I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Lost children

Top: Chris; bottom: Stephen and me

 I don't often write about my two sons who have passed away, but I was looking at pictures of all sorts, and I realized that I still have a great deal of sadness around not having them in my life any more, even after all these years. I stumbled upon a scrapbook filled with pictures of Chris' wedding, and I realized I couldn't even open the cover and look at them. I like to think that I am completely over their loss, but it's not true. I guess you never are really healed of such loss, you just learn how to cope.

Another thing I have lately come to realize is that I owe it to my lost babies to keep their memories alive. Although it's been more than half a century since Stephen died, he still continues to be a part of me, an infant whom I loved immeasurably.

He was a perfectly healthy year-old child until he contracted spinal meningitis. It killed him within hours, and within a day, my life had changed forever, along with Chris' life (he was not even four at the time), and my husband Derald's life. I fell into a huge pit of grief and felt as though my own life has ended. But of course it didn't. I have a memory of Chris telling me not to cry, he would go up to heaven to get Stephen and bring him back. Looking back on that time, which ended with me divorcing Derald and me trying to get back to some semblance of normal life and not doing it very well. I still regret that I was unable to mother my remaining child properly and how much he also suffered because of my grief. Somehow Chris turned out just fine, in spite of how much he went through. 

I have a memory of Chris waiting in front of our home for the school bus to take him away for the first day of kindergarten. He wore of look of stoicism, dressed in his new clothes and shoes, and I cried as he boarded the huge yellow bus. These days kids don't do that anymore; I would have driven him to school and waited for him to disappear behind the school walls.

Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have: life itself. —Walter Anderson

Chris was forty when his wife, Silvia, called me from Germany to tell me he had died. He had been jogging with his squadron when he fell over with a heart attack. He died right there in sight of his fellow soldiers, but they were unable to revive him. I like to think he didn't suffer but lost consciousness quickly. 

I traveled to Germany to attend his memorial service and spent some time with Silvia, whom I had never met before. She had been married previously and had a young son, but he didn't speak any English, so I didn't get to know him well. Silvia, however, was wonderful to me and we spent some sad time together. I was there for almost a week, I believe, and was able to address his fellow soldiers and get to know them a little, too. I was almost sixty when he died, and now I am an octogenarian filled with old memories.

Not only have I outlived my two sons, but also my parents and one sister. Neither of my parents made it out of their sixties; Daddy died at 62, and Mama at 69. It was heart disease that took both of them, too. Chris got bad genes from both sides of his family, but he seemed healthy and had recently passed a physical. He died in 2002, so it's been almost a quarter century, but I still cannot open an old scrapbook and look at pictures of that happy day when he married Silvia.

My life has not followed the path I expected it to follow, back when I was a young mother of two beautiful young boys. In my life I have amassed many regrets, but none as large as the failure I brought into my son Chris's life. I wish I had been a stronger person, but I was only 22 and not very cognizant of any alternatives I might have had. There was no such thing as a support group for grieving parents, not where I lived anyway, and I managed to muddle through. 

I retired from my job and career in 2008 and moved to the Pacific Northwest from Colorado and fell in love with the beautiful green, lush countryside. We have always been happy that we made the move, and I am still able to enjoy getting out and hiking around the area. As long as that is true, I know where I will be spending many of my days. The Senior Center here in Bellingham is one of the best, and it offers many activities for older people, so I think I will be fine for however much time I might have left. You cannot escape the inevitable decline of physical abilities, but you can find ways to continue to be engaged and involved in life's pleasures.

So long as the memory of certain beloved friends lives in my heart, I shall say that life is good. —Helen Keller

And I continue to be inspired by Helen Keller's incredible life story. Her ability to find joy and peace, even missing what most of us consider to be life's greatest pleasures, to be able to see and hear, is inspiring. How can I continue to harbor grief when so much of life calls to me to be grateful? Gratitude is taking a moment to reflect on how lucky you are when something good happens, whether it's small or big.

And the magic of the internet allows me to spread gratitude far and wide, to my beloved virtual family, and to all others who share life's joys with one another, and with me. Until we meet again next week, dear friends, I wish you all good things. Be well.


John's Island said...

