I’ve always been a rather independent person. In junior high and high school (and even younger), I wasn’t one who longed to fit into the “in” crowd. I didn’t care particularly what people thought about me or whether I was popular or not. It’s not that I wasn’t friendly or didn’t have friends. I just didn’t live or die by the acceptance or rejection of other people. Besides, the fact that we lived 50 miles away from the junior and senior high schools I attended did not give me many opportunities to interact socially with my peers outside of school. For six years of my life, three hours a day were spent on a school bus, riding an hour and a half each way to and from school. I rarely had the opportunity to participate in after school activities or do things with friends after school. I read a lot of books, got all my homework done on the bus. I was a bit of a book worm, so, even during school hours, I would be found more often than not reading a good book in the loft of the library during free time instead of socializing. I participated in the things I liked (clubs, school musicals, yearbook staff, etc.) and didn’t sweat the things that didn’t work out for me to do. I was aware of being an outsider, but it really didn’t matter that much to me. Our church was 30 miles the opposite direction, so there were few activities outside of church, either. On top of that, until I was a junior in high school, we lived 2 miles outside of the closest town, which had a population of 200.
Both of my parents were school teachers in the same school I attended (my mom taught me in 3rd grade; my dad taught me in 5th, 6th and 12th grades). My dad was also the local Baptist preacher, so I grew up feeling like I had the word “example” stamped on my forehead. Preacher’s families had to look like they were perfect, you know. Teacher’s kids, too. As a teacher’s kid, especially in grade school, the expectation by others was that we should be good students and should do well in school. The funny thing is, when we did well in school, we would have people tell us, “You did well because your parents helped you.” When any of us didn’t do well, we would hear, “Why didn’t your parents help you do better?” Being both a teacher’s kid and a Baptist preacher’s kid in a state that has one of the highest Mormon populations (we lived 200 miles from Salt Lake City, UT) kind of set us apart a bit even further. So, growing up, we were pretty isolated and my closest friends and playmates were my brothers and sister. The day I graduated from high school, I was so glad to be DONE – done riding the bus so far, done driving to church so far, done having to always feel like an example, glad to be moving on to the next phase of my life, glad to be moving to a bigger city (Denver) with more people and more opportunities – that I literally walked out the door of the school after the graduation ceremony and never looked back.
As an adult, though, I realized that my independence in high school, coupled with the long distance from the social world of school and church, was a bit of a disadvantage in that it really had not taught me how to make close, lifetime friends. My problem was that, while I enjoyed having friends, they tended to be situational friendships rather than friendships that lasted a lifetime. Growing up, I had situational friends at school and I had situational friends at church. The friendships I had made operated within one or the other particular, isolated situation. That’s what I knew – situational friendships. I felt like I didn’t know how to make friends or how to be a really good friend outside of a particular situation. I decided to work on establishing deep and lasting friendships.
One of the problems with my “making deep and long-lasting friendship project” was that my independence and lack of proximity to social activities growing up had made me somewhat socially awkward. I’ve never wanted to be the center of attention or the life of the party. I tended to sit off to the side of groups, waiting for someone to befriend ME, to reach out to ME. I didn’t really know all the “rules” for making and keeping longterm friends. I tried all the typical friend-making things I could think of. I volunteered at church and in the homeschool groups. I served on the board of homeschool groups. I taught Sunday School classes. I set up play dates for the kids. I tried everything I could think of.
The thing about establishing a connection with some and becoming true friends is that it takes time. It takes a desire to be friends and a commitment on the part of both parties. Most importantly, I discovered, is that it takes room in the other person’s life for you. That’s a biggie. It has to be a two way street.
There was one gal in the church we attended that I really tried to become good friends with. Our kids were close in age, our husbands got along, she was a lot of fun and I really liked her. And so I pursued her friendship (not in a weird, stalking way; just tried to be available as a friend, hoping to develop a good friend). I babysat her kids whenever she asked me, we took her kids with us on outings, we invited them to do things with us. We became friends, yes, but it was definitely not an equal friendship. Have you ever felt like you were down the list a bit with someone when it comes to friendship? She already had a longstanding best friend…and a second best friend…and a third best friend…and none of them were me and never would be me. She already had a circle of close friends and really didn’t have room or the time commitment or the desire for another member. I was outside of that circle.
