Losing my child and learning from grief: One year later

Published 11:16 am Monday, August 28, 2017

By Brandall Atkinson

Editor’s Note: Brandall Atkinson lost her son Walker one year ago in a traffic accident in Oxford. She writes about that experience from the perspective of one year later.


When that call came in

She tried so hard to get to him

Praying God spare my son

He can’t be the one

She prayed Heaven can wait

I can’t be too late

Don’t let it be true

His time can’t be through

I have found it so confusing how grief can make time fly by, and yet stand still forever.  It has been 365 days since my child flew on gossamer wings to Heaven.  In many ways, it feels like only minutes have gone by, while at other times, it might as well have been 365 years.  Needless to say, it has been the most difficult year of my life.  It has come with many lessons and disappointments, highs and lows, adjustments and changes—each one more unwelcome than the last.  It has come with an empty seat at my table, an empty stocking hanging from my mantle, an empty bedroom across the hall, no first day of school photo, no need for school supplies or new clothes. It has come with a calendar marked by holidays that are not the same, anniversaries of the worst kind, birthdays spent reflecting back on happier days, and most noticeably, there is one less person in my family photos.

Tears burned her eyes

Her child has died

The call came too late

He was at Heaven’s Gate

She cried out to him

Please come home again

He said, “Heaven can’t wait

But Mama, it’s great.

Wait till you see,

God standing with me

I’ll wait for you here, right here at the Gate

Because Mama, Heaven can’t wait.”

As the one year ‘anniversary’ was approaching, I have spent much time reflecting on the last year of my life and what I have experienced and learned and observed.  I have realized grief is as individual as a fingerprint and no two people grieve the same.  What comforts one person may do nothing for the next. But one thing I have learned that seems universal, is the way others react to those who are grieving and in pain. Simply stated, most people have no idea what to say to you.  They want to say something, anything that might lessen the pain, but they fear saying the wrong thing just as much.  And so it goes that many choose to say nothing.  To avoid you altogether.  They see you in the grocery store and go out of their way to avoid you because it makes them uncomfortable.  Please understand, your discomfort pales in comparison to the courage it takes a grieving parent to make it through that grocery store.  No one is more uncomfortable than we are.  Don’t avoid us.  Don’t avoid the topic.  If you are at a loss as to what to say to someone, just say you are thinking about them or praying for them.  It isn’t so much what you say, but just that you do.  By saying nothing and avoiding it, you are making it like our children didn’t exist and that is incredibly painful all on its own.  So please, speak.  Say something, anything, but don’t avoid a grieving parent because you don’t know what to say or how to act.  We don’t either, I assure you.

She fell to her knees

crying out to God please

Send back my son

His time wasn’t done

Her eyes to the sky

Why’d my child have to die?

I need him with me

God don’t you see?

He’s part of my heart

Please don’t keep us apart

I helped him to walk

I taught him to talk

I sang him to sleep

Prayed his soul you would keep

Fourteen is too soon

His time can’t be through

It is common practice when a tragedy occurs for people to descend on your life and cook and clean and console, send cards and flowers, meals and memorials.  The first week is a dizzying amount of activity and decisions you reflect back on and wonder how in the world you were able to function at all much less decide on what clothing to bury your child in, write an obituary, or even get yourself up out of bed to do any of it.  People are everywhere, helping and trying to, again, lessen your burden in any way possible.  Then those first days pass, then those first weeks and people, as they should, have gone back to their “normal” lives and you are left looking around at the shattered pieces of your own life and have heard one to many times that you now have to adjust to a “new normal”.  There is no “new normal”.  That is something people say in an attempt to fill that irreplaceable void in our lives which can never be filled and which will never be normal.  However, something that I found that really has been a great comfort in the weeks and months that followed, were the random meals that appeared in my refrigerator, the friends who offered to do my grocery shopping, the wonderful anonymous friends that have arranged to have my home cleaned for the last year,  the texts I receive from his teachers recalling a funny story and things he said and did, the phone calls I received months later checking on me, the cards that continue to come to this day telling me people haven’t forgotten about me or my child.  The assistance is critical in those first weeks, but it is even more vital in the months that follow when everyone else’s lives have returned to their normal daily routine and yours resembles nothing of the sort.

God said this to her

’Now you may not understand

but it is part of my plan

One day you will see,

why he came home to Me.

