Twelve years ago my first child came into the world flashing a smile and dimples. As he grew, his laughter filled rooms. His joy was rarely stifled by anger. He left Legos underfoot and engineered trash into forms held together with scotch tape and a vivid imagination. He had six birthdays on Earth, now six in the stars. We are left with tears, thoughts of the pre-teen he might have been, and memories of missing teeth, infectious giggles, warm hugs, and a gentle, sensitive heart. On dark days, we remember a boy who looked at pieces of things and saw something beautiful. It’s our reminder to hear the crickets sing, kiss the soft cheeks of our girls, and search for rainbows behind the rain. Happy birthday Ethan.
I’m writing to the families who have lost children. Maybe like me, you thought you’d been managing your grief pretty well. Sure there are recurring tough dates and would-have-been (or should-have-been) milestones, like graduations, that you struggle through. But overall, you’ve managed the sadness as well as could be expected. And then Sandy Hook happens. It’s like a knife reopening a wound and exposing the raw pain underneath.
Maybe the strength of your reaction to Sandy Hook surprised you. It did me. When I first read the news, I got the same sick feeling in my stomach I had around 12:30 p.m. on July 26, 2008. God, no. Not innocent, little children.
An onrush of shadows shoved me back into THE moment. We’ve all had that moment. If you’re like me, you choose not to reflect on it. But then some gun-wielding asshole walks into an elementary school. And so here I am. And maybe here you are…remembering the moment when the ground disappeared and the plummet into the parallel universe where bereaved parents live began. Here the “Welcome to the New Normal” sign squeaks overhead and memories sometimes dust up so thick you don’t think you’ll be able to breathe again.
The moment of the fall is different for each of us, but the end result is the same. One second your child is alive; the next second the phone rings, you hear a knock on the door, or you watch your child’s last breath slip away. The earth shakes fiercely and you topple into the wide chasm that is the gateway to the New Normal. In Sandy Hook’s case, a cluster of families was thrust violently into our sad world. I grieve for their babies, their anguish, their lost naivete, the struggles that are yet to come that they cannot fathom yet. It’s so damned unfair. But then, the death of a child always is.
Remember life on the other side of the New Normal, when your child’s death was your worst fear? Remember the days when you would hear a sad story about a grieving family and you’d say things like “I can’t imagine…”
I remember. I also remember worrying about my child’s safety after hearing horrific stories of loss, like the mother who was unable to rescue her daughter from a crushed vehicle but would forever hear the girl’s screams as she burned to death. I would read these stories then hug my children close. It didn’t take long, though, before I’d be back to my routine – picking out clothes for school, making breakfast, thinking about the to do list that needed my attention – without another thought for the family whose life had been altered. I’d read about killings, drownings, drunk driving accidents and feel sorry for the families who lost children. I’d be grateful it wasn’t my child. Then it was. Then it was my family driving down the street with an empty car seat in back wondering how all the people we saw scurrying about their business could not know the world had changed.
I asked a psychologist friend, what’s going on here? I keep crying. I can’t sleep. I’m obsessed with hearing every detail about each of the Sandy Hook children. I feel the need to imprint their name on my soul so that they’re never forgotten. Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeline, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Avielle, Benjamin, and Allison.
She told me that my reaction to the Sandy Hook tragedy is a natural part of the grief continuum. Parents who have buried a child may be affected on a deeper, more personal level. Maybe you see something of your own child in the victims or your own circumstances in this situation. We, in the bereaved parents club, have the capacity for profound insight and profound empathy for the Sandy Hook families. That was reflected in recent media stories in which family and community members of similarly violent events shared their reactions.
In a Yahoo news story, a resident of Dunblane Scotland, where a man shot 16 kids in a gymnasium, said “a dark cloud came over us” when she heard the news. ” The heaviness, the sorrow. Just disbelief and shock. Our hearts go out to the people of Newtown. It’s still very painful and when something happens elsewhere it sort of bubbles up to the surface.”
Tom Mauser, whose son died in the Columbine shootings told the Denver Post that he had a hard time digesting the news. “I was just too shattered,” he said. “And I can’t say that it was so much directly Columbine, that I was thinking of that day. It was just, ‘Oh my God, it’s come to this.’ ”
Some people might understand that you are grieving with the Sandy Hook families and that the tragedy might be amplifying that grief. However, it’s also possible you’ll encounter individuals who do not understand your reactions to the tragedy and perhaps your need to talk about the children who died and your own. Some individuals might suggest you’re minimizing Sandy Hook’s horror and grief by mentioning your child, that the Sandy Hook situation is much worse than yours, or that you’re making this tragedy about you.
