Trap door days

Claire McCarthy MD

Christmas Eve is hard for me.

It was in the early hours of Christmas Eve sixteen years ago that my newborn son was diagnosed with a horrible brain malformation. My husband and I were wrapping presents late on the 23rd (so now I associate wrapping presents with this diagnosis and throw everything I can into gift bags) when he began to have seizures so bad that we called an ambulance. Over the night the news went from bad to worse, and by dawn we knew that he would be severely disabled and die young. He died less than a year later.

It was a very long time ago, but grief has a way of working its way into your bones and nerves. I mourn the loss of my son every Christmas Eve—the loss of the healthy baby I thought I had until then, and the loss of the blessing Aidan turned out to be.

For those of us who have endured losses like these, there are always trap-door days (or trap-door smells or sounds or songs or pictures) when the ground gives out and we fall down deep. For the first few Christmas Eves after Aidan’s death I cried a lot in private, and in public held my breath and put my head into the wind of the day, making it through by sheer will.

But bit by bit, year by year, I’ve learned that there are ways to keep from falling down deep, ways to be made strong against the wind of the day. Nice presents and pretty lights don’t do it—they are too ephemeral—nor does music, no matter how lovely (a friend of mine who suffered from chronic depression once said wisely, “Some things take more than Mozart”).  It takes things more fundamental and enduring.

This Christmas Eve at dawn I went for a run. I pushed up the hills and sprinted down them, the cold air rushing into my lungs. I felt physically strong and capable, and as the sun lit the trees and filled the sky everything felt clean and possible. It helped.

My eldest daughter brought her kitten home for the holidays, and all day we laughed at Beau as he played with ornaments on the tree or hid inside boxes ready to pounce or chased the laser pointer absolutely anywhere we pointed it (what it is with cats and laser pointers?). My 6-year-old, Liam, has a belly laugh that makes us laugh even more. It helped.

At church, two teenagers gave up their seats and stood so that an elderly couple could sit and it made me feel hopeful. A girl from the children’s choir who couldn’t have been more than thirteen stood up in front of the crowd and led everyone in singing the responsorial psalm; I watched her steady herself, take a deep breath, and sing out brave and strong. It helped.

A friend of my daughter’s, who spent so much of her childhood with us that we all came to think of her as family, came to visit us for the first time in many months. I had missed her so, and seeing her again, and seeing the wonderful woman she is becoming, and seeing how happy she was to see us—it helped.

And there was Liam’s sheer excitement as we laid out cookies and he wrote a note for Santa.  He got out of bed three different times to remind us to go to bed so Santa would come—and one other time to tell us he was sure he’d heard bells outside. It helped too.

I lost Aidan, and others dear to me. And as not just the mother of a child who died but a doctor, I know more keenly than most that we are all vulnerable and loss is inevitable. We all have our trap doors of grief, we all have days or months or years when life’s winds seem too much to fight. This is simply true; nothing can be done to change it.

But, I have come to see clearly, that doesn’t mean that life can’t still be good. Joy, beauty, excitement, laughter, bravery, kindness—they all endure and shelter us against the wind. Most of all, the ties that bind us together make the difference: when we reach out our hand to take another, we do not fall so far.


15 thoughts on “Trap door days

  1. It was an honor to read your story. The next time I think of transparency I will remember reading Trap Door Days. While you could have kept this story trapped within your soul, you chose to open this gift and give it to us. 

    I’m certain by sharing Aiden’s life other parents, grandparents, clergy and all of those touched by the death of a baby and/or child will gain more insight and understanding. I still believe when Physicians share personal stories that somehow it makes it easier for those of us as patients to think “we are also o.k. or normal.” 

    I hope you didn’t mind that I placed your quote from this story on Twitter~perhaps I should have asked first since this is such a personal story. 


    1. Of course it was okay that you quoted me! I am honored. Thank you so much for your incredibly kind words.

  2. Thank you, Claire, for so eloquently articulating the emotions of trap door days for parents who have lost a child.  I walk beside you in your healing, as I, too, lost my son when he was a child. I will think of your Aidan and my Nick through these waning days of 2011 and feel incredible gratitude to them for helping their moms be able to bear witness to suffering and companion with our patients and families with compassion, understanding and hope.

  3. Thank you for writing this piece.  My husband and I lost our son on Sept. 13, 2010.  He was 23 months. He was born with type II SMA.  It is comforting to hear how another mother deals with those “trap door” days.  They seem to come without warning and can hit hard. 

  4. Thank you for the kind words and encouragement. I lost my brother 3 yrs ago. He was a survivor. At 11 yrs old he beat the odds of Hodgkins Disease. When he married he beat the odds after being told it would be nearly impossible to have a child.(due to radiation) Ten yrs ago we were blessed with his amazing daughter. After a heart and lung transplant from (radiation cardiac disease)  we lost my dear brother, my best friend. He was the youngest of nine children. He was the family fun guy and most loving and kind man to breathe, in my mind. I am reminded daily of the beauty of life through his daughter, who has his wonderful character and spirit for life. And my strong family faith. It doesn’t make the pain go away, just makes the pain a bit less painful. Thank you for reminding me life is good. And each day I realize how many more people suffer losses as my family. Thank you, Marie

  5. Marie, I am so sorry about your brother–and Janet, I’m really sorry about your son. My heart goes out to both of you.

  6. Lovely article. One I can share with many who are going through a very difficult time,especially during the holidays. Your words were eloquent and inspiring. My thoughts are with you and your family. Thank you for sharing your story.

