My mother always told me that life was never the same for her after she lost her first-born child. There was no sense to be made of my sister’s death; the result of a plane crash. She could rail at the airlines, at the air traffic controllers, at the weather that January day—but none of that would bring back her daughter.
Whether it’s a plane crash, a car accident or a crazed gunman, the loss of a child through a sudden tragedy brings an abrupt and cruel end to the hopes and dreams a parent had for that child.
I always empathized with my parents, especially my mother, about their loss, but it wasn’t until my own son turned seven, the age my sister was killed, that I fully realized the depth of their grief. It was an age when he was just discovering his place in the world around him, finding his voice and becoming an individual in his own right. As his mother, I was enthralled by how he so fully embraced life, the kindness he showed to other children, his obvious potential to change the world. I could not fathom how I could survive ever losing him. That is when my compassion for my parents became rooted in reality.
I learned an invaluable lesson from my parents’ journey through their grief. Even though they had no professional guidance, and floundered with how to go on, they did find their way. Their other daughter, who was two, was critically injured in the plane crash and fire, and they rallied to nurse her back to health. It may have been a mixed blessing that they had no time to dwell on the loss of their older daughter, though I know she never left their hearts for the rest of their lives. Soon, they were hopeful enough to have another child—me. Whether they might have waited longer to have another child is another debate, but my mother was 38 years old and I’m sure they felt they didn’t have much more time to make that decision before nature would make it for them.
I’m not suggesting any platitudes for grief stricken parents. What I learned from my parents is that we sometimes expect too much of ourselves when tragedy strikes. That ‘normal’ may have a new definition. That grieving has it’s own timetable for every individual, and we need to give each other and ourselves permission to grieve.
My mother struggled with her new reality for a very long time. But, eventually she smiled and laughed again. And, though my parents grieved in very different ways, and had their problems, they found their way back to each other and were able to build new family memories.