Friday, May 25, 2018

Knowing Tomorrow isn’t Promised

Trigger Warning: discussion of children dying, loss and grief, cancer, suicide, nightmares, and strong emotions.

Last night I had a dream – or maybe it was a nightmare.

The Grieving Parents, Käthe Kollwitz
First, the backstory (real awake life). I have two friends who in recent months lost their young adult child: one to cancer, the other to suicide. Add them to the growing list of people I care about who have lost a child.

It is a tragedy I cannot imagine, although there have been times I’ve feared it. To nurture someone, to invest your entire being in someone, to see them grow and develop into their own person, to feel your love and pride grow, only to have them snatched away, must be one of the most horrible things that can happen.

I have seen parents eventually find peace, and I have seen parents whose lives are completely destroyed by the loss.

It is so hard to know what to say, because there is nothing to be said. Platitudes would be callous and hurtful. I want to offer reassurances, but I can’t promise anything. I want to say something that will make them feel better, if only momentarily, but how could any words make someone feel better when they’ve just lost their child? I settle on expressing concern and compassion, and validation for their pain, because I do want them to know that I care.

Two nights ago I had a brief exchange on Facebook Messenger with one of these friends. It wasn’t at all related to the loss of his child. It was past my bedtime and my brain was already falling asleep. I didn’t want to end the exchange without somehow acknowledging his loss, this profound change in his world, but I couldn’t find the words. Rather than risk writing something that would be unhelpful, I didn’t address it and went to sleep.

So now the nightmare…

I found out that my friend, the other parent who’d lost his child, had just died of suicide. I was distraught, sobbing uncontrollably. I feverishly read through Facebook posts to try to better understand what had transpired. I couldn’t help but think of our recent exchange (in real life it was the other friend I’d had that exchange with – but in the dream, both friends had become one person), and how I had failed to express my regret or compassion or love.

I was horrified to realize that now I would never have the chance to tell him. A part of me wondered if a kind word at that time, instead of going to sleep, might have made the smallest of differences, a hand reaching through the darkness at the right time, enough to keep him from ending his life.

I was inconsolable.

In the dream, all of the people who had information about my friend’s death, who’d spent time with him in recent days and weeks, gathered in a house. I was desperate for answers. Then somehow, one of the people revealed that my friend had not in fact died – his attempt had failed. He was in the hospital recovering.

I was so relieved, and at the same time furious that this person had led so many of us to believe that our friend had died. I remember yelling at him. I was angry at him, angry at everyone. And crying, I couldn’t stop crying.

I woke up a bit, but then drifted back into the nightmare – several times. I was overwhelmed by my strong emotions. Finally, I roused myself enough to get out of bed and walk around a bit, so that I could leave that awful dream behind.

Käthe Kollwitz
Clearly, I hadn’t felt right about going to sleep without expressing my compassion to my friend during our exchange. And once asleep, my brain realized that since tomorrow is never promised, I might not ever have the opportunity. And that it would be incredibly painful to live with my regret, were that to happen.

I don’t believe in prophetic dreams. And during the time in my life when I did, it was clearly and repeatedly demonstrated that my dreams were definitely not prophetic. So upon waking, I didn’t have any worries that something had actually happened to either friend. But I did feel like I’d been given a second chance – along with the reminder that second chances are not always given.

I wrote to both friends to let them know I was thinking about them, and was available if they wanted to talk.

I still don’t know what to say. I still know that my words are inadequate, and can’t possibly bring the comfort or relief I wish they could. But I also know that sometimes when we are struggling, having someone reach out to us with love is enough. It doesn’t appease our struggle, but it reminds us that we aren’t completely alone in our darkness.

I am so grateful that I did have a second chance. And I’m grateful for the reminder that we can not hesitate to express our love and compassion to others – we have to act on it immediately, or risk not having the chance to ever again.

Tomorrow isn’t promised. Tell your children you love them. Tell your friends that you care.

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