HOW DOES ANY PARENT survive the death of a child? I cannot begin to answer this question as a professional counselor, but only as a mother who has lived through the worst nightmare of her life.
My husband, Cliff, and I were blessed with two beautiful sons, David and Chris. They were the joy of our lives. As a mother, I had so many hopes and dreams for each of our growing boys. I never imagined those hopes and dreams would be forever shattered when our older son, David, died in a tragic car accident at age 17.
The night of the accident, Cliff and I, along with our 15-year-old son, Chris, were terrified as we waited, hoped, and prayed that David would somehow return home safely. The accident occurred around 10:30 p.m., but the highway patrol didn’t discover the wreckage until 7 a.m. the following morning. When we received the horrible news, our scant flicker of hope crumbled helplessly within our hearts.
I cried from the depths of my being. I was emotionally numb. God, in his compassion and love, supplied my body and spirit with an emotional safeguard that temporarily blocked out the enormous shock of this painful, unbearable reality. A major loss such as the death of a spouse or a child can take up to several years to heal. The bereaved person’s body may be numbed, literally “in shock,” for as long as six months. I struggled to believe and disbelieve that this could have happened.
Looking back on that night, it reminded me of the touching words of the poem “Footprints in the Sand,” in which our loving God said, “During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
Time to Heal
God continued to carry our grief-stricken family through the painful funeral, the processing of life-insurance claims, and the closing out of David’s checking account. Each time I had to do these necessary things, I asked Jesus to give me the strength.
After three weeks, I went back to work. I felt as though I was leading a double life during the months that followed. I would drag myself to work each day, drained and consumed with a deep sadness. For months I felt as though I was an actress playing a part in a real-life drama. At work I tried to act as though I were functioning normally, attempting to perform my required duties.
Then at home, behind closed doors, I would be true to my feelings and sob from the deepest part of a mother’s grieving heart. Crying often became my only release. Crying has its own uniqueness; it is cleansing and a marvelous healing release.
In this age of fast food, high-speed Internet, and instantly replaceable everything, society has a hard time accepting the fact that deep grief takes time to heal. If a person has a physical injury, he or she is pampered and taken care of until the wound has been completely healed. But it seems if a person has an emotional injury, he or she is expected, in a short while, to show up for work and be fully efficient. I finally had to accept the fact that society as a whole didn’t consider that emotional wounds take time to heal.
An Emotional Roller Coaster
Along with the obvious feelings of pain, depression, and sadness, there are other reactions to loss that are not so apparent. The person may feel helpless, fearful, empty, despairing, irritable, angry, guilty, and restless. I experienced all these emotions at varying degrees of intensity and at different times. I also felt a loss of concentration, hope, motivation, and energy.
My job performance suffered considerably. I was making mistakes and reacting strongly to situations that, before the death of my son, I could have handled with ease. Through counseling I began to accept that these feelings and reactions were normal and were to be expected after the death of a loved one. It’s part of the body’s natural healing process.
One of my caring coworkers was very helpful and supportive of me during this time. She allowed me to keep a low profile while she assumed some of my responsibilities. This helped me to survive the first difficult year of processing through my grief.
Releasing the Burden
The stages of grief are shock/ denial, anger/depression, and understanding/acceptance. My emotions were numb and in shock for months. Some days reality was just too painful to accept; I would pretend that David was away at college or football camp. Then I began to feel my emotions again. They ranged from feeling deep sadness coupled with sobbing quietly, to being irritable at the littlest things, to full-out anger and rage. The professionals in the field of grief say that this range of emotions is a normal response to loss.
Months after my son’s death, I was consumed with anger and rage. It was very frightening for me to feel that my emotions were so wildly out of control. I wasn’t angry at God for taking my son away from me, but at David for his irresponsible decision the night he died. He chose to drink alcohol and to be a passenger in an automobile that was driven by someone who was also drinking. I became very enraged at alcohol in any form.
One day at our local supermarket, I was shopping for groceries when I spotted a beer display on one of the end aisles. Each time I passed this display, I felt myself becoming more and more angry. I felt like demolishing that display until there was nothing left of it. I rushed out of the store before my anger exploded into an uncontrollable rage.
