By Margo Fowkes
The moment Jimmy died, the thread tying me to my place in the world snapped. In an instant, I lost not only my son but entire communities in which I had been a card-carrying member. Parents of kids in college. People with children going through cancer treatment. Mothers of only living children.
One particularly painful loss was all the parent support groups I belonged to. After spending eight years exchanging ideas and information and supporting other parents whose children had brain tumors, I became a pariah overnight. The one with the outcome they all feared, someone they no longer wanted to interact with. Besides, what did I care about new clinical trials or promising treatments if Jimmy was no longer here to receive them?
Instead, I found myself thrust into groups I had never, ever wanted to be part of. The newest member of the parents of dead kids’ club. Families whose college student had died either just before or just after graduation. Families whose child didn’t live long enough to attend their five-year high school reunion.
Death severs our sense of belonging, casting us adrift. We’re no longer someone’s parent, sibling, spouse. We become the outlier, a grim statistic, the one that doesn’t look like the others. Life-long friends and family members can become uncomfortable, unsure what to say or how to behave in the face of our change in status. Afraid that the same thing could happen to them, we stop getting invited to gatherings or worse yet, discover that being together in the same room is more isolating and painful than being home alone.
So often in life, we carry our connections lightly, not realizing how easily they can break. For all their quirks and irritations, we’re part of a family, a company of friends, an exercise contingent, a group of volunteers or hobbyists. Something bigger than ourselves, we belong … until we don’t. Even when the other members of our communities don’t actively pull away, after a loss, it can become too painful to be around those whose families are still intact.
Grieving only compounds these losses. The world moves at a different pace and runs on a different timetable when we’re in the throes of sadness. We feel out of place, the hole in our heart unwitnessed and unseen. The people around us appear preoccupied with trivialities, worries that once felt important but now feel like luxuries. A poor grade, a missed class, an unexpected repair, a living child who keeps forgetting to take out the trash. We’re out of sync with everything and everyone.
Who am I now? Where do I belong?
In the months following Jimmy’s death, our house felt safe but sterile. A place to hide from the outside world, but devoid of light and laughter. I aimlessly wandered from room to room during the day and struggled to sleep at night. Food was tasteless, and I ate only when hunger drove me to it or when a plate was placed before me. Drawing a deep breath was painful, something I no longer deserved. Family and friends called and emailed and texted but I lacked the energy to respond.
Though my dearest friends stayed close, still welcoming me to meals and coffee, I felt removed, marked, different. I was the mother who had failed to keep her son alive, our fundamental charge as parents, the only one that really matters.
What saved me during the darkest days were the other parents who had also lost children. The ones who said “me, too” and “I get it.” People understood how badly I didn’t want to be one of them and how grateful I was to have found them. My tears and rage didn’t scare them. My grief-induced rants about who should have died instead of Jimmy didn’t offend them or drive them away. I was shocked by how many ways there are for a child to die and weirdly comforted at the same time.
At first, I clung to the newly bereaved but quickly discovered what a gift it was to spend time with those who were years, even decades, ahead of me on the path. They helped me believe I would discover a way forward and taught me that sitting with my sadness was the only way to find it.
When Jimmy died, I expected my existing communities to help me survive, only to realize that’s not what they were built for. That we can’t fully understand something we’ve never experienced or know how to comfort someone whose shoes we’ve never walked in.
I belong to the kingdom of the bereaved now. Brave humans who have lost a part of themselves and found a way to go on. People who can hold someone else’s pain along with their own. Those who understand that death and life-shattering loss are a part of life that none of us can avoid, and that kindness and compassion are what matter. We build bonds from our scars, even as our wounds are still healing. Creating kinship and cherishing our connections, understanding as we do that they are born of destruction and despair even as we remember how lucky we are to have found each other. Knowing that we don’t have to navigate this aftermath life alone as long as we stay close and keep loving each other back into wholeness.
This post first appeared as Broken Belonging and is reprinted with permission.
About the author: Margo Fowkes (pronounced “Folks”) believes that grief needs to be acknowledged and witnessed before it can begin to heal.
She is the founder and president of OnTarget Consulting inc., a firm specializing in helping organizations and individuals act strategically, improve their performance and achieve their business goals.
Author of Leading Through Loss: How to Navigate Grief at Work, Margo also coaches leaders on how to create a more compassionate culture by acknowledging and speaking openly about grief and loss in the workplace.
Following the death of her son Jimmy in 2014 after an eight-year battle with brain cancer, Margo launched Salt Water, an online community that provides a safe harbor for those who have lost someone dear to them – a child, parent, partner, sibling, close friend or pet. Inspired by Jimmy’s determination to live a rich, full life despite his circumstances, the blog posts and resources focus on healing and building a new life in the aftermath of a devastating loss.