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What My Son's Death Taught Me About Grief

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Family Polaroid photos, What My Son's Death Taught Me (Istockphoto/Courtesy Vicki Lemley)

The author with her son, Brian, in 1975 and 1995. — Courtesy Victoria Lemley

Everything I know now about comforting someone who's grieving I learned the hard way: My son died.

I didn't grow up having grandparents, so I didn't experience that hard-on-the-heart loss that can fracture the world of a young adult or even a child.

When my dad died suddenly at 65 of a heart attack, I was 30, and for the first time my family was shattered by death.

Join the online discussion: The no longer taboo topic of death

Since then and over the years, there have been other losses, devastating illnesses that have taken family and friends. Through all those sad events, I always felt at a loss for words, not very good at doing the right thing, shy about disturbing someone during an incredibly painful time.

I kept a safe (first do no harm) distance.

And then in the January-cold of 2012, at age 37, without a reason, my son, my Brian, didn't wake up one morning, and I learned:

Distance isn't good: If you can be with someone in those darkest of moments, be there. Your presence is a gift of love that sustains the aching heart, mind and soul.

Do make a call: Even if your friend hasn't the strength then and there to come to the phone and talk, the message comes back that you care and feel the pain and loss, too.

Do send a note, an email or a card: What do you say? The truth is, there is nothing that can be said. Don't be hard on yourself for not having words that don't exist. But you can always say, "I'm so sorry." You mean it, and that's what matters.

You can say, "I can't begin to imagine how hard this is for you." After all, it's not possible for you to know how someone feels because relationships and grief are so very, very personal.

You can say, "It's not supposed to be this way; parents are not supposed to bury their child," even though we both know it happens all the time.

You can say to me, because I have to accept it, as hard as it is to accept: "It happened the way it was supposed to happen." Maybe your words will convince me and put an end to the extra heartache generated by the "what if" or "if only" scenarios. It's so hard to get past-over-around the fact that when my boy needed me the most, I wasn't there.

Realize that although he was a man, I did lose my boy: I grieve for my baby with the silver-blond hair that only a mother could see; I grieve for my toddler with the beautiful curls. I grieve for the big brother, for the teen, for the young man who always seemed in the eyes of his mother to need a shave and a haircut.

Realize that my pain can't be measured: It doesn't add up the years my son was in my life or subtract any miles between us. My loss isn't a word problem that factors in the number of children I have, their age or their gender, their gifts and talents or challenges.

Add to my memories instead: Tell me how you remember my baby, my boy, my young man. Tell me a story about him; free some from the cobwebs of my mind. Give me those keepsakes; give me that gold; fill my treasure chest with recollections. Every new one I have to cherish is a gift from you. Bring him up in conversations; talk about him; mention his name easily and often. I need to talk about him, too, and as often as possible — correct or not — in the present tense.

Don't be silent for fear of stirring up hurt: The hurt is constant; tears are every day. I am the walking wounded, and I just want you, as always, to walk with me. And while you may wish that I could "move on" — as though healing is possible — know that I can't possibly live long enough to heal from this loss. The best I can do is live with it, to somehow live through it, to learn to live as a mother whose life goes on even though her son's has ended.

You can pray for me: Tell me that you will, because I've lost so much confidence in my skills (no matter that I was asking for a miracle, I didn't get the answer I wanted when I needed it the most). Be careful, however, bringing God into the conversation. Although my Christian faith sustains me, I can't easily accept everyone speaking for God. He has given me more than I can handle. I don't see how this tragedy will work for good. I can't stomach the thought that my son is dead for some mysterious purpose in my life. And, until I see my child in heaven, how can I know he's there?

No small wonder you're afraid to come near, to talk, to comfort.

I'll make it easy. Just come close: Call today and say that you want to get together — to have coffee. Tell me that you think about my son all the time, too, and miss him. That message soothes my broken heart. Send a message any time, and frequently — if just to recommend a book or share a quote that comforts you. Let your heart speak.

Just touch my hand: That, too, touches my heart.

Victoria Lemley is an editor at AARP.

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