I have never talked about this in a public forum however the events of Friday sort of cracked me open. It occurred to me that I know a thing or two about grief.
In 1989 I was married to another man, not Mr. StencilGirl John, the rock and foundation and love of my life guy, but another guy with whom I had my first and only child, a beautiful boy we named Nathaniel. He was born early and eager with some physical problems, things that we didn't think would manifest into anything that serious. He ended up with developmental delays, but once again, we remained optimistic, simply redefining normal for ourselves.
Life was sweet.
In 1991 a heart defect was found, how it had been missed earlier I simply don't know. My son - happy, playful and engaging - needed surgery to save his life. We located the best surgeon we could find, set the date and proceeded. The surgery went off without a hitch, or so we thought. Yet Nathan didn't bounce back as expected. Over the 24 hour period following surgery I watched him deteriorate into a non-responsive state. The moment of his death I was holding his hand. He had just opened his baby blues for the first time, looking right at me and I thought.......well, you know what I thought, but then......nothing.
Flash forward. John and I married. We were so very very happy. I reveled in my role as step mother to his son and daughter. His daughter a person I would have chosen as a daughter. Same with his son, such a smart young adult, we were certain he was a genius he was so darn clever. In and out of college and the army, with deployments to Desert Storm and Haiti, he had been through a lot and seen things he shouldn't have seen. Add this to his naturally supercharged intensity and we worried about him. We made sure he got the therapy and medication that he needed. We believed that one day he would emerge a stronger healthier person who would be able to share his myriad talents with the world.
Life was sweet.
Thanksgiving Day 1997 was a big event, my family and John's family together at last, a culmination of my dreams. Michael didn't show up; we were bummed that he missed the frivolity of the day. Call it intuition or whatever you want, but that evening I felt something deep inside and I.Just.Knew.
John found him in his apartment, shot through the mouth by his own hand. He had just bought milk and apples, receipt still on the counter.
What is the purpose of my story?
I guess I want to help people know what to do with people who grieve the death of a child. Before these things happened to me, I never knew what to do and felt incredibly awkward around any grieving person, let alone one who had lost a child. I never wanted to intrude and do or say the wrong thing, consequently I often did nothing.
Here is my advice.
Grieving people need to be surrounded by loved ones. They need to be left alone. They need to cuddle. They need to run and hide.
Yes, all contradictions.
But, here's the thing - in the immediate aftermath, emotions splay out absolutely uncontrolled. You simply have no idea how you might feel from one moment to the next. Hysterical, numb, controlled, angry, defiant, calm. Switch the order. Repeat often.
Later on. Now that is the really important time. That is when friends, the true blues, come to light. Everyone else is back to their normal activities by then. But the friend who sends a Mother's Day card. That friend GETS IT. The friend who isn't afraid to bring up fond memories. That friend GETS IT. The friend who tells you they miss your child. The friend who sends a note for no apparent reason. The friend who is unafraid to ask you to attend events regarding their kids. The friend who years later asks how old your child would be.
Six hours later, six days later, six years later.
Don't be afraid, be a friend.
Be that friend.