"How can I remember his life without the impact of his death?"
This is not like hitting a large pothole on a dark road and being caught off guard. It cannot sneak up on you because every year the familiar dates do not change. When I get a new desk calendar in January, I mark his dates. My son Daniel was born August 25th. And he died February 2nd. Both of those days have a heart drawn around them.
What continues to surprise many bereaved parents is the long corridor that leads up to the anniversary day of a child. How do our bodies and minds know that the date is approaching? I often tell people that I could be on a deserted island without my calendar, but my mind would still know.
The anniversary date of a child's death wreaks havoc with all our senses as we remember. The date of his death is not like his birthday, where as painful as it is without him, we can celebrate that he was born. The anniversary date is the flipside, reminding us that it all ended. Anniversary dates mean saying good-bye. No more memories. Gone. Finished here on earth. It's over.
We try not to let it take its toll. After all, most of us do not seek to dwell on every detail that killed our child. We hear the world say, "Still? It's been ten years." Or twelve, or like me, fourteen. Even so we wonder why we get this knot in our stomach as flashbacks snap before us on our memory's picture screen.
"The days leading up to Ethan's death anniversary date of January 19th are like this long corridor I have to walk alone. I even sometimes forget the dates leading up to the 19th are going to be hard," my friend Brina wrote to me recently about her infant son.
How well she described it! We replay those events that lead up to our child's death. Even years later, we still think that if we could have changed one or two of those circumstances, we would continue to have our son or daughter. Could have, should have, would have. Those are the phrases we learn early on not to say. But we still say them. If only. Why didn't I?
The days leading up to that marked date on the calendar can be lonely, painful, agonizing, irreverant. Yet each year we have to walk through them, until, at last, the day passes, and we are on the other side of the long hallway. For now. Until next year.
The first years without a child are all gut-wrenching, and when the anniversary day looms, parents wonder if they can survive another year. As time goes on, the harshness softens to some extent. Yet I've heard parents say that certain years were harder than others. My friends Gene and Linda just experienced fifteen years since Steve, their only child's, death. Because Steve was fifteen when he died, this particular year marked fifteen years with him, and fifteen years without.
I think of Stephen King's The Green Mile and what walking along it signified to the inmates. They plodded along that long corridor until they reached a chair. By being strapped to that chair, they would be removed from this world.
We parents re-walk that mile every year. Yet it is not we who sit in the chair, it is those memories of our child who died. The call is given, the act is done, and breath stops. There was nothing we could have done to prevent that action. Nothing, no loophole, that we can find, to bring our precious child back to us.
And so we walk. Scenes from years ago grab us like horrific nightmares, only we know we will not wake up and find our child safely in bed. We are still bereaved and that is why, year after year, we must make that lonely walk.
As Christians, we believe in life after death. This brings much comfort. Yet, I must emphasize that walking the mile is still treacherous, at times scary, and sorrowful, despite the promise that our child is experiencing the magnitude of Heaven. For those who want to say, "Be glad he is in Heaven," I would like to add, "Yes, but I want him here. Just like your child is here with you, living each day as part of your family."
For the corridor is not about life after death or that we will again be reunited with our child, it is about the truth that death, plain and vast, occurred, and every year we are impacted by this horrendous truth we cannot escape. Some of us have more events along their corridor, especially those of us whose child was hospitalized, had medical procedures, or suffered before his last breath.
Is there a way to make the approaching days easier? My friend Brina called a friend and planned to attend a chapter of a grief support group in her area. In December, Pam sent out an email message letting others know that the anniversary date of the death of her daughter Paula was around the corner.
Pushing aside the pain and need to be heard is not wise. Reach out, and hopefully, those you reach out to will help to shoulder the monumental walk. Cliches don't substitute for comfort. Loving the broken-hearted is always a good practice.
This year I plan to invision God holding one of my hands and Daniel holding the other as I make my way through the flashbacks from January 22 leading up to February 2, 1997.
And I will continue to follow the advice of my four-year-old Daniel during his own demise: "Deep breaths, deep breaths. That will help me."