When I saw the flash of lilac on my morning walk, my heart lifted for a split second and I reached for the phone in my pocket to call my mom, who loved the scent of them. Instead, the sight of them dropped me to my knees. My mom died in February. This year will be my first Mother’s Day without her.
It also will be my 27th without my son, who died suddenly at age 7 one bright winter morning. Collapsed there on the pavement, my old grief and my new one collided. I could barely breathe.
I kept his library books by the door so we could return them together.
Old grief is different than new grief. Each is hard in its own way. With my mom, people have rushed in to comfort me, to share their memories. Her loss is so fresh, it still doesn’t really feel like she’s gone. I still expect to pick up the phone and hear her cheery, “Hello, it’s your mother” before she launches into the details of her day. I still expect to get a card addressed in her looping, elementary school teacher cursive and stuffed with clippings in the mail. I still automatically pick up slices of lemon loaf at the bakery, before remembering there will be no more teas in front of the fire with her cats. None of it has sunk in.
There is no shortage of advice for the newly bereaved — books and courses and podcasts. People with new grief are in survival mode and an industry has grown up around them — search and rescue for the broken-hearted. By the time it’s an old grief, though, that help has largely disappeared. So have many of the people who knew the person who died. Those of us with old losses have to figure out how to manage them on our own.
Christopher died on a New Year’s Eve morning when he was with his father and his grandparents. I wasn’t there that day. For months afterward, I was sure it wasn’t real, that any moment, Christopher, who was deaf, would come flying through the door with his Batman lunchbox swinging, signing “school finished” and launch himself into my arms. I would turn a corner in Pasadena, California, where we lived, and catch a glimpse of a little brown-haired boy petting a dog and my heart would plummet when I realized it wasn’t him. I kept his library books by the door so we could return them together. But the books became overdue, and the sightings faded away. Eventually, I had to pack his room and move without him into a new life in Seattle.
In the beginning, people kept telling me it would get easier with time, “it” meaning handling my grief. In some sense it is true. Those of us who carry old grief become experts at it. We have been climbing the mountain for a long time and know just how to shift the pack so we can keep going. And it’s true that many things have gotten easier, but not all. Here’s what gets easier:
You know your own triggers.
In the first years after Christopher died, I would have a panic attack when a yellow school bus drove by. The buses would reappear with the turning of the leaves for the start of each school year and I’d reflexively search for his face through their windows. But he wasn’t there.
And there were other triggers. Christopher was born with failing kidneys and spent much of his life in and out of hospitals, until his last year when a kidney transplant gave him a second shot at a healthy childhood. He was thrilled when he learned to hit a T-ball, dragging home a trophy half as tall as he was. He rode horses in a special therapy program to help his strength and balance catch up to other kids his age. He played endless games of “conductor” on the old, parked steam train at Travel Town in Griffith Park in Los Angeles.
Now the sound of ambulances, the smell of crayons or saddle soap, the rumble of a train going by can all collapse my lungs and send my heart racing. Over time, though, I have learned what to do when something triggers me, how to breathe through his death in the same way I had to breathe through his birth. I take walks. I call friends. And I’ve re-mapped my memories onto happier ones. Now, when I see a yellow school bus, it makes me smile.
The shroud of privacy comes back over your life.
After any kind of death, you are at first an open, walking wound. People can read your pain in the hollows of your face and sag of your body. They step in to help and are witness to your deepest fears. Your helplessness. Over time, though, your strength returns. You no longer feel as though you’re walking around stripped naked in front of people. You take back control of your life. You drive yourself to the doctor and make your own meals. You stop fearing you’ll snap at unsuspecting strangers or lose it in the grocery store. You start to trust yourself again.
You feel less alone.
Grief is a powerful, magnetic force that both attracts and repels. With the poles aligned one way, it drives people apart. Aligned the other way, it draws people from disparate circumstances with different griefs together. We, the grieving, recognize our own. After Christopher died, I felt completely isolated, as though I were the only one who could possibly know or understand this kind of pain. I couldn’t express what I was feeling, even to myself. It cost me my marriage. Friends drifted away. Eventually, though, I found a support group for other moms who had lost children and discovered I was not alone.
