My son died 20 years ago last month.
We did our remembrance of him on his birthday earlier in the month, and that brought various condolences from various people. We are so sorry, they said. It must be so sad.
Although the condolences came from kindness, they felt off somehow. It’s not so much about sadness anymore. After 20 years, it’s different.
While Aidan was still alive, after he was diagnosed with a severe, life-limiting disability, I wrote something for Sesame Street Parents Magazine that our priest read at Aidan’s funeral:
All of us, at some point in our lives, are faced with something we didn’t expect and never wanted. What defines us, I think, is what we do with those things that life gives us. Very often, whether we are cursed or blessed is a matter of choosing.
Aidan’s family chooses to be blessed.
That’s how I feel: blessed.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It sucks to lose a kid. So much of all of it was really horrible, and I still have trap-door moments when a smell, a sound or a cast of light brings back a memory so strong that the floor goes out from below me. I still grieve for my child, a grief that feels like it should be a huge scar but is invisible, as if it’s settled into my bones.
There are no guarantees of anyone or anything in life. We are all vulnerable, as is everyone and everything we love. Everyone and everything that matters to us can be taken from us in an instant, which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t let anyone or anything matter to us. If anything, they should matter to us more precisely because they are so precious.
As I’ve said many times, I’d trade this wisdom in a heartbeat to have my son back. And it’s hard-won wisdom; I did plenty of stumbling while Aidan was alive and have continued to stumble in the 20 years since he died. I’m just as human as anyone else.
But 20 years since that day when Aidan died in my arms, I feel very blessed. Blessed to have had him for a year. Blessed that my family and my marriage grew stronger, not weaker — because weaker often happens. Blessed to have wonderful people who supported us then and still do. Blessed that — knock wood — my other children and my husband are healthy. Blessed that I know that I can endure — that all of us can endure — and still be happy.
So yes, it’s sad, and we were misty-eyed at the cemetery as the balloons flew to heaven and we wished our lost baby a happy birthday. But for us, it’s not a time for condolences. It’s a time for gratitude and peace.
About the blogger: Dr. Claire McCarthy is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, a senior editor for Harvard Health Publications and an official spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.