Dear DJan, Thank you for sharing such a deeply personal journey of love, loss, and resilience. Your words resonate profoundly, reminding us of the enduring power of memory and the resilience of the human spirit. Your words serve as a beacon of hope and encouragement for others navigating their own journeys of loss and healing. May you continue to find solace in the memories of your beloved sons and the beauty that surrounds you. Very best wishes to you from a long-time follower. John

Barbara Rogers said...

I always enjoy reading your blogs on Sunday. Today I was so sad while reading of your experiences of loss, love, and survival...and gratitude. You really opened up your softest vulnerable place of sadness, and all who read this may well be toughed by your mixed emotions. I'm so glad that at this point in your life you are able to enjoy so much of the surrounding beauty of your environment, as well as take part in community events. Keep healing, it is always a process, to pick up whenever you're ready.

Rian said...

DJan, I can't even imagine going through the loss of your children as you have. And no, I believe it's something one could never fully recover from... but as you said, perhaps you learn how to cope. Stephen was a beautiful child and Chris such a handsome man. But somehow you found the strength to go on and that's more than admirable, it's inspiring. Life takes each of us on our own journey and how we face what it brings defines us. We have our memories (both good and bad) - but the love we shared - and still share never leaves us. As one of your quotes mentioned, love lives forever in our hearts.

Salty Pumpkin Studio said...

You are in my prayers
Grief is another part of us that is always there. Thankfully there are more times when it is thin enough to see through the life we are living. When it is thickest, that is time to reflect, embrace the grief like you do here.

Red said...

You've been given a tremendous load of grief to carry. I met a man who had lost two wives. I'll never forget him saying , "It shouldn't happen to you twice." Back in the day thee was little help to del with grief. You don't overcome it but in some way learn to live with it. My sister died at age 11. My Dad never came to terms with her loss. At that time it was considered that children didn't experience grief . I remember that no one talked to my brothers and I about her loss.

Sandra said...

I have not had this experience which means I speak from thought, not experience. I believe you never get over the grief of a child's death, much less two. I think you learn to cope with it. You can feel the sorrow of that loss and still hold gratitude in your heart. Don't feel bad about it, it makes you human. A virtual hug to you.

ApacheDug said...

DJan, I've always enjoyed reading about your sons and I can't imagine how difficult it can be to relive their passing, but I think it's wonderful how you keep the memories of your sons alive. You know, my mom passed 20 years ago and it's still very fresh in my mind; so I'm sure that's how Chris is to you. Thank you for sharing these memories with us. You have much to be proud of.

Linda Reeder said...

DJan, I have known about the trememdous loss of your sons from previous postings, but this reminds me that you are still dealing with that loss every day. You are a person who is so full of life. I suspect you find solace in your many outdoor adventures and by surronding yourelf with like minded friends.
Sending hugs for the days that are still hard.

Marie Smith said...

Jan, my heart aches as I read of your loss. Our daughter is sick and with the fear and apprehension I am feeling over it, I cannot begin to imagine your sorrow for your dear boys. We do our best in the face of grief but time is really the only healer. Thank you for sharing your story and reminding me that we will come through whatever lies ahead.

Elephant's Child said...

My heart aches with and for you dear friend. I don't believe we ever get over grief. It changes us. Mostly we learn to live with it, but it will always bite us from time to time.
Huge hugs.

Anvilcloud said...

Not that I have experienced personally, but I have seen the effects of a young child's death in the not-very-extended family. It was hard and still is at significant times of years. I know how we can be right back where we were so long ago, feeling like we are there again, feeling the same emotions.

Gigi said...

Sending you so much love. xo

Rita said...

I have been so very close to losing Dagan--three times so far. But he made it. So I don't feel like I have any true idea of what it feels like. There is a chasm so deep between almost and actually losing them. Sending love and hugs. You will never forget and love them always and forever.

Far Side of Fifty said...

Sending you a virtual hug. Life and death are not easy, we all grieve differently, some for short times and some carry their grief throughout their lives. No one can tell what is right for another person. Just know you have many friends who care!

Hilary said...

What a beautiful baby, and what a handsome, grown up son........I can't imagine the grief you have endured. I am glad that you have found some happiness in your life, even after such a numbing loss.

Linda Myers said...

I have heard your story before and am still full of compassion for all that loss. Thinking of you especially today.