Ten years. A decade. A tenth of my life, if I should live to 100, more if not. It seems like a very long time since we lost Reid, our only child, in a car accident—and it also seems like yesterday. The arrival of mid-March always catapults us back to those early days. How could it not?
When a child dies, the void in the parents’ life yawns like a cosmic monster, a black hole that threatens to pull you in and devour you. To obliterate you. Moving away from that force, putting distance between myself and the event horizon (science’s term for the point of no return) was unquestionably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was so tempting just to let it take me. And who would blame me? But I beat it; over time I managed to break free. I consider this the greatest of my life’s achievements (though I know at any careless moment, I could drift back toward its deadly rim).
In the months after Reid was killed, I was desperate to find other bereaved parents so I could ask them: How long will it be until this grief loosens its grip? One father told me three years, another seven. Both answers leveled me. I couldn’t imagine living that long in such crushing pain.
But there were two people who gave me answers that did help me survive. They managed this simply, one with a kind observation and the other with a kind card.
The first was my cousin Lynn. On a beach walk one afternoon with Reid’s girlfriend, Lynn told us she couldn’t imagine the depths of our sadness—but she could tell us what she experienced when she was in her twenties and her roommate suddenly died. The grief would ambush her unexpectedly and drag her down, the way an ocean breaker will sometimes knock you off your feet and thrust you to the bottom. She learned that if she could relax and breathe through the anguish—just as she did when pulled down by a wave—eventually it would release her.
Although Reid had been gone only a week, I knew already what she was talking about: the sudden waves of grief, often at the oddest moments, always devastating. I was an avid ocean swimmer. I’d learned what to do when a breaker dragged me down. Living through this kind of take-down seemed much harder, though, and it raised the question of whether I wantedto live through it. A large part of me did not. Still, as the months and years continued, I thought often of Lynn’s rogue wave. I learned to breathe through the pain, sure that it would eventually release me.
The second answer came from a woman I didn’t know, in a sympathy card. She’d lost her sister. Her card included a simple diagram from a book about loss that illustrated how, in time, the sadness would grow less dominant.
The diagram showed a black ball the size of a dime, in three different boxes. The ball signified the presence of grief in a life, and it filled the first box out to the edges. There was no getting away from it. In the second box, which was a little larger, there was more white space—more light, more room to move. The third was even larger. The ball was still the same size, but it filled only a corner of the box. My grief—the ball—would never get any smaller, my unknown correspondent wrote. But my world would expand in ways I had never imagined.
She was right on one count: I couldn’t imagine in the least how Reid’s death would lead to an expansion of my world. At the moment it was too crushing. But I tucked the diagram in a book and kept it. And slowly, to my astonishment, my world grew.
It grew because of friends who wouldn’t let me drift back toward the event horizon. It grew because losing Reid launched me on a course of spiritual seeking that I’d dabbled with earlier in my life. And my world grew because my grief gave me insight into the lives of people who are suffering. I knew for the first time what they were feeling. Slowly I learned what is needed to comfort and help others heal—which is not at all what I would have predicted. A quiet presence. A willingness to see the pain and feel it too. Enough patience to let sufferers find their own way to peace.
I don’t know how people survive tragedies like the death of a child. I just know most of us do. To some extent I lived through it by learning how I might help others, and writing about it. That work has helped me heal, although I’m not always very good at helping. And three years out, as the first father I’d spoken with had predicted, I could feel my world growing lighter. I looked at the diagram and realized I’d reached the second box. There was some light around me. I could move without chafing every moment against my sorrow. At seven years, the grief was still as profound, but it occupied much less of my mind, and my world. I could scarcely believe it.
The piece of paper on which the diagram is drawn is square, about two inches across each side. Contemplating it one day not long ago, I realized that even the third box isn’t big enough to encompass my world now. Turning the paper over, I drew a fourth dime-sized ball, sitting in a small corner of my world—which takes up the whole sheet.
Ten years. A goodly proportion of my life. I’ve made a promise to myself: I will not let pain and grief rule my existence. This holds up most of the time, but not always. Ambushes still occur—like last month, when I heard a song that reminded me strongly of Reid. It had a sweet, sad melody. I burst into tears and went off by myself, trying to breathe through the pain, knowing it would eventually release me. Yesterday the opposite happened, something I hope I’ll remember the rest of my days.
I was standing in our snowy backyard, here in our new home in Maine. As is true most mornings, I’d gone outside to do some energy medicine exercises. Several days a week I also do a moving meditation that I call my happy dance, which probably looks a bit crazy but is immensely fun and soothing.
I was dancing, swinging my arms and hips in a figure eight pattern, turning in a slow circle, when I had the feeling that something was with me. Someone. I could sense a blue-green light swirling off it, around it, through it. No, not through it—the blue green shimmering was it. And I knew. We danced, Reid and I, melding our lights on the sunlit snow, whites and yellows spiraling through greens and blues, until my thoughts were clear and joyful and my soul was filled. We will dance that way forever, my son and I, through my life and beyond, sowing love, besting the blackness.
If you are familiar with the book on grief from which the black ball diagram was taken, please let me know. I’d love to credit the author.