Disclaimer: The views expressed here are mine and mine alone. My statements reflect only my thoughts, not of any other grieving parent who may feel completely differently. I don’t post these to feed any narcissism. I post these because I know that some people truly just want to know what life is like for the mother of a dead child. Vicariously living someone else’s pain can help make one appreciate more the good in their own life, and understand better the true pain and grief that comes from an out-of-sequence death. I use the words ‘death,’ ‘died,’ and ‘dead’. It’s what happened to Hans. Hans is dead.
“God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can't. If a thing is free to be good it's also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata - of creatures that worked like machines - would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they've got to be free.
Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk. (...) If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will - that is, for making a real world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings - then we may take it it [sic] is worth paying.”
C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity
I am not at peace. All is not well with my soul.
Sometimes I wish there was a little bell that would ding in my ear every time others thought of Hans. But then again how would I feel when that bell stops ringing so often? His death, everyone’s death, is eclipsed by the next new tragedy, by the death of every next person. It is the natural course of life for us all to continue living without them.
Obviously, Hans did not die at war, though, as I said before, he was willing to do so when he chose to attend the Naval Academy, chose to make the military his career. Despite his willingness to fight for the cause of liberty throughout the world, he is judged by the manner of his dying. I perceive that it is human nature to venerate the dead to a level based on the person’s own level of responsibility for his or her death. The attention, the accolades, the remembrances, the scholarships, the non-profit foundations, and the history books reflect that subliminal assignation of veneration. We parents also carry a portion of vicarious responsibility for the death, which affects our grieving. Hans carried some responsibility for his death, so his death is not as revered as that of a child who died of cancer, or of a murder victim, or of a soldier at war. But, as I’ve also said before, in the end, every single one of the dead are dead and it hurts like hell for any of us still living, regardless of the cause of death. Why do we want our dead to be remembered when after a time, sometimes even a brief time, most of them are forgotten?
Every day is a sad day. Every day is a day that I know Hans is dead. But every day is also a day to celebrate the life of Zatha. And Eric. Every day is a day that I am at war: with the ultimate sadness I feel that Hans is dead and the supreme happiness I feel having Zatha and Eric to love. So now I am constantly at war with myself. My head and my heart are at war – logic against emotion. I am at war with my feelings of wanting to be completely alone, not answer my door or my phone, or go to the grocery store, and yet wanting to be wanted and thought of and missed and called and visited. I am at war with myself, trying to find a way to gracefully grieve against my raw desire to wither and wail.
Like a drug addict wants to bring other addicts into the fold, it is true that we seek out people, groups, crowds, like ourselves. I have begun friendships with other mothers of dead children. My aunt, whose son (my cousin) died in a car accident in 1997, recommended Compassionate Friends to me. I have not contacted the group yet, and may someday, or may not. Though I have old friendships (some rather silent now) and a couple of new friendships, those who can really be a sounding board during commiseration sessions are other mothers of a dead child. I have been catapulted into that realm of mothers of a dead child. And even then, we are each so alone, in a way; carrying the burden of our grief until we die ourselves, because we are the only mother of that child who has died. I am the only mother of Hans Paul Loewen.
Those new friends of mine, the ones who have also had a child die, mentioned that, for them, the second year after the death of their child was probably worse than the first. Much like I didn’t want to join the Mothers of Dead Children Club, I didn’t want to believe them. But they are right. I have settled into the drudgery of realizing that Hans is really dead. I will not see him, hug him, chat with him for a long time if I am to live to old age. Sometimes I truly question if I will ever see him again. The slog in my heart, of missing his goofy laughing with Zatha when they found something silly together, hearing his witty jokes, watching him kitesurf, completely weighs me down. He is merely a thought now, just memories in my brain now. I am not depressed. I am sad. I am retracted. I miss Hans.
A seven-year-old loves to the full capacity of their knowledge of love, just like a teenager who is in love does. I’ve heard adults tell those teenagers they don't know what true love is, but at their level of maturity and knowledge, they ARE in love. Zatha loved her brother to the full capacity of her sisterly love. She feels like she's the only sister to feel what she's feeling, since no one else really understands her close relationship with Hans, no one else was part of their conversations all those years they grew up together, played together, laughed together, shared inside jokes, made plans together. Eric is the only dad of Hans; partners in tree-fort and half-pipe construction, skateboarding and kitesurfing, running and triathlons, conversations and fun bravado. We are each missing Hans to the full extent of our love for him. But there is something so carnal about a mother’s pain when her child dies. I feel I am the only mother to feel the true depth of what I feel, the devastation, because Hans was the only Hans Paul Loewen ever, and our relationship was unique. We love to that full capacity each of us bears for Hans, each thinking our capacity is the deepest and most full.
