The year was 1982; I was 22 years old. I will never forget my father's funeral. He died suddenly of a massive heart attack on cold winter's day in January at age 50 years old. Even now, nearly 35 years later, the events of that day take on a surreal quality. We stood in solidarity -my mother, my brother and I- as we laid his body to rest. The high pitch shrill of my grandmother's cries echoing in the cavernous room will be forever etched in my brain. I remember trying to remain strong for my mother, but hearing my grandmother's scream was about to unravel me. I turned to her and said, "Grandma please be quiet. Don't you see how hard this is on all of us?" As if SHE and US were seperate entities, where the US was more imporant than the SHE. In my 22 year-old brain, I thought surely the pain of losing my father had to be greater than any pain she could be feeling. After all, he was My Father!
How could I have known?
She died a few months later. It was not until 2 and a half decades had passed that reality struck and I couldn't have been more wrong about what unfolded that long ago January day.
In a strange twist of fate, 26 years later, I would be faced with a very similar situation. As I laid to rest my 50-year-old husband, I turned to hear the cries of his mother standing behind me. Then watched as his best childhood friend escorted her out of the funeral home, and with the help of others put her to bed for the night. Her sorrow was too much to bear.
In that moment I turned and looked at my own sons and suddenly realized that no matter how great the burden of losing a husband or a father, there could be no greater pain than that of a parent losing a child. Looking into their eyes, I saw the unquestionable truth. I couldn't imagine my life without them. Right then and there, I understood, the SHE was so much more important than the US.
For as children we expect that our parents will precede us in death. As a spouse or companion we recognize and accept that one of us may die before the other. But as a parent, we are not prepared to bury a child no matter how old that child may be.
I stood silently and prayed for my grandmother's forgiveness. In my youth, I could not possibly comprehend her suffering. Time is a great teacher and in grief I learned a very valuable lesson: I will never judge anyone unless I've walked in their shoes.
For all the parents, both famous and ordinary, who have lost children: Just know, your pain does not go unrecognized.
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