  7. Great article with some powerful images and emotions.  It is amazing how tragic events in our lives get tied to other daily or holiday activities that then bring back the immediacy of the moment.

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. This year has been full of wind storms for me and loved ones. So the Holiday season has been especially difficult. But I agree with all my heart that there have been those unexpected moments where something happens which gives me (us) the strength to keep on walking in faith that this too shall pass.

  9. Thank you very much for sharing this story, Claire. Exactly one year ago, I lost my oldest brother unexpectedly. Yesterday I had trap door day – your story helped.

  10. Dr. Claire,
    As many commenters have so honestly, eloquently, and with an open heart responded, your courage and grace in sharing this post is a power of example for how we can with our own humanity, and in so doing, connect with and honor the grace, dignity, and humanity of others.

    Loss, grief, and mourning are necessarilly universal – and yet often so very and deeply personal, private, and hidden just beneath the surface of every day reality and routine.

    Something does open up for us and for others when we find ourselves able to share and speak honestly and with courage about the losses, grief, and mourning we have gone through, or may be in the middle of.

    The ‘Trap Door Days’ as you so beautifully express unite us rather than make us different and unique from one another.

    I lost my father suddenly, without warning, and quickly two days before my 18th birthday. While I did have roughly six hours at his hospital bedside before he passed, during which he was in and out of consciousness, and at times able to respond, he could not speak for the tube running down his throat.

    Given how traumatized and utterly terrified I was by and during the experience, I could not speak to him and express many of the things I wished to at the time, I could not find the strengh and grace within myself to comfort him as I desperately wished to during that long night’s journey to dawn and his inevitable and inescapable passing.

    I was able to tell him I loved him, and he did understand and acknowledge me. But we could not have a conversation – he could not say to me whatever it may have been he wished to.

    I remember this, still sometimes painfully, as the single greatest difficulty and most awful aspect to me at the time of the situation I found myself in at his bedside.

    It has only been through the passage of time, the natural years of growing maturity and awareness, that I came to realize that my prescence, my simple presence at his bedside, even in its silence, was comfort enough – the comfort of greatest meaning I could give him.

    I am grateful to this day that I was able to be at his bedside, and in this, be of comfort to him, up until just before his last breath.

    For years afterwards, and I can’t speak to the why of it, I could not and would not discuss my father’s death with friends or people I met when it would come up naturally or circumstantially in conversation beyond the most basic details.

    It was only once I was able to begin to face my own grief, remorse, and loss around his death through sharing it openly, honestly, and with courage to other human beings, whether they had or had not experienced the early loss of a parent, or a loss of a loved one, that I began to heal deeply, and at the depth where the healing needed to take root.

    The surprising thing I found, unexpected at the time, was that it allowed people in turn to share their deeply personal losses and grief with me.

    It seemed to give people permission to open their hearts to me, strangers on a train as well as those close to me.

    And most unexpected of all, the connection to others, to their stories of loss and healing through sharing my own, gave me the permission I desperaely needed in order to come to and make peace with his death and with my pain and my loss.

    It has been in connection to others that I have found my self, healed my self, and been of use and service to others.

    While I believed for the longest time that I was alone with his death, alone with my grief, alone with the pain and devastation his death caused me, that I would have to deal with it on my own, it was only through sharing my story of loss, and thereby being allowed to hear other’s stories of loss, that I became aware that far from being alone in this, the experience of tragedy and grief has brought me closer to others, brought me near to the hearts and minds of all who must necessarily experinece all that life has to offer including the loss of life and acceptance of the life that must go on afterwards.

    always the best,

  11. What an inspiring story! I have never been through an experience like this, but I think your methods with coping can be applied to any traumatic event a person has been through. Just remembering these times and being reminded of them at that time each year is a struggle. I think your positive outlook is a great reminder to us all.  

  12. You write beautifully. Is it perhaps more cruel to lose someone on a holiday? Each year the anniversary rolls back around with grim festoons.

    I don’t remember how old I was when my grandmother died, but I remember that it was on Valentine’s Day. Mema had had a heart attack and was staying with my parents and me afterwards to recover. She had been doing well, but another episode landed her back in the hospital. My mother, father, and I were all dressed up and ready to go out the door for a Valentine’s Day dinner together when the phone rang. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the doctors saying that Mema’s heart had failed again. If my mother wanted to say goodbye, the doctors could keep Mema alive (or at least as alive as she could be) until my mom got there.

    My parents dropped me off at a friend’s house. They didn’t come back to get me. I remember the phone ringing in the middle of the night, and I somehow knew that the call meant Mema had gone. In the morning, I called my mom and asked, “How’s grandma?” The question caught me as strange. I’d never called Mema that. She was always just Mema. 

    I didn’t cry until I got home. I opened my closet and there hung my Girl Scout vest, which Mema had been hand sewing my badges onto. That’s what did me in. I took a small comfort in the fact that I had sent Mema a coffee mug covered with hearts and a white teddy bear inside it and a giant heart-shaped balloon that said, “I love you!” I knew that she had seen it before she died, and that at least I got to say what I felt for her, albeit in shiny, crinkly mylar. 

    I haven’t celebrated Valentine’s Day since. All the hearts and the red roses and the pink frilly things just come off as saccharine, manufactured, and meaningless. If one is going to love someone, one should love that person every day and show it every day because any day might be the day that person is gone. 

  13. This was a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing your experiences, your insight, and most of all, your hope.

Comments are closed.