I’m a little nervous about tomorrow. Tomorrow I’m going to see a family friend who’s four-year old son drowned almost three years ago. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I see her and I’m not even sure of what to say to her.
Three summer’s ago my family and I were blissfully planning a big surprise birthday party for my sister who was turning 50. We were up at our cottage preparing decorations and planning the menu when the call came in. It was the husband of my mom’s dearly departed best friend. His daughter had been up visiting a cottage and her four-year old son had died. I don’t know all the details of the story other than the young boy had apparently wandered down to a boathouse where he must have slipped off the dock. The mother, having an infant son under one year old was no doubt busy attending to his needs and never for a moment thought that her other young boy might die that day. I heard that it was her who found him. Emergency was called and the child was airlifted to the closest hospital where it was determined he was brain-dead and he passed away.
As a mom, I can’t imagine the drama of that day, the confusion, the terror, the guilt, the sadness and everything else that played into the moments following the realization that your child had died. It’s hard to think of a crueler scenario where “if only” surely sets up shop in one’s mind, likely forever.
The mother and I share but a few childhood memories as we are the two youngest in our families, and her mother, who I grew up calling aunt, passed away many, many years ago leaving less occasion for family gatherings. We know each other but we don’t really know each other. We happened to see each other for the first time in easily ten years about two months before this tragedy happened. Her and her husband attended an event hosted by my mother. We briefly caught up, her telling me that she had a four-year old son and an 8-week old baby. Both children they were able to leave at home for a couple of hours that day with her husband’s parents who were visiting from overseas.
When news of her child’s death came, I think it was that much harder for me to process because despite never having met her sons, I had seen her so recently and talked with her about her two living, breathing children. If it was incomprehensible to me how this so quickly changed, how was it for her?
I didn’t attend the funeral. It fell on the day of my sister’s surprise party, three hours away.
There was some relief in having an “out.” On one hand I felt like I would be a voyeur attending such an uncommon and highly charged emotional event, especially since the mom and I didn’t have any strong history. The real reason though was probably more along the lines of having no idea what to say, having no idea how to make it better, and being crushed by the sheer tragedy of it all. It would have been too uncomfortable, too unscripted compared to the expected death of an elderly person whose time had come, who was perhaps being released from a painful demise, and who was “going to a better place.” This child was none of those things. His time was the wrong time, his passing only brought pain, and his better place was at home with his mom and dad and little brother.
I ended up sending a sympathy card. I couldn’t help but bawl as I wrote it. Any time I tried to put myself in the parent’s shoes it sent me into a dark place and I would literally shake my head to try to get out of it. On the card I wrote many of the things I was thinking like how sorry I was, how difficult it must be for them, how much they must miss their little boy.
Tomorrow will be the first time I have seen the mom since her son drowned. She has a third child now, another boy, but her marriage has ended and I don’t know how well she functions in terms of working and raising her children. I hear she moved in with her father within the past year.
I’m so nervous because I’m unsure of what to say and how to behave. I desperately want to acknowledge that she had another child. I don’t know if I could stomach ignoring it all together or if that’s even a reasonable thing to do, to ignore a life that was so precious to her. I think what I’m afraid of and what any of us fear is being a trigger and bringing a grieving person down or taking them back to that horrible moment. Yet I keep thinking to myself that the horrible moment is likely within her somewhere at all times. It’s not as if she forgets that she lost a child. I imagine it is something that she thinks about every day. Does me raising the topic make it worse? Make it better? Would she rather the death of her son be something that people aren’t afraid to talk about at moments where any other major life event would likely be addressed? What if I go in, see her and start crying? As a good friend of mine said, does that then put the mom in the position of having to comfort me? Does that bring the whole gathering to a halt? Does the whole mood of the afternoon change?
It’s awful to say that a good part of me wants to bail on the whole thing. In many ways it would be easier not to face. However, from things I’ve read specifically on losing a child, it’s most difficult for a parent when people don’t come or stop coming around because it’s too painful. It’s difficult when a child’s name is not spoken or the child, due to avoidance of the subject, appears to have been forgotten. Social situations become awkward. Time together passes and then the elephant’s been in the room so long that it’s hard to maneuver toward it and take it down.
I’m at a loss. I’m nervous. I don’t know if there is any exactly right thing to do or say but I hope I don’t get it horribly wrong. Three years ago this woman lost a child but tomorrow, to me at least, and I can only guess the same is true for her, it will seem like yesterday.