This talk was given by Robert Sachs at The Compassionate Friends gathering on December 9th in Arroyo Grande, CA. This was a Light Up a Life gathering for parents to celebrate the lives of their deceased children.
“On January 17th, our daughter, Shamara Phillipa, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Beyond the grieving and self reflection that my wife and I went through at that time, being a writer and researcher on health matters, I reached out to the professional health community of which I am a part and managed to have two remarkable conversations; one was with the illustrious Dr. Benjamin Spock, the other, Carrie Shehan, the former senior consultant of the then SIDS Alliance.
Our daughter, Shamara’s passing happened in somewhat unique circumstances, the account of which you can read in Rebirth Into Pure Land. Wanting this book to reach a larger audience, I first made contact with Carrie Shehan. After reading my manuscript, she told me was that of all the factors the Alliance had researched into why SIDS happens (sleeping position, type of mattress, diet of the mother and/or baby) the ONLY common factor researchers could identify was that most of the parents of children that died of SIDS had premonitions that their baby was going to die. They may have had other children and even though a parent always feels that their baby’s life is fragile, parents did not report having the morbid thoughts they had of their baby who died. This was our story. We had two little, very healthy little girls. We never worried about them dying. But with even before Shamara’s birth and during her short life, her death was always on our minds. And it was only after her death in the night of the 17th that Melanie and I learned of each other’s fatal musings.
A few years passed before we had our conversation with Dr. Spock. We had given him a copy of Rebirth on evening at a health conference in Santa Barbara. The next day, he sat with and said (to paraphrase_, “About every twenty years they change the theory about what causes SIDS, and all it does is breed guilt in a different set of parents.
In these two conversations and from our own experience, we came to understand a simple truth about life. Death happens at any age whether we are healthy or not. It is hard for anyone, especially a parent to accept this truth. We want to believe that death only happens if something goes wrong or there is some unfortunate kind of external circumstantial mishap. But, this is not the case. And life teaches us that it is not that way.
In the case of our daughter’s passing, while we were philosophically coming to terms with this objective truth, still, we had the kind of questions that all parents go through when losing a child…
Why did it happen?
Why did it happen to her?
Why did it happen to us?
What did I do or not do?
In most cases of SIDS and in the case of many whose children die, there is much self-blame and a blaming of partners. In the case of SIDS, we learned that in the face of feelings of pain and guilt many couples separate. We chose not to – some of this was from having two strong supportive families from which we came. Secondly, it had to do with our spiritual training and prayer life.
But, this did not stop my wife, Melanie, who in her grief, feelings of guilt, remorse and despair, from descending into depression and developing cervical cancer. Fortunately, we had a good friend who confronted her and asked her a straight forward question – “Do you want to live or die?” AND, fortunately for me, our children, and herself, she chose life. She went what most would consider an unconventional route of diet, exercise, relaxation, being open and honest with her feelings with me and her friends. She cleared herself of cancer and 6 years later gave birth to our youngest – now 22 year old - son.
Each of you have your own story. I am sure there are some of you who have experienced SIDS. But, some of you may have lost an infant or child to a disease or accident. Maybe an infection gone un-noticed, a car accident, an improvised explosive device in a foreign country, a dumb prank gone horribly wrong, or the unfortunate choice of suicide.
In our grief in their passing we all ask similar questions. And these questions about what we should or should not have done, what they should have or should not have done, bring up even larger questions of faith, of confidence in our world, in our relationships, in ourselves. For some of you, maybe you turned to faith to find solace. For others of you, you may have lost faith in a God who you thought was benevolent. Regardless, our view of the world is forever changed in the passing of anyone we love, and I think especially the passing of our own children.
One reason I think that the loss of children is so hard for us is that we believe that the natural order of the world is to be born, be a baby, a child, an adolescent, a young, adult, adult, and finally elder. This is the natural course of life unimpeded.
We believe that this is how it is supposed to be. And as such, we CHERISH our young. We see in them our hopes and dreams, their hopes and dreams, and a possible future. We want it to be better for them. Such a wish and intent is so noble, so healthy, so natural as a parent.
Yet, in this world, this is not the lot of so many children. Famine and droughts starve millions of children to death each year. Young girls in Africa under the age of ten become sex workers to support their babies and die of AIDS. Brutal, child labor exists throughout the world. Young boys are coerced into becoming soldiers. Throughout the world, the most under-represented and most vulnerable are the old and the young.