My psychologist friend tells me this kind of reaction is normal too. They’re circling the wagons, she explained.
As a society, we need to explain why bad things happen even if there is no good explanation. Imagine the response if parents had to acknowledge that their child could die at any moment and there was nothing they could do about it. That every precaution, every bit of hovering might not matter. Accidents happen. Sickness happens. Random acts of nonsensical violence happen. I just read today about a six-year-old boy, deeply loved by his family, who died from complications of strep throat. I’ll say it again – It’s so damned unfair.
The Sandy Hook case showed our vulnerability in the most awful way. But we’re already trying to find an explanation that will give us back our sense of control. Why Sandy Hook? Why did the shooter drive five miles and not stop at another school? What was the connection? Is it because the shooter was mentally ill? Is it because guns are too accessible? Did the school have adequate security? Was he raised poorly?
Often the blame is placed on parents or the child who dies. Your child killed himself, so you must have been a bad mother. Your child was abducted and killed, so you must not have been watching her close enough. Your child ran in front of a car, so he must not have been well behaved. You child was shot, so he must have been hanging out with the wrong people.
I know I’ve placed blame for my son’s death – on myself, on others. And I have been blamed. However, in four years, I’ve learned to stop asking why or what could have been done differently. It’s exhausting to ask questions that have no answers.
We as a society place blame and we often place value judgments on death. Even bereaved parents do it. I know I have. Maybe it make us feel better to compare our situation with one that seems worse. We rank types of death on a scale from bad to worst and sometimes our compassion or patience for the grieving process is moderated by the value we place on the death. Suicide – the person didn’t want to live. Awful but they had problems. Babies – it wasn’t even a real person yet. Can you really be that sad over a being you never got to know. Murder, sure that’s bad but only if it’s random. Most likely the person was a trouble maker and involved with drugs. Haven’t we heard these statements – some spoken, others implied. The heavy-handed judgement. The quips about natural selection. Even within the bereaved community, I’ve seen examples of competitive grief. I’m sadder than you are. My circumstances are worse.
Do we really have to go there? Can’t we just open our minds and our hearts to the gut-wrenching sorrow shared by all?
Grief is grief is grief, my friend said. But she also points out that we grieve in different ways. Harsh judgement can stem from this too. Some individuals need to talk. Others don’t. Some become more devout. Others less. Some build shrines. Others give everything away.
When blame and judgement are removed, though, we remain the bereaved. We are the homes where little shoes are packed in boxes, where pictures hang on the wall but the face never ages, where visits to the cemetery may be part of a biweekly routine. We are the homes where one Christmas stocking may always hang empty, where remaining brothers and sisters may occasionally burst into tears and in a quivering, thick voice tell us they don’t want to grow up, where family gatherings are one seat short. We are the bereaved. The unwilling residents of the New Normal, a place with a perpetually growing population. Yes, our circumstances may be different but what we share is something that no one outside the realm of the New Normal can fully understand or appreciate.
Families of Sandy Hook, I am terribly sorry for your loss. I am terribly, terribly sorry. It’s so damned unfair.
My son died in 2008. It was election season. Shortly before he died our family attended the grand opening of a field office for Obama. My son liked Obama, although he was probably just reflecting our own political leanings and our hope for a better future.
Then Ethan died and suddenly the arguments, the spin, the lies tossed around during the battle over the presidency seemed tiresome and pointless. Our lives had horribly changed. Issues related to the economy, abortion, and foreign policy seemed trivial. Everything seemed trivial except the all-consuming grief.
But now it’s four years later. I’ve rediscovered my interest in life and politics. In some ways, I’m more passionate about issues than I was before. No single mother should have to leave her child alone while she works multiple jobs to pay the rent. No one should be able to buy a semiautomatic rifle designed to kill people and be able to spray bullets around a movie theater, taking more children from parents. No one should tell a young girl who has been molested or raped that she should be thankful for being impregnated by her attacker because it’s a gift from God and was meant to happen.
