Losing a child and wondering if you will you ever be okay again

By Mary Janevic

“The only thing my great-aunt would talk about when she was in her last days was her child who died almost seventy years earlier.”

A friend told me this when I was a newly bereaved parent. It was an odd way for her to console me—to imply that my sorrow would never go away—but it was what I wanted to hear. We had just lost our four-year-old daughter Laila to a rare cancer that swallowed her up within months of her diagnosis. I was comforted by the notion that this elderly person’s child was still present, in some form, many decades later.   

When you have been hurt, you almost always want to heal. But after the death of a child, the only thing worse than sadness is the prospect of feeling happy again. Suddenly, healing no longer means relief and renewal, but further loss and betrayal. 

I was in no hurry to let go of my grief. It was what I had left of my child. 

I began attending a support group for parents who had recently lost children to cancer. We were as different as you would expect a collection of humans to be who were united only by random bad luck. We tried to support each other, in our broken-down way: dazed survivors of a crash trying to bandage each other up. I listened to Camilla and Michael, who were haunted by the feeling that perhaps they should not have told their six-year-old that he was going to die. Priya’s daughter was 20 years old, so out came the prom and graduation photos.

One week a guest speaker joined us, a youngish woman with bouncing brown curls. She was a bereaved parent, too, but she brought a different energy to the group. She was cheerful. Eight years earlier, her young son had died from a brain tumor. It had been a rough road, this veteran of grief told us, but she was okay now. 

Next session, Priya and I confided in each other that we were a little freaked out by her saying that. Okay? How could this mother be okay? 

Seventeen years later, I understand. I am okay now, too. But “okay” does not mean what I thought it would.  

It means that I’ve become comfortable with being distributed across time and space.

I’m mostly right where I appear to be: living my life, pouring my energy into my family and a job that absorbs me, hoping I’m doing a tiny something each day to make the world a better place. 

But I’m also elsewhere.

Part of me is in the past. Loss is a powerful incentive to reconsider the nature of time; to view it as less linear, more flexible. That distant spring afternoon Laila and I sat on a park bench and ate jam sandwiches is no less real than the coffee I am sipping now. Long ago does not have to mean far away. Our society views living in the past as dysfunctional, but those of us who are bereaved reclaim it, retaining the right to visit whenever we please.

Part of me is in the what-if universe, the one in which Laila recovered from her illness and is now a young adult. Her fearlessness that made her dash to the highest slide on the playground and re-watch the scariest parts of Disney movies just for the fun of it have made her an athlete, or an activist. Occasionally, an artifact from this parallel dimension will materialize, like the letter we received from the health department on her 15th birthday, urging us to bring her in for her teenage vaccinations. 

And of course part of me is right where Laila is now. She climbed up to the top of the tallest slide of all, and found the place where everything converges. I have dual citizenship, in this world and the next. 

I am not alone in being dispersed. Quite the opposite. I frequently meet others who are not fully present in this world, because of enormous loss or other trauma. We are drawn to each other, as if coming together will make us all more complete. 

Experiencing tragedy turns you first inward and then, eventually, outward. I used to think I was the “queen of pain,” one of my bereaved-mom friends wrote to me once. “Now I see so much suffering everywhere.” 

It is easy to understand why President Biden, who has lost two children of his own, is such an avid consoler of others. It’s a hard-earned superpower. It’s how we honor the loved ones we miss so much.

It’s at the moment when you pivot from wondering if you will ever heal, to hoping that you can somehow help, that you know that you have achieved “okay.”

Mary Janevic lives in Michigan, where she works in public health. She usually describes herself as having three children, but always thinks of herself as a mother of four. 

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