Boundaries. With chalk in hand, I am declaring mine.

I received a note out of the blue today, no doubt well meaning, but it told me to be happy during this time with Ryan and that she felt Justin was urging her to share this with me. I haven’t responded, I may or may not. I have learned to wait twenty-four hours before responding to boundary incursions.

First Boundary: If you have not stood over the grave of your child and held their tombstone when it was so cold that it burned your fingers, yet it was something solid to hold on to, you have no point of reference to address a bereaved parent on how they should be feeling. If you think you may be stepping over a boundary, go with your gut and stop talking.

Second Boundary: Don’t use the word happy to a bereaved parent. What does that word mean anyway?

Third Boundary: Don’t assume that a bereaved parent isn’t happy. If you have not bothered to reach out to them in six years, don’t have the audacity to presume their feelings.

Fourth Boundary: Never say to a bereaved parent that their dead child told you to tell their parents something from them. I do not require a medium or a psychic. I have the sixth sense and I talk to Justin, he has never said for me to be happy. He understands that we are wired for struggle and that we will suffer and feel anguish, it’s how we become empathetic. It’s how we get our fur rubbed off like the Velveteen Rabbit and become real humans.

Fifth Boundary: Don’t presume if I grieve the dead child that I am not happy with the child who is alive.

Our surviving son, Ryan, has become engaged to a young woman who is more precious to me than life. Scares the shit out of me. Do you have any idea how much courage and energy it takes to make your heart vulnerable to joy and hope? It takes a warrior’s strength. I know what it is like to live the reality of having your heart ripped from your chest and to feel so dead inside that physical death beckons as a relief from the emptiness.

I look with eyes of love on my surviving child and I know that it could be the last time I see him. Every time he walks out the door, I may have experienced my last minutes with him. The next time could be a knock on the door with a state trooper telling us he is sorry. Yet, I dare to love.

And I dare to grieve. I cried for three days after the engagement announcement. The talk of best man and the unspoken dialogue that a brother is often the best man, and that brother is resting deep in the earth, ignited a cold burning flame of longing. If I don’t cry and feel the depth of pain, than I cannot feel the exquisite joy of life. Profound sorrow and exquisite joy are two sides of the same coin of life. It is the human experience.

Final Boundary: Age does bring wisdom. If you are a young mare and have young foals, you may not want to approach an old mare who is battle scarred and tired with chirpy advice, you may catch a hoof or get nipped.

We have entered into wedding plans with joyful hearts and tears, we are making lists and dreaming of how to have good coffee available at all times. I will ache for the son who loved and still loves his brother, but is not present in the flesh.  I will not apologize for my tears.

I have done and continue to do the hard work of grief, this is my turf, I know my way around. I can enter into blackness and find the light. I am now a native of a land that is harsh and unforgiving. I know where the quicksand is, I know where the riptides crash, I need coffee, not your advice.

Don’t shame a bereaved parent for not being happy. Do not condemn their grief. And by all that is holy, don’t use scripture to bolster your shame language. And know this, because we have tasted the bitter gall, we know when something is sweet and priceless. We hold this time of anticipating a wedding as sacred, minutes to savor and breathe in the wonder of life.

I am putting my chalk down. Artwork for a client was just delivered and it is gorgeous! I can’t wait to call them and share that it arrived!

Walk gently, let your words be few, speak beauty, drink coffee.

Love, Terri



23 thoughts on “When Someone Tells You What Your Dead Child Told Them To Tell You

  1. Congratulations on Ryan’s engagement! Have I been “under a rock” ? I did not know. Is this the first time you’ve spoken of it? A time of great joy and bittersweetness for you all.

    • Thank you Deirdre. I shared the engagement announcement, but have not spoken of it, so no worries!

  2. Ugh. Some people just don’t think. If I would have received that message after the week I’ve had, that individual would have gotten a mouthful which likely would have included a lot of curse words. I’m so angry and so sad these days. I am, however, happy to hear about Ryan’s engagement.

    • Hi Katy, you have been so much on my mind. I power walked the Husky after reading the note. I had a huge adrenaline dump and knew I had to walk it off before I jumped out of my skin. I think of you and Clara everyday. I hope we can meet up before the holiday, although it is hard to be out in public these next few weeks. Christmas is so in your face anywhere you look.

  3. Sending you loving thoughts and virtual hugs, dear Terri. You have much wisdom and you are an amazing woman. My heart goes out to you. Grief seems to come sometimes when we least expect it. I lost my mother back in April and this morning is the first time I actually had a good cry about it. I really miss her during this season, but there is joy, too, even in the pain. Thank you for sharing these boundaries that are so needed.

    • Dear Gayl, I am so grateful for your faithful companionship. Grief is an unexpected visitor. A good cry is so healthy for our brains and bodies, our body knows what we need. This season does become a mix of pain and joy, and our moms were such a big part of our Christmas preparations and celebrations. Wishing you some gentle moments as we travel through Advent. Thank you for your kind words. Love, Terri

  4. Ugh is right. I hate that we have to defend our grief and that we get unsolicited advice from people who never had a child of their own die.

    I loved how you questioned the word happy with “What does that word mean anyway?”

    Like Katy, I would want to write a stronger piece too, but the sad part is that a person like the one who shared her message will not understand. You did a great job!

    Congratulations to your son Ryan and the lovely young lady who will be very fortunate to have you as a mother-in-law.

    And thank you for speaking your truth!

