*Author’s note: This post is a bit of a departure from my usual style. It is perhaps a bit depressing. Consider yourselves warned; feel free to skip it and I’ll catch you next time!
Last night I found out that one of my high school classmates died. She was my age- 34- and died of leukemia. We were not close, barely acquaintances really, but I found her to be pleasant, friendly, and easy to like. She was actually downright cheerful. Not that any of that really matters; my personal endorsement of her attributes is hardly relevant. She was a person. She had a life. She, like me, was the mother of two young daughters.
Which is precisely why I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her. In the days since I learned of her death, I have felt similar conflicting emotions to those I felt after the Sandy Hook shooting. This is not your loss. You do not get to grieve. I heard a quote during those dark weeks in December that spoke to my feelings of sadness: One mother’s loss is every mother’s loss. Since becoming a parent, the lens through which I view everything has changed. I can no longer tolerate reading books where babies die. I can’t watch TV shows or movies where children are kidnapped or murdered. No matter where I am or what I am doing, I cannot escape the fact that I am a mother. My children and my role as parent are inextricably linked to how I perceive the world in every way.
The fictional separation of mother and child is one thing- knowing that a real person that you have spent time with has died and left her family behind is heartbreaking on a deep, visceral level.
We proceed through our days knowing unconsciously that we cannot escape tragedy. It’s not that we are completely unaware that our lives, or the lives of our loved ones, could be taken at any moment, but when someone we know dies, it brings this awareness more sharply into focus. I sometimes feel that I am trying to fly discreetly under the radar of tragedy. I allow myself to imagine what it would be like to lose a parent, a child, or to be diagnosed with a terminal illness, and then I abruptly close that door. It is unimaginable.
When I heard the news of my classmate’s death, my thoughts drifted to the countless friends and family members that would be there to help the survivors. I envisioned the network of people who would be praying for them, comforting them, sending strength and love. And I thought, What would I wish for her family? That they find healing? That they eventually forget her and move forward with stoicism? That the loss is not too painful? What message or prayers do you send to a family that will never be the same again, having been forever transformed by loss?
When my husband and I went out of town for a long weekend, my parents stayed with our two daughters, ages six and sixteen months. I checked in daily with my mom, and she told me that my toddler had spent the first two days repeating, “Mama?” but had stopped by the third day. Morbidly, I thought, So that’s how long it would take her to stop asking for me if I died. Several years ago, a friend of mine died under tragic circumstances, when her youngest child was just nine months. I frequently wondered, at that pre-verbal age, how does a child process the permanent absence of their mother? Do they just stop thinking about her one day?
Ultimately, I know I cannot dwell on these thoughts for too long. I know that mothers of young children die every day, in every country of the world. The fact that a woman I once knew has left a widowed husband and two children does not alter my own life expectancy. But the phrase too close to home rings in my ears every time parents and children are separated. Cancer. Sandy Hook. Child abductions. Car accidents. There is little we can do to ensure that we stay with our children as long as possible. As I trudge wearily up the stairs with a toddler on my hip to change the third dirty diaper in an hour, I remind myself how lucky I am. It seems like a tired cliché to repeat the mantra, “Every day is precious. Savor each moment you have with your children.” But in the face of deep sorrow and stark awareness of our mortality, it is often all we have.