I am a man, just a man. I bear the burdens of all other men. I have the flaws of all other men. And yes, I even have some of the assets, skills, and intelligence of all other men. I have seen my grandparents die, and I loved them both. I have watched cancer kill my Dad, and I loved him. I loved my Mother, but we had quarreled over a period of time, and I was not there when she died. I watched my wife die at home of the same disease that killed my father. I loved my wife as only a spouse can over a fifty plus year period. I still speak to her every night as I’m quite certain other spouses speak to their own loved ones who are deceased. Love is love is love, and loss is loss is loss.
There is one loss that I have not experienced, nor do I believe I could ever survive. It’s the loss of a child. Yes, Joan and I lost three children before our first was born. However, these were miscarriages. We never knew our child or even its gender. Our first is now in her fifties and has three of her own. Our second is a year behind her, and he and his spouse have three of their own. Our youngest is also blessed with three. If any of these twelve people died, I know I would soon follow. The spouses? Yeah, they’re great, but they aren’t mine. My children are mine. My grandchildren, strange as it may sound, are mine…and I would die.
Where am I going with this? I’m going where, perhaps, I should have gone a long time ago. We see on television and in the newspapers that this 16-year old was killed walking on the railroad tracks, and we, or at least I, wonder, “What the hell was he doing walking on railroad tracks…oh, well.” And I think little more about it. Then my eldest calls and asks if I saw the news. “Oh, shit,” I think, and she goes on to explain that he was the only child of a young woman I knew very well when she was a student. She goes on to explain that the boy’s uncle and his wife were at dinner with my daughter just a couple of nights before. I knew the uncle, too, as a student. Then it dawns…what are these people going through? What could possibly be said to comfort them? The answer, of course, is nothing. There is nothing you can say to someone who has lost a child. There is no “closure,” oh God, how I hate that word. “Closure” implies to me that something good is going to come of what happened. A child is dead, not just that, but in this case, an only child, and I sincerely doubt there will be another for this family. What will they do? What can they do? How the hell will they get through the rest of their lives together? Will this make their bond stronger or will it turn into a blame game ending in divorce and two more lives destroyed? Pause for a moment and consider this…every time, this young couple sees a train while they’re out driving, every time they hear the mournful whistle of a train as they are going to bed or getting up in the morning, they will probably be reminded of their son’s untimely death. Not a particularly pleasant thought, is it, to have such an obvious reminder of this terrible tragedy.
If this is all too morbid for you taste, tune out now because I’m just getting started. Over 20 years ago, friends of this same eldest daughter lost their first born to SIDS. He was under a year old. I had held that child and then he was gone. I guess I was just trying to be a good Dad when I accompanied my children to the funeral. I remember thinking that I was going to have to be the ‘good’ one, the one who held my family tight as the funeral progressed. Pall bearers carried the tiny white casket to the front of the church. The Mass began. Everything was fine. My kids were weeping and I had my arms around their shoulders in comfort. “Stay strong,” I remember repeating to myself, even though I was fully aware of just how close I was to not staying very strong. Then a soprano in the balcony began to sing Michael Joncas’ On Eagles Wings. That was the end of my ‘stay strong’ period. It’s one of my favorite hymns, and, frankly, I fell apart. When the service ended, it was my kids propping me up as we made our way to the car.
Children who die before adulthood, think of what the parents have actually lost. There will be no pictures of high school or college graduations. There will be no pride of having a son or daughter join the military because it’s something they had always dreamed of doing. For Dads, there will be no walking her down the aisle or the joy of seeing him standing at an altar, watching his life partner walk toward him. There will be no grandchildren to love and to hold…and, of course, to spoil rotten. No, all of those things will be denied, and that means that the word, “closure,” is a nothing word. It connotes nothing to the parents who have lost everything.
Perhaps this is my way of saying that I will never, ever, take the loss of a child quite the same again. Whether it’s because the kid was speeding and he/she survived while others were killed, or because all were killed because the 17-year old had found someone to buy booze and was drunk at the wheel. It just doesn’t matter. It’s a child or children who are lost and cannot be reclaimed. The SIDS death mentioned above was, in its own way, favorable in that the couple went on to have two more kids who are now young adults, but that’s just not always the case. So whether it’s a child shot in a drive-by, or a teenager who overdoses on fentanyl, it’s still a child who is lost to this world, and that’s a burden that you or I never wish to shoulder. To every family who has ever lost a child, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that it took me so many years to understand the depth of your loss.” May the Good Lord find other ways to bring positive blessings into your lives.