My life changed instantly on the afternoon of October 17, 2012 when a solemn-faced white-coated doctor and his nurse assistant entered the private ICU waiting room at Akron General Hospital where my husband Roger and I waited anxiously for news of our son. “I’m sorry…” he began. I don’t remember much of anything else after that except for the wailing, the high-pitched terrifying death scream that filled the room and paralyzed me. It wasn’t until later that I realized the source of the shrieking was me.
And with that, I joined the ranks of parents of dead children.
Of course, there’s more to the story than that. The story actually began the day before, a picture-perfect fall Tuesday when I witnessed the aftermath of the accident between the semi-truck and the compact car my son drove, when I watched in silent horror as the rescue workers struggled for 20 minutes to free him from his crushed metal prison: the jaws of life ripping the roof off, the metal-cutting saw chewing through the floorboard to free his legs, his lifeless body slumping sideways out of his seat. I noted every detail from the chopping whir of the helicopter to the paramedic straddling my son’s body while doing chest compressions to restart his heart. My brain recorded it all and filed it away.
For weeks after Maxwell’s death, I didn’t sleep for more than a few minutes at a time, and when I did, my dreams were filled with blood and gore. After that came the panic attacks. Any loud noise or anything startling could trigger them. The flashbacks were the worst, and I never knew when they would happen. I could be in the middle of making dinner, for instance, when something would switch in my brain, and suddenly I was back at the accident scene, reliving the nightmare. Weeks turned into months; months turned into a year. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t go anywhere without intense fear, I couldn’t keep food down. I wanted to die.
In the early days of my grief, friends and neighbors were eager to help. They raised money for the funeral and memorial grave stone, delivered food and supplies, and entertained my surviving children. The initial support was beautiful, but I quickly learned that after about two weeks post-funeral, no one wanted to talk about my dead son and how his absence had permanently altered the landscape of my family. I can still remember the first time someone tried to comfort me with trite words, “You must be strong for your other kids” and “He’s in a better place now.”
When it comes to death, with few exceptions, there are two kinds of people: those who say nothing and those who say too much. The first group wants to avoid being reminded about death, so they tiptoe around the subject altogether. Because they don’t want to make the grieving person feel worse, and they think that saying anything will hurt, they opt to say nothing. Others would say something if they only knew what to say. I’ve learned that the people who get stricken looks on their faces when I mention my son Maxwell tend to belong to this first group.
The second group of people say all the wrong things. These people can only make sense of senseless tragedy through the liberal use of platitudes. These are the people who remind me to be thankful for the children I do have and not dwell on the one that died. Sometimes these people like to remind me that this is all part of God’s plan and that my son is in a better place now. In all cases, it’s neither helpful nor appropriate to suggest a solution for my grief. You can’t fix death, you can’t erase my pain, and it’s simply not kind to even try to.
In her book Sunrise Tomorrow (1988, p. 96), Elizabeth Brown suggests that these kinds of responses are as old as the Bible. When the patriarch Job experienced the terrible tragedy of the deaths of his entire family, his friends came to sit and grieve with him. For seven days, they wailed along with him, but after a week of mourning, they were ready to move on. Ostensibly trying to help him, instead they heaped criticism and judgment on him. Job’s friends essentially told him that how he was grieving was wrong.
Clearly the bereaved need to speak about their loss, and they need safe people who will listen to them without judgment or ridicule. They want to talk about what happened and what the loss means to them. Telling their stories is one way to healing, and listening to their stories with compassion is a precious gift that costs the giver nothing but some time. The Dougy Center, a national support organization for grieving children and families, has published a “Bill of Rights for Grieving Teens” (n.d.). Though aimed at young people, the list includes wisdom for bereaved people of any age. For instance, a grieving person has the right “to be heard with dignity and respect,” “to not have to follow the ‘Stages of Grief’ as outlined in a high school health book,” and “to grieve in one’s own unique, individual way without censorship” (para. 1).
At the end of one perfectly ordinary day in my life as a bereaved mother of three plus years – which is mostly to say I did my daily work and didn't break down into tears – I happened to glance at the back of the head of one of my surviving sons while he was playing a video game with his younger brother, and suddenly I was seeing Maxwell just like it was yesterday doing the exact same thing. The pain of missing him is always there and usually just throbs like a really deep purple and yellow bruise, but when it unexpectedly pierces like that, out of the blue...I can't breathe.
Perhaps one day our society will evolve to the point where the free and public expression of grief is no longer met with platitudes and condemnation. Perhaps instead of saying, “Don’t cry over spilt milk,” we’ll learn instead to say, “I’m sorry for your pain.” If we can do that, we will invariably make the world a better place for both the bereaved and non-bereaved alike.
Brown, E. B. (1988). Sunrise tomorrow. Old Tappan, NJ: Revell.
The Dougy Center. (n.d.). Bill of rights | grief resources | the Dougy center. Retrieved February 7, 2016, from http://www.dougy.org/grief-resource...