“Just breathe,” they say. In its simplicity, the command is supposed to give a sense of focusing on the present, the essential, the surviving. But I couldn’t breathe when I realized that SUV was barreling straight into my son’s stroller, my mother-hands not strong enough to hold onto him as my body was thrown.
I couldn’t breathe when I regained consciousness on the warm asphalt of the crosswalk, the chemical smell of late summer tar lines, blue sky above me, and morning humid in the air telling me that this nightmare was real.
I couldn’t breathe when I was unable to move and too busy screaming to God, trying desperately to get his attention to save my baby, yearning for Him take me instead.
I couldn’t breathe as I heard the ambulance wail, and then as they loaded me inside separate from my baby, telling me that my 5-month-old son would be transported to the hospital in another ambulance.
I couldn’t breathe through broken ribs, endless tears, and sickening worry, grasping to the minuscule hope that my son would be alive when I saw him.
I couldn’t breathe when they all refused to tell me how Tristan was doing.
I couldn’t breathe when, after hearing my husband’s heavy footfall rush into the emergency room, hearing him with a guttural cry and then thud to the floor when they told him our son “didn’t make it.”
I couldn’t breathe when the nurse asked me, my body still strapped to the gurney and my neck in a brace, me staring at the placard on the wall outside of the closed door and unable to understand the words, everything surreal. She asked if I wanted to see him.
I couldn’t breathe knowing that I had to be with my baby, but terrified of what I would see beyond that door, and knowing that once I crossed its threshold, there was never ever any going back.
I couldn’t breathe knowing, no matter what I did, there was never any going back to “before.”
I couldn’t breathe when I saw Tristan’s little body, battered and broken, him still strapped to the board and intubated, and me instinctively aching just to take all of his pain away.
I couldn’t breathe when I realized that he felt no pain to be taken away.
It was months that I felt like I had been holding my breath, afraid to breathe life to this reality and pummeling grief.
“Just breathe,” they’d say.
But what they never realize is that when your child is taken from you, even breathing feels impossible. “Just breathe,” is added to the long list of things from the time “before” that feel unattainable.
It is the inhaling that is the most effort. It is the inhale that defies logic, longing, and loss. The inhale means that you are alive while your child is not. It is the conscious defiance to the overwhelming pain of sudden, massive grief. The inhale is the oxymoron to your new existence.
So I learned to focus on the exhale.
It was the exhale that allowed me to let go of all the expectation and unnecessary effort in this new existence. It was the exhale that permitted me to let go, succumb to the reality, start to process and breathe.
It was that first conscious exhale that said, “I’m done. I can’t do this. I don’t WANT to do this.” Yet I recognized, with that immediate inhale that followed, that this intractable rhythm would continue. I would continue.
I could continue.
It was the exhale that made the inhale involuntary.
It was the exhale that gave me hope.
About the Author: Mindy is a resilience coach, wife, and mother of three. As pedestrians in a crosswalk, her baby in his stroller, she experienced the tragic loss of her middle child at five months of age in August 2016 when they were hit by an SUV. As a new mom to her rainbow baby daughter, she advocates for tougher distracted driving laws in Virginia while managing “Tristan’s Light – A Day of Love” in memory of her son. https://www.facebook.com/bestillbelove