I’m not the boss of you
One of Hans’s early defiant quips to me was, “You’re not the boss of ME!” It was difficult not to laugh at that frustrated four-year-old boy. I frequently read articles and books about grieving parents, every one that has been sent or will be sent to us by you, our friends. Many of them are quite the lecture to you all, the non-grieving; articles like “10 Things Never to Say to a Bereaved Parent.” I find every one of those articles rather disconcerting. Why should I dictate what you want to say to me, something that is coming from your heart, but may not quite be the words of C.S. Lewis? Just as I don't want someone dictating what I can say about my dead child, I doubt you want me dictating what you can or cannot say to me, a grieving mother. I am not the boss of you. I'd rather you say something, anything, even if it sounds afterwards like you shouldn't have said it, than to say nothing at all. I believe one reason why a lot of people do not say anything at all is that they are afraid of offending. We are becoming of nation of politically correct pansies, worried that our words will offend someone and cause the loss of friendship or their job. I like discussion. I like discourse. I like people, even if their views differ from mine. If I’m offended, I’ll probably let you know, but we shouldn’t stop speaking our minds. You should be free to engage with a grieving parent or sibling in a way that comes from your heart, without instantly losing a friend or a job.
I don’t have much said to me about Hans anymore. Few phone calls, fewer visits, fewer communications. I can understand completely how strong the need is for others to continue on with their busy, happy (or sad), and challenging lives. It’s human nature. Maybe it’s also because I haven’t reciprocated much lately. I can’t reciprocate. I don’t know that I want to reciprocate. As the mother now of one dead child and one grown up child, I don’t have as much in me anymore to give to others. I used to make dinners, offer help, write notes, clean, and call when others were in pain or grieving. I feel like the bucket of my compassion and empathy, and my capacity for giving had the bottom of it punched out when Hans died and is now drained, completely empty. All I find I have now is some sort of kindred-ness with fellow mothers of children who have died, a weird comfort knowing that someone else can now also understand. I suppose it’s that way for all adversity – we find fellow humans in the same proverbial boat, like drug addicts finding each other.
“Go to counseling.” We are told that it doesn't matter what other people think, that we need to do what's best for ourselves. Well, that's not completely right, nor totally true. There's a reason we share this earth with fellow humans, that we don't sit around naked all day watching soap operas and eating bonbons. And it’s also contrary to what we hear every day in the news about someone resigning, or being fired for saying something even just a bit offensive. People DO care what you say and you DO care what they think. So I do also care what other people think, I do care what you have to say, and I do behave in life knowing that my actions affect others. We should care enough about what we do to be considerate, but not so much that we sacrifice our personal strengths or restrict our good behavior. I listen to advice, I take it into consideration, and sometimes act on it, trying to remember that my grieving does affect others.
I choose not to go to counseling. I am not strong for this choice. Others are not weak for choosing to go. We each have different support systems, and as a much more mobile society, we most often are not near family who might care the most. Yet I wonder, how did people survive every single death in humanity that has occurred before Hans’s in the centuries before we had professional counselors? I find it sad that many cannot find solace in their own families, their friends, their neighbors. All one needs is one person to love, one person to listen. I believe, again, that it’s because we are taught to be so afraid we will offend someone, that we will be sued for saying or doing the wrong thing, even though it may have been said or offered with good intentions. So those who grieve are sometimes relegated to talking to benign strangers. Is there such a breakdown of the family, church, and community that we cannot find support from the people we know? I am not disparaging the sage advice of professional counselors in situations of real need, but I am dismayed by the knee-jerk reaction of people to believe that every person facing adversity requires professional counseling.
Do the friends and family who tell me I should go to counseling think I am too sad and need counseling? How sad should a mother of a dead child be? Damn sad. How long should I be sad? All my life, if you ask me. But people like to justify the choices they make, to validate those choices, and they make the case for that choice when they discuss the issue with others. Like those drug addicts. Or people trying to convince you theirs is the only true religion, or political party, or that climate change is our most pressing issue, or vegans working to convince you of the perfect logic of their dietary choice. I spent a day showing some new friends around Topsail Island, friends who are looking to move to the east coast; I think they’d be downright silly not to choose Hampstead and access to Surf City. So I know others, like me, attempt to justify their choices, including whether or not to seek counseling. I am not planning to see a professional counselor. I will take counsel from family and friends. This, my writing, is a form of processing my grief, my self-counseling.
