worker handed to you on your way out the door, after you kissed your child’s lifeless body for the last time. Perhaps it is the morning after, pre-dawn on your first day in a world where you exist and your child does not.

Platitudes and pamphlets aside, you should know that this pain you feel is permanent, though it will not always be the searing presence that it is right now. With time it will grow more diffuse, like a drop of ink into water. It will color every thought, word, and action for the rest of your life. It will continue to reveal itself, year after year, in ways that are surprising and sometimes even comforting. It will become a part of you, as immutable as your hands or your skin. The pain is enormous because it is built out of a love that is enormous. It can be no other way.

But right now, today, you have one job, which is to survive. Go back to the basics: eat, sleep, breathe. Warm liquids will increase circulation in your gut and help with the stomach pain. Ambien for sleep. Inhale, exhale. That’s it.

“This, too shall pass.” I know we’ve set platitudes aside but this one merits a closer look because you will hear it repeatedly in the coming months and it is widely misunderstood. Most people think that the saying refers to life events, as in: “This is a really hard thing you have to go through, but it’ll be over soon.”

Interpreted thus, you could be forgiven for punching the person who recites it. Your loss is permanent; it will not pass. It is your emotions that are temporary.

So it can be helpful when you are driving to work and you have to pull over because your vision has become so clouded by tears that you can’t see, and now you are late for your meeting and now you are fantasizing about joining your child in death but instead you ride the wave until it ends, because it always ends, and you press your cold fingertips to your eyelids to make them less puffy and you arrive late to your meeting muttering something about traffic and you discuss grant budgets for an hour with people who don’t even know about this weight that you are carrying. Because later, while you are having dinner with your spouse, it might happen that you have a memory of your child and it makes you smile instead of cry, and you will experience a new and exhilarating dimension of your grief.  Know that this, too shall pass, and be grateful, because later, when you are trying to sleep, the fear will come, and this, too shall pass.

Remember that cats can never learn algebra. It doesn’t mean that algebra doesn’t exist or isn’t true. Only that there are limits to what cats can know. So go outside on a cloudless night and look up at the moon and the stars and marvel at the vastness of the universe and the mystery of its origins and the infinite truths that humans will never understand - the things we don’t know we don’t know. There is freedom in accepting that you are the cat in this scenario, and no one expects you to learn algebra.

You don’t have to believe in God or heaven, but neither are you required to embrace a reductionist, materialist worldview in which consciousness ends at death.

You may have to battle an inner voice telling you that it is weak and pathetic to dream of a reunion with your child in a context other than life. Ignore the voice; it is not backed by evidence any more than the Pope or a street preacher or anyone else who pretends to know what happens when you die.

Gather your strength and pry open the door of possibility. At first you won’t be able to hold it open for very long. But if you work at this every day, eventually it won’t feel like such a struggle. You will grow stronger; the door will stay open long enough for your eyes to adjust to the light that shines through it. And though questions linger, they are comforting in a way that answers never could be. This is called hope, and it’s not to be confused with faith.

Perhaps you are searching for answers in this manilla envelope. Its contents will disappoint you, but the fact that you are searching already means that you are curious, and that is a good thing. Follow the threads of your curiosity. If you are learning, you are healing.

Say your child’s name every day.

If you need to believe in something, believe in love, in the love you felt and still feel for your child who is gone. Remind yourself that this is one belief that does not require evidence to be true.