The dining area of this mountainside campsite is teaming with families. There are squeals of excitement from the younger kids, who are casing the joint looking for potential adventures, peals of laughter from the adults and frequent hugs and hearty handshakes. Nobody appears to be sick; nobody appears to be sad. It looks "normal," as in TV- commercial sun-streaming-through-the-windows normal. It seems to be the kind of gathering that I have taken pains to avoid since Natasha's final decline. My excuse for not showing up at these get-togethers has been consistent: I don't belong there and I have nothing to say.
But this time I do belong and I have something to say. That's because the families at this retreat are like our own family: they have lost a child to cancer. We've found our tribe.
This is how bereaved parents behave when we're together. There is laughter and smiles and happy recollections of our late children, and there are tears and sobs and anguished recollections of our late children. We talk about movies we've seen, diners we've stopped at en route to the retreat and spouses that leave toothpaste smeared on the sink. And we talk about pediatric oncologists who broke unspeakable news, hospice nurses who held our hands and the faces of our children when they took their last breath.
"We've all been there, bawling in our cars," says one bereaved dad, who lost his son six years ago. We nod in unison. "We've all had to deal with those statements from people who tell you they're so sorry, they understand, because their dog died or their 75-year-old parent passed away," says another parent. More nodding in unison. "And then there are those people who say, 'At least you have another child'!" One or two of us smile.
How to get through the rest of our lives? There is no consensus. Some parents say they try to focus on gratitude for what they have left -- surviving family members, jobs, a roof over their heads. And others say that they don't want to be obligated to feel grateful at this juncture of their lives -- they want permission to grieve.
One parent says they get comfort from knowing that their own death will mean the long yearned-for reunion with their beloved child in heaven. And another states that they have learned to politely remind church-going friends and family members that they are an atheist; no references to heaven for them, please!
One parent says they want to work with families who have a child with cancer as a way of healing. Another parent points out that working with bereaved parents can be draining rather than healing.
We are a disparate group of personality types, spiritual perspectives and glass-is-half-full/empty approaches to life. What to take away from this meeting with our fellow parents in mourning? I learned nothing -- and I learned everything. Mainly, I discovered a mutual respect and acceptance among the members of our tribe with its unfathomable common denominator. The value of finding each other overrides any disharmony caused by our (probably) highly divergent opinions on Obamacare or gun ownership or same-sex marriage or any other hot potato.
Before we go our separate ways, we watch a slide show of our late children. There is Natasha's picture. She is beautiful and vivacious and her eyes brim with the promise of the decades ahead of her that should have been her birthright. And there are pictures of other fallen cancer warriors, a friend's son clutching a toy (such large, curious eyes); someone's daughter, her pretty face swollen from steroids; and a teen boy looking into the camera, his bearing conveys dignity, but his face is questioning, almost challenging (what was on his mind?).
As we hit the road for the long journey home, I think of these children's pictures -- perfect, flawless, all of them with their fresh faces and the chubby hands of childhood. Cancer, you brute, how could you? And I tear up as I do most days. But this time I think of the words of the dad that "we've all been there, bawling in our cars." Maybe other members of our tribe are choked up, too? That thought ignites a small spark of comfort.
Natasha with her dad
This post originally appeared in The Mourning After Natasha