When Children Die First: A Meditation on the Unthinkable

Filed under: Opinions

My first reaction to the big news stories last weekend, first the shootings in Norway and then the death of Amy Winehouse, was to feel more sympathy for the slain Utoya kids. They were completely blameless. They had no hand in their own destruction; no one arrived to help until it was too late; no chance was provided to say goodbye or alter the path before them so that they wouldn't have to.

But for all the subjective differences in the stories, the same awful outcome is true for Winehouse's family as for more than 80 families in Norway: The parents will bury a child they loved. And that's the single greatest fear of pretty much every parent I know. It's the long shadow, the dark edge at the corner of the happiest family photo. From the moment you know you are to be a parent, it is the horror that you push to the corner of your mind to allow for all the joy.

It is such a core part of the human experience that, in the three Abrahamic traditions, the second child ever born dies before his time. He is called Abel in Judaism and Christianity, and is known simply as one of the two sons of Adam in the Koran, his death the first loss in the world.

Abel isn't the only example -- in the Hindu narrative, Parvati goes wild with grief when her son Ganesha is killed, despite the fact that she is a goddess who has already proved she could create life if she wished. As these tales make clear, as long as humans have been telling stories, the death of a child has haunted the narrative. This is a fact, but not a comfort.

My first experience of this in real life came when I was in first grade and my uncle died at 30. I remember how my grandmother's grief was shot through with pure surprise. She had spent years waiting nervously by the window any time my grandfather arrived home late, just sure he had wrecked the car, and she often proclaimed that she just knew she was going to end up a widow. But then God pulled a bait-and-switch and took her youngest, instead -- a turn she couldn't possibly prepare for.

By the time I adopted my daughter, I had witnessed too many parents in Grammy's shoes even sooner, as friends of mine were killed by car accident, drowning and hypothermia. No wonder then that my husband and I spent the first few weeks of Diva's life sleeping the wrong way on the mattress, our heads at the foot of the bed, so we could stare into her crib -- as if proximity alone might save her. From putting her to bed on her back to comparing crash test ratings on car seats, we followed all the advice experts offered to protect her.

But we knew the truth then and we know it now: Parents alone will never be able to fully safeguard their children. Someday, addictions bigger than all of us might carry her away. A man loaded with anger and bullets might do the same. What match are two parents in the face of the millions of outcomes fate might bring? If the universe granted me a single wish, it would be that when I die old, my daughter will yet live. But the universe makes no such promises.

There is only this: the knowledge that parenting is a privilege, a gift not granted fairly to all. The awfulness, the horror of losing a child, is only possible if you have somehow been fortunate enough to become a parent in the first place. I don't honestly know what kind of life I would be able to reassemble if something happened to my daughter, but I do know I cannot remotely picture the last six years any way but through the lens of being her father. It is a devil's bargain: I get to love this deeply, but I don't get to know for how long.

In the aftermath of a tragedy, someone always says, "Hold on to those you love." I used to think this advice seemed a little too easy, comforting only to those unscathed by loss. But a very dear friend of mine recently asked me to hold tight to Diva, as she could not now hold her own daughter. And, so, I did just that, literally crawling into Diva's bed and wrapping my arms around her.

I can't unwrite my friend's grief; I can't control whether I will ever have my own to face. There is nothing I can say to the parents in Norway or to the family of Amy Winehouse that will change the days ahead.

I can do just that one thing: hold my daughter close for as long as the universe allows, knowing every heartbeat is a lucky one.

Veronica Rhodes and David Valdes Greenwood alternate weeks writing the Family Gaytriarchs. Look for them on ParentDish every Wednesday.

David Valdes Greenwood has written about marriage and parenting for the Boston Globe and in his first book "Homo Domesticus: Notes from a Same-Sex Marriage." The author of three nonfiction books and the creator of the blog "Diva Has Two Daddies," he also finds time to be a kindergarten room parent and Barbie pretend play expert. Read his blog on Red Room.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.