I am torn between the sadness when I get together with old friends who knew and loved Hans, and the ease of meeting and talking to new friends and strangers who know nothing of him. Then again, I waffle between being a crazy parent bragging annoyingly to strangers about my amazing children to them all, or outwardly ignoring that fact that one of my children is dead. I feel so much tension in every human interaction. Do people think I am not sad because I can still smile? Or laugh? Make a joke? Can they tell, however, that ALL of the time I’m thinking about Hans and how he should be here? And about how I should be able to brag about his latest activities, in what should be his senior year at the Naval Academy? About a funny adventure he took with his friends, his sister, with us? And though I am always thinking about him, and always thinking about how I am always thinking about him, I cannot delve into too many memories myself, all memories, both short-term and long-term. It hurts to remember how his teeth each moved individually as they finger brushed them the first time as he lay his bed in the shock trauma unit, his jaw was so broken. It hurts to remember Zatha’s gasp of horror as she also saw the teeth move and her processing the severity of his head injury. It hurts to remember how, as a baby, he loved to fall asleep in my arms. It hurts to remember all of our filming adventures that fed many of his You Tube videos, each of which I hope you all watch one more time. My memories seem to stay shallow now, because they hurt too much if I go deeply into them.
I still think it’s not fair that Hans, who loved life, is dead. On the other hand, I think then too, for whom would it be more fair to be dead? Maybe not petty criminals, not drug addicts, not alcoholics, not poor, uneducated people, because they, too, are loved by someone; they, too, are worthy of love and hope. So whom does that leave? Truly evil people? Who are they? There probably are not as many of them around as we think, people horribly worthy to take the place of loved ones who have died out of sequence. So then I go back to bewilderment. Why, why, why? Why couldn’t it be someone else? But who would that be? Why? Why my Hans?
Here we go again
I realize that Hans’s death didn’t happen to me. It happened to him. HE won’t get to graduate from the Naval Academy. HE won’t get married to the love of his life. HE won’t get to experience the joy of fatherhood. HE won’t get to go kitesurfing in Hawaii. HE won’t learn how to fly a plane. HE won't get to go rock climbing in Zion. HE won’t get to go to Zatha’s wedding, be her children’s cool uncle. HE will never again get to experience the sweet smell of dirt outside after a good rain. So can we really say his death was ‘given’ to us? His death is just something that happened, and we have been sucked down into the whirlpool of his death. If one believes he died as part of a plan, then what did sweet, quiet, funny, talented, loving Hans do to deserve it? That’s where I challenge anyone who says someone’s child dies as part of a plan. It hurts to hear people say about others whose lives have been spared or healed for whatever reason that “God saved them because He has a bigger purpose in life for them,” or, “… because He is saving them for doing something special.” That indirectly tells me that Hans wasn’t worthy of a bigger purpose later in life, that he wasn’t spared because he was really just not that special. And now he is dead. I know that there is no intent in those words to hurt me; I know that they are well-meant. But I still think you are wrong.
God doesn't "give us" adversity. God is there, wants to be there "with us" when we face adversity, after we face adversity. Only a cruel and petty god would mess with us negatively on purpose just to teach us a lesson. Because humans are given a life of knowledge and physics and science and choice (all miracles of God), we need to find strength through Him and his teachings when adversity comes our way. His “plan” includes guiding our life with principles we learn from our faith (whatever it is), learning to live within a world with its physical laws of physics and chemistry, and ultimately trying to return to those principles when we are tested by life. We must respond to adversity with strength, love, forgiveness, and hope.
I suppose, as I type and read my own words, I realize that most of my hurt comes from religion sometimes. I have not lost my faith. I have lost religion, for now. I see and read too much from people practicing armchair religion – people interpreting the Bible how they see it fitting into their reality, not as the complex, historical Word it is. As an example, I challenge you to investigate the difference between Kairos and Chronos, both of which are interpreted in the Bible into the same English word – TIME – but there are very subtle, yet important, differences in their original meanings. Faith can be a very personal thing, though I know it is supposed to be shared in community. I’m still just not feeling much like sharing in the company of people. Sharing like this is easier, because my bandwidth has been reduced (this post has taken me months to complete). When we hear that we must have faith, it is not supposed to be blind, submissive, ridiculously passive faith. It is supposed to be inquisitive and active – exploring the world, engaging in a quest for knowledge, for love, not just sitting without action, i.e., “letting God drive the car” in our trip of life. We are supposed to be alert! Engaged! Questioning! Enjoying! Making decisions! Providing input! Sometimes driving ourselves, plotting possible routes. Not just sitting sound asleep in the passenger seat. It's what sets us apart from all of God's creatures on earth – our intellect.
