Bill Fletcher Jr. on the Invisible Underground of Child Loss
Photo Credit: The Kansas City Public Library; Screenshot / YouTube.com
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My wife and I belong to an underground. More than likely, you do not know that this underground even exists. My hope is that you never join it.
It is an underground without a name. There are informal codes, but nothing that you would recognize. A sentence here; a reference to an event; a pause when discussing family history. Sometimes a tear at a strange or unusual moment.
We, in the underground, recognize all of these signs and once they are evident we have permission to speak with another member of the underground.
I knew nothing about this underground prior to March 21, 1986. It was on that day that my first born, after only three days of life, died peacefully in a hospital in Boston.
There are some strange things that occur when one loses a child. For the first two weeks there is an outpouring of sympathy and support, at least from most people that you know. There are those, however, who simply do not know how to respond to such a catastrophe and they, as a result, disengage, sometimes permanently. I lost one of my best friends in the aftermath of the death of my first born.
After two weeks, however, something very odd and confusing unfolds. Silence. As a man, the message that is communicated to me is that it is now time to get over the tragedy and get back to normality. Snap out of it, so to speak. And, by the way, make sure to take care of your wife since, in the words of a former friend, “ ... no matter how bad I felt I had to remember that she felt even worse ... ” whatever that meant.
The sympathy for my wife lasted longer. She was given more time to mourn but even then in increasing isolation. You see, most people do not know how to handle death and especially the death of a child.
Within a few weeks you start to understand that discussion of your misery and anguish is no longer acceptable. You see the discomfort in the faces of many people when the subject arises and, as a result, you turn inward, frequently thinking that there is something wrong with you for continuing to hold onto the deep, intense sadness that is almost indescribable.
The mourning is unpredictable and, as a result, many couples cannot survive it. A former co-worker of mine — another member of the underground — told me that she left her husband because he was crying all the time in the aftermath of the death of their child. He had one way of mourning and she had a very different way. The two of them were unable to reconcile their feelings and find support in one another.
At some point, however, you come across a member of the underground. It may result from a conversation with a virtual unknown, or it might be someone you have known for years. A word is offered or a sentence exchanged and you suddenly realize that they, too, lost a child. There is an exchange of glances where you and they attempt to ascertain whether it is really ‘safe’ to discuss this horror. It is at that point that the ice is broken and you realize that you have met a member of the underground and that, indeed, you have joined it as well.
In our society we are generally not prepared for death but we are especially unprepared for the death of a child. We do not have the words for it. Thus, people — including many well-meaning people — say the most inappropriate things trying desperately to be supportive and encouraging, but generally making you feel sadder and more miserable. You have to remember, it is not their fault. Like most people, in fact, like you before this tragedy, we are trained to hide such horrors in a closet and then to lock the closet and put a couch in front of it. The tragedy is not be discussed or acknowledged. Except, the tragedy eats at you, sometimes bringing you to the verge of screaming, leading you to seek someone with whom you can share the experience and emotions.