Three years ago I went to hear a renowned American psychic speak with one of my close friends. My friend had recently lost her partner of nearly 20 years to complications of cancer. She was understandably riven by the loss and hoped to get a message from the psychic.
I went with her not because I am a strong believer in psychic phenomenon, but more the opposite. I went as a protector of my friend–a buffer between her grief and anyone who might prey upon her vulnerability. Also, in the back of my mind, was my reporter’s instinct, suggesting that I could write about the experience later, and what it meant in a social context.
As soon as I entered the place I could see this was a female-driven event. The audience in the smallish 2,000 seat theater was nearly entirely women. My friend and I were seated near the back of the theater in which I had only ever heard music performed.
The buzz around us was intense. I could absolutely feel the pulse of grief in the room. Everyone there–everyone but me, it seemed–had come hoping to reach their beloved dead. Sitting where I was, on the aisle near where people were handing in their tickets to ushers, I caught snippets of conversation. The air was redolent with perfume and anticipation, each woman willing that she would be singled out to get the sign from the Other Side via the psychic.
As the lights dimmed a bit–not fully, as the psychic wanted to be able to see her audience–the tenor of the room shifted. People were rapt. And truth be told, the psychic was engaging and compelling. It was easy to see why she had a hit TV show and why we had paid $100 per seat.
The psychic spoke at length about herself, about accessing the dead, about being a witness to the void in other people’s lives left by the death of someone beloved. I was pulled into her talk–like a TED talk, but about psychic phenomena. She never mentioned ghosts, but it was clear the audience believed the room to be filled with them.
When she left the stage to walk amongst the audience, I wasn’t sure what I felt. I found her immensely likable, real and, for lack of a better word, believable.
The very thing I had come to prevent–her accessing my friend’s grief–I suddenly found myself wishing for. Did it really matter if this was all hocus-pocus dominocus as the cartoon used to say? Wasn’t what mattered that people find a release from their loss or their guilt or their lack of resolution? My friend felt guilt at having gone home from the hospital–a mere three blocks from their house–the night her partner died. She had never said good bye because the death was sudden and unexpected.
And most of all, she ached for her wife of so many years.
As it happened, my father had died very recently. I didn’t miss him. I wasn’t grief-stricken. He’d had a miserable time after a sudden stroke over lunch one afternoon and his death was too long in coming, not too soon. I wasn’t yearning for a visitation or even a resolution.
As the psychic moved from person to person, I watched those she touched with her spirit talk change. There were tears, there was–something. It was palpable, but I had no word to articulate it. But all of us there were experiencing it together, whether we believed, as my friend did, or were skeptics like myself.
My childlike willing of the psychic to come to my friend was derailed. She had been asking questions of the audience, trying to find the people who matched what she “saw.” So when she looked toward us, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But when she said, “Who here has lost a child?’ I was stunned to see my own hand shoot up, involuntarily. The only one amongst the 2,000 or so people in attendance.
She came to me, the psychic. She asked me to stand–I was much taller than she, despite her high heels. She put her hand lightly on my arm and I had the most inexplicable feeling, but of what, I can’t say.
She told me things–numbers that were dates, names, a plethora of tiny details that I knew no one knew but me and–oddly enough–my friend’s dead partner who I had spoken to about it one night in a random fit of revelation.
And then as quickly as the psychic had appeared before me, she was gone, moved on to another person, another death. I ached for more. Tears streamed down my cheeks. What had just happened?
I’m not the woo-woo sort. Although I am a Catholic and believe in an afterlife, and like most girls, I once had a Ouija board as a tween, I am not a devotee of the “I see dead people” coterie.
How to explain what happened? I can’t really. The details were too specific to be lucky guesses. All I can say is that night changed my life. It opened a door that had been sealed tightly shut.
The loss of a child is something one never fully recovers from. There is a place that is deep and dark and empty and it is the void where your child–in my case, a daughter–should be.
The years pass and some memories fade and others remain disturbingly vivid. Will I ever forget that last hour of labor? Am I forever imprinted with the green tile and the sounds that came out of me, sounds I didn’t even know were in my repertoire of vocalizations? Will I ever forget that last push and the sensation of the baby–my baby–leaving my body?
No. I will never forget those things.
Nor will I forget the time leading up to that–all the things I imagined. The mothering I would give that I had not received myself. The knowledge I would impart. The things we would share. So many things I expected to give her.
But when a child dies, time stands still. You and your child are forever trapped in her baby-ness. There is no toddlerhood or first day of school or complicated adolescence. There is only that tiny, beautiful baby face, that painfully, incredibly soft baby skin. And that smell that is the lure of all babies. The scent of the child to whom you gave birth. The scent of sense memory.
