Slightly less than two weeks after Kai died, a well-meaning but socially (and perhaps emotionally) inept person said to me, “is it getting a little better each day?” Most people upon hearing this would be outraged, knowing full well the absurdity of this question two weeks after what is arguably the most devastating event that could ever happen to a parent.
But would most people have the same reaction to this question if asked a year and a half later? I don’t think so. And therein lies the problem.
I believe that our Western society over the past few generations is the first culture in history to be almost entirely unfamiliar with the experience of the death of a child and the grief that ensues. Until the advent of modern medicine in the 20th century, the death of children was a common event. My own great great grandmother buried three of her five children. Not too long ago I came upon an article describing how, upon the invention of daguerrotypes in the 19th century, European families in particular would often have children photographed after their death as a keepsake and remembrance. One photograph that accompanied the story showed the surviving siblings surrounding the younger one who had died and was prepared for burial.
Most people would recoil from this and say that it is macabre, at best, and at worst, abusive to the surviving siblings. I believe this attitude about death permeates our society to the point where we will do almost anything to deny and protect ourselves from the reality of death, especially the death of children, whether they be young or adult children. The point is, people are utterly terrified by the thought that their children might precede them in death, and rightfully so. They will do anything to pretend that this is something that could never, ever happen to them. On top of that, our high-speed, goal-oriented culture demands that problems be addressed, handled, resolved, and filed away quickly, so as to move on to the next task or experience.
But where does this leave the bereaved parent?
This leaves the bereaved parent in devastating isolation, unable for the most part to express our true feelings to even the people closest to us. Who wants to hear 18 months on that I am still having more bad days than good ones? Who wants to hear that the hole in my heart is growing larger, that the pain in my soul is deepening? Who wants to know that there are many times of such intense sorrow that I long for my own death? In this society, it is taboo to admit that there may just be something that time, money, a prescription or therapy will never fix.
Somehow, I think our forebears understood this concept, and perhaps allowed themselves and each other to sit with the melancholy, rather than ignore it or attempt to chase it away. For now, I have chosen to allow myself to accept the melancholy. Masking it is exhausting and attempting to chase it away is futile. The only antidote to it is to find solace where I can, which happens to be in nature, particularly on the beautiful bay and ocean water that I am blessed to live near. Kai means “ocean” in the Hawaiian language, as well as in Japanese. This is one of the main reasons I chose this name for him. I have been drawn to the sea since I was a child. Now I feel closest to him when I am in the open expanse of sea and sky. There I can think and breathe and feel. I can look up at the sky and talk to him. There I feel a measure of peace. And that is the most I can ask for.