I’m not sure that ‘The Holidays’ – the part of year from Thanksgiving through New Year – can ever be truly fun again for someone who has lost a child. I lost my daughter Jesse in June 2004, four days before her tenth birthday. That first holiday season was one of the darkest times I remember. Things have improved a lot but it’s never something I look forward to.
The Newtown murders have brought back memories of that first year, but also reflections on how things have changed for me. I think a lot about the parents of the twenty children that died, and my heart aches for what I imagine they are going through. I say ‘imagine,’ because if I’ve learned one thing from talking to other parents who’ve lost kids it’s that everyone has a different process. Nevertheless, there are some common reactions that many, if not most, people in this situation experience.
The first is shock. I’ve heard and read a little of what the parents themselves are saying, and they sound like they are still in that dazed, dis-believing state where you know your child is gone, you are even crying for them, but you can’t quite wrap your mind around it. During this period, at the beginning, you are often surrounded by people who love you and are grieving with you, and even public displays of support, which are very meaningful later, even if they don’t seem so at the time. The people who commemorated Jesse with me in the first year after her death helped me more than they will know, in part because I wasn’t able to express how important the remembrance of her was. So even though the mounds of teddy bears, the thousands of pink ribbons, may seem excessive now – they are good for the parents, and will be remembered later.
What I remember about after the shock wore off – really, for two or three years after the shock wore off – was frequent despair and intense, physical pain. It was years before I didn’t cry every day, more years before I stopped having at least one screaming wailing cry per week. One of the more difficult things for me was having to pretend I felt better than I did, because, really, after a year or so no one beyond your closest loved ones even remembers you are a bereaved parent, much less expects or can handle your grief. I wonder whether the fact that there are so many parents in Newtown in the same boat will help. Will the families stay, and derive comfort from each other? Some will probably leave – some people need to go someplace where they are not constantly surrounded by painful memories. But I hope – and expect – that the parents who remain will form support groups for each other. It can be such a comfort and relief to be around others who understand that years later you can still feel so bad, to not have to act cheerful, say, at the holidays.
An unexpected problem over the years has been feeling guilty about letting go of my pain. Our painful memories are often our most vivid ones, and so for several years, as I realized I was crying less frequently and less intensely, I fought against it, liking the relief but feeling I was betraying my beloved child.
More recently, I’ve come to accept this. Like it or not, pain does tend to lessen over the years, especially if you are a natural survivor like me. I may feel guilty, I may experience it as another loss, but there actually doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about it.
Having the pain lessen has brought another unexpected consequence. For most of the eight and a half years since Jesse has been gone I have rarely been able to have a positive memory of her, memories that make me smile. The happiest memories make me feel bad. Many important things that Jesse and I shared are off limits. I couldn’t bear going back to the same place we went for vacations; my favorite retreat and meditation center, which I always visited with Jesse, brings back too many painful feelings. There is a lot of music that I can’t listen to anymore.
And I haven’t been able to unpack, much less use, the Christmas ornaments I used then, some of which were handmade by me and my children. So I was surprised – and happy – that this year I was able to unpack the Wiccan crèche Jesse and I made, and the handmade ornaments. I blended the Wiccan figures with the traditional figures I’ve put out with my daughters Ale and Diana since 2005 – and it feels right. I can even remember some of those Christmases with Jesse with warmth and pleasure.
I measure my life now in ‘before’ or ‘after’ Jesse’s death, because I am a different person than before – not quite a whole person, never quite whole again. I don’t feel sorry for myself that this is true. I just accept it as a fact of life. But for a long time after Jesse died I had many moments where I wished I had died with her, and this rarely happens anymore.
So my message to the Newtown parents is: hang in there, don’t give up, be patient. You may never be as happy as you were before you lost your child – but you can feel happy enough. Life may never be as carefree, joyful or wonderful – but it can still be full and rewarding enough to be worthwhile. Eventually, through your burning pain, despair, and darkness, you will find some bits of peace. And hopefully, there will be things that even make you smile again.