This last week I had the unique opportunity to attend a writing workshop in the Palm Desert with seven other mothers who have all experienced child loss, much as I have. As I sit here reflecting on our time together, I realize this essay may be better suited for the blog I used to run, Three Short Years, which was an ongoing discussion on grief, in parallel to my book of the same name, but I don’t tend to write there any longer, and in the greater aspect of life, I do feel this is truly more then just a note on grief, but one on connection, support, and friendship as well.
We came together in a glamorous old Hollywood mansion in Palm Springs, California, ostensibly to write about our grief in child loss; which we did, very much so, but from the moment the eight of us gathered the atmosphere was one of spark and recognition. The familiar sense of a switch being flipped. A once darkened room suddenly bathed in light.
The openness with which we could discuss our children’s lives and deaths was a balm to our still-broken hearts. These women, though complete strangers at the onset of the workshop had the ability, through shared grief to break down the walls we build to save our delicate selves from the outside world. The collective heartbeat of the room was palpable. It was neurons firing and new synapses forming in wild succession of each other.
While the timelines and manner of death for each of our children varied extensively, the loss was still the same. Our children ranged in age from zero to eighteen. There were children who had died due to rare genetic disorders, rarer medical anomalies, car accidents, cancer, suicide, and a child who was stillborn. The differing narratives of the method of death mattered not in the least, as a mother’s heart grieves the same for her lost child no matter the circumstance. It was total acceptance. A too long held breath, finally being released as we each spoke our child’s name and told their story.
I sat across from a mother, so formidable in her rage that it was the all encompassing love for her son that shone through most clearly. Another to her right was the soul filled sweetly serene earth mother who now keeps each foot in a different dimension because she’s that connected to her daughter. Next to me was a mother who was finding her courage and voice to talk about her daughter’s death for the first time after thirty five years. Her bravery was astonishing. On my other side, a true, though now childless mother to all who lived with her son in the hospital, his one and only home, for more than two years. On her right, a mother whose son’s birth and death came along at the same moment on the same day, and who yearns to share his importance with the world. Another mother to my far left whose vibrance and light shone through in the music and movement she uses to describe the joy of her son’s life. And our instructor; a writing professor, NYT best selling author, and dear friend who lost her son to Tay-Sachs disease, the same condition to which as I lost my sweet Miss Elliott.
These are the words that describe my time with these women. These are the words that are circling my mind as I try to convey the beauty of the experience upon my return. I fear I’ll never be able to replicate the magic that occurred through the connection I shared with these women, but that I can cling to it, nonetheless, and use it to carry me forth with a new sense of inspiration and purpose.
What all humans need most is connection through sadness and pain, especially when the hardships one experiences tend to be those that are the most isolating. That dark time can go on for a long time, but you could be a vital part of helping them flip the switch back on and step back into the light. It’s especially important in these times that you exist by their side armed with no agenda to fix them or their situation, explain it away, or trivialize the weight of it, as, in the case of child loss, the situation is utterly unfixable anyway. Rather, just exist simply to be near them while they are hurting. Give them the grace they require to fully feel their emotions in whatever way they may present; even if you can’t understand them yourself. We all have the ability to display empathy, we just have to choose to create the heart-space to do so.
Support and understanding, while intangible, are truly two of the greatest gifts one can receive. The death of a child is both untimely and unnatural. It’s a raw and searing pain most, thankfully will never know. You don’t have to be a mother of loss to support a mother of loss; and this concept is true for most experiences in life. Just simply be. Be there. Show up. Listen. Don’t judge. Don’t walk away. Don’t forget about someone who is hurting, or is in need. There is immense power in your actions, and it all begins with choosing to be there for someone in a dark time.