I compare deaths. I know I shouldn’t. A mother whose baby has died feels the loss of so much future, so much potential. A mother whose 40-year-old daughter dies feels the pain of losing 40 years of loving. A mother whose 10-year-old dies feels like she’s failed at protecting her young. Every age of an unexpected death sucks. And every mother aches to the fullest expansion of her love for her child. I wake up and think, “This could be a nice day. Oh yeah, wait. HANS IS DEAD.” “Sorry to hear about your stressful job, but, oh by the way, HANS IS DEAD.” “Oh my, your home flooded? Well guess what, HANS IS DEAD.” “Dang, it sucks that you have diabetes, but damn it, HANS IS DEAD.” “Oh your grandpa died, sorry to hear that. But crap, HANS IS DEAD.” “Your hamster died? SO DID HANS.” I feel nothing compares to the pain I feel for the death of my child. I know that we are what we think, so I try to think positive thoughts, but sometimes I feel like a broken record, repeating myself, thinking in circles, and don’t feel I’m imparting anything new, because, you guessed it, Hans is dead.
Unemployment is rectifiable. Relationships are reparable, or new ones forged. Houses can be repaired. Broken legs can be healed. Addiction is surmountable. Diseases can be treated. We can adapt to paralysis or a lifelong health issue. In each one of those situations there is HOPE, hope for new relationships, healing, new joys, newness. Hans’s death is final. It is not fixable. Hans is dead. His body is rotting in a thin coffin buried in the moist ground at the edge of the Severn River. There is absolutely NO HOPE that I can talk with him, hug him, laugh with him, be a grandmother to his children. Yes, all those other perturbations in life can be daunting, stressful, sad, and lonely. But death, and especially the death of a child, my child, makes all of those things, to me, pale in comparison. I’ve faced several of the other challenges. This absolutely sucks the worst.
Sometimes I feel arrogant and selfish for missing Hans so much when I see suffering elsewhere. It’s another war I fight inside, trying to not let the selfishness consume me. My head says, “Be logical, it could be worse.” Then again, maybe that's not necessarily true. Every out-of-sequence death is devastating to a parent, sibling, grandparent, girlfriend, friend. But my heart says, “There’s nothing worse than my child, Hans Paul Loewen, being dead.”
I am internally debating the mysticism surrounding death. Eric says that heaven is the world’s best-kept secret. But I wonder. Is there really a heaven? Is there really any life after death? I don’t know why Hans’s spirit would show up in a lightening bug. Or that he really has anything to do with a radio DJ making his playlist of songs, which just happens to include some of Hans’s favorites. Can the blinking of my street light after his death be a fluke? Or is it Hans? Is it serendipity? Is it just chance? Or probability? Or just a bad bulb? Which of it all (flickering lights, visiting fireflies, songs) is Hans trying to show himself to me and what is just science or chance? I do believe that if he is trying to visit it would be through energy, though I do not know how to define that. And why do others claim to see him, feel him, and I don’t? Remember that old college saying, “If you go out to get laid, you’ll get drunk. If you go out to get drunk, you’ll get laid.” Maybe I need to “drink more” – think less of Hans, and then maybe I will see him, feel him, see more signs. But how can I possibly think of him less?
Pollyanna no more
Everybody loves a Pollyanna, those motivational people who fill us with happy endings. I like them too, and have probably been accused by others as being one. I continue fighting that war between my brain, which says it could be worse, that I need to be positive, etc., and fighting with my heart, which is completely broken. I truly believe that mothers of dead children deserve some special sort of bye on parts of their life. I just can’t, and don’t necessarily want, to go back to the way I was, though I will attempt to approximate the old me. How can I be the same old me when Hans is dead?
