Today is Julian’s eighth Angelversary. Ever since year one, my family gathers together on March 3rd to celebrate his life and the profound privilege it is for all of us to be alive. We focus on the family who is still here on the planet, and we are reminded never to take each other for granted.
Today is also a day for personal reflection, as I review my progress over the past year. Now that I’ve completed eight years of The After, I can see my grief journey has gotten a little easier each year.
The first year was the worst, of course. The first birthday without him, the first time someone asked me how many children I have, the first vacation as a family of three… these firsts were impossible. After the firsts, each repeated instance became slightly less impossible. After almost eight years, I assumed all of my firsts were behind me.
Turns out, I was wrong. There was one really big first left to experience: the first time a friend called me, sobbing, “Oh Emily… Anna died yesterday.”
Sweet Anna. A kind, brave, curious 11-year-old girl I spent time with every summer for the past six years. She was more than just “a child I knew” or “my friends’ daughter.” We roasted marshmallows and had meaningful conversations together. I’m pretty sure I knew her better than I know my niece and nephews.
Anna was not a typical 11-year-old. She loved playing tennis, catching frogs, and the color purple. She identified as a liberal, and really understood what that meant. (How many 11YOs understand that? I don’t know any, besides Anna.) She had a motto, and repeated it often to her parents and friends. (How many 11YOs have a motto? I don’t know any, besides Anna.)
This special child was almost exactly the same age that Julian would have been. They never met each other, but they had a lot in common. They both had a twinkle in their eye, and a serious (but not terminal) health condition. They both had the best doctors who followed the best protocols at the best hospitals. And despite their diagnoses, they both were expected to live long healthy lives. But then… they didn’t.
Until that phone call, it didn’t occur to me to brace myself for the first death of a child, after my own. The first time I witnessed a friend take her first steps on the same path I’d been walking for more than seven years.
After I received that phone call, I sat at my kitchen counter and sobbed. Suddenly, my grief scab had been ripped off. I wept for Julian, I wept for Anna, I wept for Anna’s parents, and I wept for bereaved parents everywhere.
And then, after the initial shock wore off, I knew I had a decision to make: who would I be for my friend?
The easier choice would be to back away, become aloof, and tell my friend it was just too painful for me to go through this with her. The harder choice was to dive in to her experience with her, and to become the kind of guide and resource that I would have wanted in the days following Julian’s death.
I wish I could say it was an easy decision, but it wasn’t. I knew that choosing to move forward and travel this path with my friend would mean re-traveling the path myself. Was I up for that?
Ultimately, yes, of course I was. I took my friend by the hand, and we started walking the path.
We walked through the Dark Days, when nothing mattered and everything was a devastating blur. Somehow a zombie-like, latte-fueled version of ourselves was able to make cremation arrangements and decide how to celebrate our child’s life. We wondered, how can this possibly be real life?
We walked through the Evil-Inner-Critic Days, when we were attacked by that vicious voice in our head that told us our child’s death was definitely our fault, because we are the MOTHER and it is our JOB to protect our child from any and every danger, including dangers that came from within their own bodies. We were easily convinced when the voice told us, “a good mother wouldn’t WANT to survive the death of her child — how dare you try to move forward!” Our sad-grief turned into guilt-grief. We couldn’t stop that ruthless judge in our head, but we learned to recognize her. We named her Janice.
We walked through the Numbing Days, when we tried to replace our grief — and shut Janice up for a minute — with food or sleep or TV or sex or alcohol or whatever gave us the smallest whisper of pleasure in the middle of our black cloud of grief.
We walked through the Re-Entry Days, when we welcomed the return to our professional jobs, just so we could take a temporary break from grieving. We interacted with co-workers and baristas and all the random people we crossed paths with, never knowing when the next emotional breakdown would happen. We celebrated small wins, like having a day when we cried instead of sobbed.
Eventually, we arrived at the Creating-New-Normal Days, when we realized we will never have our old life again, but we can build a new one. We learned that this new life won’t be free from darkness, but there’s plenty of light if we’re willing to let it in. We accepted that we will probably never kill off our evil inner critic, but we’ve gained the strength to say “F off, Janice!” when necessary.
My friend and I are still walking that path, and we always will be. It’s not a path we chose, but it’s the path we’re on. And we’re walking it one step after the other.
We Keep Moving Forward.
Why? Because Anna told us to. She gave very specific instructions to everyone who knew her.
She wasn’t just a 11-year-old with a motto, she was a 11-year-old whose motto was “Keep Moving Forward” — KMF for short.
So that is what we do. We KMF. Day by day, step by step, my friend and I walk the path.
We Keep Moving Forward.
“It doesn’t matter how hard you can hit,
it matters how hard you can get hit,
and Keep Moving Forward.”
– Rocky Balboa