Hanging On: Avoiding holes in the sidewalk.

Joan Gillman and I spoke on the phone a couple of nights ago, and she mentioned that she had just returned from dinner with a friend, as they had commemorated an anniversary together that evening. “It was the anniversary of her son’s death,” Joan said sadly.

I replied that I found that odd, because it also was the same anniversary for one of my friends that very day — the anniversary of her son’s death.

And it seems to me that I know more and more parents who have lost children prematurely to death. So I write for those friends and acquaintances this week. Maybe for your friend. Maybe for you. I write my thoughts about how hard it is to acknowledge these gaping holes in our lives now, and how hard it is to reconstruct a life around them.

If the “Why?” question was answered, would your sorrow be less?

No. Yet we dwell on that question.

“Why” will not be known to us. Going down that road of questioning gives us no relief. This is a more straightforward truth: Because you loved, you grieve. Because you grieve, you suffer.

How can you bring the past with you into the future, without your child? That’s really the trick of survival. It isn’t managing to live in the past, with a phantom, or going into the future alone. Mental survival is the ability to bring your precious moments with that child with you, and all the memories and love that you gave and received.

But the path is difficult. There are deep holes in the sidewalk. We stumble over our grief and fall into many holes on the way to tomorrow. We don’t necessarily even want to go there — into another tomorrow — without our child. That avoidance of our own future defines our truest grief, for we cannot imagine a future without our child — certainly it is not the future we would choose or desire.

In the 1970s, I bought a book of poetry that has become much more meaningful to me since my son died. I’d like to share Portia Nelson’s (1920-2001) Autobiography in Five Chapters with you now.

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost — I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I’m in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in — it’s a habit.
My eyes are open; I know where I am.
It is MY fault.
I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

I walk down a DIFFERENT street.

The hole in my imaginary sidewalk is my grief. I try to take different streets, but some of those have potholes, too, and I don’t always see them before falling in. Some materialize under my feet — I’ll be driving my car, and the song “Daniel” — sung at my son’s funeral — will play on the radio, and I’ll be ambushed by tears. I can’t seem to build scar tissue deep enough to avoid that hole when I don’t even see it coming at me. It is not my fault and so I have learned to accept my tears and not hold myself up to a standard of “coping” beyond my ability.

On the other hand, another road that I choose to go down involves Daniel’s other funeral song. I listen to at least 10 different versions of “Danny Boy” on my iPod some days. Eva Cassidy’s version is one of my favorites (published after her early death). It brings me comfort. Especially the lines “But come ye back, when summer’s in the meadow… Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow. Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.”

My daughter’s name is Summer, and so this has two meanings for me — and my loving my boy will always be a present-tense verb.

What are the holes in your sidewalk?

Before we can avoid them, we need to recognize or acknowledge the figurative holes in our sidewalks.

Some predictable holes were acknowledging sympathy cards or deciding what to do with our child’s possessions after the death. You saw the holes gaping wide before you, too, I know … and yet you fell in many of the same ones I did. Some falls were unavoidable. They are a fact of life — and death. No one could patch them for you or ease the injury to your heart from the fall.

Other holes loom ahead, like these death or birthday anniversaries, and we can make out their shadow or outline on the horizon. The first “without my child” experiences or holidays. Or maybe the 20th is the hardest to live through — again. Again and again and again.

Will you fall in the same hole every year, or will you go down a different street? Find new ways to honor and celebrate the life and meaning your child brought into the world?

My small pittance of advice: if you can’t avoid the street, plan the best ways to cushion those falls in advance, or ask for help getting out of the hole once you fall in. Your friends would, in fact, be willing to have dinner with you and pay their respects again to the delight your child brought into the world, and to acknowledge the delight taken from your world with your child’s leaving it.

And if they can’t be with you in the here and now, know that I am.

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