David Kessler once said, “The greatest loss you will ever experience is your own.” As a grief counselor and educator I use that quote to validate a person’s experience and reiterate the fact that grief is unique to each individual. This past week I have reflected greatly upon the death of my own son and I hope that my grief experience provides some insight and a sense of community in your own grief journey.
My son, Aiden, was born in 2004 with a large tumor in his chest cavity. After a couple surgeries and a bunch of disappointments, we were faced with the most difficult decision to take him off life support. The day that he died was the first time that I was allowed to hold him. The moment that he was placed in my arms, he opened his eyes. I held him for hours as hot tears streamed down my face. After he died, I had the privilege of bathing him before the funeral home arrived. It was the darkest and yet, one of the most meaningful moments I have ever experienced. I remember the first few years feeling full of despair. Although I would go on to have more children, I grappled with the feeling as though I would never genuinely smile again. As we mourned, our family found ways to connect to Aiden. A family friend sketched a beautiful family portrait with Aiden in it, we always celebrated his birthday, we hung his stocking and kept his picture on our mantle. Someone once said to me in a grief group, “Grief doesn’t get easier, but we tend to get better at doing it.” I am here to say that after 17 years, there are moments of meaning, genuine joy and authentic compassion for others that are on this grief journey with me.
Aiden died on the 18th of January and was buried on the 21st. My new year begins after that time every year. I give myself time to reflect, to cry, and mourn him during those dates. I slow down and give myself a pass to get a little more sleep and work little less. My heart will always ache for him, and I have adapted to living with that pain. It is now used to provide empathy for those that carry the same heartache. If you have experienced a loss last year or 20 years ago, your love does not end for the person who died. I want to encourage you to find a few people that can hold space for your grief. The act of mourning needs to be a witnessed experience. Find those that will stand in the trenches with you. I will never forget Aiden, the lessons that he taught me, and the ongoing insight that my own grief gives me everyday. My hope is that you will find the same meaning in the midst of your pain.
Kristen Ernst, MA, LPC
Owner and Operator of the Center for Hope and Healing in St. Charles, MO