How do you comfort someone whose child has died?
I can’t imagine any words or deeds or anything at all that can lessen the pain, whether the lost child is very young or an adult. For any parent of any age, outliving a child causes a sorrow beyond description. Our children are supposed to bury us. It was never intended in the grand scheme of things that we bury them.
I have been reminded once again how raw this pain is and how near the surface it remains. As we get older, we understand – though we don’t like it much – that our parents, our peers and even, sadly, our life mates, will die. But not our children.
Recently, a young man I have known since he was a baby died. He was 37. Jerud was my son Carl’s best friend growing up. Together they went to preschool, ran Bloomsday, trick-or-treated, went to camp and tried out their new karate skills in backyard ninja adventures. They shared a childhood.
But now Jerud is gone. I was there for so many of his growing up years, and I am so affected by his passing. And yet, when I saw his father at the memorial service, I had no idea what to say or do. I hugged him. I’m sure I said something, but whatever it was, I know it was inadequate.
I got a call from my elderly friend Joan in Florida the other day. It was evening here, late at night there. She wasn’t sleeping. Normally upbeat and full of news of new experiences, she was somber.
“You know, it will be 47 years next week,” she said.
Oh yes, I knew. May 20, 1963, my father’s birthday – 47 years ago today. On that sunny May afternoon in Miami, a car with group of teenagers in it didn’t make it through an intersection. Joan’s 16-year-old daughter Michelle was thrown through the windshield and died on the pavement.
Michelle was the first friend I made when my family moved to Florida. Both of us only children, we shared a birthday, though I was a year older. My mother and Joan worked together and remained close until my mother died, at which time I inherited, gladly, the friendship.
Joan went on to see her husband through cancer and comforted him as he died. She stepped in to parent her niece and nephew when her own sister fell apart after the drowning death of one of her children. She also helped raise a grand-niece. She nursed her second husband through emphysema until he died a few years ago. All the while, she had great spirit.
I have always vowed that if I get to be really old, I want to be the kind of old person that Joan is. She is a killer card player with a sharp-as-a-tack mind. She is interested in everything, always eager to take on something new, full of questions about things she sees, excited about nature – and fell in love with Lake Coeur d’Alene when she visited here. She even took a hand at the helm of a sailboat out on the lake. Why not? She was never going to do it any younger, she ventured.
But the other day, in the dark of the night, 47 years later, she needed her daughter. There’s hardly anyone around anymore who knew Michelle. Her niece and nephew, yes. They live nearby and she sees them regularly, but they have their own families and jobs, and Joan doesn’t want to burden them unduly.
So she called me. She talked about the last picture she had of her daughter, the one in which Michelle is wearing a black jumper and white blouse. My father took that picture.
I recalled a photo I have of Michelle and me in which we are wearing bright shirtwaist dresses. She said she doesn’t have that one, and I said I’d send it right off to her. (But now I can’t find it. It’s not in any of my photo albums, so I am now searching through boxes of old photos and just praying it still exists. I promised, after all.)
Into the night Joan talked about what Michelle might have been like as a grown woman, about what their relationship might be. She spoke with pain of the stories she sees in the news about parents who abuse their children, of parents who discard their children. She wondered what it might have been like to have had grandchildren.
How do you comfort someone whose child has died? You don’t. You just listen.