I recently rejoined that group after many years away. In each meeting, I have flashbacks to the early days when my grief was new. I see myself. I hear my own voice. It was such a relief, even after 25 years, to feel connected to people who understood what I’d been through.
You learn you can hold pain and joy at the same time.
Over the years, the weight of joy adds up, too — new children born to friends and colleagues, beauty discovered in unexpected places, new friendship. New love.
Initially, permitting myself to feel any kind of pleasure felt like dishonoring my love for Christopher, a betrayal. Over time, though, noting my joys became a kind of memorial to him. He was a joyful, stubborn child who was as excited when he got to pour the seed into our bird feeder as he was to ride the “big” rollercoaster at Magic Mountain. The way to honor him was to live as joyfully as he had. I owed his memory that much.
All of these things made it easier to carry my loss forward over the years. Some would call this closure. I’ve never liked that word. For a grieving parent, no matter how the child died, closure never comes.
And some things don’t get easier as time goes on.
There will be new triggers you didn’t anticipate.
My best friend’s oldest daughter was born a week after Christopher. We’d compared notes at every stage of our pregnancies and our two children spent much of their first few years together before I moved to Los Angeles. This year, my friend welcomed her first grandchild. I was so excited when I got the news, but when I hung up the phone, a wave of sadness nearly knocked me under. Deaths, too, could send me spiraling: A friend losing a parent, or a brother, or a child of their own. My heart would break for them, and myself, all over again.
Same with the milestones that arrived without Christopher — the year he would have gotten a driver’s license. Or graduated from high school. The year he would have turned the age I was when I had him. The anniversaries maintained their relentless forward march — five years, then 10, then 25 since his death, as though my grief were growing up alongside my shadow child.
Over time, fewer people know what you have lost.
As the years went on,I reached a point where few people I knew or worked with even knew I’d ever had a child. I’d moved several times since his death, each time building a new circle of friends and acquaintances. It felt easier not to talk about him. But I also regretted it. I missed being able to join in conversations about family or talk about the funny things our kids did. Not talking about Christopher created a deep rift in my own identity, the person I was before and after.
Things still sneak up on you in unexpected ways.
A while ago, I gave a reading in the East Village in New York City. The piece I read was about how I had been unable to face telling Christopher’s classmates he wouldn’t be coming back to school. I stood under the spotlight behind a mic and started to read. A few sentences in, my throat closed up and I could feel hot tears rising. I took a deep breath, apologized and started again. A few more sentences in, I started to cry, not the kind of tears you wipe away, but a full-on ugly kind of cry in front of the small, packed bar. My mascara trailed swampy black lines down my cheeks. My nose ran. I cried in a way I hadn’t been able to the day my friend, a nurse, went to tell the class in my place, or at Christopher’s memorial, when I was still in a state of stunned disbelief. I cried as though it was the instant I’d picked up the phone on New Year’s Eve to hear those surreal, unbelievable words: “Christopher died.”
The host jumped on stage with a bottle of ice water as I stood there shaking. I gulped and tried to flee the stage, but people urged me to stay. I could not see their faces, only the shapes of their bodies in the dark, but I could sense them holding me up so I could finish. And when I did, they stood and clapped for me.
I stumbled back to my seat and on the way, a woman stopped me to put her arms around me.
“Thank you,” she said. “Christopher is in all of our hearts now.”
It had been many years since I’d cried the way I did that night, but it was a relief, in some ways, to know the magnitude of that sadness still lived somewhere inside me, because that, too, is a way of honoring his life, my body remembering the love I lost.
When I think of closure now, I don’t think of it as cutting off my grief. Instead, I think of closure in terms of a circle, with no beginning and no end. New grief becomes old. Old grief becomes new again. But in that circle is strength. Living with grief makes you stronger over time. It is its own kind of tempering. Like steel, we get tougher and more resilient with repeated hammering. And like lilacs, we keep blooming.
Editor's note: Carol Smith is the author of "Crossing the River: Seven Stories that Saved My Life," a new memoir about grief and resilience. She wrote this essay about the myth of closure after the death of her mother and her son.
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