Surviving the Death of Your Child

ImageI don’t normally post blogs based on what people are Googling, but the last three days I’ve seen an inordinate number of hits on one of my posts, When Your Baby Dies, and noted that a lot of people searched the word “stillborn” which led them to my site. And I’m not talking about a spike of 10-20 hits, I’m talking in the hundreds. Despite being plugged into the daily news and doing my best to stay current on global events, I can’t for the life of me think of any reason that people would be searching so frequently for that term, or landing so often on my post.

But in the interest of helping those folks out, I’d like to tell you how to survive the death of your child.

Please keep in mind, my daughter was a full-term stillborn, so my experience is radically different from someone who lost a child outside the womb. I can’t imagine losing one of my children (my wife and I now have two, a boy and a girl) and having to go through the process of burying them and the memories we made. I can’t imagine how it would feel to stand in Jon or Ella’s bedroom, knowing that they were never coming back. What it would be like to not feel my son’s arms wrapped around my neck again, or not have my daughter beg me to bounce her on the trampoline until she collapsed into my arms, laughing too hard to stand.

I think, honestly, I would die.

I know some of that pain, having experienced it with my stillborn daughter, but the grief is different when you mourn lost potential. Losing someone you’ve had for weeks or months or years…I don’t know. But I do know this: there is a connection between all of us who have ever lost a child. We know the deep sorrow of seeing a future wiped out before it could be fulfilled. We know the intense horror of having to ask “Why?” and “What could have happened differently?” without ever getting a satisfactory answer. We know what it feels like to willingly offer our own life for the life of our child, begging for the chance that they might live and we might die instead.

And we know the futility of such begging.

If you’ve ever picked out your child’s clothes, knowing that it would be the last thing they’d ever wear, you know that sometimes simply breathing is like being pierced with a knife.

If you’ve ever had a doctor look at you, eyes full of fear and mouth devoid of words, you know that the universe itself can seem small and cruel.

These are the pains of losing a child. They are not easy. They are not short-lived. They are not understood by many, save those who have drank from the same cup. They are, however, not permanent, at least not in the sense that each day feels like a fresh reinvention of the concept of hell. Eventually you will wake up and realize that you can go on. You will wake up and realize that the death of your child, though still with you in each heartbeat, each moment, is not going to kill you too.

Surviving the death of your child isn’t easy. It requires help, professional as well as personal. You need to go see a counselor; a therapist; a doctor; a spiritual advisor. You need to spend time with friends and family who may not understand your grief, but won’t shrink away in fear when it surfaces. You need to write down your thoughts, scream obscenities to heaven, cry until you fear dehydration, and battle the twin terrors of exhaustion and insomnia.

If you want to survive, you have to fight. If you give up, you’ll die too.

Only it won’t be the physical death you perhaps long for; it will be the death of your soul, your emotions, the part of you that makes you you. No one is strong enough to walk through a child’s death alone. You’ll crave solitude, and it will be an important part of your healing, but you’ll need community, a group of people who can and will go with you through the struggle, especially in the first few months when the world goes to hell and you can’t even make yourself care about eating a bowl of Frosted Flakes.

It’s a bitter irony, I suppose, that the one thing that helps you survive is family. And yet, it’s true.

If you are one of the many people who have searched for info on stillbirths, or have been moved by life events to read When Your Baby Dies, I sincerely hope that you have the family you need to survive the family you lost. If I could offer any other advice it’s merely this: with the right people around you, the best way to heal is to go full-on into your grieving. Don’t push it off. Don’t try to play hero. Don’t pretend it only hurts a little.

Embrace it. Run into the burning building that is your soul. Once the flames have gone out and everything has been reduced to rubble, you’ll find that by the grace of God and the strength of the people around you, you’re still standing. You’ve survived.

That’s what we all hope for. May you find it.

Ella Goes to Kindergarten Camp, Dad Goes to Pieces…

Ella, the Kindergarten slayer.

My brain is normally a jumble of thoughts, some connected, others disjointed and meandering around like a bored relative at a party. But today is especially tough for me – while I’m working on my fall calendar, teaching plan for the year, and just in general trying to have a peaceful mental breakdown, I’m constantly distracted by one monstrous question that threatens to consume for the rest of my natural life:

How’s Ella doing?

This morning, Rachel and I (along with Jon) escorted Ella to her first day of Kindergarten Camp. That’s right – they now have practice runs for Kindergarteners. Brilliant move. I don’t remember if I had such a thing at my disposal when I was a kid; it’s certainly possible, but somehow I doubt it. I can only vaguely recall the emotional horror of being escorted to the bus stop by mom and placed inside the foul-smelling yellow beast’s belly. The feeling of insignificance as older, larger, aggressive kids swarmed in anarchy around me as I clung tightly to my lunchbox and stared at my brilliant white new sneakers. The sense of fear that enveloped me as I moved with the teeming masses into the cavernous opening of the school and navigated the absolute bedlam of the hallways. Thinking long and hard on this, my best impressions are fear, smallness, lostness, worry, anxiety.