His work was complete

and it was our time to meet

My Angels came down

Gathered close all around

Picking him up

Gently out of that truck

He arrived safe and sound

As he looked all around

He looked back at the Gate

And I said, …Heaven can’t wait’

Half of my kitchen table is still littered with cards and acknowledgments of monetary donations, cards from beautiful floral arrangements, meals and a growing library of books on grieving, living with grief, and surviving the worst loss.  Next to those piles is a stack of notecards that I had made to write my thank you notes on.  My sons’ photo is on the front and the interior says “Children are a gift from the Lord.” That is the same scripture I chose to have inscribed on his headstone.  Many of you have not received a note from me yet, and for that I apologize. You will. I have chosen to take my time as each one is carefully written to reflect the gratitude I feel to each person who took the time to be a part of Walker’s life and mine. Which brings me to another point in dealing with a grieving parent—be patient. Our lives have been broken into a million pieces and there is no way to put them back they way they were before.  It is imperative that people not judge how someone deals with a pain they have never experienced.

The letters, cards and flowers came

Now tears pour down like rain

The house feels so empty, just like the tomb

He is not in his room

No more, “go to bed, it is getting late”

There are no more birthday cakes to bake

The church is full, there is only room now to stand

She thinks to herself, how is this part of God’s plan?

People sing, pray and  weep

His precious soul for God to keep

She can not sing or even speak

I have read and been told of and experienced how grief comes in waves.  You are rolling along and then suddenly, quite out of nowhere it seems, the wave hits.  And we aren’t talking just any wave—a wave that catches you unaware, knocks you down and you struggle to regain your footing.  You get to your feet and as you are wiping the water from your eyes, before you know what is happening, another wave hits you from behind and the whole scenario repeats itself-again and again.  I’ve read “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”. Grieving is about learning to surf and accepting that you are going to fall off that board frequently, and it is going to be painful.  Just as the waves and tides never cease, nor does the grief.  Grief is not an activity you complete.  It is a something you endure, not a task to be finished and move on from, but something you absorb, accept and adjust to.  Grief is a part of you, an alteration of your very being.  It creates a new way of seeing and experiencing, it creates a new definition of who you are.  Handle carefully those who are grieving and don’t look for them to ever be the same person they were before.  I have said frequently, Walker and I both died that day.  His resurrection was in Heaven and mine was on earth.  The person I was before August 28, 2016 is gone.  I do not think the same, function the same, I am not capable of half of what I was before, anxiety cripples me, thoughts don’t come as easily, things require more effort to complete, the “future” is an odd purgatory that I do not even think about,  and I see things from an altered perspective now.  The importance of those I love and care about, knowing every day, how I feel about them is paramount. You never know when you will be called Home and you learn quickly to focus only on what is within your control, forgive immediately,  to think clearly, if I died today or a loved one did, were the last words exchanged ones I want written on my heart?  Did I say what needed saying?  Did I show kindness and compassion and grace with my words and actions?

Her life has now changed

Painfully all rearranged

She sits at his grave

Trying hard to be brave

Hot tears burn her cheeks

As she counts down the weeks

Since her baby flew home

How could she have known

Have a great day at school

Was the last thing she’d say

Before God took him away

Then he stood at the Gate

and heard Heaven can’t wait

I have wondered many times how I have survived what I thought I never could. I know my survival has been solely based on my faith and the support of some very dear, dear people in my life.  Those that have continually picked me up, dusted me off, cried with me and for me,  wiped my tears and gotten me moving forward again.  My journey is far from over, but I am thankful for those who have walked alongside me the last twelve months.  It is a path where others can only walk with you, but no one can walk for you—I have been blessed to have some incredible company along the way.

About ten months into this journey, I realized the 5,215 days on this earth I shared with my child, are nothing compared to the eternity I will share with him one day. I will have far more days ahead with my child, than those behind me. There is comfort in that, but it does not lessen the pain of doing life without him. I see in my mind’s eye, he is standing, leaning on the Gates of Heaven, grinning that grin everyone knew him for, hat on slightly crooked and our eyes meet for the first time that side of Heaven, and he says to me, “What took you so long, Mama?”

“Mama,” he said

“Heaven couldn’t wait

I couldn’t be late

God had picked out this date

For me to come Home

But you won’t be alone

I promise I will always be near

So please don’t shed that tear

You’ll see me in time

Everything will be fine

I’ll wait at the Gate

But Mama, God said, Heaven can’t wait”

–Brandall Laughlin Atkinson

Mama to Laughlin, Harrison, Avery & Walker Joyce who is in Heaven