Ann Hood is a novelist and short-story writer living in Providence, R.I.
We are stunned. We are outraged. As a nation, we are questioning laws on gun control, questioning how such a thing can happen. These are all appropriate responses to the tragedy in Newtown, Conn. But there is a repercussion to all this that will continue long after laws are changed and life, unbelievably, gets back to normal: the grief of the parents of the 20 children killed. How many times have I heard that this is a parent’s worst nightmare? As someone who has lived the nightmare of losing a child, I know that the enormous hole left behind remains forever.
My daughter, Grace, was not killed by a gun. She died suddenly at age 5 from a virulent form of strep. As I stood stunned in a church at her memorial, one of the hardest things I heard someone say was, “I’m going to go home and hug my child a little tighter.” Well, good for you, I thought. I’m going to go home and scream.
What can be said in light of such grief? What can you do? The problem is that no one can give the parents what they want most: their child. Long after the memorials fade and the casseroles stop coming, that child is still dead, and those parents are still grieving.
I offer here what I have learned about grief in the 10 years since my Gracie died:
I learned that platitudes don’t work. Time doesn’t heal. She is not in a better place. God does give us more than we can bear sometimes. I have learned that there is more power in a good strong hug than in a thousand meaningful words. I have learned that even in the face of loss, clothes still get dirty and bills still need to get paid. Friends who laundered our socks and answered our e-mails, who mowed our lawn and put gas in our cars, helped us — a lot. The friend who came one afternoon and went through Grace’s backpack, carefully storing her kindergarten workbook and papers, hanging her art on the refrigerator and her raincoat on its hook in the mudroom, had more courage than the ones who told me to call anytime.
Some friends sat with me day after day, week after week and, yes, month after month, and let me talk while they listened. I told the story of Grace’s last day over and over, as if by telling it I could make sense of what had happened to her, to us. But there is no sense to be made of such tragedy, and when I realized that, they let me wail and bang my fists and curse.
As time passes, people return to their ordinary lives, while grieving parents no longer have ordinary lives. They are redefining themselves, and they are at a loss at how to move forward. There is a woman who still sends me a card on Grace’s birthday and every Mother’s Day, who sent cards weekly for more than a year, a lifeline to a grieving mother. The people who even now, a decade later, still say Grace’s name, still comment on her quirky style and artistic talents and love of the Beatles, continue to help me through my days, simply by remembering her.
How easy it is to look away from grief, as if it might be contagious, or too frightening to face. But the Newtown parents have a difficult, lifelong journey through grief ahead of them. Somehow, the seasons will change, the anniversaries will stack up one after the other. They will, unbelievably, smile again. They will make dinner and change jobs and buy clothes and celebrate and travel. They will go on. But there will always, always, be this grief, softened and dulled but present every minute of every day.
Do not forget that. Look them in the eye. Take them in your arms, and do not let them go.
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