It’s a very cinematic memory. I think it has a Michael Giacchino score.

In fact, the emotional core of the memory is so strong that even as I walked into Ella’s school today, I felt those same stirrings in me, only amplified because I was considering my child’s future. I looked at Ella’s thin little body, walking tip-toe across the great waxed floor, her tiny pink shorts and shirt shrinking against the massive white block walls, and all I could think about was: Heck no. She ain’t coming here.

The hallways were ridiculously long, the walls barren and bereft of color or style. The color scheme (mute whites and greys) combined with the fluorescent lighting made me feel as if I was dropping of my gifted and rare child at some secretive government lab where they specialize in stripping the unique and beautiful people of their souls (which, come to think of it, is the official mission and vision statement of Gwinnett County Public Schools…ba-dum-cha! Thank you, I’ll be here all week!). It felt wrong, taking my daughter into some weird amalgamation of an Aldous Huxley/George Orwell novel.

And public school architectural theory has changed quite a bit since I was in school. The colors used to be warmer and more inviting, for one thing, and the office, cafeteria and the library were all closer together. At Ella’s school the office is an intimidating bank of curtained windows to your far left once you walk through the front door, the kind of darkened, curtained windows you would imagine Drs. Mengele and Frankenstein collaborating behind. The entryway, instead of being small and cozy, is a massive swath of tile burnished to a high sheen (a sign of exceptional custodial work, may I say), the vast majority of which is white so as to give the entryway an even larger sense of space. And the library, despite its welcoming exterior and warm interior, seems to be only a mirage far across the expanse of whiteness.

It’s like Dr. Zhivago.

The rest of the school is laid out on a simple grid, like New York City or DC, though when you don’t know the grid it seems anything but simple. All in all, it’s a cold, empty tomb. And here I was, walking my daughter into the heart of it with only a Hello Kitty lunchbox at her side. I suddenly thought of Ella, suspended by her feet from a ceiling of ice, kind of like Luke Skywalker in the lair of the Wampa in The Empire Strikes Back. I was overwhelmed by the image; I mean the least I could’ve done was give Ella a good blaster. Or a lightsaber.

We got Ella to her class without me sharing any of my thoughts with her or Rachel, and once we got to the actual room, a magnificent burst of color and texture and shapes and warmth burst into sight. But despite the homeyness of the surroundings, there was still the second greatest fear of all school-aged kids: the teacher. She turned out to be the daughter-in-law of one of our neighbors, a young woman with a nice smile and gently burning auburn hair. She let Ella choose her own seat (at the green table) and offered her some paper to draw on. Ella sat down without hesitation and happily scribbled away, as if she had no fear. Me, I would have been terrified; if the teacher is the second greatest fear, then the first should be obvious – classmates. Those walking, talking abstractions we call fellow students, the ones you don’t know, aren’t sure how to get to know, and secretly worry will not like you in the slightest.

As a kid, I would have recurring nightmares in which I was the sole focus of my classmates’ collective rage and hatred, and I would be surrounded by them in their pitiless fury, their faces gone, replaced by smooth, featureless skin that made them all the more inhuman and unknown. I hated the first day of school, the great mystery of whether or not I would have an ally already in class, the torturous tension of having to learn an all-new set of people and their accompanying foibles. But my daughter, thank God, seems not to have inherited this part of my personality. In fact, she didn’t seem to care in the slightest about the horrible unanswered question before her: who’s in my class? She just colored. And sang.

I ended up having to take Jonathan out of the room because he was threatening to completely disassemble it, and so I didn’t see how Ella reacted when Rachel finally left her alone. I imagined her, so small and innocent, sitting at the slightly too-large table coloring in a daze and then suddenly snapping to and realizing: I’m alone. What would she do? Would she panic? Would she call out for me to come to her rescue and wonder why I didn’t respond? Would she suddenly come face-to-face with the greatest horror of human existence, that despite the presence of family and friends who love and guide us, in the end our lives come down to our ability to live them on our own?

I almost hyperventilated. Metaphysically speaking.

Rachel found Jonathan and I wandering the halls and we talked about the school, its size, the relative blandness of the color palette. Suddenly Rachel looked at me.

“I forgot to tell the teacher about Ella’s allergies and asthma!”

She darted down the hall, and Jon and I slowly followed after her. I wondered how Ella would respond to Rachel’s reappearance. Would she want to go home with her? Would she cry out for the comfort and safety of her mother’s embrace? The minute passed like decade. Finally Rachel came around the corner.

“I told the teacher about Ella. She’s thinks it’ll be okay.”

“How was Ella?” I asked.

Rachel smiled. “She looked at me, pointed to the door, and mouthed, ‘Go away, Mommy!’ Guess she won’t have any problem coming to school.”

For the first time that morning, I felt a natural smile break out. My daughter is not me, not full of my random worries and thoughts, not paralyzed by my innate shyness. She is her own brilliant little person, and I know – despite her innocence, despite her curiosity, despite all of my personal fears – that she will be just fine with school and beyond.

A father couldn’t ask for more.