(This was written in June, around the Alysia's birthday. Don't know why I didn't publish it then.)
I was reading about John Travolta and his wife Kelly,and how they lost their son to a seizure, and John described the feeling as being covered by a wet blanket. I know how that is. For most of the first year after Alysia's death, I oscillated between numbness and exquisite pain, pain that was actually physical as well as emotional. I described it as, "feeling like my skin was going to split open and peel off." It is a common theme among parents that the absence of their child is felt throughout their body as well as in their hearts. And the pendulum swing to numbness isn't actually any better, though it is less painful: being absent from those you love and who would reach out to you brings feelings of guilt and despair. You would like to be comforted, but all the attempts do is highlight what you have lost. The natural result is to push away the out-reaching hand, which then leads to more loneliness and guilt. It is a death-spiral of emotions.
A commenter on a friend's blog mentioned a friend who had lost a child and that 5 years later, he was still in the fog. That fog is the result of emotional overload, combined with a complete loss of life direction. When you lose a child, all the things you had planned, consciously and not, are blown up. And it is not clear at first, and maybe not for a long time, just how deeply committed you were to the direction you thought your life was going. I re-wrote some of the lines from "American Pie" in the months following Alysia's death:
"And the three things we had hoped to see,
College, a marriage and a grand-baby
We realized were not to be,
the day Alysia died."
Not Grammy material, I grant you, but an indicator of the direction we had planned. Would we have been willing for her to change? Of course. But that doesn't change the reality that we HAD the plans, and our lives were thrown into turmoil and we felt ungrounded, adrift. That feeling is a big part of the fog, because you suddenly don't know what to count on. Never mind that it was all made up in the first place, it was a plan. And we do have plans for our kids, don't we? Even if we are enlightened enough as parents to say to them, "Find your passion", we still think we know what's best or at least what will work well for them. And by extension, that means for ourselves as well. Their lives help define ours, and when they leave, we are left rudderless for a time, longer or shorter. Recently, I was looking at our granny unit, (we call it the cottage) which is where Alysia and Sean had stayed when they came home. We redid it last year, took it down to the studs and rebuilt it, and it is beautiful. But I was suddenly struck by the fact that the kids would never stay there, and the grief burst over me: who was I doing this for, now? Why should I bother? And it took quite a while before I could think that maybe I could do it for myself. That's how deep it runs.
When parents don't speak about this, when they don't acknowledge with each other the degree to which they feel that they have lost their purpose, they drift apart. It seems to me to be why so many marriages break up following the loss of a child: the parents don't realize that they need to reaffirm their commitment to each other and to the family direction, and so they head off in different directions. This is exacerbated by the differing grieving styles that men and women often have: men moving outside, and women going within. As usual, Frost was there first, in the poem "Home Burial", where the wife berates the husband for cleaning the shovel he has just used to bury their child, and he in turn chides her for not facing life going forward. He thinks he's just doing his duty and then going on, and she understands that the ship has hit an iceberg and needs the captains to direct the action. But he just sees it as more talking, because it hits deeply into his view of himself as the leader, the patriarch, for his family to be directionless.
Most of the books we read about dealing with the loss of a child focus on the distinct style difference in grieving between men and women. But from a spiritual perspective, men and women are the same, and the soul cries the same way regardless of the body it is attached to. Focusing on our spiritual selves, meant that we could leave the notion of "What are we going to DO?" out of the conversation, as the answer for us is something to the effect that we are not directed to a single end point, we are here to work on ourselves in whatever way presents itself. And if that way is to learn about grief, then so be it. It is true that 5 minutes later, we wept again and were bereft and distraught and caught up in the crap, but those few minutes gave us common ground to work with, and so we never were seriously in danger of splitting the family. There were, however, some windows and a camera that bore the brunt of our grief, and still now, more than 2 years later, I can be caught by an upwelling of emotion that can really flare into anger and lashing out at the physical world.
Another thing that our practice has given us is ownership of our own feelings. When one of us was really in the pits, the other doesn't try to jolly them out, or make them wrong, or any of the other ways of not dealing with our own pain that we know. When we are sad, we're sad. Happy, happy. No explanation needed nor asked for, and so no defensiveness and no separation. But it took vast amounts of energy to make this work, energy that we had precious little of. I now know why that during the first weeks, while other members of my family and friends tried to comfort us, we could not accept their help. Never mind that it was in fact a way for them to ask us to help them as well, we could neither accept help nor give anything to them, and I know we hurt some people tremendously. People do not know how to deal with their own deep emotions, let alone anyone else's, unless they have examined their own issues around death and dying, and we were no different except that we knew we could not spend any energy helping other folks to deal with their issues around my daughter's death, having gone through it with our older son not 3 years before. My sister asked my why we couldn't get together to commiserate, and I pointed out that the word means "to be miserable together", which I couldn't do. Her misery, coming from both her love for my daughter and for me and my family, as well as her guilt around Alysia, was too much for me to deal with. There were other friends and family that Joy and I also had to push them away, as their expectation was that we would all grieve together and that we would help them heal. But Joy and I couldn't spare the few clear moments for anyone but our younger daughter and our son, and ourselves. It was very selfish, and, I believe, totally appropriate.
But, as I am fond of saying, we have freedom of choice, not freedom from consequences. And so we find ourselves without some of the friends we used to be close to, a collateral damage that none of us could have foreseen. And that is another layer of sadness. I hope that we can recover together, though I know that there is no stepping twice into the same river.