We get the tang of it before the hang of it; the two are polar sides of the same hidden end of grief. The instant parents lose a child, we gain armament in equal weight to the love we hold, and it serves as the vessel through which each of us will not only fight our grief-related battles, but also gain the will, strength and skill to do so.
Everyone sees us as ‘strong‘ and ‘survivors‘, but without really having an idea of what it is that we’re surviving, where the strength comes from, or what it takes to gain. It’s common knowledge that every day is a struggle without our beloved babies. Of course it is. The love that we have for our children gives us strength, sure… but both sentiments are just the tip of the iceberg- or armament, as the metaphor may be. There is the blade of grief visible to the world- common among those of us who have suffered devastating losses- and then the tang of reaction to it, unique to each loss and person, which is where we must learn to come to grips in our own way and time.
Most of us are so shocked when we discover we are sudden sword-bearers that we can’t do anything except stare and think “WHAT?! NO. No. Hell no. FUCK. NO. I can’t. This can’t be real. I don’t want it. Someone, anyone, please take this away from me…” and eventually inch toward a more accepting, “Holy shit. This is absolutely going to make me bleed.” There is no adept way to handle the acuate presence of new, unsheathed grief and no one else can do it for us. Unless we are to remain paralyzed by fear from the pain caused by confronting it, we must choose to move, to hurt, to bleed, and eventually learn to find a safe, healthy and even helpful place and way to hold it.
Most people view someone with sword in hand as equipped and ready for battle, but a blade does not a warrior make. Let me bring that down to earth a bit: We don’t know what the fuck to do with a sudden, massive, razor-sharp sword thrust in our laps any more than you would and we aren’t skilled at handling it until it’s familiar to us. Please be patient. Give us time and space -a lot of time and space- to grapple with what we’ve been dealt. It’s absolutely terrifying to even think of wrapping our minds around and grasping. It’s monumentally egregious. It’s sharp. It’s simple presence makes us deeply ache in body, mind and spirit alike. It’s heavy, it’s awkward, it’s frustrating… It becomes absolutely maddening to not only constantly process our loss, but also the pain it causes; to never have a break from the ache and be forced to realize deeply that we never will.
We all have an idea of what grief is supposed to look and behave like, including those of us who are currently bereaved- but grief can be a dark, twisted parasite to more than just the grieving and so can the logic that accompanies it. As much as the the blade is visible and recognized, how grappling with the tang affects us is fodder for judgment and gossip (and medication, but that’s another post entirely) within the same community. Being a bereaved parent means bringing to the table a level of vulnerability and discomfort that everyone else has a choice to gloss over or leave, and many choose to. They so desperately want to make things better or to reassure themselves that they will never feel our pain that they emotionally distance themselves and judge from afar to ensure no grief will be encountered, even with a 100-foot-pole.
Trust me, we get it. We wish we had that choice, too. Those people will find others to justify their selfish, uninformed reactions and feel safer for their reinforced walls (the bile and bullshit they amass make for excellent brick and mortar) as they smugly watch ours crumble to the ground. We learn to let them go, that this is a reflection on their character, not ours, and that we are better for knowing their true hearts without giving them any more access to our own. We learn from our constant struggles that callous is something that is best used for hardening hands, not hearts… and once again despite the hurt, we must move on.
Consider the words of Boudicca, Celtic warrior queen:
“Have no fear whatever of the Romans; for they are superior to us neither in numbers nor in bravery. And here is the proof: they have protected themselves with helmets and breastplates and greaves and yet further provided themselves with palisades and walls and trenches to make sure of suffering no harm by an incursion of their enemies. For they are influenced by their fears when they adopt this kind of fighting in preference to the plan we follow of rough and ready action. Indeed, we enjoy such a surplus of bravery, that we regard our tents as safer than their walls and our shields as affording greater protection than their whole suits of mail.”
Though it hurts to lose (people we thought were) our friends, we simply don’t have the energy to give one tiny mosquito crap about what we look like, seem like, smell like, sound like or act like; we just wildly miss our babies. Grief requires the vulnerability of “rough and ready action”, not the protection of stagnant walls and ideas; reacting in fear will only cause the atrophy and eventual paralysis of the very heart we are seeking to protect.
