That ^^^ was probably our deepest fear when Steve and I decided to attend a Bereaved Parents USA (BPUSA) national conference last month.
In the nearly two years since Mark’s death, we had sought out this kind of gathering just once. We went to a “Compassionate Friends” (the other national organization for parents grieving the loss of a child) chapter meeting in late 2016 or early 2017 where, in all honesty…I was kind of a jerk.
When we had walked in and found my nightmare scenario was real (30-40 metal folding chairs in a large circle in a dim room, Kleenex boxes parked IN THE MIDDLE of the big ring, so you’d have to get out of your seat to get a tissue), I was already behind about 12 solid layers of Resistance. When they passed the little card around and each person/couple held the card and cried and talked about their Dead Person, I was grateful we were going to go almost last, so that I could compose my little victorious speech, which I then delivered to this gathering of grieving parents…some of whom had lost their child over a decade earlier.
After giving out Mark’s stats and story, I told them that I wasn’t that sad (a lie), that I felt like Mark was around me “all the time” (well, sort of…and did I really BELIEVE that? How do you balance doubt and belief, not just in the weird things that happen that seem to indicate his presence, his sense of humor… but your doubt and belief in GOD, in whether He is GOOD, trustworthy, aware/involved/at work?? How do you “move forward” at all when you feel like your entire soul is riding a seesaw?). I told them I was super excited by the dreams and the other mysteries I’d experienced (well, that part’s true). I passed the card to the next person and felt just a bit smug. I didn’t cry. I’ve moved forward. I’m in AP Grief Management, baby. I’m not going to be sitting around crying in 12 years. Bless their hearts.
Steve – well, he hardly got a chance to speak then, but he did participate in the general conversation over the course of the evening. He’s incredibly kind and tolerant…and at that point, he didn’t know what to make of my experiences either. He wasn’t finding coins or having the dreams or spending hours journaling/wrestling with God and doubt and fear in the basement (in retrospect, he was just putting one foot in front of the other).
After it was over, neither of us really felt a strong urge to return for more gatherings. The fit wasn’t quite right, at that time.
Like I said, I was a bit of a jerk, but it took me a long time to realize it. The ensuing months have shown me grief doesn’t ever end. It can get worse, before it gets better, and then it can get worse again….or even worse than before – like the scab not only got ripped off the wound, but grief then grabs a knife and digs deeper and deeper into the still raw pain underneath it as well. I have since tried to stop comparing our loss to other parents’ loss (pain is pain is pain) but I also know there are relativities: Mark didn’t suffer but for a few hours, whereas lots of those parents watched their child die slowly, or were dealing with rage and fury – and sometimes a lack of justice -over their child’s horrific death at the hands of a murderer.
I look back, and I cringe a bit. How dare I.
When we found the BPUSA conference would be held locally, I wrestled with myself but was pretty sure, right away, that I wanted to attend, primarily to meet some of the authors of books I’d read or Facebook pages I follow – several were speaking or hosting workshops. I was surprised when Steve said he really wanted to go, too. We both agreed we would give ourselves room to “escape” if it got to be too much. We did not commit to the final evening event – the candlelight service and slideshow of all the kids – nor the following morning’s ecumenical service and butterfly release. But I went ahead and sent in Mark’s picture for the slideshow, just in case.
What we found, in a nutshell, was love. There was also compassion, LOTS of humor, disarming directness (“So, how’d your son die?”), a steadiness of gaze, filled with understanding. We could listen to and share details that often horrify people who have not experienced this level of loss. The workshops ranged on topics from journaling (there was, sadly, no AP Grief Journaling class), to connecting with your loved one in Spirit (that room was PACKED), to yoga and meditation sessions. We ate all our meals together.
And we did stay, in the end, for the candlelight service. We rushed to glue little pictures of Mark (the one I’d sent it for the slideshow where he’s smiling and wearing his Be The Good shirt) on little glass votive candle holders, and as I gently brushed over that sassy face with the glue that would dry to a clear gloss (sprinkled with a little glitter, because Mark would maybe have been horrified by that), my heart lurched once again in my chest, asking the same questions over and over: why am I putting a picture of Mark on a votive candle? How is this possible? How can he be dead?
I found a 1996 penny lying on the carpet just a few feet away.
Several people came up to us afterward, recognizing that same picture of Mark from the slideshow (and it was on the picture buttons attached to our name tag lanyards), and said “Wow, that’s your son! You know, there was just something about him – his smile, that shirt, just SOMETHING – that really caught my eye!” Yeah. And we had been sort of floored ourselves, by the incredible beauty of all those children – hundreds and hundreds of pictures flashing by – now living where we could not go. Not yet.
A chapter from Manassas – about 30 minutes from our house – decided they wanted to adopt us and dragged us into their group picture. We will try to attend one of their meetings in the future. And I will not be a jerk.