I sat on a bench with a friend, a mother from my kids’ school, two weeks after my son Jack died in a bizarre flash flood. It was a beautiful fall day, and the sun shone down on us as we waited for our daughters to finish an activity. I felt exposed and vulnerable, as if I had no skin on. I could tell my friend was struggling to find the right words, as this was our first time together since life had turned upside down. Any conversation was tricky territory, for what was there to say, really, besides, “I am sorry?”
I knew she cared deeply, but the silence hung between us. Eventually she stood up, and began to walk to where the kids were gathered. Turning back toward me she said, “You know what you need, Anna? A baby or a puppy!”
I was stunned. Surely she didn’t meant to imply that my son, with his unique DNA, quirky mannerisms, amazing sense of humor, killer smile, and out of control cowlick was replaceable?
I wasn’t angry at her, and truthfully, her comment would be the first of quite a few well meaning, yet tone deaf, responses to our family’s horrific tragedy over the coming months. Fortunately, I was able to recognize that even gaffes and blunders represented someone bravely trying to connect, rather than choosing to ignore us in our grief, which is the default mode for many in the face of incomprehensible loss. I learned I’d rather a friend stumble a bit, or just sit silently with me, than turn away.
So here I am, four years later. A handful of weeks ago I stood in the bathroom, peering through reading glasses at a home pregnancy test. At 46, I thought I was having symptoms that proved I had entered menopause. It turned out I was expecting our third child. Surprised does not adequately describe how I felt in that moment, and still do today. I couldn’t stop laughing. If all goes well, we will bring a baby home from the hospital in the spring.
I recently shared the news via my blog and Facebook. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with thousands of well-wishers delighting in the miracle of new life. Joyful tears and more than a few utterances of “holy crap” came from those as amazed as my husband and I were at this unexpected twist in our story. So many people walked with us through the valley of grief, and they now could rejoice with us as we marveled at this unexpected blessing.
On my blog, I wrote a tongue in cheek post with questions and answers I’d written myself such as: “Unexpectedly pregnant? Don’t you and Tim know where babies come from by this point?”
The most important question was: “Does this mean you are replacing Jack, everything in your life is going to be perfect, and you are going to stop mourning your boy?” followed by my response, “Aww, c’mon. I know none of you would ask me that.”
I didn’t think anyone would imply that I was replacing my son, but I wanted to speak to the deep desire in all of us to try to fix things. To have a happy ending we feel invested in. To wrap things up with a bow. I lived my life that way for a long time. When I lost Jack, however, I knew I was in the midst of something that couldn’t be solved.
In my memoir, Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love, I marveled again and again as I saw caring people lean into the pain with us, “For I see holiness in giving and receiving love when there is absolutely nothing that can be fixed and where there’s no exit strategy in sight.”
We didn’t need fixing. We needed love and compassion.
In the past four years, I’ve learned about dualities which include longing for and honoring what came before, but not cutting myself off from love, hope, and healing today. Acknowledging the past and the love we will always have for our son doesn’t detract from the precious little one who will be joining our family. Instead, it is a testament that life can be complex, difficult and beautiful all at the same time.
Grandparents, mothers, fathers, children, and best friends are not replaceable. Each is as different as a fingerprint, and takes up unique real estate in our hearts, impacting us in life and continuing to do so in death.
And though we contemplated having more children through birth or adoption, we never once believed a baby would take Jack’s place. That’s far too much pressure and expectation to put on a little one. But we do believe that we have more love to share. Soon this baby will find his or her own role in the household, with two aging yet experienced parents, a sassy teenage sister, and the stories and memories of Jack, who will always be the big brother.
Each day we learn a little more about how to live the way one of my readers said to me: “This may not be the party you signed up for, but as long as you are here, you might as well dance.”
Anna Whiston-Donaldson is a speaker and the author of the bestselling memoir, Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love. In it, she describes dealing with grief after losing her 12-year-old son in a freak flood. She is the mother of Jack, daughter Margaret, and one on the way. You can follow her on the blog An Inch of Gray.
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