A Mother's personal story about the loss of a child


Chapter 1


              From what I can observe, it appears to me that each of us will probably be ordained to go through a “baptism of fire”.  This is where an event, or series of events, is so difficult to bear that it shakes us to our very foundation.  This presents a unique opportunity to really know ourselves.  If we overcome the challenge, we know that we can overcome any challenge the future brings.  

            Some come through this “baptism of fire” complete and whole. Somewhere in the process, they have pulled against a deep core and in the doing they know that they can face anything.  They know that nothing can be their undoing because they have faced their ultimate challenge and  survived.  They know they will heal. They found a process that worked for them.  They found the central beam,  perhaps the construction of what they are.  They will survive any obstacle because they found the process of surviving and that process can be repeated if necessary.  Not only are they stronger spiritually, but they have more understanding of their spiritual heritage.        Of this I am sure.  It is our destiny that the process of surviving and evolving be learned. 

              My “baptism of fire” came when my son died.  I wish I had known enough about life to know that this was only a testing period. For the most part, I thought I had lived a life with an understanding of who I was and what I was supposed to be doing.   I felt I knew what was required as a student, wife, mother.  I tried to accomplish what I perceived was necessary to do the job right.

              It was an Easter that our family will not forget. Lent is 40 days before Easter.  According to the Church, these 40 days should be a time of reflection and self denial.  Rituals as old as Catholicism itself try to lead us through a period of penance during these 40 days.  The purpose is that we can also share in some small way the true joy of Easter. Through our penance, there can be some joy at the end of suffering and a transmutating of these  sufferings into a joy of triumph that we can share with the risen Lord. 

            At the beginning of Lent my 21 year old nephew died, and at the end of  Lent my 16 year old son died and was buried.  In retrospect, I think there was a message in all of this somehow, since the backdrop of the events was Christ’s passion and death and the two boys shared the same name.  There were so many other events and time markers at this point of my life, that I didn’t feel these events were accidental.  There was somewhat a sense that I was following a script.

            When my  nephew died, I thought I understood the parents’ pain because I was a parent.  I grieved for them, commiserated with them.  Regardless of what you think,   I can assure you that you know nothing about an event until it happens to you.  Even though I thought I understood, I knew nothing about the death of a child until my child died. No matter how much compassion I shared with the family, I didn’t really understand what the loss of a child meant until I had to live every day of my life carrying that same loss.

              If one believes in reincarnation, or the possibility of reincarnation, then perhaps that is why the soul needs to evolve through so many diverse events.  Perhaps that part of us that is our eternal part, wishing to learn of every human situation, examines the emotion of every relationship first hand.

            Clothed as each participant during some time of its experience, the soul moves through every possibility and shading of every conceivable joy and sorrow. Would the need to examine specific experiences be interrelated to our actions from the current or distant past?

            Perhaps it is only then, when we truly understand every event and relationship, are we able to make the choices necessary for soul growth.  Unless we have gone through every conceivable pain, perhaps then only, are we able to see the wisdom of positive action and the joy of what love brings.

            If soul growth is a matter of choices, it appears to me that our choices need to be evaluated against a dichotomy of events.  How can we truly chose in wisdom unless we understand what our choices mean in relationship to experience?

            I don’t know why the eternal part of me needed to experience and examine the death of a child, but I know on some level there is a part of me that has overcome and in some fashion is stronger than before.

            Maybe the eternal part of me has examined, calculated and absorbed the experience, but the human, emotional side of me has suffered a loss that cannot be extinguished.  There is a flame in the belly that burns and will not be put out until I can see my son again and we can experience together once more.  There is much pain in the separation from those you love.

            Even today 15years after the event and all the experiences that have happened to me between that event and today, I cannot write about this time in my life without a great deal of sorrow.

            Besides being my son, Shawn was my friend.  I remember calling him that sometimes, Hey friend! There is an acceptance between friends that transcends the relationship of parent and child.  It was a satisfying relationship. He was my friend as well as being my son.

            Life does not prepare you to have your child die before you.  As a parent, you expect to die before your child.  It is almost as if life made a pact with you that you should die before your children.  It is unthinkable to a mother that this process should ever be reversed.

            Shawn was growing up during a period of time when young men liked to wear their hair long, and Shawn at 16 wanted his hair long.  Coming from a rather conventional thinking family myself, it was hard for me to agree to men in the family having long hair.

            I could remember my daughter as a toddler, sitting in a grocery cart seat, asking me if that was a Mommie or Daddy when a man walked by sporting a pony tail.  That was sort of the way I saw people too, long hair meant that you were a woman and short meant that you were a man.  Anything else was confusing.

