It’s not just another day. Today is our son Vincent’s birthday, born eight years ago on May 10, 2009. The fact that he died 18 months later only adds significance to an already special date.
How does one celebrate a loved one’s birth after their death? Our family has had some practice, but only enough to know that grief is reliably unpredictable.
In the musical Hamilton, the song “It’s Quiet Uptown” depicts protagonist Alexander and his wife Eliza grappling with their son’s death:
“There are moments that the words don’t reach. There is suffering too terrible to name.
You hold your child as tight as you can, and push away the unimaginable.”
Holding Vincent didn’t protect him from cancer. We pushed away the unimaginable, but it pushed straight back until our fears became reality.
A couple years ago, I likened my grief to a shipwreck sinking deeper into the ocean with time. In the initial months after Vincent’s death, it didn’t take more than a snorkel to find, but the process now requires a deep sea dive. This sinking shipwreck image still resonates with me because it captures the notion that healthy grief requires effort.
For instance, when I woke up this morning, my brain felt like crying, but the tears wouldn’t come. The shipwreck had sunk beyond reach. I wanted to go there, but didn’t know the way. My pain was buried, inaccessible to numb fingers groping in cold water. I knew it was there, but couldn’t find it.
Where did my shipwreck go? How far would I have to swim to touch the pain? Could I hold my breath long enough for a deep dive?
Our losses don’t float near the surface forever. They tend to sink out of view as time moves forward. Consequently, one cannot grieve well without venturing into choppy waters, plunging deep enough to see what’s become of the wreckage since we last touched it.
Not only does the shape of grief change over time, it also becomes increasingly inconvenient. Once your bereavement leave is over, there is no place for it in the American workweek, where public expressions of sorrow are seen as something private to keep covered. Who would allow grief a place at the table? Surely not a society that expects preemptive apologies for the disruption tears might bring. Surely not a culture where weeping is considered “breaking down” from the norm.
Remembering our dead carries a cost, but I will not be silent about my child. I will not live as if he never lived. I will continue to speak of him, grieve him, and celebrate the gift that he was. When social convention tempts me to sugarcoat this loss, I will resist. When pressured to omit Vincent from the narrative, I shall defiantly refuse.
Thank heaven for the internet–one of the few ‘public’ spaces where it is (relatively) safe to express our losses truthfully. Finally, a place where unexpected waves of emotion can be, well, expected.
These 78 months since Vincent died have taught me to interpret grief waves as invitations to go deeper (with my gear on) rather than keep out of the water altogether. It’s not a matter if the waves will hit, but how to respond when they do.
It’s time to swim toward the shipwreck.