Life doesn’t completely suck. It completely sucks that Hans is dead. His death is like a perpetual hangnail. Life goes on, especially for everyone else, many of whom will live long, happy lives, never having to experience first-hand that out-of-sequence death of their child/brother/grandson/boyfriend/friend, but we will always have that nagging pain accompanying everything we do. I feel so burdened. With Zatha and Eric I have hope – hope for her, her career, her time with us, her future; hope with Eric and our evenings, and outings, challenging life with love. But the hopelessness of Hans's death is sometimes overbearing, clouding all the rest of the remaining hope. I still enjoy the company of friends, a beautiful moonlit night, cocktail hour and dinner with Zatha and Eric, going to the beach, but I don’t feel I can ever be as silly or carefree again.
I don’t want to place the burden on Zatha of living both hers and Hans’s now-gone life. I love her, enjoy her, engage with her, have fun with her, and try to keep her free from the burden of our grief. Just like followers need their leader to be strong in times of adversity, we, her parents, need to be and should be leaders for her in our grieving. It helps her continue to move forward in times of adversity when she has confidence in her parents.
We have a wonderful time with Zatha, family, friends, guests and visitors, and if we are invited by someone, anyone, for any event or evening, we go. But it is so hard to celebrate when someone you love so much is so dead. Nothing holds that sweet excitement it once did. There have been many times, even before Hans died, when Eric and I would say, “We should have had 10 kids,” not because one can ever replace another, or pick up the slack, but because we had (with Hans) and have (with Zatha) so much fun with our kids! Such a perfect life, perfect in all its imperfections.
In many ways we are told to buck up and go on. And in most ways we should. I know that I have told my kids to do the same thing many times. But I feel it’s so truly different for me, his mother, any mother. Mothering is instinctual, carnal. Think about all the YouTube videos we see of a mother animal protecting her young. How long can we collect on that bye? How long can I justify the explanation (for not answering the phone, for not dancing at weddings, for limiting our interactions) that my son is dead? In some ways I feel like I am betraying, but absolutely do not want to betray, the memory of Hans if I am happy; the utter desolation I feel in the wake of his death, the sadness of my world without him in it feels more natural. I’m not fond of people making excuses. I get tired of hearing constant excuses from others, and so try to minimize my own. Hans’s death explains my sadness, but his death should not be an excuse for me to be rude, mean, hard-hearted, though I sometimes feel I want to be.
Jesus suffered unrelenting pain and betrayal at every turn, yet he faced it with love and grace. It is human nature to avoid pain, yet it seems that we are so pain-averse, so risk-averse that we go beyond what is naturally healthy in our avoidance of it all. It is not possible to rid our world of risk and pain. I do not mean to say that we have to embrace it, but rather, at some level, we must accept it. I am regularly dismayed by irrational fears and the effect they have on other people. But Hans’s death is real. He is dead and there’s nothing my brain can ever tell me to make that different. But we are intelligent human beings with brains and we can truly say to ourselves, “get out of bed” and our body will follow those instructions. So I tell myself to get out of bed, make breakfast, wash the clothes, teach the piano lessons, go shopping, get on that paddleboard, read, engage.
I don’t outwardly cry as often but when I do it’s worse. I constantly feel on the verge of crying. I cannot think about Hans's death without breaking down. I cannot listen to his music without blubbering. But I can think and talk about Hans in all of his wonderfulness without major tears, and think and talk about Zatha and all of her wonderfulness with smiles. What parent doesn’t always think of their children? Crying feels like vomiting, and I hate being sick to my stomach. I’d sometimes rather hold it in than experience the pressure in my head, the clogged nose, the buzzing in my ears, the sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach, and that icky feeling when I cry. I don’t cry in the car as much either because my crying hurts my own ears. So I don’t play music in the car anymore. I can barely bring myself to watch his movies. But I hope that you will watch them, visit his grave, send me pictures, say his name, so that I can hear that bell ring. Just typing this makes me cry. I am carried by the love of my family and friends, which certainly is enough to survive. But without Hans and his love, that’s all I feel I am doing right now. Surviving.
Though I want to wear the mantle of Hans's death as an excuse, an explanation to retreat, to complain, to compare, to criticize, I realize that I do not want to be avoided, disliked, or disengaged. Certainly I cannot reengage to the level I was before his death, and reengaging is a painfully slow process, but I DO want to continue to be a positive part of the life I have remaining.
The fervor of bestowing honor on one’s dead child dissipates with time, unless the burden is carried by the family. I’m not sure that the burden of sadness will ever be lifted from me until I die. I loved him so much. How can I not carry that burden? Just like the childhood book we read many times as new parents says, “As long as I’m living my baby he’ll be.” I miss him.
I hate being the mother of dead child. But I do still want to find happiness somewhere, difficult though that may be, impossible as it feels sometimes.