Returning to normal life after losing Will was challenging in ways I didn’t expect. I knew it would be difficult to move forward as a family, raising our children without their brother and missing his presence in our home daily. I knew it would be especially challenging to balance celebrating Caroline’s milestones while at the same time grieving the fact that Will would not be reaching them with her. What I didn’t expect was the myriad of emotions I would experience while learning to interact with the rest of the world again, especially my friends and the people I saw every day. I found that death, especially death of a child, shifts your entire worldview in a second. At first, it was awkward seeing people for the first time after Will died. In some twisted way in my mind, I felt guilty for making someone feel awkward about confronting me or even being in the same room as me. No one knew what to say or even if they should say something. I could tell when someone wanted to give me a hug or say something about Will but hesitated, probably not knowing if it would upset me or if it was the right time or place. I felt bad when other people avoided me or felt weird around me. I took on all this responsibility for everyone else’s feelings on top of my own complicated emotions that I still wasn’t sure how to express or navigate. It was irrational, but very real to me. I was suddenly a walking reminder of every parents’ worst fear and I felt so awful for making anyone even confront the idea of losing their child. Even though it was completely out of my control I was now associated with that horrific thought and I didn't know how to handle that other than feel guilty.
As those first time encounters got fewer and fewer and conversations started returning to normal, I found myself disengaged and sometimes even angry at what people were talking about. Everything felt so incredibly trivial to me. I felt like everyone’s problems and complaints and issues were so small and insignificant in comparison to what I had experienced. Sometimes I’d be listening to someone describe a hard decision they were trying to make or an argument they had with their spouse and my inner voice wanted to explode out of me and scream, “my baby just died in my arms, this doesn’t matter!” Of course I suppressed that inner voice, but sometimes I had to remove myself from particular conversations or distance myself from certain relationships for a time period until I no longer felt so angry about all the “small” problems of the world. I simply couldn’t take in anything else, the “hard things” space in my heart was overflowing with my own hard thing. I’ve heard people say that everyone is carrying something and if everyone put their burdens in a pile you would most likely want your own burden back. I didn’t want mine back. I thought that I would take literally any other burden in the pile than mine. It was too heavy. I’ve also heard people say that God never gives you more than you can handle. That definitely isn’t true.
It’s been almost two years since Will passed away. I am no longer worried about making people feel awkward and I can now listen to other people's problems without worry of an impending volcanic eruption. I hope I have been open enough about Will and his story that people aren’t afraid to ask me about him if they want to. I also hope that people know that I never expect them to ask about Will. I literally have no expectations about how other people will or should relate to me. I love talking about him and am willing to do so with anyone who asks, but I also don’t feel hurt or offended if someone doesn’t ask me about him. I am also able to listen to other’s burdens again without feeling like they are wildly insignificant compared to mine. Everyone is dealing with something hard and I am confident that I am in no position to judge whose problem is the worst nor do I want to be in that position. I’ve said before and I still firmly believe that it will never benefit anyone to compare or rank grief. If something is hard for someone I am now able to listen empathetically without the inner voice screaming how silly or small their problem is. If my friend is going through something, even if it might seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, it’s a big deal to them and therefore a big deal to me. One of my best friends got me a book called, “The Rabbit Listened” after Will passed away (there's a video of it below). It’s a children’s book about a child who experiences a hardship and all these animals come up one by one and are sure they have the answers to “fix it.” Then the rabbit comes and is just there to listen. Immediately after losing Will I didn’t have the ability or capacity to listen to anyone else’s problems. I needed someone to listen and acknowledge my grief and heartache. That changes with time. Now I don’t need to be listened to and sometimes, depending on the person or situation, I don’t want to be listened to. I am again able and content to be the listener. At least I hope so. I think losing Will has made me much more empathetic to others. I used to be a little more rough around the edges, leaning on the side of “toughen up” and “just get over it.” Now I understand that things are hard for people. Even if it seems small to me, it might be really big for someone else and even if I can’t fully understand it, I can appreciate the emotion someone else is feeling because life is just hard sometimes. Even though I haven’t experienced many of the hard things us humans endure - divorce, loss of a parent or sibling, loss of a job, an eating disorder, a terminal diagnosis, abuse or so many other things - I can and do understand grief. I understand loss and trauma and heartbreak. I can walk into a room without feeling scared or guilty or unsure. I can listen to the problems going on in the world and in the lives of the people around me and not feel like everything is insignificant and silly. I know things are hard. I can recognize grief in someone else, even if we are not grieving the same thing. I can truly and deeply feel empathetic to even the most trivial situation because if it’s something my friend is struggling with then it’s worth my time, energy and compassion, even if I don’t fully understand it.
If you know someone who is going through something serious or a has experienced a significant loss, my best advice is to just hold on. Give them time and listen. Don't try to fix it. They will return to being the friend you want and need them to be, actually they will probably return a better friend than they were before. But when you are experiencing trauma you cannot take in anymore trauma, even if it’s small and even if it’s someone else’s, so don't expect them to. If you know someone in the middle of a hurricane, be the rabbit. Listen. You will have the space to talk about your struggles again one day but not now. If you are the one in the hurricane, it’s okay to feel all the feelings that come with it, nothing is bad or wrong. It’s okay to feel like nothing else matters. It’s okay to feel like nothing else is as big as your burden because nothing else is. It’s okay to feel angry and indifferent and annoyed. Give yourself time and space. Keep your distance from the people you need to keep your distance from. Don't feel guilty for making other people feel things solely based on your existence. There's a line in "The Rabbit Listened" that says, "And when the time was right, the rabbit listened to Taylor's plan to build again." There will come a time when you are ready to build again. Even though life will never be the same, it will be fun and exciting and full again. I have learned that I won't always be happy but I will always have joy. God makes beautiful things out of tragedy. God can turn anything that the enemy intends for evil into something good. And if you don't believe that, if you can't believe that, that's okay too. Just hold on.
If you are experiencing trauma, heartbreak or tragedy, just hold on. You will be able to have a normal conversation again one day, you will have great relationships with friends, old and new, and it won’t always be so weird.
If your friend is experiencing trauma, heartbreak or tragedy, just hold on. You will get your friend back one day, they will return and be able to talk and listen and laugh again. It might take a while, it might not, but they will come back.
Grief is weird. It changes a lot. It's different every single day and it's sometimes even different multiple times in the same day. It's triggered by all the things your expect and even some (many) things you don't expect. It's not bad and not something to feel guilty about. It might get worse but it will get better. Just hold on.
Our mission is to glorify God by supporting children undergoing life-saving heart treatment and creating a caring community for their families in honor of our son, Will.
My name is Courtney Hughes and I am Will's mommy. I am happy that you are here to read Will's story and make a difference with us!