Moving Forward

Isaac is about to turn 18 months old. It’s the same age Nicholas was the day he sat on my hip as two police officers stood in my kitchen and told me his daddy was dead.

18 months – the same size hands that wave goodbye, the same soapy smell in their blond hair, the same yell of “daddy” with a toothy grin. It’s another thread of grief that tangles itself in this picture.

It’s so easy to compare our children – not to see who’s ahead or who’s behind, but simply for nostalgia’s sake. They have the same laugh! Remember when…?

But my memories of Nicholas at this age have sunk into oblivion. Instead of nostalgia, there’s the imprint of raw grief and the regret that I don’t remember more.

When death brushes by you, your brain doesn’t prioritize memory. Instead, it’s trying to comprehend the depth of loss, stretching to get through each day amidst the mountains of paperwork, the hordes of flowers, the influx of visitors paying their respects.

18-month old Nicholas remains only in photos I barely recall. Six years later, his baby brother toddles around, babbling half-nonsense words and climbing the walls. At bedtime he wraps his arms around me as far as they go and nestles into my shoulder. As I snuggle him back, a bittersweet memory tugs, reminding me that Nicholas – not a born cuddler like Isaac – began hugging me tighter after Chris was gone.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in life, it’s that the heart can break a hundred times and then some.

Grief gets in your bones and your skin, and it’s something like muscle memory the way your throat tightens and your heart hurts when you hear the news that someone you know has died. That there is no heartbeat. That the diagnosis is terminal. That innocence has been stripped away. That violence has scarred a family.

Like an earthquake, there are aftershocks, some coming months and even years after that first tectonic shift. It echoes and your heart clenches and your breath catches.

Three separate friends recently sent me this video of a TED talk from Nora McInerny, founder of the Hot Young Widows Club. In it, she talks about what it means to move forward.

We Don’t “Move on” from Grief. We Move Forward with It

“A grieving person is going to laugh again and smile again. Yes, they’re going to move forward. But that doesn’t mean that they’ve moved on.” Read our newest TED Book, “The Hot Young Widows Club,” a wise and humorous guide for anyone going through a challenging time:

Posted by TED on Thursday, 2 May 2019

“I haven’t moved on, and I hate that phrase so much… Because what it says is that Aaron’s life and death and love are just moments that I can leave behind me — and that I probably should…

[Aaron]’s present for me in the work that I do, in the child that we had together, in these three other children I’m raising, who never met him, who share none of his DNA, but who are only in my life because I had Aaron and because I lost Aaron. He’s present in my marriage to Matthew, because Aaron’s life and love and death made me the person that Matthew wanted to marry. So I’ve not moved on from Aaron, I’ve moved forward with him.” 

Nora McInerny, The Hot Young Widows Club

I sometimes get nervous that people wonder why I still write about grief. But I agree wholeheartedly with Nora – “moving on” implies that you get over something like this. That the person you lost is history that doesn’t need revisiting. But the truth is, that person is still present in so many ways.

At first, it’s that earthquake, and the world feels like it’s ending and all you can do is hold on. But later, that person – their love, life, and loss – reflects in the way you protect yourself. It’s the way you look at the world. The way you hold your baby closer. The profound gratitude you have for life. The gift you send without concern for cost. The sacrifice you make without blinking. The way you strive to be a better spouse, a better parent, a better friend. The way you search longingly for meaning and let go of some twisted definition of success. It’s in the way you smile. The way you pray.

Moving forward, then, means recognizing that after the death of a loved one, their life and loss impact every bit of your own life, forever.

It’s why I look at Isaac, delighted and terrified by his adventurous spirit, and am simultaneously sad that Nicholas’s toddler days looked nothing like this. I remember how he spent a week waiting at the front door for his daddy to come home. He chased his friend Max between people’s legs and shaking knees through the halls of the funeral home. He left Mickey Mouse at Chris’s headstone on Christmas day.

I remember these things, and then I look at Nicholas and Isaac today. They sit on the couch, snuggled next to each other, reading a book before bedtime.

These are brothers bound together by grief and love. This is moving forward.

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