This really came to light when I invited her and her kids to dinner one night when her husband was out of town for several days. I went all out. I guess I wanted to show her that I could be a good friend when she needed one. I cooked a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, right down to homemade rolls and pies. It took me all afternoon to get ready. The time came for her to come to dinner…and we waited…and we waited…and we waited. She finally showed up two hours late with barely an apology. She had been at her BEST friend’s house and just didn’t bother to call me to let me know she would be late. I felt so unvalued and stupid for even trying. One other time she un-invited us at the last minute to her New Year’s Eve party (the one with all of the close circle friends, the “in” group at church) with an excuse that her oldest daughter didn’t feel like Eric liked to play board games and that really bothered her daughter. It was the first time we had been invited into the “in” group’s private activities. I just don’t think there was room for us.
Another time, a ladies activity was organized for an evening out and we all were to meet at the church. I showed up, along with a couple of other gals, and we sat in the parking lot for a while. Finally, we realized no one else was going to show up and so we went home. Later, we found out the location to meet had been changed, but only the “inside” group members had been called. No one had even thought about calling the rest of us. (I know we weren’t the only ones in the church aware of the “inside” group…and then everybody else.) It wasn’t on purpose; it just never crossed their minds to call us. They all had a great evening out, we learned, while the rest of us just went home. We stayed friends, as did the rest of our families and the families in the group and other people in the church, but I always had a keen awareness of where I stood in the friendship hierarchy. I also learned that it doesn’t do any good to pursue friendships with someone who doesn’t equally value you.
All of those situations were bitter pills to swallow, but I swallowed them (along with my hurt), put on a good face, and carried on. That’s what I’d learned growing up as a preacher’s kid, wasn’t it? To hide whatever is wrong and put on a good face; be the perfect example of…whatever. I hadn’t learned how to problem-solve within interpersonal relationships. I had learned to suck it up, deal with it privately, get over it, smile, and keep going.
So, why am I telling these stories? Because whatever tools that are in your toolbox at the exact moment your child dies – emotional, spiritual, experiences, upbringing, support, family, mental health, physical health, whatever the tools may be that are available to you – those are the only tools you have available to you as you begin your walk into the “valley of the shadow of death.” When a child dies suddenly, there is no time to develop the tools needed to handle that horrendous loss. What you have in your toolbox is all you have in your toolbox to work with.
For me, most of my friendships were still situational. I realized this fact when the kids were all in college, I was done homeschooling, and I was transitioning into a new stage of my life. No matter how hard and how many years I had tried to rectify my tendency to develop situational friendships, I hadn’t entirely succeeded in breaking that pattern. It didn’t seem as though those friendships were carrying over into the next stage of my life, and it made me very sad. I felt very alone. I started going to the ladies Bible study at church (we were going to a very large church by then), trying to connect with people there. I went early, talked to people, made notes of what we had talked about so I wouldn’t forget. I reviewed my notes before going each time, in case I saw the same gal again. I invited someone now and then to have lunch with me afterward. Sounds pathetic, I know, but I didn’t want to live my life without friends. Once again, I found people have to have room in their lives for you and that it takes time. I decided I needed to put my energy into going back to school to prepare for the next stage of life…and then Jason died two months later.
So, when Jason died, my toolbox contained mostly situational friendships, biological family that all lived a long distance away, a large church we attended where we were not well connected. Nearly all of those people did not or could not walk with us after Jason died. They all disappeared. It contained an independent view of myself. It contained self-reliance. I was viewed as independent and self sufficient by others, too. It contained a helpful personality. I grew up in a family that never asked for help (we were taught to be very proud our stoic, independent Norwegian heritage), and so I didn’t see myself as needing help. I was a person who provided help and support – facilitating organizations and meetings, organizing study groups and field trips, helping out when someone needed assistance, teaching classes, etc.; I wasn’t the person who needed support or help.
Some tools I needed were definitely lacking. My toolbox lacked a strong support system. It lacked family that lived close by. It lacked the ability to know how to ask for help. (When I did ask for help, I failed miserably.) It lacked the ability to know how to confront situations and resolve them, instead of swallowing the bitter pills and carrying on. It lacked any knowledge on how to handle such deep grief. My toolbox lacked a lot of the tools I needed for the walk of grief ahead of me.
