My oldest son, Jacob, passed away suddenly in his sleep in June 2007. I remember the day like it was yesterday: The phone call, the paramedics not doing anything when I arrived, the huge police officer who held me as I screamed and cried. It was traumatic and those details still swim in my head. But the one thing that haunted me more than all that was the promise I made my son.
Before they took my son’s body away, they let me see him one last time. As he lay on the stretcher, he looked like he was sleeping with his head on his own pillow and his bedding over him. As I kissed his forehead one last time, through my tears I promised him: “I will not let this defeat me. I will make you proud.”
From that moment on, especially early on, I was driven to live up to that promise. I felt I had to live up to it and I had to make it happen. I felt that I had to be bolder, stronger, do more and be more. I tried new things and I pushed myself to expand. I refused to cave in, to fall apart.
A couple years into my grief, my art therapy teacher questioned my continuing to live up to that promise. She suggested that perhaps I had already done well. Could I set it aside and just live? I recognized that she had a point, but I still had a hard time not holding myself to that promise.
Some six years later, my doctor also questioned this phrase’s helpfulness in my life. Couldn’t I cut myself some slack and just be? Why put such undue stress on myself? It was not helping me, but stressing me at a time when I was coping with post-partum depression complicated by grief. I was not taking the best care of myself. Something had to shift, and so I began to work at letting go of that promise.
Today, my promise does not have the same power it once did. I still live my life with integrity and strive for my best, but this phrase is not at the forefront of my choices. I do not live my life for my son; I live my life for me. That does not mean that I do not do things to remember him and honour his memory, or that I do not think of him every day – I still do. The difference is that my promise to Jacob has shifted from the forefront as something I must do to the heart of me as something I am. I am not defeated by my loss.
Early on, my promise was my reason to get up in the morning; it moved me forward into my life. I clung to it for survival. Now, I can remember those words, and not judge myself about whether or not I have lived up to them today. I admit that it helps that I can answer a resounding yes. I know Jacob would be proud of all I have accomplished since he left this world.
It took a long time (nine years), some therapy and self-work, lots of life events and love to get to this point. I continue to do things to honour Jacob's memory and the impact losing him has had on my life. I strive to make something good out of the worst day of my life.
I know I am not alone. I have met so many others who have harnessed their grief, turning it into positive energy changing our world for the better. To those parents, I say, “I see you and I wonder at your strength.” I know where your motivation burns - in your love for your child and the ruins of your broken heart – and I wish you well on your journey, hoping you find healing along the way.
Did you make a promise when you said, “good-bye” one last time? What do you do to honour your child's memory?
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