There can be no set pattern of care for grief because there is no pattern for how and when it surfaces; it’s a mercurial beast there can be no singular best way to harness. We may appear as if everything is fine, while on the inside we crash and rage and burn and scream in protest at our lot with every cell in our body. Everything may actually be “fine” and an undiscovered trigger may hit, leaving us in the fetal position in bed for days. Some need to move and create active change, to take a walk, a run, take up kick boxing, change location, hair color or employment. Some may need to be still, learn to sit, meditate, practice yoga, journal, see a therapist, outsource some responsibilities, or simply rest. Any of us at any given time may need all or none of these things, depending on a wide variety of factors. There is no right or wrong way, place or time to process grief and putting boundaries on boundless sadness can never and should never attempt to be done.
Despite our very valid (and “normal”) feelings that arise, everything we do is cross-processed through the “Should a grieving parent be behaving/speaking/thinking that way?” lens by not only ourselves, but the world around us. Allow me to clarify, once and for all:
If you’re a grieving parent, the answer is yes.
If you’re not a grieving parent, it’s none of your damn business.
No one can tell anyone else which handle will feel best to cushion the tang, nor which grip will feel most comfortable, which purpose it is best suited for or which ways to decorate or form it that will be the most accurate amalgam of those things. The sword can be a weapon, a weight, a tool or a mix of all three and only the bereaved one can feel which or when. We have to learn the ways we can handle it, how it sits on and feels to us- and everyone’s process is different. We must come to terms with the cruel fact that what we’ve been dealt isn’t fair and isn’t changing. Only after that peace has somehow been made can we then wrap the sword as carefully as we would have our children, attach it to our backs to be brought out at the right place and time, and begin, laden with weight in tow, the resistance training of taking steps down our paths toward healing.
At first, we find ourselves weak, exhausted, unskilled and unprepared for the task. We have no interest, let alone energy for a fight that feels endless and hopeless, and in the end will still never bring us what (or whom) we’re really fighting for. We give up. We give in. It’s just too damn hard. The fight seems fixed and pointless. We’d rather just sleep and leave this reality to join the only one that can bring our sweet children into our arms again… until we learn sleeping means waking up, and waking up means hitting reality again- or being hit by it. We slowly remember the other people, places and things that we love. We realize that no matter where our loved ones are in time, that they are worthy of representing in our actions in this one. And so we step into the arena, eyes open, shoulders back, bloodied and bruised, and we figure out how to fight- but not for the children we’ve lost, because we’ve finally learned that is so regrettably hopeless, but for our own lives, and the ones who will be forced to go after us.
Each day we show up and try to manage our swords, we learn. It’s deeply personal and painful work, and it’s slow going. Hour by hour, day by day and week by week, we fall and we get up again, and slowly become stronger. We become familiarized with the edges and the weight of our new permanent prodigious attachment and how to move it without hurting anyone, ourselves first and foremost. We learn and when and where is safe to hold it, and how to carefully suffuse it with the attention and care that dulls the edges and forms a more protected handle. Slowly, we are able to create a hilt that fits our hands and feels more comfortable to touch. After we have gained the strength and skill to hold the sheer mass of our grief with the tang firmly encased in time, love, and gentle self-care, we can begin to carve, shape and make it beautiful and meaningful in our own personal ways.
As much as we may fear, resent or be angry at the sword in place of our child, we slowly begin to embrace that it is what we can hold in place of them, and that it’s proof they existed when all of the other stinging reminders start to fade away. We start to understand that the effectiveness of a sword is judged by not only its hardness and strength, but also by its flexibility and balance. When we are able to see that our grief is our love turned inside out, that the sharpness exists because of our tenderness, we are able to utilize it to carve out a path, a story, a monument or memorial on our journey to reach others and help them turn their weapons into tools, too.
As a bereaved parent, I know my strength lies in my vulnerability and my weakness lies in letting fear control my actions. I will not reinforce the strength of the walls around me to keep others from touching my wounded heart, but instead choose to reinforce my strength of spirit by allowing myself to continue to break down the walls around my heart and move through what situations and feelings arise with it bared proudly upon my sleeve. I know those who take cheap shots at it are making a statement about themselves and their own fears, not me or mine- they don’t and couldn’t possibly understand my life. However they hurt me, I wouldn’t wish truly understanding my pain upon anyone… lucky them to be so naive.
As much as I spoke of my son’s life while he was here, so I will do in his absence. It is an honor to love Patrick, anytime, anywhere, in front of anyone- even if that love is directly tied to my deepest pain and to touch it means to feel both. It proves he was here, that he matters, that he will always matter and that nothing and no one will ever change that. I will not choose to react to my grief and the “new normal” of my life in fear, but to try in his honor to feel it all, to choose to act in love.
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