A shadow is nothing, of course, which is to say it is also everything.
The way my life is now steeped in the shadow of his life,
the way the shape of him follows me wherever I go.
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer
When your child dies, the light dims, the color fades and the world grows cold. Your energy dissipates, scattering into the atmosphere like the atoms of your dead child. Thinking about anything is hard, concentrating even harder. Time expands making the days too long, the nights interminable. No matter how late you stay up, it’s difficult to fall asleep. Once you do, it’s a battle to stay in that dreamless escape. Most nights, you surrender to staring up at the ceiling, watching the shadows dance, wondering how you got here. Why your beloved little one is not.
Getting out of bed in the morning is a feat of strength, requiring a jolt of need from a living child who requires before school nourishment, a lunch, a ride. Leaving the house becomes something to avoid at all costs. Being in the world exposes the way you have been turned inside out, stripped naked, damaged beyond repair.
But some days, perhaps most days, go out you must. So you become an expert at dodging people whose company you once enjoyed. Speeding out of the drop off zone at school before anyone can flag you down. Waving off another parent with a breezy, “Gotta run!” Beelining in the other direction when you spot a friend at the grocery store. Waiting to put the garbage out until you’re sure your neighbors are asleep.
There are days when you want to die, too. Moments when it feels like nothing is enough to keep you tethered to what’s left of your life. When the pull of being with your should-have-lived child is stronger than any desire to stay.
Someone warns you that the special days will be hard. Birthdays, anniversaries, the first day of school, the holidays. What you never see coming is how much it hurts when your son’s favorite baseball team wins the World Series the year he dies, and he’s not there to witness it. Or the way it rips you in two to see your surviving daughter get married without her sister standing next to her as maid of honor.
Time passes. You wonder how it can be a month, two months, six months, a year since your precious one died. How off-kilter the world still feels. How confoundingly normal it seems for everyone else. You wonder why they can’t see the hole in your life, the pain. Why they don’t see you. They just want you to be better, to go back to your old self, but you can’t. You won’t.
What saves you are the card-carrying members of that awful club you never, ever wanted to join. The other parents who understand the searing pain, second guessing, shame and shattering of having a child die. They are scary and fierce and broken open by grief. They understand why it matters to say every child’s name and tell their story. That even the babies who never drew breath and the ones who left too young to say their first word deserve to be remembered.
To join the Parents of Dead Children club is a twisted privilege. An honor you’d happily give up to have your baby back. You are the stuff of other people’s nightmares, yet how much less rich your life would be without these astounding souls.
They teach you to see the world as it is, not as you thought it was or wanted it to be. To find a way to say ‘yes’ to life again. Even now. Ever after all of this. Most important of all, they teach you that even though your child has left this earthly life, he is here with you still. That you will always love him, and he will always love you. He remains yours, and nothing can ever change that.
You draw strength from all of them .. the ones who’ve just arrived, the ones who’ve started to find their footing, the ones out ahead lighting the way. They inspire you to salvage joy from incalculable loss. To hold fast to what is left and begin again. To rebuild your life, even though one of your essential building blocks is gone.
They believe in you, even when it’s too dark to see your own light or the shadow of your sweet child. In time, you discover that the flame was there all along, drawing you forward, feeding you hope. One day, as you look back in wonder at how far you’ve come, you discover that your glow is illuminating the way for other broken, brave, bereaved parents coming behind you. Dancing into the darkness, shimmering on all that remains.