    • Dear Dru, thank you for the gift of your time to read and write a note. Thank you for your kind words! Thinking of you as we enter into this holiday season, may we each have some moments of peace. Thank you again.

  5. What a beautifully spoken article. I remember Justin well, and I certainly appreciate your thoughtful comments. I wish you peace and comfort, but I can’t possibly understand all that you feel! God bless you and keep you and your family, I know it’s hard for some folks to express this, and the internet makes it even harder to express feelings appropriately.

  6. Terri, Your courage and honesty never fails to move me. Let’s have coffee soon. Sending much love and hugs.

  7. Hugs to you. You made me cry. I will never understand the stupid things people say. I understand it comes from a place of wanting to help or maybe guilt but I just want to scream sometimes.
    Congratulations on your son’s engagement and your new daughter in law!

    • Hugs right back Doreen! Thank you for taking the time to read and write! Your support and encouragement has been instrumental in me not giving up but continuing to write. Thank you for your kind words.

  8. I lost my daughter on Mother’s Day this year. The grief still runs in cycles and some days are easier than others. I tend to compartmentalize things, put them in their own box and place them on my mental shelf. I was condemned for this, for not having a meltdown and crying rivers for my child. I refuse to feel shame for this. I know what works best for me and my attempt to retain my sanity so I can function daily. I threw myself into a house remodel to help cope with my grief, but also spent a lot of time with friends that kept me positive, grounded, and out of the abyss. As you said, until someone has had to bury child and deal with that pain, they need to keep their criticism, advice, religious references and anything else they feel the need to add their input to. I’m very sorry for your loss and hope the pain eventually lessens for you and your loved ones.

  9. Thank you so much for sharing all of what you have shared/described in the above message and Thank you to those who kindly commented on the read. I was really able to relate to what many of you described in the above. It was helpful for me in reading your feeling words that I’ve so struggled with putting into words how I’ve felt concerning my son’s passing or with different circumstance and situations that have exposed themselves. When you wrote on the boundaries, that was just wonderful for me to read as I too have thought all of these things in going through the day to day feeling like nothing but a shell and forcing myself to exist as some approach me awkwardly, even skittishly. I too have also been shamed for way’s I’ve expressed (or in their opinion suppressed) my grieving process. I’ve had to let go of 25+ year friendships to where I thought they were of the safest and most true. Letting these friendships go caused additional grieving loss but after looking back on everything that unfolded and occurred to the best of my ability, it was for the best for my sanity and even daily survival. I was no longer the friend to them that I once was recognized as being. It truly is different when your child has passed and I can even say that before my son’s passing, I would have never known the intensity as it has appeared to us after his passing. Congratulations on experiencing this new love in your soon to be daughter in law and the up and coming nuptials for your son. Yes, the feeling of happy transforms into a different kind of emotion after child loss. Happy is lost and even seems just gone. When I read your share of your son Ryan marrying, I did feel a joy for your family and wanted to make sure to express congratulations. I look forward to your next post.

    • Dear Dawn,

      Thank you for taking the time to read and write such a lovely note and to share your experience of child loss and friendship loss. Our entire world gets turned upside down and never seems to right itself. Thank you also for your kind words and congratulations, and for sharing in our joy. I know that it not easy, to enter into that feeling of joy takes so much energy, I am touched by your kindness. I am so sorry we had to meet through child loss, but I am grateful for your companionship on this journey. I lost friends also. This next month is hard with the holidays, be extra gentle with yourself. There is no wrong way to grieve and just like our love for our child never ends, our grief does not end either. But we survive. Wishing you some gentle moments this week. Love, Terri

  10. Mmmm, I happened onto this through a friend. One like us. You certainly wrote so much my heart has felt. Well meant phrases from those who only imagine our grief still come my way nearly 10 years since I’ve seen my beautiful boy. They still take my breath- which has saved many from my critique or educative speech. I still don’t know how any of us survive the suffocating void of this loss. Until I decided for myself how to do grief, it was unproductive. I do what comes naturally -to me. None can do this for me and I think it best to just stand clear unless you can avoid advice, attempts to fix me or the unfixable with fluffy platitudes and ideas that are just not helpful. Be with me. Whatever me that is at the moment. I can’t guess who that will be. It’s possible that once I feel safe with you, I may even appear and behave as if I’m normal- once I can stop wasting time defending the feelings I can only feel and not control. As you might imagine, my circle is quite small. I don’t miss faux friendships. I love who I have and doubt none of them. Those who missed the boat lost any chance. I. Just. Can’t. I also know the sweetness of new loves like you found in your soon-to-be daughter in law. Congratulations to you and your family.

    • Dear Valerie,
      Forgive me for taking so long to write back, I wanted to wait for a quiet morning. I am so sorry for the loss of your son. We are starting our seventh year, I can’t wrap my head around the passage of time. The void is suffocating, I often feel like there isn’t enough air to breath for the pain. My circle is small also, I have become careful who I allow in these days. Thank you for your kind words, there is a sweetness to these new loves in our life. Wishing you some gentle moments this December. We have not found our way to celebrating the holidays yet, we keep it very simple. Peace to you and your house this winter season.

  11. What you have said is so profound – there is nothing to add because you have experienced the full spectrum. At the same time I am so happy for your son and his fiance – their joy will bring an added dimension and so will future grandbabies (we have just had our first and she is such a blessing).

    • Thank you so much Leanne for the gift of your time to visit, read, and comment. And congratulations to you and your family on your new granddaughter! Wishing you a very peace filled December!

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