I wrote the words below after the tragic murders of two children earlier this fall. Since I heard the news of the shootings and deaths of 20 elementary school children yesterday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I cannot stop thinking we all fell off the tightrope yesterday. The unspoken contract we have with this world has been breached in the most horrific way possible. I’m reposting these thoughts, which were linked to my post yesterday. I believe strongly that no matter what our beliefs are about the Second Amendment, we need to think about gun control in a new way. We need to think about mental health care in a new way. There are too many people in our country struggling with mental health and too many guns floating around within their access to believe that this, or Aurora, or Columbine won’t happen again, and in the meantime, I need to be able to trust that my children can go to school and not be slaughtered in their classrooms. I need to be able to get back on the tightrope. This time, I feel we must do something to change things in this country. But until then, I am thinking of the parents who lost children yesterday. It’s all I can think about.
We walk through this world on a fragile tightrope of trust. We trust — because it’s the only way we can function in our daily lives — that people and the universe are going to behave predictably and in a way that will allow us to maintain our well being and that of our loved ones. It’s impossible to live a life anticipating tragedy, so even though we know it is a possibility, we have to choose to ignore it and go out into the world where bad things happen every day — just not, we hope, to us. Somewhere along the way, we seem to pick up some delusion of control — that is, if we do everything right and follow some set of unwritten rules, we’ll be okay. We won’t be hit by an inattentive driver. Our plane won’t crash. A psychotic man won’t bring a gun to our movie theater. Someone won’t bring a gun to our children’s school. We won’t be caught in someone else’s moment of violence.
The need for this unspoken deal with the universe grows exponentially when we have children, because the thought of anything happening to our children is beyond what we can or want to imagine. The truth is, of course, that we have no control. There is no agreement we can honor that will protect us or our children. Bad things do happen to good people all the time. Sometimes, bad things happen to children.
There is no word for a parent who loses a child. If you lose a wife, you are a widower. If you lose a husband, you are a widow. If you lose your parents, you are an orphan. But there is no word for a parent who has lost a child. I am a lover of words; words are my foundation. But there’s no word for a mother who has lost a child to miscarriage, to prematurity, to stillborn death. There’s no word for a mother who has lost a child to cancer or a car accident. There’s no word, and somehow, that is as it should be. To lose a child must be so searing, so stripping, so solitary and so wrong that there actually is no one word fit to describe it. It’s too big. And perhaps there is no word for a parent who loses a child because the status doesn’t change… the person is still a parent. Once a parent, we are always parents. It’s an immutable part of our identity.
Since becoming a mother, I have been amazed by how unifying the experience can be when we let our guards down and allow it. If we can get over our insecurities and our egos, motherhood can be entry into a vast, universal landscape of women. We “get” each other. We might not think the same things, believe the same things, worship the same deities, or mother in exactly the same ways, but we are all mothers. Thus, we know and understand something integral about each other. But how does it feel to be a mother who has lost a child? Where does that put you in the landscape? How do you reference it, how do you honor it, how do you live that experience every day, when there isn’t even a word for it?
Mothers who lose children see the darkest side of the world. They fall off the tightrope. I don’t know how they find peace with a world that has broken their trust. All I know is that when another mother loses a child, I grieve with her. I grieve for her and the horror she must walk through. I grieve for the child and a void I cannot imagine. But I also grieve for myself and for all mothers, for the glimpse behind the curtain. I grieve the loss of naive ignorance that made me think, at some point, that if I breastfed on demand or bought the right car seats or tucked them in every night or grilled potential babysitters thoroughly enough, I could somehow vaccinate myself or my children from a terrible turn of events. The truth is, we’re all vulnerable — terribly, horribly, vulnerable — and all we can do is be grateful and hug our children every moment given to us. That’s the only aspect of control we have.
And tomorrow, we must crawl out of our beds, get dressed, and go back out into the world again, our children in tow, almost as if this bad thing didn’t happen. Almost.