For those who have lost children, these holidays can be particularly trying times — their social media feeds will be flooded with picture-perfect representations of families and their children. Many turn their phones off on these days, unable to expose themselves to the drip-feed of other people’s happiness. As Mother’s Day is for mothers of children who are gone, these holidays often find us succumbing to our darker feelings — simmering anger, envy, self-pity, depression.
Four years ago, my daughter Greta was killed by a falling brick on the Upper West Side. The accident was freakish, a perfect storm of negligence and timing. She had been such a powerful little person, a force to be reckoned with even at 10 months old. Whether it was putting on socks, walking up stairs, or brushing her teeth — which consisted only of wetting a toothbrush and sucking off the water, over and over, until I gently pried it from the iron grip of her toddler fingers — Greta radiated unconquerable certainty. She was sure of herself, of who “Greta” was, and this world seemed to exist for her benevolent conquest. I still cannot imagine that energy, so happily invincible, being snuffed out so quickly and unceremoniously. It is the part of the loss that still leaves me gasping, years later.
Ever since that freak accident, I have become acutely aware of what it means to feel expelled from the society of parents, one that I felt I had worked so hard to join. In the weeks and months after Greta’s death, I felt an awful need to walk up to parents — complete strangers — and inform them that I, too, had once been a parent. I resisted, but the words burned in me as if I had shouted them. Children’s laughter, once the happiest sound in the world, became oddly mocking, even cruel, in my ears. I would walk past a young girl, maybe 7 or 8, attempting a barefoot cartwheel in the grass and watch her flop over, laughing, and feel nothing but bitterness. Everywhere I went I saw parents with daughters slightly older than Greta — they were either reminders of what I missed or visions of what I missed out on.
Anyone who has lost a child has a complicated relationship to the notion of “luck,” but I am deeply aware that in many respects my wife and I are impossibly fortunate. We have a son, Harrison, born 15 months after his sister died. Therefore, Father’s Day is very different for me than it is for other bereaved parents, for whom the choice to have another child is often not even an option. But even for us, it is a balancing act — despite visible evidence, I remain a father of two.
There is an absence in my life that is ever-present, and she is named Greta. On days when other families post selfies of their clamoring children and their quarreling siblings, her absence becomes more vivid to me than ever before.
So what to do, and, most importantly, what to say? I have been asked this question, by too many well-meaning and kind souls to count. What do you say to a friend or loved one suffering from grief over a lost child, particularly on days such as Father’s Day? I am no grief expert, so I will quote one: “Above all, grief must be witnessed.” These are the words of David Kessler, an author and public speaker on grief who runs workshops across the country. I was lucky enough to meet David early on in our grief journey, and in following his lead and in meeting many other bereaved parents I have learned some truths.
First of all: No matter the intensity of the pain a grieving parent may feel, the pain of invisibility is worse. When grieving a child, you learn early to live within the vast cognitive dissonance that is your life. You become an expert at distinguishing between kinds of pain. There is good pain, and there is bad pain, and the only good kind of pain comes from acknowledging your child’s existence. Do not be afraid to speak the name of a deceased child for fear of causing the parent pain. Their name was given to them in love, it was spoken in love, and to speak it is to strike that joyful note again. There is nothing that parents love to talk about more than their children. That never changes, even when the child is no longer here. The worst and loneliest thing a grieving parent can feel is the suspicion the world has forgotten their child. Speak the child’s name; you may bring tears to that parent’s eyes, but they will be at least partly of gratitude.
Individual parents grieve in individual ways, of course. Just as with love, each of us has our unique way of expressing ourselves. But while the names we give the feelings inside vary from person to person, the feelings themselves do not, at least not much. Every grieving parent you know is probably a little sadder than usual on Mother’s Day, or Father’s Day. Or Christmas, Hanukkah, or Halloween. Their wounds feel a little rawer, their grief a little more palpable. Do not be afraid of them, or their grief. Do not worry that you are going to hurt them further by acknowledging them; they are already in pain. Tell them that you see them. Tell them that you love their children.
Perhaps you do not need to wish them a “happy” Father’s Day. But perhaps, if you feel moved to do so, you could wish them a peaceful one.
Jayson Greene is author of the memoir “Once More We Saw Stars.”