Thankfully, my toolbox contained a strong relationship with my daughter and husband. It contained the connection to a gal who, although we were not close at the time of Jason’s death, became and still is my best friend. I don’t know what I would have done without them. It contained my intellect and my commitment to get an education to prepare for the next stage of my life, having started back to school two months before Jason died. It got me out of bed and out of the house.
Out of necessity, I have developed other tools that are now in my toolbox. Not all of them are particularly helpful, though. I carry a big shield that I keep at the ready. I hide behind it at times. I guard my heart with it. It keeps me from being open and vulnerable, especially with new people and those who have hurt me. It’s one I developed out of necessity – one I developed early on when my heart was so raw and hurting, and the people we counted on could not be there for us, deserted us, and hurt us so badly. It protects me from not being hurt like that again. It also keeps me alone and makes it difficult to make new friends. It also contains a lack of trust, a lack of belief that other people have the possibility of having our best interest at heart. And so, I hold people at arms’ length. I’m trying to change that one, but it’s not an easy thing to do.
My toolbox now contains the tool of deflection. I learned early on that most people don’t know how to react to being told our son died. Some do not react very well. Some pretend like I didn’t even mention Jason. Some people get really awkward, and then start treating us like a pariah. Some people act like we are invisible and that they don’t see us.
The summer after Jason died, I ran into a clerk that I knew in our local Albertson’s. She only worked part of the year (summer), since she and her husband wintered in Arizona. As she helped me with my deli order, she was very friendly and chatted away. Then she asked, “How are the kids? What are they up to?” I hadn’t quite developed this tool of deflection yet and said, “I suppose you heard Jason was killed by a drunk driver earlier this year.” It was like someone slammed the door in my face. Her physical reaction was dramatic; she just sort of crumpled. She didn’t say another word, frantically finished my order, shoved it across the counter at me and tried to get away from me as quickly as she could. She was a mess!! I went behind the counter and gave her a hug. I didn’t know what else to do. She wasn’t being mean or anything; she just didn’t know what to do or say, I’m sure. I deflect talking about Jason’s death or steer conversations away from certain topics, not because I don’t want to talk about him or because I don’t care about him, but that I’d rather choose how and when I talk about the death of our precious boy. I don’t want to intentionally cause awkward situations. I guess I just need to make sure that Jason’s death matters to the person I’m talking to and that they can handle it. It hurts me too much to feel that someone doesn’t care that Jason died.
My toolbox also contains compassion. I no longer have the fear of talking to someone who has lost someone close. When I worked for a probate attorney in Oklahoma, I had no hesitation in expressing my condolences and asking how I could help. I could talk about the subject of death with the client. I’ve always been one who hugs people, but now I am no hesitant to step forward and hug someone who is hurting.
Although this certainly is nowhere near the complete list of the tools I had in my toolbox when Jason died, the tools I lacked when Jason died, or the tools I have developed since Jason died, I think you get the idea. We bring with us into deep grief – like tools in a toolbox – our upbringing, our personality, our experiences, our education, our emotional growth. We bring our attitudes, our strengths and weaknesses. We bring our connections to friends and family. Whoever we are to that point in our lives and whatever tools we have developed and have available to us at the exact moment our child dies, especially in the case of a sudden death, those are the only tools we have available to us at that exact starting point of our grief journey. It affects so much of how we grieve, how we react, how much support we have, how long it takes us to come to grips with who we are now and what the world around us now contains (or doesn’t contain). It affects whether or not we have PTSD.
It’s important to know that there are now (better than when Jason died) some really good resources out there, and some really good information for both the parent who child has died and those who know a parent whose child has died. I am so thankful for bereaved parents who write and talk about their experiences. By far, no two grieving parents have the same experience after the death of a child. We are all so different, our losses are different, and the available tools we have in our toolbox are different. We can learn from each other, though, and encourage each other. We can’t affect how other people treat us or whether or not they stick beside us. But we can talk about our experiences and what worked and didn’t work for us.
What’s in your toolbox? Would love to hear your input on this subject.
© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney