Something has been on my mind for a few days now and I thought I'd take time (sometime) to write a proper blog entry - but I hadn't. In the meantime I've seen evidence more than once that maybe my perspective on this should be shared. So I won't put it off anymore regardless of how much is on my to-do list right now. Hopefully, everyone can take something from what I have to say about this.
I'm going to borrow the words from the writer of a separate blog from #stillstandingmagazine #stillstanding because frankly I think what she's said is profoundly true - "DEATH DOES NOT NEGATE EXISTENCE" I'm not screaming at you - I'm making the important words BOLD. Let me say that again. Let it really sink in. Absorb each word for what it is and what it means: "Death does not negate existence."
Two days ago I read a blog on her page (you can read it here Still Standing Magazine - Death does not Negate Existence) about a little boy, Nicholas, who brought a photograph of his family that included his deceased brother. His teacher sent him home with an unsealed note that said the photograph was inappropriate and he should not have brought it to school.
This could be interpreted many many ways and as a school teacher of young children I know I've made mistakes but I have had a really hard time wrapping my head around this one. I think of poor Nicholas, who no doubt was so excited to be a big brother, who probably shared with all his classmates that he was having a baby brother, and not only is he unable to ever bring that baby brother home with him, society tells him you can't share him with your friends either. Well, I say society because to a child family and school pretty much make up the entire world. It broke my heart to read about this and I tried very hard to put myself there, in that classroom, with those kids. I know it's a very delicate subject matter but we are supposed to be, in my opinion, above all else, a safe place for the children we are entrusted with to come to for love, support, and learning. Yes, I understand it opens up your classroom to conversation that can go anywhere (believe me - I've been there) but more than that this could have been an opportunity for the entire class to learn a huge lesson that can't be taught in books - and I don't just mean life and death, I mean empathy, sympathy, love, and more importantly learning that it's okay to talk about death.
One of the biggest misconceptions that I've found in my own grief journey is that social etiquette (or whatever guides our social norms) dictates that you don't bring up death, or the deceased, I assume because you could somehow make the loss worse by talking about it. I understand - I too had that mindset before the loss of Owen. I remember every single time I saw my friend Jeff's mom, Mrs. Judy, I wanted with all my being to tell her one funny story about Jeff, or how his accident had changed my faith (in a powerful way) or anything about the wonderful, funny, carefree child she had loved and lost - but I never would, because I sure didn't want to say the wrong thing and I sure didn't want to upset her by bringing it up. I was so wrong and if you avoid those kinds of conversations because you don't know what to say or because they make you uncomfortable then you are wrong too. I cannot for the life of me think of ONE single time that someone has mentioned Owen to me that I've walked away and thought man I was having a great day until just now?! That has NEVER happened. People mention Owen and my heart smiles because his death DOES NOT negate the fact that he LIVED. HE EXISTED. HE WAS HERE AND HE MATTERED. And when you share your words, thoughts and feelings it shows us that our loved ones matter to more than just us (and that is probably the BEST gift you can give a grieving parent). I'm certainly not saying you approach someone and say, hey I remember when your kid died - I mean if you have something meaningful to share and you feel compelled to share allow those words, thoughts, or feelings be a gift to that broken heart. They may smile, they may cry huge ugly crocodile tears, they may hug you - but my personal experience - on both ends of this is that they will be grateful that you cared about their loved one and that you cared about them enough to share. It's been about 12 years since the accident that took Jeff's life. A couple years back, sometime after we lost Owen, I ran into Mrs. Judy in the middle of the grocery store, next to the eggs - a moment worth remembering - and I finally told her what I wanted to share at his funeral but couldn't. I know it caught her off guard, and I could see the tears getting ready to come but it was important to both of us. I even apologized for waiting so long to tell her and she understood like only a grieving mom does.
On the other side of the coin there's a chance that maybe you are in the presence of a grieving parent and they share their story with you (God knows I've done this a thousand times). I know it's not the most comfortable thing to talk about - I do - but that isn't going to silence me. My son mattered - he was part of me and always will be. If I talk to you about Owen just listening is ministering to my needs. If I talk to you about Owen it was on my heart to share or I am trusting you with a sacred piece of my heart. Accept the gift I'm giving you - to know my child. Owen's story stops when I stop sharing it. His legacy ends when I am silenced. I have NO INTENTION of being silent anytime soon. His life, his love, it changed me, made me better, stronger, more faithful. He is so much of my testimony. I am not stuck where I left him, I am simply bringing him along for the part of the journey he is missing oit on. There is nothing wrong with me - I'm human. If we love something deeply we also hurt deeply when we lose that love.
Tonight an old friend who recently lost a grandchild was talking to me. And in the conversation she casually says, "well they told me to delete her [the grandchild's] pictures off my phone and quit showing them to everyone." I was appalled and I immediately thought of little Nicholas. So I told her, "Tell them 'Death does not negate existence' she was your granddaughter - she still is and you tell everyone you need to about her." Just because you don't understand something or it makes you uncomfortable doesn't give you the right to tell someone how they should grieve or when they should move on.
There's a part of me that heals every time I talk about Owen. I'm not stuck but I didn't quit being his mom just because he died. I still mother his spirit whenever I get the chance.
Another thought, going back to the quote "death does not negate existence." I feel that this quote is a powerful truth to moms who suffer a miscarriage. We've all seen the pro-life ads that say, "life begins at conception," yet society (why are we as a collective group so wrong about so much), says we don't talk about or grieve a miscarriage publicly or in the same manner we grieve someone who has been born. Isn't this quite the double standard - we celebrate the coming of a new baby - before the baby is born, but if that baby doesn't make it out of the mother's womb we should just act as though it didn't happen? We certainly don't talk about it because well we never actually saw the baby so let's pretend it wasn't real. I know not everyone is this way - believe me I do - but I've spoken to so many grieving mothers in my work as a peer counselor and many said, it's like it wasn't real to anyone but me. 1 in 4 women (probably more) have or will experience a miscarriage and to add insult to injury most will grieve silently, alone, because people don't talk about that. I understand it is incredibly private and delicate and sensitive and it should be approached that way but a caring card, a kind text or call, a simple prayer, better yet a meal or helping out in some way would go a long way toward showing love for someone who has suffered a devestating loss.
Finally, and this is my final thought, in talking with that grandmother today I was reminded of a revelation I'd had years ago. My mom (will probably kill me for sharing this but) well she kind of commands a room. She loves deeply but years in management make her a take charge kind of person. If any of our NICU nurses are reading this they are probably getting a chuckle. My mom loved and still loves Owen deeply. It is a hurt that will likely never heal and some days it's as raw as the day it all began and that's perfectly fine. She would sometimes, how can I say this, overstep (don't worry mom I'm laughing about this - hope you will too). For example, she was known to walk right into the room no matter who was holding him and just take him. More than once I remember her taking him out of my arms and me still sitting looking dumbfounded knowing I should have a baby in my arms, but she (most of the time) would give him right back - to me at least - until I was ready to share. It all came from a very loving place - from a very grandma place that I won't know about for many years. Anyways, I say all that to say I remember a conversation we once had that really upset me. [Just a disclaimer: most of my communication failures with my mom involve me misunderstanding her tone and thinking she means something based on the way she says it - so . . .] She started with "you have no idea how hard this is for me" but it was said in a way (in my opinion) as though to say it was somehow harder for her to face losing Owen than it was for me. In the moment I took great offense - like somehow she cared more and therefore what was happening to MY child was harder on her than it was on me. It was sometime later, much later, when I was driving down the road - thinking about my brother actually and how he had stood by and watched his only sibling lose her only child and how, while he loved Owen (and he truly did love Owen) he always seemed to have more concern for how I was doing in all of this. In that moment I had to pull off the road because the tears overwhelmed me and I finally understood that my mom was so right. I really didn't have any idea how much harder this was for her and it had NOTHING to do with my lack of love for Owen and EVERYTHING to do with how much she loved me. I had looked at it as I'm the one losing a child, you are losing a grandchild, therefore, my loss is greater. And while I had lost the most important thing in the world to me it suddenly became clear that my mom's loss was twofold. Surely she couldn't have loved Owen more than me (grandparents you can argue that elsewhere) but she loves me the way I love him and she had to stand by powerless to stop the crushing heartbreak that was headed my way. She had to go through the heartache of seeing her only daughter lose her only child, on top of losing her only grandchild at the same time. She would grieve my loss as well as her own. So, here's my point, to the grandmother I saw tonight - I understand that your loss is multiplied. I also understand that grief is different for everyone and it's not a competition of who grieves the longest, hardest, most, ect. We grieve until. That's what I know. And we can't judge one another for grieving differently. Me, I don't visit Owen in the cemetery very often. I've asked Ed and my mom not to judge my love for him by the number of times I go to his final resting spot because for me Owen is the wind, the sunrise, the moon, a ladybug, he's all these things but he is not there [in the cemetery] - he's free in Heaven. There are those who feel closer to their loved ones when they are at the cemetery and that's okay too. People grieve differently. Let's just try not to measure our love by how long or how deep we grieve.
That's it. That's what I wanted to share. I thank you for taking the time to read this. I thank you for being on this journey with me and my family. I hope something I've said in some way ministers to your heart and spirit and that you can somehow grow from what I've shared here. Please take a moment to share your thoughts in the comments. Have you wanted to say something to a grieving parent but didn't for some reason? Have you been on the receiving end of that kind of conversation? Agree, disagree - let me know.
May God bless you and yours,
Jerica Elizabeth Ward
Disclaimer: I really wanted to name this blog "Death does not Negate Existence" but Lori Ennis already wrote a great blog called that so I'm going to use her quote and share the link here: Still Standing Magazine - Death Does Not Negate Existence