Thump, thump, thump.
I could hear the balls hit our basketball hoop and then the ground. I couldn't see them from my kitchen table a few feet away, because I'd taped temporary paper shades on the glass in the door and over all the windows.
One by one, my new friends-- friends who had each had a son die-- turned the handle and came inside. They'd parked in the crowded driveway we shared with our neighbors, dodged the basketballs in our carport, and come to our grief support group.
"I don't know how you do it!" they each said to me.
This was a phrase they'd likely heard themselves many times. How did they make it through multiple rounds of chemo with their precious boys? How did they tell their sons they weren't going back to school? How did one go into her son's bedroom to wake him, but find him dead?
They knew they were not made of stronger stuff than other moms. They'd just been thrust into unwelcome, nearly untenable situations that they couldn't run away from. They knew that grieving moms are just people doing the best we can.
But that night they said it to me, quickly piecing together that the boys playing outside my door were the ones who were with Jack when he had his accident. While I'd never experienced hospitals, blood draws, invasive tests, toxic treatments, and having Jack lose his beautiful hair, I was experiencing something excruciating as I saw Jack's best friend, and his new best friend, bond and live and play right in front of me, day in and day out. The stark contrast between these living children and my dead son was almost too much to take, and these mothers' hearts recognized that in an instant.
I talked about this with my pastor and friend, Glenda. I felt terrible for feeling angry and uncharitable toward children-- so jealous and petty. My magical thinking would have one of them die, while Jack would live. This was so far from how I wanted to be-- Anna The Super Griever who spread her love and warmth like fairy dust-- but it was real, and raw, and exactly where I was.
There would be no warm and fuzzy tv special about how I'd taken the boys in as my own, cultivating a surrogate mom role to make up for losing Jack. Nope. So, I piled guilt on top of my anger and grief.
But I wanted to feel my pain and anger and not cover it up by pretending like everything was okay--faking kindness and compassion that wasn't yet there. Grieving Jack felt too holy for anything other than truth and light and 100% honesty.
After hearing all of this, Glenda touched my hand and rubbed it gently. She said, "If your hand is raw and in pain, there is nothing wrong with finding a balm to soothe it. To coat and protect it as it heals. That's not weakness. You don't need to feel guilty. That's just taking care of yourself."
I honestly couldn't think of one thing that could be a balm in the colossal missing and longing for Jack. But as those early days turned into months, and then into almost 2 years, a balm came into view.
I was healing, I could tell, but the pain of seeing the two boys multiple times a day continued to be incredibly painful. I made the difficult decision to move our family to a new house, even if it meant dragging Tim and Margaret along with me. It was not a savvy financial decision. It was very hard on Margaret as it represented her leaving her childhood behind. It meant driving over the creek where Jack was found multiple times a day. It meant leaving Jack's room behind.
But it was a balm.
Of course I still felt grief and pain while I healed, but that rawness, that fresh pain anew every single day, was coated by a bit of distance, just as ointment buffers and protects a wound.
This month it will be 5 years since we moved. Our windows are bare and the light streams in.
I was not a bad griever, or a bad person, for recognizing my need and doing something about it. For letting myself off the hook of being the comforter for everyone else, including my neighbors.
If you are hurting right now, feeling the sting of loss and disappointment or dreams unrealized, perhaps you, too, could find a balm. Something unexpected and sweet that doesn't numb you from your experience, but gives you a bit of a buffer of protection.
Is your balm to decline from going to baby showers or weddings? Is it to walk away from a friendship that causes you nothing but pain? Is it to log off social media for a good long while?
I don't know, but I send you love as you consider it.
After my brother was hit by a car and killed at the entrance to our development, my mother continued to live there for 27 years. I always wondered how she managed to drive past the accident site- especially those first few years when the paint outline of his bike and body could still be seen. Me, I drove in the other entrance when I would go home. Your move to me is all too relatable. You have every day as a reminder and there is so little you can change to try and help yourself.
Nothing unlikeable, Anna, and I don’t understand that comment from the editor. I’m glad the new house has provided a balm even as you continue to drive over that bridge every day. Your honesty and generous sharing in your beautiful writing has helped so many people process their “unlikeable” but all too real emotions. Love and admire you so much!! xoxo
I so understand. I lost my husband suddenly 3 years ago. here one day and dead the next. I could not afford to stay in the large house we had and did not need to. Now three years later I live in a different house, drive a different car, my children have had children and I feel like I have moved away from the life that we had and the life that I loved. Grief is so different so every person in every circumstance. There is no right and no wrong only what helps you to get through until you can breathe again.
