As the snap dragons in my garden raised their fierce little heads to welcome spring a few weeks ago, my thoughts gave rise to this year’s Mother’s Day celebrations. My heart ached for the mothers who have lost children this year specifically: my friend Janet, the Sandy Hook mom’s and the Boston bombing moms. They will be enduring this holiday for the first time without their babies. Those of us living with the loss of a child experience this day with a mixed bag of chaotic emotions.
Very often, this day set aside for breakfast in bed and bouquets of backyard flowers, leaves me with a deeper-than-usual longing to see my son. Like most mothers, when Justin was born, I had assumed he would out live me but when his leukemia came back after ten years of remission, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) taught me otherwise. His death left me with a Grand Canyon sized loss of identity.
Most of us feel an intense void after loss and we struggle to make sense of who we are. It doesn’t help that the English language has no word for mothers like us. We use the word “orphan” for a child with no parents, the word “widow” for a woman who has no husband but what does a mother call herself when she has experienced the death of a child?
As a gift to myself and fellow bereaved mothers I’ve decided to create a word for us. I’m no scholar but I had the ides to combine part of the Greek word, “orphanos”, which means deprived, with the word, “mom”. I came up with “orphmom”; deprived mother. Makes sense to me. And for the sake of bereaved fathers I will use “orphdad”. In the future I will also use “orphpa” and “orphma” for bereaved grandparents. Owning these words feels good to me. How about you?
Life has taught me that just as children are born every day, they also live with the potential to die everyday. It’s time we gave language to those left behind when they do. Historically, the fact that children died was understood by parents living in say, Colonial times, who may have had 15 children or more, only to see two or three survive into adulthood. Thankfully, today’s child mortality rates are not nearly as high as they were for our forefathers but that is also where the problem lies. In those days we witnessed death first hand and allowed each other time to grieve. We had rituals built into societal norms. We anointed the body of our loved one in our living rooms and kitchens. We were present.
That is the key.
We must sit with our own experience from time to time and let ourselves cry, scream, run, and throw something. Whatever it is we need to do to release the grief as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else. When my loss was fresh I had an acute need to give my grief words. What I discovered was I could clear a room when I did so. I believe bystanders can be better equipped to handle grieving people if we practice.
A friend of mine visited the Middle East and discovered mourning is a part of daily life for many. She heard one person say to another, “I grieve with you as nearly as I am able”. I like that phrase and use it often. It means I am willing to listen without having judgment or bringing my own agenda. Bereaved people need compassionate listeners, especially around any holiday.
Here’s what I want new orphmoms to know: the heavy weight of sorrow associated with the deep desire I had to see Justin eventually gave way to a tender appreciation for the smiles on the faces of my loved ones. The pain does get better.
In a society where we often hear statements like, “I thought you were over it,” or “You can have more children can’t you?” we become isolated which leads to feelings of extreme loneliness. Orphmoms need patience and compassion no matter how many years have gone by.
Now, 13 years after Justin’s passing, I think about Jacob’s diagnosis, when he was in kindergarten and that same non-familial type of ALL entered his life. When my orphmom mind kicks-in and fear tries to dominate my thoughts I am able to release the fear of losing him too. I choose to. Jacob is thirteen; small, dark and handsome and there is no time to waste. For his and every life around me I feel grateful.
People often ask me how I get out of bed in the morning. Some days—not so well—but most days I embrace my children with a renewed sense of awe at the privilege of having them here with me.
Our lives are a gift in time.
Not sharing what I’ve learned from mine would be down right disrespectful to the kids I’ve known who’ve tried so hard to cling to theirs. It is easy to see how the graphic nature of fallen first graders and horrific explosions can entwine our societal hearts for a few months but what about the long haul?
If you know someone who is grieving the loss of a child, give them a call, drop them a note, ask them to go for a walk.
When we do so, we sprinkle love and our lives bloom fully in the narrative of life’s garden.