In the last 24 hours I have learned of two families who recently lost young children – their tragedies came at me out of the blue. I find myself wishing I could sit with the parents and listen to their stories. Since my 19-year-old daughter died suddenly in 1992, I’ve learned many things. One is how sorrow can hollow you out and make space for a new life, one you might never choose for yourself, but one where you miraculously reweave what was torn apart. The other is that telling our stories is a profoundly healing act. And these two things are inextricably linked. It was through telling my story over and over – writing it down and rewriting it again and again – that I learned to live with Maya’s death.
When your child dies, the world ends. It literally stops. You don’t believe you can ever be part of ordinary life again. And for a while you can’t. I was as close to insane as I ever want to be for the first two years after Maya died. I sat in therapy sessions and grief support groups and Compassionate Friends meetings wondering how I would be able to draw another breath, let alone heal and move on with my life. The sight of a blond head moving through a crowd made me search frantically for my missing child. For years. I simply could not believe she was gone forever. I tried to imagine how I could live the rest of my life without Maya, and back then I couldn’t see a way forward. Now I’ve lived through the grief and told the story and I know it is possible to survive. I wrote my way to recovery, making the unreal real.
When I hear of a mother or father who has lost a child I want to sit down next to them in a quiet place. I want to extend comfort and hope even when there is none, even when each moment seems so fathomless, and the loss a bottomless pit you can never climb out of. Every bereaved parent travels this road in his or her own way. At our support group meetings we used to say that there is a word for a child who loses its parents – an orphan. But there is no word for a parent who loses a child. In our culture, we don’t like to imagine what the death of a child feels like because it triggers all of our worst fears. I understand why we shy away from such a profound loss and yet I wish that grieving parents found more support in their daily lives.
Swimming with Maya is my attempt to extend that support. I can’t sit side by side with every grieving parent who may read my book, but I hope somehow that it brings comfort, and shows how it is possible to survive and ultimately live a new kind of life. I’ve also learned much from parents who have never lost a child and yet who choose to read the book. They say it’s taught them to treasure the ordinary moments with their children, and to be more present even in difficult times. This makes me deeply happy.
The children in my life now – my granddaughter Lucia, my neighbors Lily, Edim, and Logan, my great nieces and nephews, the children of my colleagues, even children in supermarkets and on airplanes whom I will never know – remind me that life goes on. There are always children to love in this world, spunky, unpredictable, lively little characters. Whether they are ours or not, we can honor their lives and the struggles and joys of their parents through the stories we listen to and the stories we tell.