            However, Shawn was rather adamant in that he wanted long hair.  I finally told him he could have long hair if he kept it clean.  And he did indeed keep it clean.  He washed it every day. When I think of him, the first thing that comes to my mind is a picture of Shawn and his thick wavy hair with golden highlights moving in the wind.  He used to take long strides because even though he was only 16, he was over 6 foot tall and rather lanky, and the sun would shine through his hair and it would move with him like it was dancing in the sun.

            When you do not have someone in your life that you want in your life, it seems that you remember unimportant, maybe to the world insignificant things they did, and suddenly these events become important things to remember and cherish.  Perhaps because at 16 there is not a lot that someone can accomplish according to the world’s standards.  At 16 you are just starting to dream, or maybe know what dreams are, accomplishments come later.

            I think about that sometimes.  There was an adolescent crush or two, but he did not find the love of his life  yet.  He didn’t have a chance to partake of some of the promises of life.  I wondered what his family would be like, my grandchildren perhaps.  

              I remembered the long rope he got his hands on and used to do some mountain climbing when we were camping in New England.  Thank heavens I did not know about that event while it was happening.  I found out about it later when some pictures turned up with him dangling over a cliff clutching that rope.  I guess with five children, one cannot always stay on top of everything.

            I didn’t find out about the mashed potato fight in the kitchen until years later.  At the time of the happening, everything was cleaned up before I got home.  I was working at the time and everyone took turns with jobs. My daughter Ginny cooked that day. Shawn pealed an enormous pot of potatoes for mashed potatoes.  He could never get enough.  No one wanted to peal all those potatoes and mash them, so Shawn would do that job.

            There was some bickering going on between some of the children and the fight started with one little fork of mashed potatoes being flung across the kitchen and hitting Shawn in the face.  From what I gathered, there was a free for all after that.  There was mashed potatoes everywhere.  Shawn liked plenty of milk and butter in his potatoes so they were rather splatable.  Luckily the kitchen cabinets and floor were scrubbed before I saw them. 

            These are the sort of events families reminisce about when they gather at Christmas dinners, graduations, marriages, births, etc. When these events concern your son who has died, a mother has to muse over these happenings privately, because for the most part, others feel uncomfortable talking about such things and won’t join in.

            Most people do not know how to treat death because it is so final, and there is nothing that you can do about it. There is a loss of companionship of the loved one and that causes pain.  As a general rule we really don’t know what happens to the person after the event we call death. We were told as a child, perhaps through our religious affiliation, “the official interpretation”, as to what they think happens after death, but we don’t have any first hand information until the event touches our lives in some manner.  Death is something that we seem to want to forget because we are afraid of the unknown.  If we do not talk about it maybe it will go away, but sometimes it doesn’t go away.

            After Shawn died, there were so many probably insignificant events I lovingly relived and cherished because there would be no future history in my daily life between Shawn and myself again. Besides the loss of companionship, there is great pain knowing that other events like those you cherished would not come into reality again in this lifetime.

            I remembered the flowers he gave me, and the Christmas presents he selected and purchased with his own money. I could recall his visits to his grandparents’ and how he delighted them by negotiating a purchase for a toy when he was three years old. His purchase was made in a toy shop in Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love” . The shopkeeper sold him a toy for less than what it cost, because Shawn didn’t have much money in his pocket.

            Shawn had a very winsome way about him, and I guess the shopkeeper must have loved children too.  Shawn had that mischievous look about him, but with a twinkle in his eye.  God, I loved that child!

            I remember how he told his Grandfather that he wanted to drive the car.  His Grandfather would put Shawn on his lap and Shawn would put his hands in the steering wheel thinking he was driving the car.  Grandfather said he would work the petals. Of course, Grandma didn’t think that was such a great idea.  But there were some things grandchildren were allowed to do no matter what.

            When someone you love has left you, you think of them in little vignettes, not big stories.  Events jump around in your mind, there is no continuity.  Maybe you found a paper that reminds you of their school, or an old picture that brings memories streaming through.

            This, what I call musing, never goes away.  The mind can be triggered by the most insignificant stimulus, a big bowl of mashed potatoes, a long rope, pieces of straw. However, as time passes, and the pain of loss is tempered, you can start remembering the fun times again.

            We went skiing in New England one time and he loved jumping over moguls on the ski run.  Moguls are irregular bumps or small hills that need negotiating skill to ski around or jump over. Shawn was not one who would let the good times end, and he tried building moguls in the snow on a hill in back of our house when we returned home. He was such a fun loving guy. Whatever he was doing, he really got into it with his whole self.