I’m fired up because I don’t want any more children to be hurt; I don’t want any more parents to suffer such an unspeakable loss; I don’t want moms and dads being put in a position where they have to risk their children’s safety just to put food on the table.
Obama’s slogan of “Forward” is fitting for my state of mind. The past four years hasn’t been easy. Sometimes it feels like I haven’t made any headway. Other times, I realize how far I’ve come. But there’s only one way to go – and that’s to keep putting one foot in front of the other with a heart full of hope and a desire to make the world a better place.
This election season I learned for the first time that Vice President Biden lost his wife and one-year-old daughter in a car accident. His two sons were seriously injured. For me, Biden has always been in Obama’s shadow but I see him in a new light now because such a tragic loss fundamentally changes a person – it makes you question your beliefs, your views on religion and God, and your priorities in life, and it changes how you see your friends, family, and strangers.
A few months ago Biden told the families of slain U.S. military members about his loss. Below are some excerpts from that emotional address. ABC news covered the event.
“And just like you guys know by the tone of a phone call — you just knew, didn’t you? You knew when they walked up the path. You knew when the call came. You knew. You just felt it in your bones something bad happened. And I knew. I don’t know how I knew. But the call said my wife was dead, my daughter was dead, and I wasn’t sure how my sons were going to make it.”
“For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide. Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts, because they’d been to the top of the mountain and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again.”
“I remember being in the Rotunda, walking through to get to the plane to get home to get to identify (the bodies) … I remember looking up and saying `God … you can’t be good. How can you be good?”
“There will come a day, I promise you, and your parents, as well, when the thought of your son or daughter or your husband or wife brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen. My prayer for you is that day will come sooner or later. But the only thing I have more experience than you in is this: I’m telling you it will come.”
“Just remember two things,” he said. “Keep thinking what your husband or wife would want you to do. Keep thinking what it is, and keep remembering those kids of yours, or him or her the rest of their life, blood of my blood, bone of my bone, because, folks, it can and will get better,” he said.
Little Regina made it to her 10th birthday. She died the following morning, on Sunday. No longer can her parents hold her in their arms. But they will forever hold her in their hearts and minds. The family is asking that donations be made to Regina’s memorial fund. The Talbert Family Foundation will donate 100% of the the funds to her family. http://www.talbertfamilyfoundation.org/pages/Regina.html
I’ve thought a lot about Regina in the past several days. I keep wondering why…why her…why my son…why Ethan T….why Nima and Jaziah and all the others. But then I heard the song Corner of the Sky from Pippin. Show me a reason and I’ll soon show you a rhyme, it says. To me that means stop searching for answers to questions that cannot be answered. There probably aren’t any answers that would satisfy me concerning Ethan’s death anyway.
But I like the thought that maybe our kids needed their corner of the sky. Their spirits needed to run free.
I can imagine our children telling us, “So don’t ask where I’m going, just listen when I’m gone. And far away you’ll hear me singing softly to the dawn.”
Ethan, my son, I am listening.
CORNER OF THE SKY
Everything has its season
Everything has its time
Show me a reason and I’ll soon show you a rhyme
Cats fit on the windowsill
Children fit in the snow
Why do I feel I don’t fit in anywhere I go?
Rivers belong where they can ramble
Eagles belong where they can fly
I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free
Got to find my corner of the sky
Every man has his daydreams
Every man has his goals
People like the way dreams have of sticking to the soul
Thunderclouds have their lightning
Nightingales have their song
And don’t you see I want my life to be something more than long
So many men seem destined to settle for something small
But I won’t rest until I know I’ll have it all
So don’t ask where I’m going just listen when I’m gone
And far away you’ll hear me singing softly to the dawn
Diana Ross: Corner of the Sky (LIVE)!
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged bereavement, child loss, corner of the sky, death of child, ethan forster, funeral, grief, Jaziah Vermilyea, mourning, Nima Gibba, pippin, sadness, sorrow | Leave a Comment »
One of the best things about having Summer, other than enjoying her delightful personality, is how she reminds me of times with my other kids that I’d forgotten. She is a cross between the two.
Ethan was an exceptional baby. I knew it and was immensely grateful. He smiled and laughed at a young age. He was almost always in good spirits. He slept through the night by three months. He was fun and cuddly.
