It feels a lot like crumbling. A torrential wave of pain and grief filling every atom of your body. Denial that this could be reality, and piercing agony when you realize it is. Few have to experience this, and for that I am grateful. But for those of us who face the death of a child, the breath leaving their lungs while ours still inhale and exhale, we know this agony.
When Debbie Reynolds, mother of the recently deceased actress Carrie Fisher, died just a day after her daughter, the world was shocked. Many said she died of a broken heart. Within the community of bereaved parents, there was a profound sense of understanding.
Parenthood is a sacred work of love. From the moment we learn of our child, just growing as a tiny speck, to the moment we hear their heartbeat, to the moment they are placed in our arms and we look into their eyes, and to every moment we are given after, we are filled with one of the most profound loves known to man. It’s a love that sacrifices, that places their needs before all of our own, that pours itself out, that would brave every bit of danger if it meant protecting them.
I felt this love when I first became a parent four years ago, and it entirely transformed my life. When I became pregnant with my second child, this love washed over me again. I thought I had experienced all the love my heart could hold, but it made room for even more. And when my second child was born very ill with a rare form of congenital heart disease, I fought for him mercilessly with that love. I spent 200 days beside his hospital bed, holding his hand, smothering his chubby cheeks with kisses, and memorizing every line and dimple of his smile.
When he died in my arms on his 200th day, grief, pain, shock, devastation and darkness entered, but the love never left.
When tragedy strikes and we are forced into the position no one wants to be in — the new role as a bereaved parent — that love does not leave. The love of a parent is a defiant force that no amount of time or distance, not even death, can extinguish.
My son Charlie died when he was 6 months and 17 days old on Oct. 27, 2014, and I’ve spent two years trying to figure out what to do with this love. In the first days and months, this love felt like a curse. A reminder that he was no longer in my arms. Grief felt like a fog so thick I could barely even feed myself, tie my own shoes, shower. Pain was the narrative.
This love, when bottled up and silenced can feel a lot like bitterness, anger and darkness, because this love was never meant to be withheld. One of the greatest tasks for me, the key that changed my narrative from one of pain to one of love was realizing that this love would never leave. I learned in order to heal, it has to be embraced, even if it was painful to do so.
Parent grief, and perhaps all grief, is a lot about coexisting emotions. Pain, because sorrow. Joy, because love. Grief can be all consuming. But the way I see it is this, the overarching narrative does not have to be pain, death, darkness. It can be love.
Within four white walls of a tiny hospital room, love lived. In the midst of the unknown, in the midst of a fierce battle with the giants of congenital heart disease, Charlie radiated joy. In the aftermath of his death, I refuse to let the imprint of his life on mine be one of searing pain. Not for my Charlie. His imprint is life, is love, is joy.
As bereaved parents, we cannot escape grief and sorrow. We learn to hold them differently. We learn to make love the greater narrative, to love in spite of death, and to keep loving because our hearts won’t stop.
Debbie Reynolds may have died of a broken heart. Grief is a powerful force. But there was only great grief because there lived an even deeper love for her daughter, one that is not bound by distance, time or even death. Their story may sound like a tragedy, but the greatest narrative within it is not of pain, it is love.
Lexi Behrndt is a photographer, communications director and writer in Florida. She is mom to Lincoln here and Charlie in heaven. You can find her at www.lexibehrndt.com or on Facebook. View her project On Coming Alive for stories of hope in the midst of tragedy.
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