When You Can No Longer Visit the Grave: A Story of Child Loss
Today’s guest post is written by Janie Garner
When my son was killed at 17 years old, I knew I would visit his grave a few times a week for the rest of my life. This was an obligation. Not visiting him would be tantamount to neglect. These were my son’s bones, all that was left of him on the earth. Someone had to visit and remember, and it was my responsibility.
I haven’t been in almost a year. He died almost 4 years ago.
The first several times I went, there was no headstone yet. I am a Navy veteran and Alex, as my minor child, was entitled to be buried in a national cemetery. I went and looked at the fresh dirt with orange plastic netting on it, to prevent the ground from eroding. I looked at the printed card and metal stake. It was winter. I sat or sprawled on the grave for hours at a time, until my hands turned blue with cold. We had an unusually snowy winter. I sobbed and tried to bargain with God to take me instead. As you can see, that didn’t work out for me. People came over and asked me if they could call someone, and if I was ok. I must have been quite a spectacle if strangers were that concerned about a woman crying over a fresh grave.
I wanted to say: No, I am not ok. You are a well-meaning but stupid human. Get away from me. Can’t you see I am trying to mourn my kid, or freeze myself to death? Instead, I said “Thank you, I am fine “.
Then it became spring and I showed up several times a week to watch the plugs of grass spread across the hole. The netting was taken away at some point. The stone was set, and I spent hours tracing his name with my fingers, and punching myself in the leg as hard as I could to distract myself from the psychic agony I felt.
The first time I saw his name (and mine) on that headstone, I screamed and fell to my knees. It was so much more permanent than the card and the stake. The US Government had provided a monument that said he was dead forever. It was lined up with thousands of stones exactly like it. There was an empty space next to his grave, for my husband Paul, an Army veteran. I would be buried on top of my baby. My name and pertinent dates will be carved into the reverse of his stone. Our various atoms will perhaps eventually mingle again, as when I carried his body inside of mine.
His bones are in the company of heroes. The national cemetery will be perfectly maintained for as long as the US Government exists. There are literally hundreds of deer, completely unafraid of humans. They walk among the monuments peacefully. They also eat the flower arrangements. Alex would enjoy that.
Six months passed. I found myself dreading each visit. They spread further and further apart. I became completely hysterical and inconsolable during and after each visit. I was guilty for not going as often as i should. I became mildly suicidal every single time i visited. There was no winning this one.
My Father-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer when Alex had been dead for 10 months. He was dead a month later. He mentioned that it was too bad that he couldn’t be buried next to Alex, his much-loved Grandson. I am the nurse in the family, so i took care of him. He died at home, with us.
Naturally, when he died we gave him my husband’s spot. Paul will be buried with his father, a decorated Purple Heart and Bronze Star Vietnam Veteran. I will be buried with our son. We have created a family plot in the middle of a National Cemetery.
Alex’s grave was disturbed when they buried his grandfather. This caused me to be unable to leave my bed for weeks. The grass took some time to grow back, and it became my habit to lay in the dirt and/or mud between them, with one hand on each grave. This winter wasn’t as snowy, but it was wet.
If I was mildly suicidal before, now I was in great danger of ending my own life. I started only going on holidays, birthdays, and death days. This made me less suicidal, but more guilty.
I felt like I was failing to properly honor my son. I still do, but I cannot take the emotional tornado caused by seeing my baby’s name on a headstone twice a week. I was dying inside a little more each time I visited. I have the florist deliver flowers to the graves occasionally. Other family members visit sometimes, and I know the cemetery is cared for. I can do nothing else. I have nothing left to give.
I feel like the custom of visiting graves is barbaric, at least for grieving parents. There is nothing under that stone but a decomposing body. In this case, the body of the child who was NEVER supposed to die before me. The body that died and completely invalidated my life, The body I didn’t protect well enough.
The body I failed.
Because that’s really what the problem is. No matter how many times you tell a grieving parent that their child’s death was not their fault, they will never believe you. Somehow, in their own minds, they are to blame. My son was killed when he was hit by a 9 ton tow truck, operated by a distracted driver. I was 40 miles away. I blame myself.
So visit if it comforts you. Do not visit if it tortures you. Your kid doesn’t care. Either the Atheists are right and he knows nothing about it, or he is in Heaven and way too busy partying it up with God to notice worldly stuff.
At least, that’s what I tell myself.