What is your greatest fear? What is it for you – that thing that gives you shudders just to think of it? Thunderstorms? Dogs, snakes, spiders? Heights or maybe confined places? Perhaps it is something psychological like public speaking, failure, or being alone. Most of us are afraid of death. Everyone has something they fear in varying degrees – even Chuck Norris.
Your list of fears might be long or it might be short.
While I don’t love snakes, I know my greatest fear is being eaten by a shark. What are the odds, right? I go to the beach one week out of the year and stay in the surf. Oh, I wade out and play. But I always I keep a wary eye on the horizon and make sure there is at least one person bobbing between me and the deep blue. I call him chum and he is my harbinger. When the shark pack pulls him under, I figure I’ll have enough warning to swim to safety.
As a child of the seventies, I blame Jaws. Sharks didn’t exist for me before then. I am not sure if I had yet visited a beach when I saw the movie. In my young mind, the Florida coast became full of twenty-five foot man-eaters that could beach themselves for the right meal. A boy doesn’t just get over that. Yes, sharks are my biggest fear.
At least, they used to be my greatest fear.
As grieving parents, my wife and I are now living out the greatest fear of many – the fear of losing a child. Except when at the beach, I am an eternal optimist. I never in my wildest dreams thought this would happen to us. This sort of thing happens to other people and we are the type who rally to support them. Even when Kylie was diagnosed with cancer and the prognosis hovered at 30%, I didn’t waver in my belief that we would win. I wish I could take my chances with a shark instead because I can avoid saltwater and remove any possibility of attack. Unfortunately, we fell on the wrong side of the percentage and the resulting grief is much like a shark. It is cold, unpredictable, and unrelenting at times. It uses triggers, but doesn’t require them. It sets traps, lies in wait, and springs at inopportune and random times. Losing a child is something to be feared.
At one point, we sat down and listed the things we lost when Kylie died. We lost joy, sweetness, hugs, our peacemaker. We lost patience, enthusiasm, and energy. Our artist is gone. A lovely soprano and incredible actress has left the stage. We no longer have an affiliation with our beloved school – it was stripped from us early. We lost potential… seemingly unlimited potential. We lost a great deal – yet I find I don’t fear most types of loss much anymore.
In fact, I don’t think I fear much of anything. I still have a healthy respect for the killers of the deep, but even death has a strange allure because my baby will be waiting there.
You know what I do fear?
I fear you’ll forget her.
I fear that her image will get fuzzy and fade away.
And that is what I believe is the greatest fear of anyone who has lost a child: that he or she will be forgotten. We fear that because their lives were cut short, they won’t matter enough for anyone to remember. Our children didn’t live to accomplish what they were supposed to accomplish – the things that would make them memorable. So how will the world ever mark their short time here on earth?
That is why so many foundations and charities are created in children’s names. It is why songs, poems, and books are written in their honor. In the great search for the meaning of a life cut short, we parents yearn for another soul to share our mission to remember.
Do you remember Kylie? Do you have another friend who has lost a child? I can’t speak for them, but I love hearing stories about her – things I didn’t know before. Not only does it tell me that she was special to that person, it lets me know that someone else is helping to keep her flame from being extinguished… that I’m not alone in this awful vacuum. I just want to know that even though she left her potential unfulfilled, her life mattered.
So here is my point and my charge. If you know a bereaved parent, tell them you remember. It doesn’t have to be much. Just something that will let them know they aren’t the lone bearer of the candle.
Someone saw a play recently and went out of their way to tell me, “Kylie would have loved that!” I later saw a friend of hers who told me how Kylie had made up a pretend brother in the second grade. Both were small gestures, yet meant the world to me. They know… They remember… she’s with them, too. Her life had meaning to more than just me because here memory remains clear to someone else.
Our fears may not be the same, but we all fear something. You can quite possibly allay another’s greatest fear today by assuring them their child will not be forgotten. It may not seem like much, but it may keep them above water for one more day.
And we all should stay above the tide because I know what is lurking down below…