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Smokey Green and Lilies

Is there a worst kind of grief?

This week we attended the wake of a young man, 26 years old. I didn’t really know Justin well at all as an adult, but I remember him as a wee child, and he and my older son Mike attended the same daycare.

Years ago,  I was the next door neighbor of his aunt Carole in our townhouse development. So naturally, I got to know her sister Patty too, as she’d visit often with little Justin. And at one point Patty gave me the tip about her daycare provider, and our boys saw each other several days a week at the daycare location.

Over time we moved, Carole moved, and even though we still lived in the same town, we lost touch until the miracle of Facebook. (Miracle or curse, your milage may vary)

I luckily got to see Carole a few times more recently, and had also connected with Patty on Facebook too, so I got to keep up with their growing families. Carole’s daughter, who had occasionally babysat for Mike, was now a mother of three, and Justin had a little boy who looked EXACTLY like him when he was young.

Like everyone else after seeing the updates, I’d click “Like” or now and then make a comment about the impossible cuteness of this younger generation. Good stuff.

And every March 15th, Patty and Carole – who were twins – and I, would together enjoy a virtual birthday cake or cocktail, since we shared this birth date. (Not the year, I’m older, dammit!)

Last week, the twins and their families got suckerpunched.

I had been scrolling through my newsfeed when I read the shocking news Carole posted about Justin’s death. I then realized that an offhand comment of another local friend about some terrible traffic backup in our town – the day before – was directly related. A horrible accident involving a car and a motorcyclist. Justin was on the motorcycle. Airlifted to Boston, but it was too late.

Oh my God. OH MY GOD. How do people handle this? How the fuck is a person expected to get over this incredibly bad nightmare?

And the next naturally occurring question is, what the fuck do I say to them? How can you comfort a parent during this time? No words seem adequate. No gesture seems enough.

Several years back, I was writing an article about grief (pg 24), and was tasked to interview an expert in bereavement from New York. Great guy, very accommodating. What he said wasn’t exactly revolutionary or foreign, but he stressed that when you lose someone close, especially a child, the grief can feel worse after the first six months or so, because by then, the shock has worn off.

It makes sense, but it helps to have it spelled out. Not necessarily for the parents, but for those who surround them. I don’t have anyone super close that lost a child, not recently, and I have not been called upon to offer support. I remember the words of a mom I knew who did lose her son several months previously, she said, “you’re now a member of this club, a club you really didn’t want to join.”

But this is something that I’ve thought about, mostly because of Tom’s situation. He came closer to death than the average person, you don’t get put on a transplant list because your prognosis is rainbows and kittens. And naturally we had to accept the reality of his mortality. The day that they told us about how you get on a transplant list, how you have to have a particular MELD score was sobering. I’m going to include an excerpt from my upcoming book below to explain:

“And routine suddenly becomes learning what a MELD score is, the magic number that might put your child on a transplant list. Normal is hearing what MELD stands for, and you’re viciously snapped out of denial. Model for End stage Liver Disease. End stage?

Shit just got real. Again.

So, you might break down and cry, and that’s normal too. Mama said there’d be days like this, but you are kind of glad she didn’t live to see what you are going through. Normal is all sorts of emotions colliding around in your skull and aching chest, and yet it’s all kind of wonderful when your son wakes up from his ER nap and says, “Oh mom, Happy Mother’s Day, I’m sorry I forgot to tell you earlier.””

Yup, Tom had been sick on a particular Mother’s Day, and was in our local ER, than transported to Boston by ambulance, it was nuts.

But he woke up from that nap. He lives. We are grateful.

However, I’ve had to consider his death, then, and even now, especially since he starting driving. So – during one of my insane moments of imaging the worst, one of my gut reactions was…if Tom died, I wouldn’t want to live.

Nope. What’s the point. The world would have gone dark and meaningless.

I am lucky that cold dark fog was only in my imagination. I wasn’t dealing with real grief*. The above blurb wasn’t meant to turn this post to all about me, but rather to put this pondering of how we’d handle grief in context. The immediate thought of suicide was real for me. I’d imagine that it’s real for others when these sort of crazy imaginings turn real.

So as we were headed to the wake, when we saw the crowds of young adults outside consoling each other, I felt momentarily panicked. What was I going to say? But soon enough I figured that just being there was the first step for support, and the words would come. Or even no words, just deep hugs.

One of the first people we saw outside the funeral home was Justin’s cousin Candace. She’s the one that used to babysit Mike and then Tom when he was a baby. Such a beautiful young woman she’s become. As soon as she saw us she gave a big smile and fresh tears. Candace’s reaction was a clear answer to my previous anxiety.

We showed up.

Being a physical presence, when possible, is a huge deal to those who are suffering. It’s not about the words, it’s about being there to witness their suffering, to share it. Another excerpt below, this was my response to something pretty dreadful that I experienced during Tom’s illness:

Sometimes life just whacks you around – hard. And even if YOU just missed the most terrible of hits, you were a witness to it, and I think it’s your duty to not brush it off. Think about it. Absorb someone else’s pain and own it – just for a brief while at least. Of course you can’t take on someone else’s loss for long, it’s impractical and not healthy. But I really think that humans owe each other the willingness to shoulder the burdens of grief by witnessing instead of turning away.”

So, at this wake, eventually we were able to locate and hug Justin’s aunt and uncle, and finally his parents. I tried to be comforting with my words, overall I think what I tried to convey was that I hoped the family could all lean on each other, watch out for each other.

In the end, that’s all we can do.


*Of course, one of the emotions when you have a chronically and seriously ill child IS grief, which I can discuss some other time.