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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Leon

Empty Hallways

The light of my beautiful John Paul Raphael went out after only one day, but the hallways of grief that I will walk the rest of my life are as long as those of any other mother.

I recently heard from a friend who also suffered the loss of her son. Jay died tragically 2 ½ years ago at the age of 18. We have been reading each other’s blogs, and she said that although our circumstances are different, our pain and loss are nearly identical. I agree.

I am sure that for many of you, this seems impossible. How can the loss of a child you held and loved for 18 years be the same as one you held and loved for 1 day? Wouldn’t the length of time you had your loved one here on earth definitively impact your experience of loss when he or she was gone? I understand why you might ask these questions. I believe in the universality of grief, but I have my own questions too. How is losing a child different than losing a parent or a grandparent or a wife or a husband or a friend? There is no scarcity to grief or suffering – we each get to hurt as much as we need to for as long as we need to – but I find comfort and companionship and strength in trying on the shoes that others have worn to walk through their own journey of loss. Their wisdom can flow over to me if I open my heart to them on their path.

Today, my concept of grief takes the form of a series of long, connected hallways. Picture a huge mansion with endless corridors. We who mourn spend our time in these hallways, walking through the days, months, and years of the life of our loved one. I visit the halls of my grandfather – my dearest Papa who died at the age of 99 on April 7, 2017. This man lived a long, full life. There are many corridors to remembering him, each well-lit and lined with images and photographs from his life and my memory. There are of course many hallways of the years I was not alive, but I can wander here as well and think of the young man, the strong soldier, and the new father. I see the stories I have heard and the photographs I have been shown. There are dozens of halls here that are as familiar as my own home. I can come with my family and share the memories, making the experience of missing him less lonely. The smell of his aftershave is here and the echo of his voice. There is sadness for me in missing him, but mostly there is gratitude for the gift of his life and the legacy he left us all. The hallways end in a beautiful garden when my grandfather, after a life well-lived, went to be with the Lord.

I think of the hallways of my friend. Her son died at 18. You may think the hallways of her grief are shorter and fewer than those of my grandfather, but I do not think this is the case. She has 18 years of hallways, full of this beautiful boy, his laugh, his impish grin, his spirit. I think there must be light, noise, joy, and energy as she frequently takes this journey through his life. It may be agony, but it also brings her closer to this soul she will never stop longing for. She walks through year after year of memory until she comes to the door. The door at the end of his life. Some might think, the door is the end of her grief. The way out. Here is the lesson I am learning in my own loss: her journey and her grief do not end here. How could they? For any mother has dreams and love and expectations for the life of her child that go well beyond 18 years. This is it, I think. This is the part people are talking about when they say losing a child is the worst possible loss; that they "cannot imagine" what we are going through.

Which of us when hearing the heartbeat of our child for the first time or seeing that baby on the ultrasound or holding our newborn in our arms didn’t automatically long for a lifetime of love with this beautiful gift? Didn’t fall deeply and permanently in love? Even in my situation, with some advance warning, with some indication there could be a problem and our little one’s life could be brief, the heart does not recognize the warning. You can’t love only a little bit. If you open your heart to your child, your baby captivates you and takes possession of your heart in its entirety. And if that child is taken from you far too soon, whether still in the womb or at 28 hours and 10 minutes or 18 years or 28 years or 38 years – when we lose someone with whom we long to spend the rest of our lives, the groundwork has already been laid for each one of those hallways. Hallways of a lifetime meant to be shared together. You can’t take it back. As soon as you love, the pathways are laid in an instant, like one of those super high-tech architectural-design animation programs that, at the click of a button, fills the screen with an entire virtual-reality castle.

As a mother, my grief journey takes me through each one of these hallways. John Paul Raphael lived 1690 minutes in our arms. The hallway that contains his life and the blazing beacon of his spirit is not long, but it is full. It overflows with love and joy and gratitude and the hearts of the family members who got to hold and love on this beautiful, perfect child. As I make my way through this sacred hallway, the door stands staring at me at the end of this brief path. The door to the life I must live without him. When I open it, there is darkness. Gone is the light, the laughter, the hope, the joy. I know the way forward for at least a little while – these first steps I remember with my sweet monkey still and silent in my arms, the celebration of his life and his burial -- but then the darkness becomes doubly dark. I walk past his due date, past his 3-month birthday and his first 4th of July. There is silence where each memory should be. I stop and try to make out blank walls in the blackness where I would hang the pictures of a wet, sandy, sweaty baby at the beach.

