On June 10, 2016, I reached a big milestone in my life, but it’s a milestone that no mother wants to reach, and it’s certainly not one that will be celebrated. On June 10, 2016, my son, Max, will have been dead for five years. Writing those words still sends a little shock through my system. How has it been five years already? Five years is a long time to go without hugging or kissing your child, hearing his coos, seeing his smile, giving him baths, watching him grow and develop his own identity. No new photos--a child frozen in time. Five years is a long time to go on living without one of the people who made that very act worth doing. No, the anniversary of my son’s death is not something that will be celebrated; it will be mourned. But, in the midst of that mourning, there will be reflection, gratitude, and remembrance. In the five years since Max died, life has gone on. It’s been ugly at times, beautiful at others, but it has gone on nonetheless. So, while this milestone itself will not be celebrated, the resiliency, strength, and overwhelming love that it took to reach this milestone will be celebrated.
Almost five years ago, my son, Max, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) when he was five weeks old. That June day and many of the days following are still a blur. My memories mostly comprise of isolated moments and of the feelings of grief that are beyond description. I remember performing CPR on Max, I remember clinging to the hope that the emergency responders could (and would) perform a miracle, and I remember the emergency responders pulling me aside and confirming that Max was gone. I remember thinking, “I want to die,” and meaning it with every ounce of my being. I remember waking up so many mornings and feeling intense physical and mental pain at the realization that Max really was dead. What I remember most of all, however, is love. I was surrounded by it--from strangers who saw Max’s obituary or read my blog, from long-ago friends, from family, and from other mothers who knew what it was to lose a child suddenly and without logical explanation. The love and support that came pouring in helped me get through planning a funeral for my child, and it helped me to stay sane and somewhat functional for my older son, Ethan. My friends and family were absolutely crucial to me in those first few weeks; they did things for me that I couldn’t do for myself--pick out a dress to wear to Max’s funeral, put together meals for my family, clean, do laundry, pay bills, and all of the other daily tasks that seemed pointless in the fog of tragedy that enveloped me. Life went on for them, though, and it needed to go on for me too. Eventually, it was up to me to figure out how to get through each day without Max.
One of the first things that I did was reach out to other moms who had lost children. I went to SIDS support groups, and through one of them, I met a woman, Lori, who is one of my best friends to this day. Our sons died within a month of each other, and we became co-pilots to each other on the journey of grief. It was such a relief to know that I wasn’t alone--that someone else also felt intense jealousy toward people who smiled and laughed at the grocery store when our worlds contained no reason for such outward displays of happiness. Together, we became those smiling, laughing people again. I also started a blog where I shared my feelings without reservation or fear of judgment. My initial goal was to give my friends and family members an easy way to see how I was doing. It’s always been easier for me to write about my feelings than to speak about them, and the response to my blog was totally overwhelming. What initially started as an online journal became a sort of online support group. I heard from people from all over the world who had stumbled upon my blog and found comfort or hope or something meaningful in my story. Knowing that I was using Max’s legacy to empower and comfort others was, and still is, incredibly fulfilling.
"In Max's short life, he knew only love and kindness, so to "pull a Max" is to act and react with only love and kindness."
One big fear of parents who lose a child is that their child’s life will mean nothing--that the child will be defined by his death, or, worse, be forgotten altogether. It was important to me to make sure that those things didn’t happen to Max. Keeping his memory alive and honoring his life have helped me to grieve in a positive way, and they gave me much-needed purpose in my early stages of grief. The officiant who spoke at Max’s funeral, Duke Tufty, coined a phrase that I still use today: “pull a Max.” In Max’s short life, he knew only love and kindness, so to “pull a Max” is to act and react with only love and kindness. In the years since Max’s death, I have made it my life’s mission to “pull a Max.” I have helped to raise tens of thousands of dollars for SIDS research, ridden in charity bike rides in honor of Max, and, with Lori, established a nonprofit foundation to help other families who have lost children. Losing Max changed everything about me: the way I view life, how I define happiness, the people I surround myself with, the things I do in my free time, my hopes, dreams, even the way I decorate my house. His death changed my purpose in life, it changed how I interact with people, and it changed how I treat myself. In short, it made me better. And I believe that Max’s purpose was just that: to make people better.
In the years since Max’s death, life has been full--of purpose, meaning, heartbreak, pain, love, and hope. Max’s little sister, my “rainbow baby,” Quinn, was born, and she’s made life chaotic and so fun. Max’s big brother, Ethan, has aged into double digits and is starting to ask questions to which I don’t know the answers. There’s been divorce, remarriage, emergency surgeries, pacifier dependencies, potty training, swim lessons, and a whole host of illnesses. But, there have also been remembrances: balloon releases, rock paintings, garden plantings, stickers, tattoos, songs, donations, letters, bike rides, cardinal sightings. Max is a part of our daily lives, and he always will be. His presence is felt; his life continues to matter.
Losing a child is hard. Grief is hard. It’s so permanent and, at times, all-consuming and seemingly insurmountable. One of my favorite authors, Joan Didion, wrote, “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.” after losing her husband unexpectedly. I read those words years before Max was even born and recognized something profound in them. She’s right--life does change in the instant. It’s never the same, but it’s not all bad. Tragedy really can carve out a place where beauty and meaning can exist. On June 10, I will, of course, remember the smell of Max’s beautiful, full head of silky black hair. I will remember the weight of his wiggling body in my arms. I will remember my delight at seeing him smile for the first time, the connection that I felt while gazing into his open eyes, the absolute honor that was bestowed upon me to be called “Max’s mom.” I will mourn the loss of these things, as I do every day, but I will also be thankful for the ways in which his life impacted not just mine, but so many others who joined me on this difficult journey. I will celebrate the life of Max, a little boy who taught me how to be strong and resilient and how to live fully and love unconditionally. I will remember that while life does change in “the instant,” it can still be beautiful.