Reflections on Love and Loss
– Nonfiction by Sue Hillerby –
“Mr. Fire Extinguisher, hanging on the wall,
We hope we never have to use you at all….”
I used to love making up merry dancing songs for him, the sixth of our growing constellation of grandchildren, the little boy with the sparkling blue eyes. Curious and interested in everything around him, he loved those charming little ditties about everyday items in his baby world. He’d laugh with glee when I’d cuddle him and twirl him to the simple rhythms that I made up to accompany them. His twin sister, though just as sweet and winsome, didn’t seem to love the singing or the dancing or even the fire extinguisher, as much as he did. It was a special thing for him and me to do together.
My husband had a different set of skills. Calm and patient with all four of our sons when they were babies, he nevertheless looked forward more to our grandchildren’s toddler years. He loved the repetitious, slightly boisterous games – hilarious episodes of hide-and-seek, pretending to be asleep (with one eye open) so that they could climb on him and “wake” him. He was the untiring pusher of swings.
It was a halcyon time in our family, and as the summer and the twins’ first birthday approached, the mobile that represented our family system played and turned gracefully in life’s light breezes with no hint of the change that was to come.
In the days immediately following our grandson’s funeral we had been welcome visitors at our son’s home. Our drive took us through pleasant farmland, and we would stop at roadside stands to buy flowers for the baby’s grave, or fresh fruits and vegetables to add to the meals packed into coolers for the devastated young parents. Here is nourishment, we tried to say, here is something to sustain the lives remaining, the hearts that still beat. Here is love, here are we. Usually there was lunch, warm hugs, tears, and gentle conversation. As the weeks went on, however, we would find the door closed, not locked, but closed, the curtains I had made for them in happier days drawn tightly, the welcome uncertain. Later there would indeed be a metaphorical locking of that door, a consequence of a serious and disastrous difference of opinion. Such are the ravages of grief.
Mired in their own devastation at the unimaginable loss of their baby and driven, it seemed, by deep wells of anger and misery, our beloved son and his wife appeared to have rejected us. Of course they were not the open, tolerant people that they had been before and it was unthinkable that anyone could or should expect that of them, least of all those of us who loved them so very much.
Everyone in our family was hurt by the tragedy of that summer. Everyone in our family grieved and everyone suffered. But the outward manifestations of our pain were so uniquely different that, like concertgoers after a terrorist bomb explosion, sometimes we unwittingly trampled one another in our headlong rush for the exits. And, even whilst acknowledging that, I also know that we were all doing the very best we could.
1st November 2017
Looking out through the window of our cottage, I see the same trees standing on the same grass at the edge of the same lake as they did back in May, when the summer stretched before us filled with the promise of children’s laughter and picnics with popsicles and peanut butter sandwiches.
Bereft of leaves, the trees’ November skeletons provide little comfort to the shivering squirrels. They offer no protection from the driving rains that fall relentlessly from gunmetal skies, transforming overnight to pristine snow. We sit on the deck in full winter clothing, mugs of coffee warming our hands, though not our hearts. Like the trees, we are still, without purpose, without motivation or plan, our sap drawn tightly, protectively into our very core. We, too, save our meager energies for the essentials of life – we eat only when hunger drives us to, sleep when our eyes will no longer stay open, and take our walks, not for pleasure but to relieve the aches of joints grown older and wearier with the burden of grief.
Nothing has changed in the landscape framed by the cottage window, and yet everything is different. Like the trees, we do not even wonder whether spring will come again.
“Tune in to your feelings”, the books and articles exhorted us, “Take your time and let your grief unfold at its own pace”. We tried, we truly did and, over time, it helped. We lit a candle by his photograph as we sat quietly with tea in the afternoons, until we noticed that we were no longer doing it every day. We began to talk less about the agony of sitting in his hospital room or at the other end of the phone, helpless and terrified as bacterial meningitis devastated his little brain and robbed him, and all of us, of his sparkle and his promise. We remembered more and more of the joyful times. We planted a tree in the playground of his home town, inscribed a plaque with his name and dates, and a message that read “We will always love you, Nanna and Grandad”. Although it was only a sapling, we loved the idea that this Sugar Maple, a younger version of the one whose leaves had so entranced him in his own backyard, would shade and shelter generations of families in his memory. We felt the millstone of his loss begin to soften into fond recollections, and we began once again to take pleasure in watching other grandparents pushing their little ones on swings or in strollers around our parks.
And spring did come again, of course. The following May saw me hosting a weekend at our cottage for my women’s group. Friends since our days as young mothers, we had been drawn together by our shared love of babies and breastfeeding, and by our unshakable belief in the importance of attachment parenting We have shared so many of the joys as well as the trials of life’s unfolding stages. Our stock-in-trade is listening, and caring, and opening our minds, and each others’ to new points of view.
By Sunday afternoon when my friends had left, and my husband arrived from home with our growing puppy, we were ready to notice that Spring, like our recovery from that tragic loss, was well underway.
8th May 2018
The same trees stand on the same grass at the edge of the same lake as they did last November, when the hurt and the snow were fresh and deep, and the grief felt endless, and no birds sang. And now, in May, everything is different again. The sun is shining, the trees hear our smiles, and the soft breezes beckon us to movement and to growing confidence, buoyed up by our trust in one another, and the simple, healing, passage of time.
We were beginning to do better, to move on, to find closure as people like to say, but for one challenging realization, the one truth that no one had told us about life as bereaved grandparents – that the itinerary for our journey of recovery would never be wholly in our own hands.
The awful, inescapable truth for us is that by degrees, our son, our daughter-in-law, and even our little granddaughter, the surviving twin, have also become lost to us. It makes almost no difference how the course of our own grief is playing out, or how “well” we are doing on our journey, because there can be no true resolution of the deep anguish of all of this until they are ready for it too. And that is something that we can neither predict, nor hasten, nor will into being. All we can do is to trust that the rich and profound connectedness that we had fostered with our son in his early years will carry him, and us, through this. We can only hope that in time he will find his way back to us.
Sometimes the mobile turns and dances prettily in life’s soft breezes. Sometimes, when the wind blows it jangles and struggles to find its equilibrium again. And so we wait…
About the Author – Sue Hillerby
Sue Hillerby is a retired Registered Marriage and Family Therapist, and a retired volunteer La Leche League Leader. She is a wife, mother, grandmother, and friend, and is not planning on retiring from any of those roles. Sue lives near Georgian Bay, Ontario with her husband and their Standard Poodle.
Did you like this story by Sue Hillerby? Then you might also like:
Like reading print publications? Consider subscribing to the Dreamers Magazine!