“No parent should have to bury their child”
I heard this a lot after we lost Jackson. We bury our grandparents, then our parents, and then our children bury us. It’s the natural order of things. People say it to validate our shock and comfort our pain, and because they have probably never heard of it happening before — and because they can’t bear to imagine it happening to themselves.
The reality is that children die all the time. Before modern medicine, this was actually quite common; my own great-grandmothers buried quite a few of their children. Fortunately, this has changed over the years with the advent of antibiotics, medical technology and improvements in prenatal care. It’s no longer common, but it is natural. Children continue to die from all kinds of things: accidents, illnesses, natural disasters, and other times suddenly for no apparent reason at all. But even then, in cases like Jackson’s, there was always a reason. And much of my sanity hinges on this very fact: that just because we don’t know the reason doesn’t mean there wasn’t a reason. Jackson died because something natural caused him to die. This matters to me.
The main shock to our system is facing the reality that we cannot always protect our children. Bryan and I are proof that you can do everything right (well, most things) and still the center of your universe can evaporate in an instant. And this reality, that despite our best intentions and precautions, our children can still die, is the most terrifying but natural thing of all.
I’ve said to some people that I felt like I died on September 20th along with Jackson. It felt like my hopes and dreams for our family and our future disappeared the moment we found him unresponsive in his crib. But over time I have come to realize that I didn’t die that day, I woke up. I became awake to the fragility and preciousness of life and the incredible illusion of control we carry in planning our futures. I have never been so acutely aware of my “smallness”, or my immense insignificance in this universe. I have never been so cognizant that even the best made plans don’t always pan out. I came to understand just how foolish we are, in this modern society, with our perceptions of invincibility. In the last few months, in my own personal circles, a hurricane decimated Puerto Rico, wild fires obliterated California, a mudslide in Montecito claimed the life and home of my best friend’s stepmother, and dozens of families lost their toddlers to SUDC. Not to mention the thousands of families outside of my immediate circles who have lost loved ones and children for all kinds of reasons. My point is that death, even when it’s sudden and unexpected, or “too early”, is not unnatural. Uncommon? Yes. Painful? Absolutely, like hell. But perhaps not unnatural.
I wish, with all my might, that Jackson was still here, that whatever took him could have spared him instead. But that’s like wishing that an egg dropped from a skyscraper didn’t have to break. Whatever took him followed the laws of nature, chemistry, physics. It was both unavoidable and irreversible once things were set in motion.
Bleak as this all sounds, these tragedies have woken me up to the moment (to be clear - I would trade back this “wisdom” in a heartbeat). There is simply no time to waste in living. Bryan and I just booked a trip to Europe to visit family and friends, our siblings have re-evaluated their jobs and career paths, and our parents are considering retirement earlier than planned. This is not a coincidence; this is a shared epiphany about the short, unpredictable nature of life. What a mistake it would be to take our precious lives for granted. What a tragedy it would be for us to assume we have an entire life ahead of us, to live things up later.
We certainly can, and should, take precautions and work towards finding answers, prevention, and cures. I am all in favor of advancing health care research and working to eliminate unnecessary deaths by gun violence, domestic abuse, and drunk driving. But there is no sure-fire way to completely safeguard against "premature" death. And nor would it be living to do so, if we could. All we can do is advocate as best as we can for our children and live humbly in the face of our natural mortality. In the words of Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”