“What kind of character traits would you wish for him to have as an adult?”
His question catches me off guard, as his questions often do. My eyes shift up. And down. And to the right. And to the left. And back to him. He’s staring back at me. Waiting.
It’s been about two months since I started seeing him, my new therapist. He’s of a new variety – unexperienced in pregnancy/infant loss, highly experienced in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
I was experiencing one of my worst anxiety-induced meltdowns to date, and it was at midnight on a Saturday in March when Mark’s dad suggested I consider tackling some of my debilitating issues from a new angle, “I mean, the grief will always be there,” he suggested. (Not exactly a novel concept, but it seemed as such as it isn’t often that people acknowledge this uncomfortable truth.) He went on, “But there has to be someone out there who is experienced in helping those who’ve endured trauma. Various types of horrifying trauma… There has to be someone who can help you, not with the sadness, because it will always be there, but with the things that are keeping you from being able to function on a more frequent basis.”
I listened and quietly pondered. His thoughts made sense. I didn’t need mindful meditation or deep breathing exercises or the Lord or Bush league therapists providing a listening ear and validation. I needed some hardcore shit. Like the heroin of the therapy world.
So we searched and searched and searched. And finally, it was really by happenstance that we found my new therapist who’s experienced in treating combat veterans and accident victims.
In my first appointment, he initially questioned my need to see him versus a therapist more focused specifically on women’s issues, but not even thirty minutes later, he’d diagnosed me with PTSD and decided he might be able to help me, so I’ve been seeing him weekly ever since.
“I don’t know…” I stutter, “I mean, I guess I haven’t really thought about this…” I’m suddenly embarrassed as I realize where this is going. Most parents think about such things. I should be thinking about such things.
He looks at me quizzically, so I clarify, “I’ve never contemplated his survival,” It’s difficult for me to admit it out loud, “I mean, I struggle to picture him as an adult… So I don’t. I mean, I guess I usually just assume Joel won’t outlive me… I mean, I guess I only give it a 50/50 chance at best…” My eyes start burning with tears.
“Okay…” He gives me an understanding nod.
“I don’t think about or plan for the future,” I whisper, “I tried this once…”
And I did. Once upon a time, I envisioned a baby’s first Christmas, and walks to kindergarten, and coaching sports teams, and helping to brainstorm career paths.
But currently, I simply try to raise the baby in front of me in the moment, and I don’t think much about who he’ll be in three decades or three years or three months or three weeks or three days. And when people casually mention events that are months away, I scoff under my breath, “If everyone makes it till then.”
“But if you thought about a life, a future, with Matthew, don’t you think it might only be fair to Joel to plan for a future with him?” he asks.
It seems like an obvious question, but surprisingly, or maybe not, I’ve never given it much thought. “It feels foolish and dangerous,” I explain, “I guess with Joel, I just hope that if I parent him to the best of my abilities in every moment, his long-term development, should it come to fruition, will take care of itself.”
“Possibly…” my therapist mulls over my statements, “But I think there could be value in giving some weight, at least equal weight, to the 50 percent of you, on a good day, who thinks that Joel could survive.”
“I hate that it’s only 50 percent,” I deviate a bit, “Most people think that there is like a 99.9 percent chance their children will outlive them. It makes me so angry. That they get to think this way, and I don’t.”
“You’re right,” he agrees, “Because most people can’t even imagine losing a child. In fact, in studies of college freshman, it’s been proven that, when given a survey that asks questions like, ‘Who is more likely to be diagnosed with cancer at a young age and die, you or your roommate?’ virtually all respondents will choose their roommate as the one who’s more likely to experience any given tragedy. For many, it’s been hypothesized that they must think this way to be able to survive happily, or even functionally, in this tragic world, a world where, let’s face it, anyone’s survival on a day-to-day basis is a crapshoot.”
“But I don’t get the benefit of this sort of protective thinking anymore,” I explain.
I might have chosen my roommate before. Maybe. But not since Matthew died. Now, in a survey of one thousand tragedies, I’m circling me as more likely to experience every single one of them.
I think it’s because of the brutality of the unexpectedness and suddenness with which it happened. It was almost too easy, how quickly his heart just stopped beating, how quickly everything was over. When I think about it, I realize that, with death, at least on some level, this is actually always the case. Shocking. Brisk. Unencumbered. I’ll never be able to unknow it.
“I know,” my therapist sympathizes, “But I want you to come up with a list of character traits you’d like to see in Joel as an adult,” he gives me my weekly assignment as our time is running out.
“I don’t know if I can,” I respond quietly.
“Nothing about this is going to be easy.”