In an impermanent world of environmental changes, political corruption, greed, warfare, disfranchisement, and the very nature of our human biology, the simple truth is that children die everyday before their parents. And, most of these parents also wish this was not so.
In the East there is a saying: It is easier to put on shoes than to cover the world in leather. Ultimately, in the frailty and impermanence of our very life, we cannot protect ourselves or our children from every disease, from every environmental calamity, from warfare that lands on our doorstep or accidental occurrences that come about from sheer mishap or misjudgment born out of an ignorance each one of us shares.
What this all boils down to is this: Your child died. Dying is a part of life. Dying happens in its own time, because there are some who survive what others don’t . Maybe you could have been kinder, more alert, more attentive, smarter. THIS IS ALWAYS TRUE. Along with the legacy that your child leaves in your heart, there are the lessons about life and how to move forward with a new perspective. Maybe this is not the perspective you wanted. Maybe you are not the one who has some existential or spiritual breakthrough in the course of your child’s death. Maybe you can barely breath and just learning to breathe again and take one step forward at a time is the best you can do. But, please understand, whilst guilt, remorse, and pain are part of the learning curve and stirrings that are part and parcel of the grieving process, if unchecked, if one tries to hold onto things the way they were, then there is no moving forward and we begin to atrophy as parents to our other children, as friends and lovers to our spouse and those around us. And I ask you, is this the legacy your now passed child would want you to leave upon the world? Would they want you to abandon every one of your own gifts, talents, and abilities because they could not live? What would they want for you?
More importantly, know that while your pain leaves you at times feeling very lonely – you are NOT ALONE. Maybe you thinking closing yourself off to others will make the pain go away. I assure you, that doesn’t work. But, it also does not mean that you should expect yourself to be able to go on as if nothing has happened.
PLEASE UNDERSTAND that despite current attempts on the part of the medical profession to describe grief as a pathology, categorized as a form of depression, HEALTHY grieving is NORMAL. In many cultures around the world, there are grieving customs; wearing black, a black armband, a symbol that lets others know that you are grieving. Such customs let people know to be gentle with you, give you space, honor your time. In the absence of this, I encourage you to find a few good friends or your spouse. As you allow yourself to openly go through the steps and stages of grief, you will develop ways in which those closest to you will know and understand when you need space or a hug. Don’t ignore birthdays. Spend some time in silence, prayer, contemplation around the time of your child’s passing. Not only celebrate their lives, but also reflect on the many gifts they have given you; the ones that make you a bit more patient, a bit kinder, a bit more generous, and most of all, more loving of the preciousness of life.
How long should you allow this process to take? The answer is very individual. The lessons we learn from grieving our loved ones takes its own time and appears often in ways unexpected. And if in this process you feel that, you are struggling beyond what near and dear ones can help you with, there are always hospice counselors and support groups in virtually every community. In so many of life’s triumphs and tragedies, it does take a village. Thus to seek out help at this time is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of our humanity and the value in connecting.
Life is ephemeral. Birth, sickness, old, age and death are the irreducible facts of life. If we look at it from a deep perspective we see that the first sign of death is birth.
Ten days after our daughter Shamara died, Melanie and I were at a mountain retreat where a woman was going into labor. It was du=ring a snowstorm. She could not get down the mountain to the hospital and the ambulance service was not able to get up the mountain. Melanie and I had done all of our birthings at home. And so, we delivered her baby. And, in the process, we discovered that the energy around death and the energy around birth are not that different. Portals of entrance and exit in a world we tend to think is so solid – when in fact it never was, never is, never will be.
Our life is precious. Our child’s life was precious. To honor them, we owe to them, to us, and those around us to celebrate that preciousness. Embrace each other. We are never more alive than when we care for others. As parents, we have learned that first hand. There are still so many who are near to us and so many who we do not even know yet who need our love, our care, our kindness, our compassion. Although there have been times – perhaps even now - when you have felt gray and hollow, you are not that. Such feelings feel like they will go on forever. But they do not. They, too, are impermanent. In spite of the clouds, the sun is out every day. If we reach out, we shall feel its warmth once again.
And, if you are not yet ready to do so, it will be there when you are.”
Author of Rebirth Into Pure Land: A True Story of Birth, Death, and Transformation & How We Can Prepare for The Most Amazing joirney of Our Lives
Contact Robert at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 805-543-9291