Four years ago my wife and I lost our oldest son in an accident. It was a devastating experience. Eventually our other children urged us to see some counsellors. They felt our grief was taking over our lives. The counsellors have all agreed that we have to move on. But for whatever reason we can’t. We’re not familiar with
you but our daughter has sent us some of your writing. We would like to
know how you would approach an issue like ours.
I want to be very clear that I won’t even pretend to be able to know what it would feel like to lose a child. There’s a little girl in my life and she means the world to me. She may not be biologically related to me, but I love her parents dearly and one of her middle names is Scott, and I am so honoured by that because to me she is just the most precious, irreplaceable human being on this entire planet. When she came into this world I was amazed to discover a whole new set of feelings I had never had before.
The love I feel for her is unique to her and I’ve never felt it with any other person before, so my assumption is that parenting is another level of intensity up from even that and I simply do not know what that would feel like. So I want to just start by saying I’m sorry. I’m sorry you had to be one of the people to have that experience. Worldwide this is too common an event and all too often for entirely preventable reasons. So if I were where you are, because I would have no idea what to say, I would simply look into your eyes, connect, and then hug you—I would hug you with all of my heart.
There is naturally a process that happens over the course of weeks or even months after traumatic events like this. There will be a slow shedding of thought patterns as they seem less and less relevant because they are replaced by more immediate concerns. But as I’m sure you know, any anniversaries or birthdays etc. etc. are felt quite strongly. Your child gets heavily wired into your brain and there are a lot of old intersections to accidentally stumble into and unfortunately these also tend to exist in the future where you’ll note the events you won’t experience—graduations, marriages, grandchildren etc.
We live in a sea of language, so the idea that you would feel echoes of various thoughts makes sense. It’s horrible for you, but it makes sense nevertheless. It’s when these feelings linger for too long that we must seriously study ourselves to ensure we’re not leaving large parts of our lives largely unlived while we load up our memories and imagination with narratives about how much we miss this or that person.
By adulthood most people have met at least one person who lost a child decades ago and who still has not recovered. And that’s because when we say time heals all wounds, what we mean is: we feel better when we stop thinking Wanting Thoughts. And most of us tend to drop those over time. So presuming you’re tired of being in pain—you’ve done it long enough—and now you want to honour life and the ongoing existence of your partner and your remaining family, then I can be helpful in terms of what moving on looks like.
The reason a person can still be in daily agony even three decades after an event is proof that it’s not the event they ever felt. If that were the case they wouldn’t have learned what happened from an officer, they would have felt it themselves in some magical way when the event itself took place. What they feel is their thoughts about the event. And you can think those thoughts for as long or as short a time as you choose.
If a woman is still tortured on a daily basis 5, 10, or even 25 years after the death of her child, then that’s her thoughts torturing her, not the actual death of her child. The child’s death will obviously be tragic to think about until they day she dies. But there’s nothing saying you have to continually think about that. It doesn’t dishonour the child to think about something other than tragedy. We must remember, as tragic as it is to have our hopeful narratives about the future cut short, death remains an integral part of human existence. It’s not something to be avoided. It’s not something wrong. It’s an aspect of life and it is something to be respected. It will come to all of us, so it is important to live fully in the intervening years.
You don’t have to think them as often as you currently are, but you will think painful types of thoughts about your son. This is a part of who you are. A human being is born much like a projector. It’s blank and open to any kind of film. But over time our experiences lead us to collect a couple kinds of films more than any others, so our internal projectionist is inclined to watch those more often than some of the others–as your internal projectionist has done with the story of your son’s death.
It’s important to remember that your choice to engage with that story is just a habit of thought. Those are just the films that are handier to where the projectionist is sitting. So this would understandably be a film you would repeat on occasion. But you are always in total control and you can end those replays any time you choose. But you must stay relatively conscious of your thinking. But otherwise, sure—go ahead and think the thoughts if you want to choose those feelings. Sometimes it feels really good to just cry or be sad. Just don’t choose those thoughts with the belief that you have no choice. You always have a choice about what you think about and therefore how you feel.
There’s no way around the fact that this is one of the most difficult aspects of life. But it need not been seen as an insurmountable insanely steep climb. We must remember that only one generation ago—in the era of my own grandmother—it was common for women in North America to have over 10 children and you were widely expected to lose some along the way. These were the harsh realities of life not so long ago. So if generations of parents could endure this terrible experience and continue on to an enjoyable and meaningful life then they pretty much prove that you can do that too. You only need to set your mind to it and as often as you can do that you will achieve better feelings. Because doing something like that isn’t dishonouring the dead. It’s honouring the living.
Again, I am extremely sorry for your loss. You will be in that small group of people now. The ones who faced similar circumstances. It is only you who truly knows what to say to those who have a similar experience. You are now a healer. May peace be with you.
with love, s
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.