A message to parents on the anniversary of the birth of my first born
By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
I tend not to post personal matters, the exception being reminiscences. I am not the sort who posts on Facebook about something I have cooked (I am not a good cook), or a random thought, or an accident at home. Rather, I enjoy engaging with people regarding ideas and events, which is not to put down anyone who uses social media for other purposes (aside from nefarious forces who spread misinformation).
Addressing something personal, however, is what I do today. March 18-21st of every year since 1986 are the lowest points of my life. March 18-21, 1986 were the three days when my first born lived and passed away, an unexpected tragedy that has left a mark on my soul ever since.
Every year I attempt to note and honor the brief life of my first born. On two different years I had the strange experience of forgetting the significance of March 18th. I was so preoccupied with other matters. But on those two occasions I found myself experiencing inexplicable physical pain. Suddenly I realized that it was the anniversary of the birth of my first born. I cried and apologized to her spirit, and the pain almost immediately vanished.
I have written previously, in different venues, about the loss of my first born but something happened recently that has led me in the direction of writing this particular essay. It all started with a colleague of mine in a project where we are both engaged. This colleague is a wonderful person, but they have often been disruptive, unfocused, and sometimes losing their temper. I was discussing this situation with another set of colleagues when one mentioned, almost in passing, “…you know, they recently lost their grandchild.”
Immediately I straightened up and understood precisely what was going on.
Losing a child or, indeed, a grandchild, is probably the most painful emotional experience one can have. Whether the loss is expected or unexpected is next to irrelevant. It hits you with the force of a racing locomotive and leaves you emotionally shattered. And, while most people will be patient, if not supportive of you in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the depth of the trauma is frequently denied, if not lost on most of those who were not directly involved.
The impact of the trauma lasts for a long time. The symptoms are very common. You become impatient in a way unlike anything that you have ever experienced. The sadness seems to take you over. You become intolerant of things that are small and petty. You can become argumentative. And, complicating all of this, you may not mourn either in the same way or on the same timeline as your partner, which means that tension can grow between the two of you even when one assumes that you would be brought together by the tragedy.
This is all so important because your reactions or that of someone suffering this trauma can be misunderstood. My colleague, mentioned above, has never mentioned the passing of their granddaughter to me, but I can tell that my colleague is suffering. Years ago, an important social movement leader with whom I was familiar lost a child—unexpectedly—and proceeded to make some disastrous and harmful personal and political decisions even though they had been cautioned that they could not trust their own temperament.
It sometimes feels very lonely, in the aftermath of such a loss. You feel as if no one can understand what you are experiencing. To some extent, this is true. What is worse, though, is that we live in a society that neither prepares us for such tragedies, nor prepares us to assist and support those experiencing such tragedies. Those of us going through this trauma feel that we have to go it alone. And then, heaven forbid, when you do open up to someone regarding your anguish and they shut down or distance themselves from you, it confirms all of your worst fears. I lost one of my best friends in the aftermath of the death of my first born. He later confessed to a mutual friend that he did not know what to say to me in the face of my despair. As if I needed him to say anything.
Yet you come out of it. No, this is not about ‘getting on with your life,’ which you hear so many people say. With the right support—and sometimes this means receiving professional counseling—you can move forward. You never forget, but you come to accept that the tragedy is now a part of who you are. And you adjust to the pain that you will always feel. But you can find happiness and hope; all is not lost.
A final note. When I lost my first born, I was told by someone who had nothing but the best of intentions, that I should remember that I can always have another child. Well, not so quick. You may not be able to have another child. But, even if you do, that next child will never replace the one you lost. It does not work that way.
I was lucky to have had another child and I could not have designed someone as wonderful as she is. She is irreplaceable. But so, too, was her sister. I will love them each, and separately, until the lights go out. They are not interchangeable.