Years before the psychic, years before the birth of my child, years before her death, a student of mine wrote a novel about a woman who loses a baby and cannot recover from the loss because no one around her considers it a loss. Her friends all look the other way, they ignore what has happened. It is as if she were never pregnant, never had those late night talks, her hands on her stomach, never went to the hospital, never came home alone to delicate baby things that would never be worn by her child.
There’s nothing to be said about dead children. It is such a horror, that we cannot even speak it. We just pretend–society, each one of us–that it hasn’t really happened.
Because if it happened to them, it could happen to us.
When the Newtown Massacre happened in that quiet unremarkable Connecticut suburb on December 14, 2012, it was a few months after my friend and I had gone to the psychic event. I sat in front of the TV sobbing. Keening, really. I watched as parents waited for their children to come out. Some did, some never would again.
I kept visualizing how the holidays would never be the same for the families of the 20 dead six year olds. The shooting took place in the middle of Hanukkah that year, halfway through the menorah. The shooting took place ten days before Christmas, halfway through the windows on the Advent calendar.
No, the holidays would never, ever be the same for those families.
I have reported on the deaths of children. In the late 1980s I had reported on pediatric AIDS and spent a few days in the ward of Montifiore Hospital in the Bronx, New York, holding the abandoned AIDS babies whose mothers had given birth in a tile-lined room like I myself would years later. Those mothers had left and never come back.
I had reported on the pesticide poisoning of the children of farm workers in the Central Valley in California, days spent in scorching heat driving from one tiny enclave to another, just to interview the parents of yet another dead or dying child. One afternoon I sat beside a tiny white coffin festooned with little woven Lady of Guadeloupe figures. Inside lay a four year old girl, her bald and wizened head against a satin pillow, her dress the frilly white of the First Holy Communion or quinceañera she would never have.
When you lose a child–when your child dies–you are forever bonded to other parents who have lost a child. It’s not a club you want to be part of. It’s not a club you want to invite new members into. And it’s also not a club you can ever leave.
Years ago I had interviewed the mother of Nancy Spungen, the girlfriend of Sex Pistols bassist, Sid Vicious, whom he murdered in a New York hotel room after she wrote a book about her daughter’s murder. It was a complicated interview for me and for Deborah Spungen because I was the same age as her daughter, had been born only six days before Nancy, in the same city. We had a similar look, Nancy and I and midway through the interview I could see my mere presence was problematic. But Deborah talked on, about her daughter, about the murder, about what it was like to lose a child. About how your life can never be the same again.
How could I have known then that one day many years later, I would know some semblance of what that grief felt like?
I have only written about the death of my child once before–in a poem published in the grief issue of When Women Waken Literary Journal in Fall 2013. The poem is in couplets, the rhyme scheme complex, the pain raw, the visceral juxtaposed with the imagery of nurseries and mother-child bonding.
Woman after woman wrote to me after reading that poem. Each having lost a child, each having felt both unmoored by and ignored in her grief. Their silence had shackled them. I had, it seemed, breathed life into their pain, but in a good way–the way of recognition.
I have a relatively new friend whose first child died in infancy. It was a long, protracted painful dying and it was, like the death of my child, two decades ago. Yet my friend speaks of her daughter in the present tense. Her daughter is with her every day, along with her other children. Talking to her has taught me new things about grief and sadness, loss and longing. One of the things I have learned from her is that my loss should never be hidden, never be confused with shame–we gave birth to these children and there is nothing else like that, like giving birth. There is no other feeling one will ever experience to replicate it. It’s not fungible and it is definitely not forgettable.
The hallmarks of motherhood–the things we do as our children grow up–those are, for me with this child, mere fantasy. But the fact of motherhood, of carrying a child, of labor, of delivery, of that first touch of motherly finger to baby cheek–those things will never leave me.
These disjunctive bits of memory and longing, of loss and sadness, are meant to anchor others in their own grief, their own memories. This is raw, not refined. But then grief is raw, not refined. And so this essay is a litany, a dirge, an elegy, a memento mori. It is about all the dead children, mine, yours, ours.
Silence can comfort and silence can shatter. Keeping silent about my loss hurt me, deeply. I can’t recover what was lost in not speaking sooner, but I can say to other women, don’t hide your loss. Mourn it in the open. Lay the coffin bare for all to see. Allow yourself the endlessness of grief and the succor of memory. Name her, name him, name your bond. Carry your child with you in the present, not the past. This is the way it was meant to be. You and your child, always. It should not have taken a psychic to tell me that my daughter was still with me. But once she did, she opened a door for me. And in the light that shone through was my child, reaching out to me as I had always known she would.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a columnist and contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review. Her reporting and commentary has appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer. Her book, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural & historical fiction. Her novel, Ordinary Mayhem will be released in February 2015. @VABVOX