I recently learned a friend just lost her 20-year-old daughter. Her girl used to babysit my littles when I was visiting family back east, and I remember her daughter as a sweet teenager with a bouncy, blonde ponytail. We’ve exchanged a few emails, and I know too well the slow shock she’s walking through right now. She asked me why I call this blog “Gifted Grief.” What gift could possibly come out of something so awful?
It’s been just over three months since we lost our son. Some days, it feels like he was just an idea we had for a while, something that existed in our minds a long time ago. Other times, I can remember acutely how his fuzzy hair felt under my fingers; the freckle on the end of his nose; his unwashed pajama, 12-year-old boy smell; and I realize three months is no time at all. In this short time, I’ve discovered something I lacked before, something that’s been gifted since Kai passed.
My family will tell you I’m a regular Nurse Ratched. If you’re sick, you get some flat soda, some graham crackers, and The Barf Bowl. I’ll check occasionally to make sure your fever isn’t spiking, but otherwise, stay away until you’re feeling better. I supposed I just … didn’t want to be inconvenienced with someone else’s suffering. It’s messy and burdensome, and comforting someone means getting up in the middle of all that, usually in the middle of the night.
Since Kai’s passing, we’ve had a few brushes with viruses. The Barf Bowl has been pressed into service. We’ve had the usual assortment of 4 year old scrapes and boo-boos. Back east, there have been more serious health issues. My brother was recently diagnosed with epilepsy. My dad just had surgery to repair a torn knee ligament. My niece is struggling with a learning disability that causes endless frustration. And my husband and 14 year old … I watch them struggle, and I wish I could do something, anything, to take this burden from them.
For the first time, my reaction hasn’t been, “Hmmm. That’s too bad.” What I think, what I feel, is “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry you have to go through that.” For the first time, I know a suffering that is visceral, and seemingly endless. I grew up in a military family, and my husband spent 20 years in the Marine Corps, half of it on combat deployments. I thought I knew Hard. Perhaps I did, but my response was to thicken my heart, not soften it.
While we were still in the hospital the day we lost Kai, there were already people reaching out to us. In the days following, we just had to exist. Friends brought food, set up funeral arrangements, had pictures and programs printed, even cleaned and ran errands for us. We still have dinners coming a few times a week. I see in people’s faces not so much pity, but deep caring. They hurt because we hurt. Many of them knew Kai, love him, miss him, and see our suffering. They want to do something, anything, to help, and we … we’ve had to learn how to accept help.
What I’ve learned these past few months is compassion. In Latin, “compati” means “to suffer with.” In my comfortable suburban life, suffering is uncomfortable and unwelcome. It slows down the usual rhythm of our contented, privileged existence. It complicates a life neatly organized on a dry-erase, color coded calendar that gives me the illusion of control. The only real schedule now is get up, get through the day, go to bed, repeat.
I’ve been forced to open my hands and allow people to hurt with me. I have to allow people into my messy house, my messy life, and my messy feelings. By receiving compassion, I’m learning how to give it. I remember my mom telling me, years ago, that refusing someone’s help was “denying someone the joy of serving.” It’s not that I’ve struggled with gratitude; it’s not hard to be thankful when you’re desperate. What’s hard is admitting I’m desperate and stumbling and need help. It’s terribly humbling.
When I learn about another parent who has lost a child, I physically grip my heart because I know. I know. Even smaller injuries and sorrows affect me more, and I’m strangely grateful. It makes me feel closer to people when so often, I feel so isolated in grief. I know what it means to “suffer with.” And I’ll gladly hold the Barf Bowl, and offer a wet washcloth, and linger.