"Marilyn, come quick, Jimmy is gone!" My husband's voice had wakened me with a jolt. Jimmy, gone? Impossible! I hurried into my seven-week-old son's room, certain I had not heard Glen correctly. But Glen was right. Jimmy had died in the night of what we would now call SIDS. Although this horrible event occurred over thirty-six years ago, I can still picture it very clearly in my mind.
Just eighteen months after Jimmy's death, our identical twin sons, Nathan and Ethan were born, Christmas morning, 1965! However, our joy was short lived, as Ethan died just ten days later of pneumonia while he was still in the hospital. In a very short eighteen months, I had given birth to three children and buried two of them, and I was only 28 years old.
My grief and my sorrow were buried with my boys as no one explained to me that it was necessary to grieve. No one told me a subsequent child would not remove my pain. No one told me our two older children, Matt and Mellyn, would be touched by our loss even though they were only five and three at the time of Jimmy's death. And no one told Glen or me that we would grieve differently. Also, none of us dared consider the thought that it could happen again. However, grief visited us once again in 1983 when our precious Nathan at 17 was killed by a drunken driver. This time I was older and unfortunately more experienced than most. I decided I was going to take charge and tell people what I needed from each of them.
First, I needed to talk, sometimes incessantly, telling my story over and over. Some, I suppose, think it is not good for us to repeat the story of our child's life and of his death, but I have found the retelling of my story brought healing to my mind and my soul. As I heard myself telling the same story over and over, it became real. The truth of my sons' deaths settled into my mind and into my very being. As the truth became a part of me, so did the desire to make their lives and their deaths count. As people listened and gave me time to talk, they gave significance to my pain; they gave significance to our loss; they gave significance to my boys.
Unfortunately, we, as bereaved parents, will not find many friends who are willing to listen over and over to the same story. That's why we have support groups whether they be on-line or in person. This holiday season I have been the guest speaker at several memorial candle lighting programs. Most of the audiences have been too large to allow each person to speak their child's name from the microphone. So in the middle of my talk, I just stop and suggest that each person in the audience turn to someone they do not know and say the name of the person they have come to remember. Oh my....what a wonderful moment! I can walk up to someone in the audience and say, "I came to remember Nathan, Jimmy, and Ethan." And then I watch and listen as the person to whom I am speaking usually takes time to wipe away their tears, swallows hard, and then speaks the name of their child. In that moment we have given signif icance to each other's loss. It is a magical moment.
Many people ask me, "How have you had the strength to go on after losing not one, but three, of your children?" I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge I believe my Christian faith has played a major part in my desire to go on. However, my faith has also caused me to stumble along the way. I do not feel religion can be considered a cure all for our pain, but it has helped me. Many years ago, I also determined that after my children died, I had the choice of becoming bitter or better. I chose better. Anna Quindlan has stated, "Our lives are defined by those we have lost." My life has most definitely been defined by my three boys who have died. I have chosen to learn to become more caring because I recognize those who are grieving. I have chosen to make every day count because I realize life comes with no guarantees. I have chosen to never say goodbye to those I love without saying, "Remember, I love you!"
Robert Browing Hamilton wrote,
I walked a mile with pleasure;
she chattered all the way.
But I was none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with sorrow,
and ne're a word said she.
But oh the things I learned from her
when sorrow walked with me.
Marilyn Willett Heavilin is a wife of 42 years, the mother of five, and the grandmother of four. She is the author of Roses in December, When Your Dreams Die, December's Song (now out of print), and Grief Is A Family Affair, coauthored with her son Matthew, as well as two books on Christian living. All of Marilyn's books can be ordered at http://www.griefresource.com
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