            Halloween can’t pass without me reminiscing about the haunted house he put together in our barn.  The plan was that the neighborhood children were to go through a dark maize with dim lights illuminating scary masks, pass gloopy glop that looked like blood rolling down ghouls, unmentionable things that would jump out behind bales of hay. This was usually Shawn and a friend of his dressed in scary, realistic looking masks. I don’t know where he got his hands on such disreputable looking clothes for the costume. At the end of the tour, to get by, one had to push aside a big piece of raw liver hanging on a string.  The girls must of loved that one. I can just hear them now.  Oh! I almost forgot, you had to do this blindfolded when you got to the liver action.  Shawn charged 5 cents for a trip through the concoction, and the crowds came from long distances to see it.

            It took weeks of preparation before Halloween, but it kept them busy. The project fulfilled a mothers dream, something wholesome to keep the little buggers busy and out of trouble.

            Then there was the tree house.  I don’t know where they found all the lumber and plywood. Shawn and his friends took everyone of his father’s nails from his workshop for that project. Sometimes fathers don’t understand that a kid has to do what a kid has to do. They were looking for carpeting, but before they could complete the project, the big kids tore the tree fort apart, confiscated nails and all.  For a while there was a tug of war between the big kids and our guys as the tree house went up and down, but the big guys eventually won.  There are  still some remnants in the tree and whenever the leaves fall from the trees, I can see the surviving boards looking like some ghost ship surfacing from a forest of trees instead of a sea of waves. There is something forlorn and spooky about it because there are no human sounds coming from the dying wreck.  It appears to me to be one of the signs of passage from childhood to adulthood, except one of the passengers did not make the passage to adulthood.

            As a mother, I can’t help thinking of all those unfilled, promises of possibilities.  He had so many good traits, so much talent.  To me, he was a good person, is a good person.  Why did he come only to leave at 16?

            At Shawn’s funeral I had so many tormenting questions and raw pain. So many people came and unknowingly gave me answers.  It got to the point that I started looking for the answers to be presented.

            I looked into the face of a woman perhaps in her 60s or 70s as she told me about her child.  She described her infant’s big dark eyes in such a manner, that I felt at that moment that I was looking deeply into them myself.  He died of some childhood disease.

            She was so distraught.  She loved her child, and she only had him with her for three years before he died. She tried to take her life by throwing herself in front of a trolley car.  Emotionally, I could see the tracks and picture her near brush with death.

            I could certainly identify with this woman.  And after all those years, her memories were just as sharp as they were when the events happened. It was if the events that she was recounting happened yesterday.

            I was reminded at that moment that at least I did have Shawn with me for 16 years.  I had something precious and I had to be thankful for Shawn’s time with me as it was a gift.  Indeed, I had always looked at my children as not truly belonging to me.  God had loaned them to me for awhile.  They were put in my care so that I could teach them what I knew, and give them an assist so they could live their lives as independent, as whole as possible, adults. Even though I knew I had to accept Shawn’s short stay with me, it didn’t lessen the pain.

            During his wake there was music piped in very softly.  It was of his favorite noise-making groups “Rush”.  I never appreciated that music blaring through amplifiers and rattling the windows while Shawn played “air guitar”. But softly, quietly, the words and music took on new dimensions.  I have to say that I liked it.  Music notes expressing a phrase in a song “I will be free as the wind” is on his stone marking the place where his body rests where indeed he is free as the wind.

            I want you to know that the pain I have been speaking of is very real to the bereaved.  I am not using that word pain in a figurative manner.  It is like a dark heavy cloud and it presses down on you so that sometimes you don’t feel that you are getting enough air. The only time this pain leaves is when you sleep, or when you manage to fall off to sleep.  However, then the bad dreams take over filling your nights with anxious races.  You know neither the pursuer nor the destination.  Upon awakening, as I move towards consciousness, there is a second of orientation and like  hot burning liquid pouring over me comes the realization that my son has just died.

            I couldn’t stand for the days to pass because each day meant that the separation between my son and myself was getting wider.  He fell off this ship of life somewhere and I clutched for his hand and I couldn’t find it.  As the seasons changed, we were getting further apart from one another.  I wanted to go back and find him, but our passage was in opposite directions, and I suffered because of this and I could do nothing.  I was moving against my will, away from him, a prisoner in life.

            I was in the house in one of those particularly difficult moments.  I couldn’t breathe.  I had to get outside and get some air or suffocate.  I pushed out the back door and leaned against it panting and crying, and there was as if peace surrounded me immediately.  It was as if Shawn were there with his arms around me and I leaned against his chest and he told me not to cry.

            If it wasn’t for the emotional charge of love and peace, I would have thought that my mind was playing tricks on me.  I stood there soaking in the minute savoring what I thought was a contact with him.  At that moment I knew that some part of his personality was there in some form.  I couldn’t see him, but I heard distinctly as if he whispered in my ear, don’t cry mom.  There was emotion without words.  I gave and I accepted.  I don’t know how long I stood there, but when the emotions passed, I came back into the house.

