“What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” - Mary Oliver
Sunday was Ben’s birthday.
He would have been 16. Six years since losing him, celebrating his birthday each December 5th finally brings more smiles than tears. As I’ve shared so often, great loss is not something you get over; it’s something you learn to live with. And hopefully there is a shift that occurs where living into the future is more compelling than being anchored to the past.
“This is why parents who lose a child don’t make it,” I thought. One of them loses their minds.
“Let’s have another baby,” Steve said. It had been a year since Ben’s death, and we were healing in many ways. But still… this thinking seemed delusional. I had pledged to love him for richer or poorer, through sickness and in health… but not to become parents again in our late forties.
Then I remembered the magical thinking that happens so often in the aftermath of a significant loss. The unimaginable has happened, so imagining a new impossibility is a short leap.
A few months later, on a chilly day in spring, I was driving my now 15 year-old daughter, Hanna Rose, to a piano lesson. As we headed down Highway 12, my daughter turned toward me. “Mom, I’ve been thinking,” she said, “Don’t say anything. Just listen for a minute.”
Alright—It sounded like a big request was coming. A car? A gap year after graduation? Spending more time in North Carolina with the cousins over the summer?
I’m a pro at parenting while driving, so I stayed calm and nodded. And then she dropped the bomb.
“Do you think we could ever have another child?”
My wide eyes stayed glued on the road ahead. There was no risk of me speaking.
What could I say? Was this another wave of disorienting grief? Could I find a new adolescent psychiatrist?
The flood gates opened. My daughter spewed forth the reasoning she had obviously been working out for months.
“I know you may not be able to have kids, but we could adopt. Your dad’s brother was 16 years older than him, and sure, he probably wasn’t around much when Papa was growing up, but weren’t they really close for all of their adult lives? Things are really different these days. A lot of old people have kids these days…” (Thanks, Hanna.)
“...You and Dad are such great parents. I would be a huge help. There are so many great colleges in Minnesota I could go to. I'd be close to home.”
As she rattled on, the memory of her third-grade report “Why I Need a Dog” flooded my mind. The girl has always been persistent and persuasive. Definitely her father's daughter.
My thoughts swirled, trying to keep up with her rush of excitement and the wacky logic behind it. Then, she surprised me by landing the deal:
And there it was. She was right.
Hanna Rose held her breath, probably remembering my past advice to her (“Just stop when you think you may be closing the sale.”) I turned to her again, my heart bursting with adoration over this remarkable girl.
A smile spread across her face. She could tell this might be a possibility. I hadn’t rebutted. I hadn’t started crying. I hadn’t suggested we go back to grief counseling.
She sat back in relief, then frowned. Tilting her head against the backrest, she revealed her one hesitation, a potential deal-breaker in her mind. “How in the world will we convince Dad?”
Laughing through tears of irony, joy, and wonder, my perspective shifted. In the cocoon of that parenting-while-driving moment, it all seemed doable. Exciting. Even inevitable.
I was the last on board, but once my heart opened to the possibility, I was all-in.
When you lose a child, there is no happy ending, but there can be a hopeful one. That is the adventure of how Zachary James joined our family the next year, followed by a little sister, Margaret Susanne, 14 months later.
The presence of our family's newest additions (now preschoolers) doesn’t take away the pain of Ben’s absence, but it adds a deep joy and fullness to our family. We cannot imagine a life without them. Their story is not an “ending” to Ben’s; it is a deepening of all of our stories.
When I realized I didn’t have to resolve my sorrow to experience joy, so much more of life’s possibilities became available to me.
My hope for you, for our world in the wake of the many crises within 2020 and 2021, is that you do more than rebound from hardship, efficiently putting your trials behind you as you go on to more positive experiences and an easier life.
That would waste the hidden gift of crisis.
Instead, I invite you to expand your heart and mind and embrace whatever pain exists at the heart of your crisis. Surround that pain with an even greater love.
Thinking about the past years, you may not know what those meaningful growth moments are. But they will only become clearer as time moves forward. That’s part of the mystery— That you can grow out of crisis, build a new life even when part of your old life is no longer there.
Look up. Reach out. You are not alone, and a life full of hope and healing awaits.
This is a modified re-telling of a few pages from the epilogue of my book Never Waste a Crisis. The rest of my book provides a deeper look into our story, the many ways we moved through our grief and healing, and the opportunity we all face when we’re head to head with life’s toughest moments.
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