I shared my feelings with our family counselor. He was a kind and caring counselor who worked with each member of my family to process through our grief in our own time and in our own way. He offered to take me to the countryside where I could aim, shoot, and demolish as many empty beer cans as I needed to with his rifle so I could safely release some of my powerful anger that controlled me.
However, God in his infinite wisdom had other, more gentle plans for me. I took off from work and went to a weeklong spiritual retreat. On the second day, I participated in a deep, inner-healing meditation. During this guided meditation, I pictured Jesus, David, and me in a beautiful garden, surrounded by colorful flowers, rich green grass, and magnificent trees filled with softly chirping bluebirds. It was a peaceful and serene place. I was overjoyed at being in the presence of Jesus and being able to hug my precious son.
Jesus, David, and I strolled leisurely hand in hand, silently feeling the deep, immense love among the three of us. After the meditation I felt so much peace and love inside. I never realized until after I returned home from the retreat that my anger and rage were gone. Jesus had healed me of my uncontrollable anger and replaced it with an outpouring of his grace. I felt only love in my heart for my precious son. I was eternally grateful for all the love, joy, and happiness my son had given me throughout his short life. My heavy burden was becoming lighter.
A Lasting Love
Professionals in the field of grieving have likened the healing process to a lightning bolt: full of ups and downs, progressions and regressions, dramatic leaps and depressing backslides. I continued into the next year processing through my pain and loss. With special dates such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, David’s birthday, and what would have been his high school graduation, I regressed into a deep sadness, filled with many days of crying.
It is so important for the grieving person to be reminded that he or she is a very worthwhile human being. My friends reminded me often to be gentle on myself and encouraged me to get a lot of rest. When my sorrow overwhelmed me, God always sent human angels, in the form of caring neighbors, understanding friends, and loved ones. They each listened to, loved, and helped me to go on.
The grieving person can experience a certain amount of guilt and loss of self-esteem over the loss of a loved one. Into the second year of processing through my grief, I became aware of my deeply hidden guilt. My guilt stemmed from an acute sense of regret about not being able to say all the many things hidden deep in my heart to David while he was alive. I knew as a mother I had made many mistakes in raising my son. I felt it was too late to share those precious thoughts and feelings with him. I suffered over this and asked God to forgive me. Although I felt God’s forgiveness, I couldn’t forgive myself.
I decided to write David a letter, in which I was able to express my deepest thoughts and feelings to him. After I finished, I felt a sense of cleansing and release. I knew that David had heard me because God revealed this truth to me in a touching book entitled On Children and Death, by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.
In her book, Kübler-Ross states: “I want you to know that our research in death and life after death has revealed beyond a shadow of a doubt that those who make the transition are more alive, more surrounded with unconditional love and beauty than you can ever conceive. . . . The only thing that stays with them is the knowledge of love and care that they have received and of the lessons they have learned during their physical life.”
These are reassuring words for me to know that my son can only feel all the love that I and others gave him during his earthly life. David’s physical life is over, but his soul is with Jesus surrounded by unconditional love. This is indeed the promise that Jesus holds out to each of us: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live” (Jn 11:25). I have a renewed sense of hope because I know that I will see my child again at the heavenly banquet being prepared by our Father in heaven.
A Unique Blessing
When tragedy and death strike a family, it can be overwhelming for everyone concerned. Processing through our losses is indeed challenging, taking us through some deep, dark valleys, but with God’s love and his amazing grace, we can again experience rays of sunshine and hope in our lives. Grief coupled with God’s love changes us from the inside out, helping us little by little to be a people of love and compassion.
Through experiencing deep anguish and sorrow, I have emerged a more compassionate person. As I release my son in love, I have received the healing power of God’s grace. As my wounds have healed, so do I become an instrument of God’s grace in reaching out to others who are grieving.
“Out of every tragedy can come a blessing or a curse, compassion or bitterness . . . the choice is yours,” says Kübler-Ross. I choose each day the unique blessing this tragedy has ultimately given to me.
Connie Beckman and her husband, Cliff, live in Helena, Montana, where she works full-time and writes from her home. She is an active member of the Cathedral Parish of Saint Helena.
This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of St. Anthony Messenger.