Since my last post, nearly two months ago, I’ve been looking for a way to get back into writing here. Once in awhile, I will read something or a thought will cross my mind, and I will momentarily consider writing about it. But, later on, I find that I simply don’t have the motivation, or I worry about getting the words just right. Then I think of how long it will take me to pen the entry, and I resign myself from committing the amount of time I think will be necessary.
While browsing my Twitter feed last Sunday, I came across this article, by Eli Saslow of the Washington Post. It’s not short, but you won’t really understand what else I am going to say in this entry until you read it. So, go ahead. I’ll wait.
The article is about a lot of things. It’s about the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. It’s about the efforts of some to see more stringent, meaningful gun control legislation enacted at different levels of government. It’s about the efforts of others to prevent such legislation from being enacted. It’s about the politicization of things that live outside, and beyond, the political cycle.
It’s also about parents who have lost a child.
I don’t pretend to equate the loss of our son, Matthew, to the loss experienced by the Bardens. The circumstances surrounding the loss of a child are tragic and especially gut-wrenching for the parents, but all circumstances are not the same. I would not presume to tell the Bardens that I was “sorry for their loss” because, although well-meaning, I know how hollow the words become after you’ve heard them so many times. Rather, in our situation, I think Erin and I would choose to maintain a quiet empathy for them. I do have a sense of regret for them that their loss was so highly publicized; perhaps that regret is misplaced, but only the Bardens could say. In reading their story, I am somewhat thankful that our own loss was not the type to be thrust before the eyes of a nation. I cannot imagine enduring such grief while being the object of a gawking public. Grieving privately is difficult enough.
On the morning of December 14, 2012, Erin and I were driving through the Newtown area on our way back to Arkansas for Christmas. Matthew was with us, Erin being about five months along in her pregnancy (if I remember correctly). I remember that it was a cold, New England morning — though not brutally cold — and, after some recollection, I think that we were probably just a few miles outside of Newtown around the time that the shooting there occurred. Of course, we knew nothing of what had transpired until we heard some initial reports on the radio later that morning. By the time we had stopped driving for the evening, we finally saw the media frenzy of interviews and speculation flowing across every cable news channel.
Months passed, Matthew was born and died, and on our next trip to Arkansas — for the funeral — we found ourselves passing through Newton on the same morning as the Connecticut legislature was preparing to enact a highly-publicized new set of firearms regulations in the state. It occurred to me how coincidentally Erin and I were connected to what had happened at Sandy Hook Elementary just a few months prior, if there is such a thing as coincidence. The two dates felt like a strange set of bookends to our own loss. So, these months later when I read the above article about the Bardens, I saw in it a small reflection of our own experience.
The circumstances of losing a child may not be the same, but the order of events tends to be similar. There is the immediate reaction to the loss: shock, disbelief, and gripping sadness. Then comes the immediate response: an outpouring of support, generosity, and caring favoritism. Next follows the parents and family trying to reclaim some semblance of normalcy, resuming their daily functions, and trying to rest after an extended period of activity and anxiety. Losing a child is exhausting for the parents, both mentally and physically, as you attempt to appropriately respond to all those offering help, make arrangements, and generally try to maintain your composure while being the center of attention, albeit unwanted.
Finally, you enter into the place where the Bardens now reside, and where we reside: The long, lonely quiet of loss. The immediate upheaval in the family has died down, the flowing generosity has slowed, condolences come less often, and your “routine” becomes more routine that perhaps it ever was. That is not to say that I or any parent expects and endless stream of cards, phone calls, or gifts of support. Do not mistake me as complaining about things slowing down; that’s just how it goes. It is a welcome relief.
For the Bardens, their lives include the gap that Daniel’s absence has created in their daily routine — one that they struggle to fill, and are probably unsure whether they want to fill at all. For myself and Erin, our lives include waking each day thinking about how our routine might have been different had Matthew lived. We live the same lives each day as we lived before Matthew was born, but we are stuck with the residual thoughts and feelings built up by the natural inclination of parents to prepare for the arrival of a child. We sleep later and longer than other parents we know; we don’t worry about buying diapers or taking our baby to the doctor like other parents we know; we don’t discuss plans for the weekend that include finding child care or visiting relatives; we don’t make memories our celebrate milestones with our child.
We just are, and Matthew is as he always will be, for the rest of our lives.
Just as the Bardens are, and Daniel always will be, for the rest of their lives.
“What do you want to do?” Mark asked, and in that moment, the answer to both of them was clear.
“What can we do?” Jackie said.
“Nothing,” Mark said, and he sank down next to her on the couch.