Seven years ago today my youngest child, Oliver, died. He was six years old, which means he has been dead longer than he was alive. I could say that more politely, but that is the reality. And then again, it is not.
I’m starting to wonder what it means to be dead. A lot of what we hear about grief in today’s world is that death creates absence. The dead are absent. But Oliver’s death is not an absence of Oliver. Oliver is very much present in my life as I think about him daily. Death does not erase a person.
Death does lock a person into a time. My older children all spent time growing up on a college campus and when they returned to that campus as students, professors and staff were surprised that they had grown. The children were locked in their minds as little kids riding their bikes across campus. When we left campus, those memories were locked in so when my children returned as college students, people had to readjust how they saw them.
The difference with Oliver is that we don’t get to see that growth, that new person, that child who would be turning 14 in just over a month. He is locked in our minds in different ways. It may be as a bald headed kid grinning at the camera after chemo took his hair, or it might be in the infectious grin of a healthy boy under a head of curls. For me, it is Oliver in so many different ways. It is the child quietly masking his pain from his parents as he sits on the couch, but is also the child who ran down the street to greet me on my way home from work. It is the little boy who could announce he was “happy” and the little boy who was scared to leave his mom and dad at the end of his life.
In other words, my versions of Oliver are full of joy and pain, laughter and sadness, and hope and despair. And when I think about Oliver all those emotions are still there, usually jumbling around like gum in a gumball machine, never really knowing which flavor will come out. But every one of them is Oliver. It is the joyful memory of one his vice-like hugs mixed with the pain of knowing I’ll never get one again. It the laughter that comes with remembering his knock-knock jokes and the sadness of not hearing them again. It is the hope of hearing his voice calling me and the despair that follows the silence.
Grief is messy and no process, no six-step program, no therapy is going to change that. Why would I want it to? If I escape the pain of missing Oliver I miss the joy of remembering Oliver. And I never want to lose the joy he brought me and others.
Miss you little man.