By Frank Em
HAND of the Peninsula
I first learned about HAND the way most of us have, and I’d call it “the hard way”: by losing a precious child at a very early age. About 18 years ago, our son, Ian, was born apparently healthy, but died 10 days later.
In the weeks and months of that year, my son’s life and death consumed a lot of my life, even though I tried hard not to let that happen. I resisted by busying myself with my work and other distractions. The enormity of what had happened was so awful that any awareness, however contrived, seemed preferable to living with the anguish I feel when I’m immersed in what happened.
After a few months, I stopped going to HAND meetings because it didn’t fit into the way I wanted to deal with my emotions. We had other children to care for, I had a career, we had a house and a mortgage to pay off.
By contrast, the solace my wife found at HAND meetings helped her and was like a rock for maintaining her sanity. She wasn’t able to sidestep the facts as deftly as I was. She felt depressed and hopeless, alternately crying and withdrawing into herself. The differences in our grieving process opened a rift between us which has been hard to repair, though both of us actively work on our relationship, and remain committed to each other.
It wasn’t until many years later that other crises in my life forced me to look again at the fact of my son’s life and death and the damage I’d done to my life and my family’s life as I struggled to keep that pain out of my consciousness. It is by no means fair to say that his death wrecked my life. It was one more source of stress, and the way I tried to cope with that stress caused most of the damage.
It’s been difficult to re-connect with my wife and family. One step I’ve taken as part of “returning” to my life is to attend a HAND meeting with my wife. She’s remained involved with HAND and with other volunteer organizations. Joining her at a grief meeting was the most meaningful way I could think of to have a common spiritual experience with her.
As we walked toward the meeting room, I felt a confidence in myself that I don’t remember having 18 years ago. I think this comes of having more understanding of my own feelings and knowing more clearly what to expect of myself and my emotions.
In the months after my son died, “down” emotional phases would happen to me unexpectedly, and I would burst into tears. That had really made me feel awful. I still have emotions much like everyone has, and there are times when they make me cry. The emotions are different now, though no less powerful and, perhaps just as important, my attitude toward emotions in general has shifted.
Seeing other parents at the grief meeting whose loss was much more recent and raw brought a different set of emotions forward in me. I want to tell them as much as I can about what to expect of themselves and their spouses. I tell them how my wife and I went in different directions with our grief. I hope that despite the searing pain they feel now, they’ll be able to remember something and that it will help them get through that pain.
Through these newly bereaved parents, I reconnect and re- experience my feelings of long ago, finding alongside that grief deep empathy for the agony they’re experiencing. I tell them as much as I know, that their pain won’t stay the way it is forever. My pain has never entirely gone away, but it has changed into something else, something I feel confident I can live with. Something that, in a way that’s hard to explain, I want to live with, out of love for my lost son, Ian.