Grief and Gratitude
I have spoken to parents about their kids since my first job right out of college where I worked as a counselor in a drug treatment program with teens and their parents. This was the early 70’s and I was only a few years older than many of clients. I was wearing bell bottom jeans with my favorite macramé braided belt laced through the hip hugging straps and long hair to my hips. I have since thought that just seeing someone who looked like me and had survived the 60’s was a relief to many of the parents. Maybe they were assured that their own kids might survive their adolescent turmoil as well.
It was after my first child was born that I realized what a big deal it was to be a parent and have a life dependent on me—a startling insight only for a naïve new mother. Maybe you are rolling your eyes, but remember that one moment, maybe a few minutes after you heard, “you have a beautiful baby and everything is ok!” Or perhaps that moment came after calls, pictures, kisses, tears, hugs, fears? Maybe it came a few hours later, when someone brought the baby to you to hold, maybe when you were by yourself. A baby like any other you had ever seen until you saw the arch of a brow, or a yawn and something moved in you.
I knew my life would never be the same but I didn’t know if I could do this, and certainly not if I could do it right. When my first child was born, I only knew I wanted to do it right for him.
Needing to work, I put my new found fascination with babies and parents to good use—I led parent workshops. Hundreds of them, year after year. Really. I once tried to count how many parents I had spoken with at PTA meetings, bookstores, living rooms, nursery schools, child care settings, conferences and it was a scary big number—like 32, 493 or close to it.
I knew I ran workshops and wrote columns and newsletters so that other parents could reassure me that I was doing okay. I had so many meetings where people came up afterwards and told me I should do stand up. I didn’t really think I was that funny—I just thought life was that funny and I discovered that if I told the truth about what happened in my kitchen, my failures and foibles, people laughed and cried with me. I liked that. It made me feel better. Maybe my kids would be all right with me as their mom.
When my oldest started kindergarten and I said goodbye and kissed him, I was dry eyed. No cameras, just hugs and words of excitement. When I watched the bus pull away I found I had an awful sensation in my gut and worries in my mind—would the brakes hold out on the bus? Was the driver good? Would the world be good to him even when I might not be there to protect him? My own work reflected this new worry and I found myself saying when my first child went off to join the world, I realized my loving him and protecting him wasn’t going to be enough. If I really wanted him safe, I would need to make sure that all the people who crossed his path;
teachers, playmates, friends and teammates, kids at the mall and at pick-up basketball games at local parks, were safe too. His future was now less dependent on how much whole wheat pasta I fed him and much more so on the actions of a world of strangers. I needed those strangers to be healthy, loving and kind. I needed them to be thoughtful and to have parents who wanted as full a life for them as I did for my own children.
And it worked. It really did, until just before his 31st birthday. My older son was killed as a result of a terrible car crash. The driver, the first responders, the system of care, all had a hand in his death. In those dark early days after the awful news, however, what I often thought about was the first day of kindergarten and how I worried about the school bus driver and the brakes on the bus.
Just as I knew years ago that other mothers were loving their most perfect babies like I was loving mine, I know that I am not the only mother feeling the weight of a grief that seems almost beyond an ability to capture in words. Those feelings seem too big to be wrapped around these small letters—too full of power to sit still on a page. But in this experience, too, I know that I am one of many.
What I say to parents now, always too many of them, is not unlike what I shared with other parents in easier times. I stumble through my experiences sharing thoughts and words I am first using in these most difficult times. My new stories of grief make me cry, make others flood with their own tears, but just like those stories of decades ago, of my mishaps and fumbles in parenting, these new ones would be unbearable unless they were seasoned, balanced, buoyed by something else. My grief lives side by side with the gratitude for all those sad and funny kitchen stories. It is bound by the love still in my heart and memories. Not as funny as endless stories of toddler tantrums and bad homework battles, but deep and strong enough to last a lifetime.
– Sandra Wolkoff