In John Green's novel, The Fault in Our Stars, the protagonist/narrator has cancer. One of the things she feels bad about is how sad it makes her parents that she is sick. There's a scene in which she overhears her mom crying and saying, "If she dies, I won't be a mom anymore."
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A friend of mine went to a cancer fundraiser walk two weeks ago. She wrote a beautiful post about how the speaker asked a simple question and the crowd of people who had gathered suddenly split themselves into two groups. One group was given white balloons to release. She watched those parents, letting those balloons, go, wondering how they could bear it--how they could bear to be at the fundraiser at all. In her words, "How can they be here, supporting a cure that is already too late?"
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I can't tell you how many times I've replayed in my head the conversation David and I had after he told me that our friends had lost one of their twins, a little boy named Max. I said to him, "I don't know what I'd do if we lost our Baby Duck. There's no way I could handle it."
I thought I couldn't handle it. And I was right.
There are an awful lot of people like me who are living everyday through something they would have thought unbearable. It is unbearable. And yet here we are. Bearing it against our will.
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How do we do it? How do we show up at Walks for Remembrance? How do we raise money for research that will never benefit our children? Why do we release balloons or light candles in memory of children who will never see them?
I think we do it because what else is there to do? We can't hold them in our arms. We can't comfort their cries. We can't kiss their smooth foreheads or their squishy cheeks. We can't tickle them until they belly-laugh. We can't read books or dry tears. They don't need lunches packed or laundry folded or toys picked up. And yet we are their parents. We have do something.
When your child dies, do you stop being a parent? No. But, for all intents and purposes, you stop parenting that child. You have no choice in the matter. Aside from planning a funeral (if you choose to do so) there's so little left for you to do.
Walks, balloons, t-shirts--to be honest, sometimes these things frustrate me because they seem so superficial and futile given the enormity of what we've lost. Nothing could ever fill that gaping hole. But we wear t-shirts and we release balloons and we walk miles or kilometers or laps or whatever distance we can so that we can do something.
We do it because the alternative is nothing. And we have enough of nothing--enough of that gaping absence where someone ought to be. Nothing is what we are left with when there's no baby crying in the middle of the night. When there's no doctor to call for a second opinion, no specialist to weigh in on what could be done. When there's no pink or blue socks to be washed, no vegetables to be pureed, no need to send someone to the store for formula or whole milk, no toys to pick up, no books to read out loud for the millionth time.
Balloons and walks and t-shirts can't fill that emptiness, but they can put us--for an hour or a morning or a weekend--in the role of being an active parent. It's a time when I'm not just thinking about her or writing about her. This is something I can do. I can wear this shirt with her name on it. I can release this balloon, with my little love note tied to it. I can do this for her, because of her. I am at this place because of her. Because I am her mom.
She still matters. She's still remembered. She's still my daughter. I still love her. I'm still her mom.
We may feel on a regular basis like we want to scream this to the world, insisting that everyone acknowledge the invisible child who made us parents, who completes our family, whom we miss every day. But (rarely) do we have the opportunity to draw anyone's attention to the much-loved child who is no longer here.
And sometimes we don't have the strength or energy to do so, and that's understandable and not a reflection of anything but the depth of our love and grief, which may be too tender for public display. (I say this because I stressed out about my complete lack of desire to participate in any kind of remembrance anything the first year after Eliza died. But I was doing something in my own way--basically by crying my eyes in the privacy of my own home out every single day.)
Parenting a child through fundraising and remembrance walks and grief support groups and symbolic things like balloon releases and candle lightings is futile and frustrating and heartbreaking. It's never, ever enough. It's just something. And it's something to do surrounded by other people who know what you're feeling.
And I think sometimes, something--anything--is better than the nothing we live with every other day. So we replace nothingness with somethingness, even if it's just for a few hours at a time.
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Unfortunately, my friend and her family are now in that other group--the ones with white balloons. Days after the fundraiser, they lost her niece to cancer. Another shattered family, living an impossible and unbearable reality. New members of a tribe (like mine, only different) that will rally to hold and comfort them, knowing that no condolences could ever be enough, ready to stand with them in a field full of broken-hearted people holding balloons.
It's not enough. But in the face of nothingness, that companionship is truly something.