Shock is the body’s response to child loss. It shields you temporarily from the enormity of what has happened. It may last only a matter of hours or perhaps several months. Yet at some point, the shock will subside and like a raging tide sucked back out to the sea it’ll reveal the corroded horror of your loss. In its wake will be left something alien and even more frightening — the realization that this loss is here to stay and will be with you for the rest of your life. And when that moment comes, you may well ask, what now?
Every single parent who’s ever lost a child, whether it be through illness, accident, homicide, or suicide will at some point wonder how they are meant to carry on. It’s a terrifying question they must all dare ask.
I was no different. Nothing could have prepared me for shock’s withdrawal. The carnage left behind defied comprehension. Without shock’s protection, the reality of the loss struck terror into my heart — Death’s ugly tentacles stretched gruesomely towards a horizon so void of colour or beauty it would have crushed even the bravest of hearts.
How was I meant to survive such savagery? Endure this agony? A life without my son?
Question after question came leaving me breathless with fear. No one could help me. No one could reach me. I felt alone in this catastrophic landscape that was to be the rest of my life. The feeling of eternal loss coupled with the suffocating non-life I was now living made me go insane — crazy with grief, incomprehension, anger. The questions tormented me, drenching me in anguished sweat. But one above all drove me ever deeper into despair — ‘what now?’
Believe me when I say I had no answers. Neither did the therapist, counsellor or priest. Friends and family sat with me, held me, gave advice, cried. But none of it helped, not with finding an answer, a way forward, a means to survive. I couldn’t conceive of a tomorrow, let alone a forever. Not without my child. Not like this.
But as the first year grated wretchedly by, and my weary body entered the second year of traumatic grief, the still unanswered question of ‘what?’ changed to ‘how?’. There was a shift in perspective as life’s incessant clamouring denied me the chance to hide and forced me to adjust my focus. What’s more, as a co-victim of homicide the reality of the killer’s arrest and pending prosecution forced me to sit up and take part in life. I had no choice but to turn ‘existence’ and ‘survival’ into what others perceived as ‘a life’.
And to my surprise, this so-called ‘life’ turned tentatively into a new life, painfully, slowly, but nonetheless, it began to happen. In forcing myself to take part in life outside of my deep grief, I stopped merely existing and began to absorb the light and laughter around me. Small, thimble-sized moments of joy began to breathe air into my suffocating sorrow.
I realized that I could feel both grateful and sad simultaneously. I could mourn my son yet love him with all my heart; I could cry at the loss of my boy and yet laugh when remembering his antics; I could feel all the emotions within my heart and still be OK. Grief taught me that I didn’t have to make any choices where my feelings were concerned because I could have them all.
The key to living life again was to connect to my feelings, each and every one of them. Even though shock had initially protected me, it was without it that I’d rebuild a life.
In a way, it was self-care that softened the edges to the horror and mellowed my response to the loss. I learned to be kind to myself. I gave myself the very thing I wished others gift me: being present in the space of my grief without expectation or fear. It was agonizingly painful to sit with grief and stare at the vastness of a loss that lasts forever, but in so doing, I realized that my grief was so wide and deep that it allowed for all my emotions to inhabit it all at once. Grief was not Death, it was very much alive and inside of me. I could evolve with it and change with it.
In responding with compassion to my loss, I allowed myself to take small steps away from the trauma of Alex’s murder to a state of equilibrium. I made a commitment to myself to learn about my own grief, to actively make time for reflection so as to rebuild a new life.
There is no single answer to ‘what now?’ But there is a painful path of self-discovery which will show us how to live again where sorrow, gratefulness, and acceptance can reside in equal measure.
Published in Still Standing, 19th May 2018
feature photo courtesy of Dean Moriarty Pixabay