Fifteen years on Monday, June 3— that’s how long he’s been gone.
I was poring through some old photographs the other day when it suddenly hit me that my son has been gone for 15 years now, and a wave of intense longing and sadness suddenly came over me. He was 4 years old when he passed away one rainy early evening in 1998, after having been in a coma for two weeks. His small, newly operated heart finally stopped beating that Wednesday evening, and he returned to his true home.
A few months after his death, I remember watching the film “Simon Birch” and bawling my eyes out at the voice over of the lead character, who was talking about his mother who had passed away several years earlier. He said, “When someone you love dies, you don’t lose them all at once. You lose them in pieces over time, like how the mail stops coming. What I remember most to this day was my mother’s scent, and how I hated it when it began to disappear. First from her closets, then from her dresses she had sewn herself and then finally from her bedsheets and pillow cases…”
How true that you lose them in bits and pieces, and that with time, the pain dissipates and the living you do takes over the grieving that becomes part and parcel of your days for many years after. But 15 years later, I can tell you that the memory of one’s child remains ever so vivid, and never dims.
I took pause and did a life review of the last 15 years and how so much has changed for me and my family, how that loss has impacted our lives as a unit, and individually. If my son were alive today, he would be 19 and an incoming sophomore, in all probability at the same university where his sister is now a senior in pre-med.
It’s a path she has undoubtedly chosen because of the influence of the early loss of her brother. I find myself continuing on the path of grief education and counseling as a way of honoring his life and memory. I hold a day job in an industry where I am able to impact lives in the area of healthcare— again, borne out of my experience as a patient’s mother. I’ve written books on grief and grieving in the desire to help create a roadmap for those who are new on the journey.
The wounded healer
Although my grief does not define me, it has definitely shaped the choices I have made over the last 15 years of my life. After all, they say, the wounded healer knows the terrain best, because he or she has been there in the trenches and has come out of it alive.
A few years ago, I read an article about a study conducted by researchers in Scotland, where they followed 1,000 bereaved parents and found that bereaved parents were more than twice as likely to die in the first 15 years after their child died, as compared to their non-bereaved counterparts. In England, the risk was four times higher.
Dr. Marie Harper, herself a bereaved mother and the study’s lead author, says that bereavement is a risk factor for illness but even she was surprised by the greatness of the risk. A lowered immune system and long-term biological effects of the stress of losing a child, alcohol or drug abuse, and an overall unhealthy lifestyle were some of the reasons cited by the study.
Being able to “connect” with one’s child, especially during the early years, can be critical to helping navigate the first few years after a loss. When I look back on my own journey, I believe this is what I set out to do when we established Migi’s Corner in various government hospitals. For the family, and for myself, it was like Migi’s heart continued to live on in the hearts of every child who was helped by playing or staying in the play corners.
Prayers and the belief that God would see me through the darkest of nights helped carry me through. That, and spending time alone to meditate and deliberately carving out time for myself also helped preserve my sanity.
Talking to other bereaved parents online and in person, and reading about their experiences and how they survived, was a lifeline in the early years. Writing books about the journey, knowing that my pain was being used for a higher purpose, helped soothe the deep wound of losing a child.
Still, there is not a day that goes by when I do not think of him. He continues to be a part of my days, and his brief life continues to push and inspire me on the road that I am on. And although his bed is now stored away in our attic, and the little colored dinosaurs that he stuck on his bed frame and loved so much have now almost lost their colors, his memory remains fully entrenched in our hearts, where I expect it will always be until I breathe my last and finally meet him again.
Best-selling author Mitch Albom wrote that death only ends a life, not a relationship, and that when someone is in your heart, he is never really gone, and that he can come back to you, even at unlikely times.
So that’s how it’s been the last 15 years, and how I know it will be for the next 15 and beyond. Memory has become my best friend, and when they come now, I have learned to dance with it, and smile.
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