Adapted from Finding the Words: Working Through Profound Loss with Hope and Purpose.
I am glad I got to watch my kids die. To be clear, I’m not glad they died. I am heartbroken and devastated, and there is a never-ending hole of aching and pain in my heart. My teenage children, Ruby and Hart, were killed by a reckless, speeding, drunk, and high driver who hit us at ninety miles an hour and never even touched her brakes. But I am glad that I was there. This might come as a surprise to many readers. I think there is a widespread assumption that parents would prefer to be spared the sight of their kids’ deaths, that it might be too traumatizing, and that we would be better off being shielded from the sight. I’m here to assure you otherwise.
After we were hit by the drunk driver, I was able to hold Ruby’s unresponsive hand as the EMT gave her and Hart CPR out in the middle of the highway. But the paramedics feared that my wife Gail might have broken her neck, so they forced her to sit forty feet away on a bus bench. Gail’s glasses had flown off in the crash, and without them, everything was just a blur to her. She kept insisting that they let her go so she could be by Hart’s side. A nurse bystander told her, “Moms shouldn’t look.” I think those paramedics holding Gail back thought they were doing her a favor. They imagined that they were sparing Gail. But Ruby and Hart were dying, and Gail should have been by their sides.
Because of our injuries, we were sent by ambulance to the same hospital as Ruby and Hart, and when we finally arrived, I remember the ER nurses frantically insisting that our paramedics detain us outside. We waited for a long terrible moment in the parking lot, I in a wheelchair and Gail strapped to a gurney. I am certain it’s because Ruby’s corpse got there before us, and they didn’t want us to see her. They were once again trying to spare us the sight of death. We were in the ER for what felt like hours before a doctor finally came and told us that Ruby had died and that Hart probably wouldn’t survive. No one wanted to break the news to us, but the delay wasn’t sparing us anything. Being in suspense and suspecting the worst was not preferable to knowing the truth. Both of us eventually got to kiss Hart’s forehead as they took him off life support, but we never saw Ruby again. It’s been almost four years now, and to this day, Gail deeply regrets not being able to say goodbye to Ruby and touch her body one last time. She is furious at the nurse who so confidently declared that “Moms shouldn’t look.” That nurse doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
If she thought about it for a moment, she would realize her mistake. Because, in the moment of a child’s deaths, where else would a parent want to be, but by their side? And sure, I do have the agonizing image of their bodies in the back seat. And that is traumatizing. It’s a horror. But in my grief groups, I have heard other grieving parents talk of their agony at not being by their children’s side when they died. I’ve heard the anguish in a father’s voice as he described getting the phone call at work that his daughter had died of a blood clot. I’ve heard a mother’s despair that she can only imagine what happened when her daughter was shot to death in distant city. Another mother was haunted by the fact that her husband and son died mysteriously at sea in a foreign country. Instead of my traumatic image, these parents had something much worse: nothing. A terrifying blank of not knowing. Losing a child is awful. But it’s so much worse not being by their side as they die.
The instinct to try and spare grieving people more pain comes from a kind, compassionate place, but it is ultimately unhelpful. We grievers can’t be spared from the pain of our loss. And delaying that inevitable pain doesn’t help. Knowing is always better than not knowing. In the ER that night we shouldn’t have been “shielded” from knowing or seeing Ruby’s body. We should have been told the truth immediately and then given a choice if we wanted to see her or not. It’s possible that if given all the information about the damage the car crash caused, Gail may have opted to not see our daughter. But it should have been her choice to make. Grievers shouldn’t be infantilized.
In Hart’s PICU, a brave doctor, Janeth Chiaka Ejike, finally sat down with us and told us the terrible truth that Hart was being kept on life support simply so we could be with him for a final moment, and that both of our children – all our children — would soon be dead. Dr. Ejike didn’t beat around the bush or try to be euphemistic or offer us platitudes or pamphlets. She talked to us in a straightforward and compassionate way, and then she gave us a beautiful gift. Instead of shying away from our pain, she leaned into it and she asked us to tell her about Ruby and Hart. Even in my shock and anguish I knew how kind and smart that question was. It gave us a moment of purpose in our darkest hour. It gave us a loving task that honored Hart and Ruby and reminded us to think of them as they were when they were alive. Instead of wailing impotently, we got to share some beautiful thoughts about Hart and Ruby to this stranger who wanted to know about them. It is so strange how potent words can be in grief. How necessary. Right there, on the day of their deaths, this doctor taught me a valuable lesson about grieving, about finding the words and facing the truth, which I have never forgotten. I am deeply grateful to her.
Colin Campbell is a writer and theater and film director. He is the author of Finding the Words: Working Through Profound Loss with Hope and Purpose.