Ava’s time as a baby is a blur to me. Even though her photos show a smiling adorable girl, most of the time she cried and wailed as if she were being tortured. I think she had painful gas. She never slept well. In fact, it wasn’t until a couple months ago that she began to sleep soundly through the night. I always thought Ava was a beautiful child but difficult as a baby.
Summer is pretty laid back. She likes to smile but rarely makes noise. Watching her laugh is like watching a silent movie. Wide gummy mirth and no volume. When she does speak, it’s in Kung Fu speak…the grunting, squealing sounds made by the guys doing karate in bad martial arts films.
Like Ethan, she seems to be an observer and is content to study the world around her. Ava is usually too busy chatting and dashing about to look around. Like Ava, I think Summer will be athletic. She moves constantly. Her right leg bounces up and down nonstop except when her foot is crammed in her mouth and she’s sucking on her toes.
Summer is also a drooler. Mommy is her favorite spit rag. We probably go through a half role of paper towels a day mopping up the vomit and drool. She sleeps better than Ava but not nearly as well as Ethan. Overall, she’s a pleasant baby and for that I am very, very thankful.
When Ethan was alive I used to think I was the luckiest parent. I had a boy and a girl, and the boy was older. It was ideal in my mind especially when I thought of other parents who kept having children because they had girls and wanted a boy or vice versa. However, life has always knocked me down whenever I feel too good. I always thought it was to keep me from getting a big head…to stay grounded.
Now here I am talking to nosy checkers at the grocery store who tell me, “Oh, you only had girls?”
“No, I had a son, he died.”
“Oh, sorry. What happened? Was he sick or something?” She stops scanning the groceries and turns to face me while the line grows longer.
“He and his grandfather drowned.”
“Really.” Big eyes. “How terrible. How did it happen.”
Sigh. “They bumped heads and were knocked unconscious.”
The lady behind me tries to avoid my eyes but she’s intently listening. I wonder when the cashier will stop talking and start working.
“What a strange accident. How sad.”
“How old was he?”
“So young. You know I had a nephew who almost drowned.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
I have two beautiful girls. I once had a son, but won’t actually ever raise a son. I thought I had a perfect little family. If I had a big head, I don’t anymore. I have a wonderful family, but now it’s incomplete. Still, I have two girls who keep reminding me of what I have to be thankful for, and they are at the top of my list.
I haven’t written much this summer. Summer, the baby (I can see how this will get confusing), has kept me very busy and very tired. But I’ve also gotten tired of myself…tired of my grief. I feel like I’ve said it all. How many different ways can a person say, “I am sad?” Unhappy, blue, melancholic, heavyhearted, downcast, down in the mouth, smutný, ked af det, malungkot, üzücü, huzuni, triste, traurig…
I am sad today like I was a year ago, I’ve just learned to manage it better. There are certain thoughts that bring tears. There are dark places I cannot go or risk an emotional attack. I now gingerly step around the ruts in the road. I’m not healed. I’m just hobbling along.
I also have not written because the few minutes of spare time I have each day I want to spend with my son. I’ve been going through old photo CDs and watching my son grow. It feels good to laugh at memories I’d forgotten. I avoid more recent pictures because then I’m seeing the end of a story. When I was a child, I always cried when Mary Poppins flew away leaving Jane and Michael Banks with their parents. Ethan did too. You’re supposed to feel happy for the Banks family since Mary has helped them become a stronger more loving family. But I always wanted to know why Mary couldn’t stay.
David and I spent some time on the couch together looking at photos and remembering. He later thanked me for it and said I should feel comfortable talking about Ethan at any time. I do, but what can I say that I haven’t already said?
Ava still cries occassionally. When she makes a wish, it is for her brother to be alive. While climbing the play structure recently, she needed a lift and wished her brother could be there to give her a boost. We wish he could have been here to help her go to kindergarten. They could have shared a seat on the bus. Instead we put her in a private kindergarten with a very small class and explained to the teacher that Ava frequently talks about her brother, which means Miss Amber, you may have to discuss death with your five-year-olds.
David and I are already losing track of Ethan’s age. He would be going into second grade. Oops. No, the third grade. He would be seven. Oops. No, eight-years-old. What would he look like? How tall would he be? Would he be tired of Star Wars?
It has been a deeply, deeply sad summer. And now the air turns cool in the morning, green leaves transform into gold and red, and jack-o-lanterns and costumes appear in the stores. This, more than the anniversary of Ethan’s death, feels like the end of our first year without him.