The structure of a support system is something that I haven’t been very familiar with in my personal life. I have cloudy memories of some tradition when I was a small boy. Those memories usually came from holidays and they are blurry at best. At some point in both my immediate and extended family, something broke and has not been fixed since.
Was it my grandmothers passing when I was a teenager that seemed to send relatives on a tailspin and in a million different directions? Was it my parents’ divorce that caused me and my brothers to become skeptical of everyone and everything? Was it simply unresolved issues that found themselves in between distant relatives or siblings? To be completely honest, I don’t know what went wrong or when it happened — but it did.
At some point, it seemed that everyone became only concerned about how they were doing. They only focused on their immediate situation. Only what was directly in front of them, drew their attention. Even the basic good mannered appreciation of one another was vacant. There were no such things as a family get-together — at least not one that didn’t involve awkward arguments, silent meals or some type of falling outs. Birthdays and holidays come and go without a card or a phone call. Eventually this habit didn’t just get practiced among the adults, but among the nieces and nephews as well. I watched as things slowly crumbled around the foundation and with each attempt I made to save it — it seemed to only get worse. An out-of-control snowball of disregard, tumbling down a mountain, gaining speed and magnitude has made a wasteland of my family.
Tragedy, like someone yelling in a silent library, can get your attention. However what a person does with that attention still falls into the hands of the individual. My life has had some interesting moments of tragedy. Moments that shook us to the core. We watched as my son moved to another state. We had to have my mother committed to a mental hospital after finding her bruised and cut by self-inflected wounds. We watched our youngest son cling to life in the NICU for almost a month. We buried our daughter after she was born still. All of these events took place within a few years.
With all these events, it still wasn’t enough — isn’t enough to get those who are on the outskirts to change, to disregard their comfort zone or to allow the tragedy to do any long-lasting good. There has been no determined change in behavior to care for someone else. There have been no moments that we hold onto any longer simply because we know how fragile life is. There have been very few exchanges that would identify us as a people who care, love and are there for each other.
No — instead it has been business as usual. Everyone moves along at their own pace, in their own world, focused on their own problems, oblivious of anything else around them. When this subject is brought up, it intensifies as each person stands their ground, shuts down the lines of communication and retreats with bitterness and anger.
I don’t ask why too often when it comes to what life has brought us. Sure I toy with the notion just like any other person but I don’t spend too much time in that arena. Instead I am baffled at the absence of those that you would expect to be there, to not be. We learned that this wasn’t just our experience when we attended Grief Share counseling.
I assumed the reason that people in our family didn’t consider it serious enough to warrant support, was because our daughter had died in the womb. Sure there were tears and any time we bring it up, there are nods and shaking heads that are supposed to imply comfort, but nothing of value past that. Nothing that requires genuine effort or sacrifice has ever emerged since we put her in the ground, admitted my mother, said goodbye to my son at the airport or any other situation. I imagined had our stillborn daughter grown to be three or maybe ten-years-old, that the reaction would’ve been different. Perhaps I assume wrong.
Our counseling class was filled with people who had lost older children, same age siblings, parents and grandparents, yet they all had one thing in common with us. The support system that should’ve been there was strangely invisible. People who didn’t know what to say, resorted to not saying anything at all. This was the most common occurrence in the group. This single act eventually developed into estranged relationships. This was obviously a horrible part of the collateral damage that you don’t anticipate or know how to handle. A second loss, if you will.
To be completely transparent with our readers, this is where my wife and I are today. We have goals. We are focused on what is in front of us, but we are also human and we find ourselves rehashing what went wrong and how to fix it. I feel ashamed that I spend time trying to figure out how to fix others so they will show support, instead of focusing on how to move forward in our own grief journey. While those on the outside of our pain aren’t our sole priority, it hurts to know that it doesn’t have to be this way.
I usually try to write with advice, real-life examples and hope for those who may have been a part of the loss of a child, but today I am asking you to help me. What has your experience been since the loss? What has the family structure looked like? What changed? Were you able to fix it? Did it grow stronger? How much control is truly in your hands? Do my wife and I accept that those closest will now remain those farthest? In the meantime, we will take another step on this road.