“There was a radical split between the self that did my work and the self that watched me from the shadows…I performed these duties because I had to. But I looked at life like a man having an out-of-body experience.” –Jerry Sittser, A Grief Disguised
My silence here has been long—and so is the silence I feel on my soul when kindly-intentioned friends ask a shockingly difficult question: “How are you?”
Sometimes I stumble through an attempted explanation. Sometimes I say, “Okay,”—and then feel like a liar who has dishonored the memory of my dead son. Sometimes I say, “Not very well,” and then feel the stunned pause that tells me I have flouted all social convention—as well as denied the goodness that exudes from my three living children, and the mere fact that I get up every morning, which is an achievement in itself. Sometimes I just look at the person, hoping that an ambiguous smile will obviate the need to reply with words. After all, it is a question often asked, robotically, by people who have no real investment in the answer: cashiers, clerks, repairmen who ring the front doorbell. But where we have an actual personal acquaintance, we generally expect a response—and we are socially and linguistically conditioned to give that response in the form of an adjective, a one-word evaluation of our entire lives.
“Great,” we say. “Awesome.” “Fine.” I have long used the reluctant “Okay,” but even that feels like a betrayal, because I am not okay, and I never will be fully okay. I am broken, as others have been before me, and there are no adequate or acceptable words to convey that fact. If I say, “Horrible,” I launch the innocuous encounter into towering, un-navigable waves. But I have said the truth about one part of my life—although not about all of it. Because my husband and my parents love me, and my children are darling—though wounded by this loss like we are—and I have some faithful friends, and my physical house is standing, and the roses and lavender are blooming along my deck, and I went for a run today. But my baby is dead, and my dreams for my family are shattered, and my faith is scrabbling for a foothold in the dark. And it is impossible to cover those many true things in one pithy soundbite.
So I can’t tell you how I am. How is too hard to define. But I can tell you what I am doing.
I am getting up early, most mornings, and running in the cooler air, listening to podcasts and audiobooks so that the silence doesn’t smite me. I am simmering chili, and marinating chicken, and baking granola bars. I am scrubbing ground beef off porcelain plates, and folding clean underwear, and sweeping the crumb-strewn kitchen floor. I am sitting on the couch or a blanket in the yard, reading picture books aloud in the sunshine. I am taking three young children to the library, the grocery store, the park, and, almost every day, the pool. Consequently, I have the best tan I’ve had since becoming a mother seven years ago. I am reading my own books and listening to my own music—different books, and different music, so that they don’t remind me of things I used to feel and think and hope. I am taking pictures of my children, and texting my friends, and trying to find a new moisturizer that I like. I am picking up toys, and clearing the piles of paper off my desk, and staying up too late watching TV shows with my husband. I am living my life, and if you see me in the checkout line at Costco, I will probably look healthy and cheerful—at least as cheerful as a person can look while her small fry are whining and badgering each other and getting in the way of the cart. But that doesn’t mean I am fine.
Because I also sit down on the living room floor, in quiet moments when the kids are watching a movie in the other room, and weep. The yard is dark outside my kitchen window when I wash the crusty pots at night, and tears run down my face into the sudsy water. I go to that pool and park and grocery store and library, and everywhere I turn, I see beaming pregnant women and gurgling babies kicking their small clean toes and families with four children—and every time it strikes me like a knife slashing into an open wound. It is unfair; it is as if the rest of the world goes on merrily and we have been singled out for devastation. People greet me with excited smiles, or casually mention someone else’s baby, or exclaim about how happy they are that some ordinary, everyday prayer for a sore knee or a distracted child has been answered. And I swallow the boulder in my throat, and keep moving, and then shudder with tears in the car on the way to my next appointment.
“…Though I experienced death, I also experienced life…not after the darkness, as we might suppose, but in the darkness. I did not go through pain and come out the other side; instead, I lived in it and found within that pain the grace to survive and eventually grow. I did not get over the loss of my loved ones; rather, I absorbed the loss into my life, like soil receives decaying matter, until it became a part of who I am. Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”–Jerry Sittser
I am doing what I need to do. I need to live, and curl my arms around my sun-warmed children, and read books that nurture my mind and my heart, and laugh at ludicrous movies, and teach my son how to ask another boy to play catch with him. And I also need to cry. I need to feel the tremendous, shattering loss that will never be repaired. I need to explore the depths of the wound or I will never walk on, bearing the scar. Enormous loss, I am learning, tears one person into two. It divides the heart so that no emotion will ever again be whole and unmixed. I feel a flutter of joy when my daughter runs across the grass and into my arms. I am sure I will feel a stronger, steadier joy years from now when I watch her walk across a stage and take a diploma in her hand. But the joy swirls together now with a piercing sorrow that Simon is not in the crook of my arm watching her run to us, and will not be a lanky brown-headed young man watching her graduate.
Likewise, the black burden of grief is not absolute; it can’t be. I have to haul myself out of bed when the alarm shocks me awake, because I need to exercise and my children need me to hug them and dress them and make them breakfast. I am desolate, but I love my children and I want to be the mother they need. I have to wipe away my tears, after a while, and get up off the living room floor so that I can make lunch and pack the pool bag. My heart is in anguish, but I want to feed us and I know I will be glad we went swimming. I have to struggle through the weeping and finish washing the dishes, so that I can sit down on the couch with my husband. Sometimes it feels pointless to wash dishes, again, when my baby is dead—but I still like a clean kitchen, and I love my husband and I want to relax with him in the quiet house. While the agony of missing my son throbs in my mind and my body, while I carry it every moment like a lead weight inside my chest, I still taste the goodness in my life, and am glad of it. But nothing is pure anymore; the bitter and the sweet are entangled forever. I am two people now: one mourns and the other takes the steps that make up life, and sometimes they regard each other with an aching bewilderment. And when the question comes—“How are you?”—they look at each other helplessly, wondering who should answer.
Having friends who care about my pain, and who weep with me, is a great gift to me in these days. And when they ask, “What has been hard this week?”, or “What are you missing about Simon today?”, or “What have you been doing with your kids lately?”, I feel a flood of relief. I am not expected to be okay, or fine, or great. I am not expected to deliver a succinct summary of my emotional state. My friend recognizes that how is too hard, so she asks me what—and that is a place where I can begin.