Good advice. For me it was my parents that died suddenly, without warning. In order to heal I had to spend time alone in their house, listening to the silence in between crying jags. Somehow that helped get my wound to weep, and then begin to heal.
Anna-sending prayers to you and your family. There isn't a day that I don't think about Jack, he was a very special boy. You have a beautiful family.
Falls Church neighbor
I would have probably felt the same way as you so please don't feel guilty about that. It's perfectly natural. My mom passed away 8 months ago, it's so hard hearing my friends talk about their moms. I often get annoyed when I see a post about someone losing their grandparent or great grandparent when my mom was so young. I feel bad feeling that way but I can't help it.
Beautifully written. I love the concept of a balm . Something for me to ponder as I struggle with a different kind of pain.
Anna, I have not posted to you in a long time, but this post hit me with its emotional truth. How I ache for you. I had not known about the details of the common area of the shared driveways, and how you must have suffered. Glad you took steps to give yourself a different setting. We all need to take care of ourselves.
A song from the musical "Hamilton" resonates with me. It is focused on Alexander and his wife mourning the loss of their beloved first-born son, Phillip. They too moved -- from lower Manhattan to uptown.
You can listen to the song and read the lyrics here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMAoOGnw9qQ
I find it so very moving. The creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, shared it (when the musical was still in development) with a couple who lost their own son at the age of 16, and they listened to it daily and found it comforting.
I hope you find it comforting, and thanks for this meaningful post.
-- Joan in PA
Hello Anna, I have been following your blog for 4 years now since my 16 year old daughter passed away unexpectantly from unconfirmed health complications. She had two auto-immune diseases but was a picture of health, vibrant and full of life at the time of her passing. I was given your book by a friend to read a couple of months after her passing and I read it from cover to cover in one sitting. I can’t tell you how much your story has meant to my healing. Your blog has been a small balm when I’m feeling like no one understands what i’m going through. I’ve wanted to reach out at times but just never have. Today, your post has inspired me to reply because I am forever searching for a balm. We too moved because of painful reminders in what was to be our “forever home”. Not the best financial decision we’ve made but necessary. We have lost (and backed away from) friendships and family that couldn’t endure our loss and changes. However, we have also embraced new friendships and relationships that support and provide the balm that helps us heal. I have always been active and sporty and with well meaning friends I turned to exercising myself into exhaustion in the first two years of grieving and also accepted a very stressful job offer of which I had no experience with. This “new” life eventually landed me in the hospital. Not the right balms! I am learning to live again and this requires continuous searching for the right “balm”. Coaching my son’s basketball team, yoga, excessive motivational u-tube watching, anti-exercising, over organizing closets and drawyers, Netflix binging, painting furniture, paying more attention to politics and current events, juicing, whatever works! Recently, I have teamed up with other grieving Moms to begin a child grief support group in our town and surrounding area(never thought I would be able to do this). I’m not only hoping to support and serve others in their grief but looking to apply yet another balm on my open and wounded heart. 4 years in and the pain is still close to the surface. I am so grateful for this post Anna because it sheds light on the darker side of grief that us grieving parents work so hard everyday to overcome despite how we look or sound to everyone else. We are not just brave, courageous and full of faith. We are dark and wounded at times in need of a balm. We are real.
Hi Anna! I’ve been following your blog for a couple years now and so appreciate the window you give into a mother’s grief. My older sister died five years ago from biphenotypic leukemia (I blogged about it at jennifer-sample.blogspot.com). Grieving as a sibling is certainly different than grieving as a mother so your blog has helped me better understand my mother’s grief.... Also, I wanted to say I’m excited for your book and wish you congratulations! I also wanted to pass along this book “Voyage to the Star Kingdom” (Amazon has it) based on a real family who has lost a young daughter to a terminal brain disease and the youngest daughter is also suffering from this disease (you can read more at thegieselmann5.blogspot.com). When I read about your book in your previous post, I saw that you said there weren’t many books out there for grieving kids. In addition to yours, I just wanted to share an extra one.
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