I am not haunted as much by the images as I am by the sound bites. “Point blank…” “Ages 6-7.” “She turned on the intercom.” “They hid in the closet.” Several times a day, these and phrases like them repeat in my head, and when that happens, I have no control of the tears that fall.
I did this to myself, filling my brain with the sounds. I work from home most days and when no one is around, I turn on the television to find out more. To see pictures of the town, learn about the killer, listen to the vapid and mostly useless updates. The details are comfortably numbing, like reassurance that if it’s still on tv then it means somebody out there is doing something about it.
But if someone comes into the room, I quickly turn the channel. I am mildly embarrassed to be such a ‘rubbernecker’. I already know what I need to, and there can’t possibly be anything new on tv that a glance at a newspaper won’t provide. So, I wonder, what’s with the obsession?
My own son, Owen, died two years ago, when he was twelve. I have made it through two birthdays (his), two more (my own), yet two more (his brother’s), two Christmases, and two anniversaries of his death. As we approach Christmas number three, I am thinking, “Enough already.” I don’t want more opportunities to remember that I am the mother of a son who died. It’s a fact that follows me around no matter how I try to reframe it in my mind.
Readers of my blog know I have an uneasy relationship with this identity. The mere fact of being such a person – a mother whose child has died – disrupts connection, jars the brain, upsets, brings vivid images to mind and immediately shifts perceptions of the person I have just told. To fill the awkward silence that ensues, I would sometimes add, “And he had multiple severe disabilities.” Which would bring its own fresh reactions, then a look of comprehension. Like that somehow explained something.
I felt compromised in those moments. I overexposed Owen and myself to people who, no matter how hard they tried, would never comprehend the impact of his death or his life. I would be left holding the bag of their misunderstanding and assumptions.
In the weeks after Owen’s death, I would sometimes whisper, “My son has died. There is nothing worse.” This helped me remember why some friends distanced themselves from me and others wanted to get closer. The thought of losing a child is both horrific and fascinating. An acquaintance told me that she thought of me as profoundly and fundamentally changed, like I’d crossed over into a different plane. Another friend said, wide-eyed, “It’s just not the natural order of things.”
My partner, Carsten, did his best to comfort me, tried to figure out how to help. When he wasn’t getting groceries or driving my (then) 10 year-old son to school, he spent many evenings with me on my sofa as I stared into space, cried into his lap, drifted in and out of fitful sleep.
I felt the initial shock of Owen’s death physically — I couldn’t eat, and more than once, retched into the sink. I regained my appetite, but only for boring food. After several weeks, Carsten suggested we return to our favourite restaurant. “Not yet,” I said. “That’s for happier times.”
Those months were so lonely, but they were also important and precious. I got to be alone with Owen and his death. I held on tight for fear of losing the smells and the sounds and the memories. Another friend had lost both of her parents in a short time, a few years before. “I know this will sound weird,” she said, “but enjoy this time.” It did sound weird but I knew what she meant.
I didn’t hold on to those feelings for much longer. Five months after Owen’s death, Carsten’s father died. He was in his home in Namibia, the African country to which Carsten’s family immigrated when he was a child. We had a short twenty-four hours or so in which we believed it was a ‘natural’ death; giving Carsten time to reflect on his father’s long and prosperous life without interference. I prepared myself to support him through the flow of grief that was sure to come. I understood, after all, and it was my turn to support him.
As details unfolded of the last hours of his father’s life, we learned he was the victim of a violent crime. I felt the news resonate through my body like an earthquake. My own son’s death did nothing to prepare me for this. The violence, coupled with scant details, haphazard police work, the other-side-of-the-world disconnection, the family’s shock and pain, Carsten’s frustration and anger… I was barely functional, never mind helpful and supportive. My whispers to myself were replaced with, “Yes, there is worse. This is worse.”
Carsten traveled to Namibia as soon as he could. It didn’t make sense for me to go with him for several reasons and I was relieved to stay behind. When he returned a few weeks later, we both felt calmer and more connected. The cause of his father’s death was no longer at the forefront, and Carsten could, for real now, start to feel the purity of his sadness. We reminded ourselves that a life lived ought not be overshadowed by the manner of the death.
Two years later, Carsten rarely shares even the most general information with others. The details don’t matter—they shock, distract, interfere.
And now, I am glad to be reminded of this once again. I turn the tv on tonight to discover I am not interested in the latest updates. Instead, I see my own loss staring back at me in the sweet little faces. My shock at the horror and senselessness is not top of mind; I am thinking of the parents and families and the very long journeys they are now facing.
When the funerals are over and the cameras leave, they will be left to pick up the pieces and come to terms with their new (imposed) identities as bereaved parents whose children died in violence.
I don’t need to watch in order to connect with their grief, or my own. As the talking heads drone on, I turn off the tv and send a telepathic message, “You are not the parent of a child who died. You are the parent of a child who lived, for a while.”
This article is a reprint of a guest blog post at Mamapedia, a parenting blog out of Chicago. They occasionally re-post content originally published here, but this time I was invited to comment on Newtown specifically. It appears on Mamapedia under the title “Life after Loss“