Today the nation observed a moment of silence to remember and honor the lives lost in last week’s tragedy in Newtown, CT at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Those not directly touched by these events have already moved on to the next news cycle, or pressing personal issue, as is expected. For those of you who look at this tragedy from afar and wonder what will be next for those families, here is a little insight into the day to day things that make the journey back to “normal” a long and painful one.
As many of you know, my family lost our little Elise right before Halloween, so in private, we are mourning the loss of a small one for whom we had hopes, and dreams and adventures planned as are the families of Newtown. Here are some of the things that they will face in the coming days, weeks and months that we are only a handful of weeks ahead of them in knowing.
The logistics of death are never-ending. There is paperwork to be done and there are fees to be paid. Did you know that a small casket alone (separate from the other funeral/burial fees) can run up to $1,000? For some families this is small coin, while for others, it is significant – especially at this time of year. Never mind that having a discussion about the purchase of a casket is something no parent or grandparent should ever have to do, but there are parents all over this country who, every day, are faced with that terrible reality yet it only intrudes into our daily lives when a tragedy of mass proportion hits us personally, or is in the news. Now the nation is pondering how awful that task must be, and I can tell you, after watching my son-in-law sign the paperwork for the purchase of the casket, the disposition of the body after it leaves the medical examiner’s office and the final disposition, it is one of those times when your mind is screaming “THIS ISN’T REAL! THIS CANNOT BE HAPPENING! STOP – STOP – STOP!”, but it doesn’t stop, and it IS happening, and there’s nothing you can do to reverse it.
There are beneficiary and health insurance forms to be updated and there is nothing NORMAL about looking at the name of your child, or grandchild and clicking on the cold and impersonal “DELETE” button, and then having to confirm, “Do you really want to DELETE this beneficiary?” Well, now that you ask, hell no I don’t want to delete her but I wasn’t at the decision table when this whole mess started, so perhaps you ought to ask the fates, or whomever it was that decided this was something we needed to endure. I still haven’t removed Elise from my beneficiary listing – I can’t – I will eventually, but right now I just can’t.
My daughter’s mother in law was a blessing in so many ways; one thing that she did quietly and persistently was the laundry. This may seem like a small task, but what she did was prevented my poor daughter from having to comb through piles of dirty laundry with the baby’s last food stain on it, or the outfit they wore when were we together that last weekend, or her jammies that still smelled like her. Some families will have this help – others will have to do it themselves; it’s just another one of the realities of death that we sanitize out of our common discourse but that are reminders of our loss that we must deal with in the aftermath.
My daughter tells me that she feels like at times they are wearing the equivalent of a Scarlet letter. Instead of the red ‘A’ for adultery, they have the darkened letter ‘D’ for death. People mean well, but as I have mentioned in other posts, we have so sanitized the experience of death out of our culture that most of us have NO idea whatsoever how to react when someone has experienced a loss as profound as that of a child. Recently, my daughter and son-in-law took their older children to a local holiday event in a place where their tragedy was known. At the check-in table, when they told the registrar their last name, the adults at the table froze, and looked at each other for a pregnant moment, not knowing what to say. We realize that this was unintentional and probably unavoidable – an automatic reaction of panic, after all, no one knows what to say; but it immediately reminded my daughter and her husband that they were “that family” – the unlucky parents of a dead child. When you are grieving and trying to stay busy so you can get the terrible images from that day/night out of your mind, instances like this bring them rushing back and you immediately feel alone, and different from everyone else. I suspect that these kinds of incidents multiply in number and scope when your tragedy is broadcast across the 24-hour news cycle, and for this, I am sad for the families of Newtown.
Because of the season, the parents of Newtown will have presents to unwrap and return, and layaways to cancel. Cancelling a layaway at a local store for my daughter was painful enough as a grandmother. I had to explain, first to the clerk, who exchanged looks with another clerk, then listen as they called their supervisor and explained it to her; and then repeat myself a third time when I had to talk with the store manager. If I could have, I would have just cancelled it, but it was in my daughter’s name, and I was getting the money back for her, so there was a process to follow, and details to document – and they still charged the $10 cancellation fee. That was, however, a little easier than the Xmas list.
I have for years kept a Xmas list for gifts and the amount I spent on each one because as a busy working Mom, it’s too easy to over-buy for one, and under-buy for another. This keeps me honest and family peace in check. Like we are all trying to do, putting one foot in front of the other each day to piece together some return to “normal”, I was trying to get into the holiday spirit and had purchased a few gifts here and there, and as December rolled in and my work/travel schedule ramped up, I knew I needed to open last year’s list and update it for this year’s shopping.
I read through from the top, where the list includes my parents, my sister, her family, my kids and girlfriends/son-in-laws,… and grandchildren: and there it was: 3 little entries from last year where I had lovingly and delightedly shopped for my 3 littlest loved ones. I stopped. I would only be shopping for 2 this year, but like my beneficiary listing on my 401k, I could not bring myself to highlight those lines in that Excel spreadsheet and right-click to ‘DELETE’. Elise’s gifts from last year remain on my list, and will until I can bring myself to remove them – which may be never.
The families of Newtown will pick themselves up, and like us, will put one foot in front of the other as they care for other children, pay bills, and attempt to return to some semblance of life but I suspect that their pain, like ours, will lie just below the surface for a long time to come. If you know someone who has experienced the loss of a child, do not judge: they may look “normal” or laugh, or post pictures of themselves in the company of others having fun, but scratch the surface of that smiling veneer and you will find a raw pain that doesn’t show itself in public much after the funerals are over, but which remains ever present and capable of bringing them to their knees in an instant.
It’s weird what your mind does when you are in the midst of a crisis. I distinctly remember thinking that night, as the police tromped in and out of the house, and we collected business cards from the Medical Examiner’s office and detectives: “our lives will never be the same, again” and I was right. We are not the same people we were last Xmas, or this Summer at the beach, or even the weekend before it happened. The families of Newtown, like us will begin to realize this if they haven’t already. The national discourse around guns, shootings, and mental health will ebb and flow with the politics of the day but for the mothers and fathers and siblings who will awaken each day to the realization that one of their precious ones is no longer there, they are reminded each time that they, too will never be the same again.
“I get distracted with the tasks of everyday life, and everything seems ok. Then I click on a page, or a file and your picture brings me back to the reality that you are gone, and that I will never again comb your hair after a bath, help you get into your jammies or share a Christmas cookie and smile with you… and ‘ok’ disappears, replaced by bewilderment, and an aching emptiness that I share with so many who miss you too.”