One of the things “they” say after losing a child is that the second year is worse. No way. I had endured “second years” after my brother, my dad, and others passed away. The first year is by far the worse. That settles it.
Fast forward 355 days or so and I can begin to see what “they” might be talking about.
I barely know what the next step is. I’ve spent nearly a year dutifully marking off each morbid milestone – One month – check; Two months – check; Brooke’s birthday – check; Start of a Fall semester with no Brooke – check; Halloween Horse Show – check; Thanksgiving – check; More birthdays – check; Christmas and New Year’s – check; Megan’s birthday – check; Mardi Gras – check; Gulfport horse show – check; and so much more. Yet, here I sit with the realization that – it doesn’t end. This is just the beginning.
The reality that Brooke is gone – it must seem fairly obvious, but the mind is a tricky thing. The mind gauges just how much reality the heart and body can endure at once. Even when we are sure of “reality,” the mind is there acting as a gatekeeper. Filtering out the bits that are too much for the moment. Saving them for a sunny day. Doling out reality in measured doses.
As the heart and body begin to bear the weight of reality, the mind piles on a little more until eventually the full load comes to bear.
If someone handed you and load and told you that you’d have to carry a 500-pound weight every day for the rest of your life, you’d protest that it is impossible. But if someone handed you just a few pounds here and a few there until 500 pounds was sitting square on your shoulders, it would be different. That’s what losing a child is like. That’s the nature of tragedy.
Phone call – There’s been an accident. Brooke’s unconscious. I’ll call back when we know what hospital she’s headed to. At this point, I was fully confident that I would see Brooke again. Not even ten minutes later, another phone call– We lost her. She didn’t make it. That’s 250-plus pounds of brute force knocking you to the ground. It takes your breath and it takes a minute to regain your footing – but you do.
More phone calls. This time the horrible words are formed by your own lips even as you do not yet believe them to be true. That’ll be a few more pounds. Meeting the coroner. Layer on more weight.
That’s just the first few hours. The beginning.
Sift through the wreckage looking for anything that can’t be left behind. Meetings with pastors and funeral directors. More calls. So many calls. The load is starting to build.
That’s just the first few days. It’s still the beginning.
Pull in behind a black hearse with a spray of peonies peeking out the back window. That’ll put a few pounds on you. Spend the day celebrating the sudden end of a short life. Another long ride behind a long, black hearse. Weight and more weight. The sound of reality scraping hard across your ears as stone groans against stone and the tomb is sealed. How much more until the full weight is unloaded?
It’s still the beginning. When will this beginning ever end?
Birthdays. Holidays. Empty chairs. Anniversaries and macabre milestones that didn’t exist in the Land of Before.
It’s only the beginning. What’s the next step?
If you had told me a year ago that my life would become an extended “beginning,” I’d have buckled under the weight. It sounds so “stuck.” It sounds so “never moving forward.” It’s really not or at least, it doesn’t have to be.
There’s no “getting past” or “getting over” a tragic loss. Please be sensitive to suggesting otherwise to those in great pain. There is, however, “getting through.” And, that means that there are lots of “next steps” even when the “beginning” plays in one continuous loop with no end in sight.
In the early beginning of a tragic loss, sometimes just taking the next breath is the only next step available – or necessary. Sometimes it is the victory – literally and figuratively – to put one foot in front of the other. Foggy “grief brain” is a real thing. I can’t explain the purpose of “catastrophic clumsiness,” but it is a real thing too. Maybe there is some parallel between the physical bumps and bruises from being physically off-balance and the bumps and bruises on our off-balance hearts.
As you catch your breath (an ongoing and neverending process) – hope is the critical next step and hope won’t just snatch you up and pull you along. You will have to be the one to seek hope. How do we take a step toward hope?
Seek a hand and Lend a hand –
Seek a Hand
Do as I say and not as I sometimes do on this one. Isolation regardless of what strife you are enduring is the enemy. Isolation will twist what little grasp you have on reality, stealing away all of your efforts to find hope.
Start where the heart is – with family. Be aware, though, that everyone grieves the “same” loss differently. There really is no “same” loss. Each person will grieve a death, a divorce, a job loss, or whatever it may be from their own perspective. No one on this planet had the same relationship with Brooke as mine with her. Likewise, Brooke’s relationships with others is theirs and not mine. Focus on the common ground – that is what connects us. Be prepared to show mercy and forego understanding when others do not “grieve” the way you do.
Connect with support groups – Whatever you are going through – you are not alone. Someone has been there and done that. Isolation gets a foothold when we fall in the trap of thinking that “we are the only ones.”
One word of caution with support groups, choose wisely. Some groups are structured to provide real support and guidance and hope. Some “support” groups dissolve into pity parties and desperate pleas to validate unhealthy thought processes. Even when support groups work well, be prepared. The process of sharing and connecting is emotional and hard, but ultimately is of great value.
Add new groups – On March 16, 2017, I would have told you that I’d never laugh again. And, the first time that I really laughed after the accident, I felt guilty. That’s broken thinking. It’s okay to be okay even if it’s inconsistent and unpredictable. If losing a child doesn’t impress upon you the brevity of this life, I don’t know what will.
I never had a bucket list per se but I’ve recently checked off an item that would have been on it had I had one – curling. (Yes, we were curling before curling was cool. Just barely but on the front end). Other than the fact that ice and “catastrophic clumsiness” do not mix, it has been great. For just a few hours each week, my mind is pulled in a new direction and we’ve met some really nice people along the way!
What’s on your bucket list? Where can you connect with others who share that interest?
Lend a Hand
There are few better ways to put your own suffering into perspective than to focus on the suffering of others. What are your spiritual gifts? Hospitality? Teaching? Supporting others? Craftsmanship? Leadership? Organization?
Helping others is like having a child. If you wait until you have enough money, time, energy, or whatever before having a child – there’d be no children. If you wait until your life is perfect and on track before helping others, it’ll never come to pass.
Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
We were never meant to carry the full load alone. It is impossible. As the weight of each new loss is layered on top of the prior defeats – it just becomes more impossible. Seek a hand. Lend a hand. Maybe just maybe – together – we can find our way through the “beginnings” that never end.