Update 6 Months After Loss of Child: ‘You Will Always Know her Name’

By Suzanne Leigh

For anyone who believes that a non-bereaved parent cannot fathom the loss of a child, consider these stirring words from memoirist and “Dear Sugar” columnist Cheryl Strayed:

“You will never stop loving your daughter. You will never forget her. You will always know her name. But she will always be dead. Nobody can intervene and make that right and nobody will. Nobody can take it back with silence or push it away with words. Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it.”

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Bereaved parents are often urged by concerned friends to “find a good therapist” or ask a doctor about an anti-depressant. Either or both of these options may or may not be helpful, but the reality is that grieving for one’s child is indeed something to “survive” and “endure.” There is no quick fix, no shortcut.  Nothing and nobody can help a lot. Strayed, the mother of two children (presumably healthy ones?) has defined the reality of child loss vividly and eloquently.

At nearly six months after we’ve lost our elder daughter, we continue to opt out of celebrations and gatherings with “normal” families. At times, I wrestle with re-aligning my facial muscles in an effort to look less desperately sad and more approachable. My surviving child is so deserving of a normal mother, rather than the emotionally erratic one with fistfuls of tissues in her purse.

I’m still stumbling when it comes to attempting tasks that require complex instructions. It’s hard for me to focus. And reading a book, something I used to do voraciously, is too demanding. Ditto for seeing a movie or watching a documentary.  I can’t lose myself sufficiently to invest in a plot or a character.

But in many situations, we  both pass as normal. We are able to pick the appropriate mask for the appropriate occasion. I’m no longer floored by a “How are you?”  and I think I can usually pull off a bright smile, when a bright smile is called for.

‘Happy mudder’s day’

Recently it was Mother’s Day. A sugary Hallmark occasion I used to say, until 3-year-old Natasha presented me with a card she had made and told me, “I love you, Mama. Happy mudder’s day.” This Mother’s Day hurt, as I knew it would. I mentioned this to a couple of friends: One friend reminded me that I still have another child (true, and I happen to have an amazing surviving daughter, but perhaps this “count your blessings” subtext  is best left to those in the crushing position of losing a child and having no surviving children, rather than those who have never experienced child bereavement). Friend #2 told her that her comment was tantamount to reminding me after I’d had a leg amputated that I still have another leg.

Actually, I don’t know if it is, because I can’t compare losing Natasha to losing a leg. I would have relinquished all four limbs, my heart, my lungs, any part of my body with a smile (take anything, please!) if it meant my child’s life would have been spared. Most bereaved parents feel this way, I think. It is viscerally wrong to move up the ladder of life after one’s beloved child has died.

‘Run as fast as you can’

But back to Strayed, whose advice comes from her book “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar,” a compilation of readers’ predicaments and her responses to them, which originally ran on the literary website, The Rumpus.

“You have to live through it and love it [love it?] and move on and be better for it [better?] and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal,” she writes.

“Therapists and friends and other people who live on Planet My Baby Died can help you along the way, but the healing — the genuine healing, the actual real deal down-on-your-knees-in-the-mud change — is entirely and absolutely up to you.”

I’m struggling with this part. I think most bereaved parents will be as baffled as I am by her counsel that we need to “love it” and “be better for it.”  While I can appreciate that having the personal desire and motivation to heal is “correct,”  I can only interpret being determined to work through one’s loss in order to feel better, with succeeding in feeling OK about losing my child. It will never be OK that I lost my 12-year-old.

But as my bereaved mom friend Lisa tells me, we are in the infancy of child loss. One bereaved mom tells me the first year is the hardest, another says the second year is harder than the first and then it gets a bit better. And a third tells me that it takes five years to feel “normal.” I’m not sure whose experience will match my own experience, but it’s time for me to pick up my surviving child from gymnastics. Now where did I leave my mask? I think a polite smile for the nice teacher is required.

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