Yesterday was the 4-month anniversary of Julian’s death. I tried to write a blog post, but I couldn’t decide what to write about. Should I write about this specific 4-month milestone? Should I write about the lake cabin we are at right now, and how much Julian loved being here exactly one year ago? Should I write about how this is Fourth of July weekend, and every holiday is one more holiday without him? Should I write about one of the myriad insights and surprises I’ve discovered in these four months? Or about the many books I’ve read about grief and bereavement? Or how I’ve changed as a person and a mother?
I couldn’t decide. So I didn’t write much of anything. But this morning when I woke up, there was just one singular Deep Thought on my mind: Bad stuff happens to everyone, regardless of what we want or expect. As human beings, we shouldn’t expect to have a perfect life — but we do. We expect businesses to not have layoffs. We expect houses not to get foreclosed on. We expect to have the health care we need, with doctors that cure all disease and hospitals that always save the lives of our loved ones.
Sometimes (hopefully, usually) our expectations are met. We stay employed, we keep a roof over our heads, our families stay healthy. And in my case, it’s so much more than that: Not only am I employed, I own a business with my husband and I get to do work that I love with people who I love for clients that I love. Not only do I have a roof over my head, I have a lovely home on a beautiful wooded lot in a location that is ideal for my family. And up until 4 months ago, I would have been able to tell you that not only do I have the health care I need, I have never needed doctors to cure diseases and save the life of loved ones.
And then that changed. Life wasn’t perfect anymore. Life was very, very imperfect.
My perfect little boy — 25% of my perfect family, living under our perfect roof, being supported by our perfect business, and being treated by perfect health care — left the planet. No one knows why he got leukemia in the first place, and no one knows why he developed an infection that wasn’t even slowed down by the very best doctors using the very best medicine at the very best pediatric hospital in the midwest.
It just happened.
It’s so easy to go to that place of, “Why me?” Why my family? But then I take a moment and think, why not me? As certain as I am that none of us did anything to “deserve” this loss, I also have to recognize that the opposite is true: none of us did anything NOT to deserve this loss. This is life. There’s no shortage of clichés about it… what makes us stronger, glass half full, lemons from lemonade, blah blah blah. But sometimes we just need to remind ourselves of the succinct and well-put classic:
That’s what it comes down to. Sh*t happens. Bad stuff happens. All the time. To everyone. If you are human, you can’t escape it. If you are human, you WILL feel pain — physical, emotional, life-changing, heart-wrenching pain. And ultimately, pain is pain. My pain may be different from your pain, but your pain is just as real as mine.
Today, four months after the death of my young son, I don’t ask, “Why me?” I don’t compare myself to “more fortunate” families who haven’t experienced the tragedy of a child’s death. It’s no coincidence that a book I was reading yesterday included this quote from Helen Keller:
Instead of comparing our lot with that of those who are more fortunate than we are, we should compare it with the lot of the great majority of our fellow men. It then appears that we are among the privileged.
– Helen Keller, We Bereaved, 1929
I have one great big reason to feel less fortunate than others, but I have a whole bunch of reasons to feel privileged. The death of my child doesn’t make me a victim of fate any more than Helen Keller was a victim of fate. Sometimes, people are born without the ability to see or hear. Sometimes, children die. Also: soldiers go to war and don’t come back, people text at the wheel, companies lay people off, homes get foreclosed on, earthquakes and tsunamis destroy whole communities, cancer invades bodies, modern medicine cures less than 100% of patients. Bad stuff happens.
These four months have taught me a lot. Some of it, I wish I didn’t have to learn. Some of it, I appreciate. Today I’m appreciating my new understanding that my pain is not unique. Sooner or later, in big or small ways, we all feel pain. “Why me?” isn’t the question to ask. The question to ask is, who do we choose to compare ourselves to? What do we choose to feel — unfortunate, or privileged?
Today — as I celebrate the Fourth of July at this beautiful Minnesota lake cabin, as I watch Oscar and my nephews playing in the lake that Julian loved so much last year, as I enjoy time with my parents and siblings, as I feel healthy and secure — I feel privileged. I miss my son, I would do anything to have him here with us, and I feel privileged.