              As the days passed and I examined minutely the unusual meeting, I started to wonder if this event was my imagination playing overtime. I wondered about his comfort.  I felt he was somewhere -  that some part of his personality still existed. I did feel one regret.  I never really prepared Shawn to die, but on the other hand, how, or when, does a parent prepare their child to die?  When I tied his shoe strings, cooked his meals, I never told him this would happen to him someday and son, prepare for this.  Here was something I had no control over, knew nothing about, couldn’t help him.  I didn’t even know what kind of help he needed, if, indeed, he needed help. I agonized over what his status was at the moment before death and right afterward. 

            When I was a child my mother told me a story of my grandmother’s death.  In her time it was customary for the dead to be put in a casket and placed in the living room until burial, where friends could come and give the family their respects. I don’t know when funeral homes came into vogue, but my mother told me the custom in this neighborhood was for the dead to be laid out in their home.

            The milkman would walk through the neighborhoods with a horse drawn cart ringing a bell alerting his customers that he was in their neighborhood.  The homemakers would answer the summons if they needed milk that day, take their pail to the milkman and he would fill it.  It would be interesting to know how much milk cost then without modern packaging and regulation. It had to taste better without all the butterfat taken out.

            As the story goes, my grandmother, in a stupor, got out of the casket and retrieved her pail and went out to the milkman and bought milk. Like the story of Lazarus in the bible, there are no reports of the expressions on people’s faces or what they said when someone rose from the dead or what my grandmother said it was like to raise from the dead. There was no in-depth reporters on the scene to get all the details, no television cameras, no 60 Minutes programming, no Huntley-Brinkley, or Dan Rather.

            In my grandmother’s day, it seems that there was an influenza flu epidemic and physicians did not hear the very shallow breathing of my grandmother and perhaps other individuals like her.  Perhaps she was in a type of catatonic state, and thank heavens, revived before burial.  It is a good thing for me because this happened before my mother was born.

            When you tell this story there is a type of humor to it, but the thought of it caused me great anxiety.  I had horrible nightmares of my son reviving in the casket underground and I wouldn’t know to help rescue him.  This fear was inside of me and I couldn’t let it go.  I couldn’t express it to anyone because I was afraid of being ridiculed, and somehow I couldn’t let it go past my lips.  I finally told my husband and he explained my fear to the undertaker and compassionately, the undertaker told me about the fact that modern embalming came about because it was society’s way of dealing with this problem.  He offered me the use of some of his books to help satisfy my mind.  His reassurance was enough to settle my mind on this question.  I did not have to think of the unspeakable again.

            Everyone has a very distinct way of grieving, of handling the transitions of death and dying. I remember during Shawn’s wake I went to the basement of the funeral home to use the rest room and there was a group of people having a shot of Jack Daniels bourbon and listening to the music of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”.  The widow told me that her husband didn’t want his family or friends to grieve when he left them and this was one of his last requests. This is how he wanted to be remembered. I started talking to this woman because it seemed that her son was a classmate of Shawn’s.  In seems that in some ways our lives are all intertwined with one another. There they all were, trying to do what their husband/father wanted them to do.

            I had to be as brave as this family.  I reminded myself that  example is such a very strong teacher, and one deed is worth several thousand words.  We are all very vulnerable to example and perhaps sometimes we need to evaluate what we teach through our example.  It appears to me that what seems very casual to ourselves can be very impressionable to someone else.  Maybe we learn true wisdom from others.

            The laying to rest of my loved one took so long because there could be no funerals from our church on the weekend before Easter.  We had a wake, a Funeral Mass, back to the funeral home, a service before burial at the funeral home, and then that day that I knew I couldn’t get through, the day we placed our son in the ground.  

            Going into the Church for the funeral, I followed my daughter.  As she approached the steps, her shoulders drooped and looked like they would crumble.  It reminded me of someone taking a dead leaf and crumbling it in their hand before dropping it to the ground.  I came up to her and whispered in her ear, Michele, we will grieve tomorrow. Today, we will celebrate what Shawn was. This is in his honor.  It was as if someone pulled the strings on a resting marionette and all the parts came to life in harmony, working as a unit tall and straight as she walked into the church.

            All the family had a part in the service.  Each one of us had something special to read, sing, or play that had  great meaning to them.  I read about Children from the “Prophet” by Kahlil Gibron.  It was one of my favorite poems and I believed the sentiment.  It said something about your children being the arrows in your quiver and shooting them forth in the world.  Cousins near the same age as Shawn picked the music and played it.  I can still see my niece Laurie singing “Suddenly” and Bridge Over Troubled Waters. Whenever I hear any of the music it reminds me that we were telling the world that Shawn was something special to all of us and he will not be forgotten.

Under Grace © 1991


Read more excerpts from Under Grace

Chapter 3

Chapter 5

Chapter 7


Back To Your Child Lives On


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