I know that ahead of me stretches a lifetime of lonely halls. Perhaps the younger your child is when you lose them, the more pathways you are forced to walk that are barren and void and agonizingly empty. The mother of a stillborn child has every same hope and dream as any other mother, and yet, the bright light of her child that should fill the hallways and dazzle her with its brilliance, has never shined where she can see it and bask in the warmth of its glow. The light of my beautiful John Paul Raphael went out after only one day, but the hallways of grief that I will walk the rest of my life are as long as those of any other mother. For my friend too, for any bereaved parent – which of us can help but imagine and long for the life we didn’t get with our child? How can my friend help but see him at his high school graduation? How can I not wonder how it would feel to bring our baby to the Lake this summer and be in the bosom of our family, most of whom never met him?

I can hear the chastisement: Live in the present. Don’t live in the past. (or in this case, the future). Accept. Move on. But I challenge that my level of “magical thinking” is unavoidable. It is part of the process. Part of the wound. Part of the depth of trauma that “the way it could have been” (or should have been?) is still a very loud voice for a bereaved parent. I don’t think of it as being stuck or not moving forward or not healing – I think of it as love. Love that has no outlet and seeks to remember and finds comfort in imagining an alternate version of reality where the beloved one is still here to be cherished on earth. Not simply longed for in Heaven. I have enough longings to fill a lifetime and a quiet, dark, empty hallway to go with each one. His beautiful boyhood and his deep teenage voice and his fatherhood and his own aging and, perhaps, what could have been one final memory – where HE says goodbye to me when my own journey is complete.

I walk the corridors of grief for John Paul Raphael unaccompanied. Ralph is never far, but grief is such a personal journey that it can feel lonely even with my spouse. Since John Paul Raphael died so young, only 17 family members and a handful of hospital staff got to meet him and touch him and kiss him. Yes, there are many, many more people that share the love we have for him and who feel touched by his life. That is a profound gift. But, really only Ralph and I (and maybe some of our other children) have entered into those unlit corridors where John Paul Raphael’s life might still have been lived. We are the only ones who had already planned and loved a future with this sweet baby rocking our worlds and dragging us back to preschool and having Ralph be 75 at his high school graduation and already hoping maybe he would be a priest and celebrate our 50th anniversary mass. It seems careless now to have had so many dreams, but how can you stop the heart?

These moments we imagine in silence are a solitary agony for the bereaved parent. There is, however, one small opportunity for comfort. As I was writing of my dear friend who lost her son, tears were in my eyes as I walked through the places he lived in my memory and the spaces where his life should still be. I lived on the fringe of their family and only have a handful of moments where I can say I was with her son and got to be touched by his life and his exuberance and his creativity in some way. Most of my experience of Jay came through her and the stories she would share of him and the family I saw them to be, but I shared enough of an intersection with them that I can be there in that hallway where his light shines still, even though his presence isn’t there in the flesh. And she can know, if I share my memories of him, that she is not completely alone in her remembrance of his life. Unless someone braves their way into our world, we are each totally alone as we walk ahead on this part of our journey that is no longer bathed in the light of our sons. Don’t be afraid of us here. It is okay to say something. “I am thinking of Jay.” “John Paul would be 7 months by now, right?” “He would have been such a cute baby at his first Christmas.” “I am so sorry Jay is not here to see this football game at Tech. He would love it.”

I have another friend who is also a bereaved mother. She lost her son Gavin to pediatric cancer when he was in 8th grade. He would have graduated from high school this year with Leah. She too knows the burden of walking long empty hallways. I have thought so much about this brave mama as she watched her son’s friends grow older than her son would ever be and then braved coming to watch them all graduate from high school. But a beautiful thing happened. The school entered into the dark corridors of this family’s grief and honored and remembered this fine young man during the graduation ceremony. They spoke his name and recognized his absence and affirmed in a public way what this mother has known for years – the world isn’t quite right without her boy, without Gavin. I wept for her and with her. What a balm on her broken heart, to shine a brilliant light into the void of his life. You are not alone. We remember too. He is missed. Sometimes that is all we need.

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