My mom and I were lucky enough to attend the Women’s Conference yesterday thanks to my wonderful friend, Emmie. The mission of The Women’s Conference is to inspire, empower and educate women to be Architects of Change in their own lives and in the lives of others. The whole conference sounded amazing but what I was really looking forward to was the session on Grief, Healing and Resilience.
The four panelists were perfect for the conversation as they had experienced three different but challenging losses: the death of an elder (California First Lady Maria Shriver’s mother passed just two months ago), the death of a spouse (Lisa Niemi, wife of Patrick Swayze), and the death of a child (actress Susan St. James and author & advocate Elizabeth Edwards both lost sons). I was particularly anxious to hear from Susan St. James and Elizabeth Edwards, as they are farther along in their lives with grief than I am, although all the women had tremendous insight that I could relate to.
All the women spoke about the guilt and betrayal in grief. You hear the stories of the mothers that never get out of bed again after their children die, and that somehow this is the model of how a mother should grieve. I know I felt this way. I remember right after Maddie was born and I was told she wasn’t going to make it. I couldn’t imagine how I could possibly live if she didn’t. I thought I would be that woman who never functioned again. But, I’m not. Elizabeth Edwards described it perfectly. She said that her son was only 16 years old when he died, and he didn’t leave behind much. A few essays, things like that. But the biggest thing he left behind was his family. If she, as his mother, had become useless, what would that say about her son’s life? Mike and I are what Maddie left behind. We are responsible for her legacy. We are the ones that have to make sure she lives on. If Mike and I were to cease to function, Maddie would cease as well.
Going hand in hand with this is something else that Elizabeth Edwards said: you don’t lose the desire to parent your child. Maddie isn’t here with us anymore in the physical sense. I will never be able to parent her the way I always dreamed. But I still want to, desperately. So for me, by trying to live, I am parenting her. I am still trying to set an example for her. I am still writing about her. Mrs. Edwards said that she would visit the site where her son’s body rests and read the books from his senior reading list. I’m not going to be able to teach her how to write her name, but I am always going to mother my baby.
Many people have asked me for advice on what to do when someone they know experiences a loss. I haven’t felt like I could really answer that question until now, until these women gave voice to the jumbled thoughts in my head. Be there for that person. Lisa Niemi has people she knows she can call at any hour of the day or night. I have those people there for me. I haven’t called them, but I know I can. Say something, say anything. We (the bereaved) know that you mean to say the right thing, and even if your thoughts don’t come out right, it is better than saying nothing at all. Lisa Niemi and Susan St. James both spoke about quantity. The quantity of responses can mean so much to someone who is grieving. To know how many people care about you and the person you lost brings a comfort that nothing else can. The tens of thousands of comments I’ve received MEAN something to me. To see that much love out there…it leaves you speechless.
Before the session on grief started, News Anchor Katie Couric spoke about her own journey in life and the hardships she’s faced. After her husband died of colon cancer she realized she had the power and the platform to change the public so that no one would have to go through her same experience. Granted, Katie Couric is on the nightly news that reaches millions of people every day, but this is something that many who have experienced life-altering events have realized on varying scales. You either do something with your grief, or you don’t. There is no shame in doing nothing, to be sure. But for me, I did realize I had a platform with my little blog. At first, the only thing I wanted was for people to know and remember my daughter. And while that hasn’t changed, I DO want more. I want no other parent to go through what Mike and I have gone through. I want other families with sick children to have easier lives. I want to help other people the way I have been helped. And I want people to understand grief.
So I keep going, I keep parenting, I keep trying to help. I do it to honor the people who have helped me, and I do it for the people who may one day follow my path. But really, I do it to bring glory to my Madeline.