Updated: Jan 10, 2020
I belong to a very exclusive club.
I paid the highest price imaginable to be a member.
I am surrounded in this club by the most compassionate, aware people on the earth. They know suffering intimately, so nothing is off limits. Anything you say or do is met with understanding. They have telepathic powers and often know my mind and heart without me ever needing to say a word. I can reach out to any member of this club anywhere in the world, whether I've met them before or not, and experience the same openheartedness, the same absolute acceptance, the same unshakable bond as I do with those I know and speak to daily. And even though we share a connection that sometimes feels deeper and stronger than family, every single one of us, myself included, would pay any price to leave.
But we can never leave. This club is forever. I hold a lifetime membership that I never wanted.
There are many members of my club. Too many to list. We come from all walks of life, all corners of the globe, all points in time. We have all paid the same price, though we have all paid it in different ways. We are in your office, your neighborhood, your school. Maybe even in your family. And yet, you don't know us because we are invisible.
We never asked to be a secret club. But no matter how we carry the burden of our membership each and every day, we are unseen. The hidden nature of our pain coupled with the betrayal of our daily conformity only adds to our burden.
The price to join my club is amputation. Can you cut out a piece of your heart? Not a small piece, but the very soul of the thing? Can you bleed forever? Can you take all the best and most favored parts of yourself, of your life, and shave them off? If I asked you which pieces of yourself you could live without, which would you give me? Those aren't the pieces my club will take. It will take the rest. The ones you can't imagine breathing without. It will leave you with only the bare minimum to go on. That is the price exacted for membership. And there is no return policy.
Why is there not a name for this club, our club? We are not widowed. We are not orphaned. We are something so much worse that our culture will not name us, will not recognize our sacrifice. To name something is to acknowledge it, to make it true. That very basic right has been withheld from our members, though we have given the most, the unthinkable—and keep giving it every single day that we go on, show up, breathe in.
I don't know about you, but I am tired of being invisible. I paid my dues. I gave my heart. I carved out my soul. To be here. To remain. To join. I deserve to wear my scars on the outside like everybody else. I earned that much.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If there were a picture for what we are, how would you draw it? It's hard to imagine something complex enough to capture the many layers of ache that define this club of the damned, something broad enough that we could fit all the words that we dare not say inside.
But someone tried.
Someone who was one day a happy mother of two and the next a member of the worst club in the world sat down and tried to imagine a mark that would let us bear our burden out loud. And one week into the new year I walked with her into the nearest tattoo studio to make that mark a permanent part of my body, just as it is already a permanent part of my heart.
I remember thinking that anyone who hadn't lost a child might not understand why I would forever mark myself with something as tragic as child loss. And my heart answered, You are already forever marked by child loss. You are simply making it visible for everyone else.
Child loss deserves a symbol, though nothing is adequate to describe the reality we live with every day. But this comes close—the arch and the heart.
The heart is the eternal nature of our love for our child. We love forever, we grieve forever. It is our bond that cannot be broken. It is our connection to our child that goes on, the door through which we reach to feel them when we cannot imagine bearing another second alive. It is the hope that maybe there is another side where our souls are still entwined, and the promise that they are never forgotten.
The arch is the horizon of that love. It is the sunrise of their birth and the sunset of their death. It is the remaining years we walk the earth without them, empty time stretching into the distance. It is the dividing line between our worlds, cutting our hearts in half, leaving part of us here to go on and sending part of us into spirit to follow them. It is the ground we put them in, the rainbow we hope is a sign, the bridge that we wish could reunite us. It is the half-life we've been given, never truly full or whole again.
In between is all the space we are left with. The space where they once were and aren't anymore. The space others leave when they rush to exit our lives. The space we find inside when we dig deep and come up empty-handed, unable to care, to will, to push. The space where we once tucked our beliefs and dreams and hopes and prayers that we don't know how to hold on to anymore. The space we make when we realize how pointless something or someone we once clung to is now that we know in the most excruciating way what really matters.
I want to share the symbol my beautiful friend gave me with you, my fellow club members. Not because you need to be reminded of how you suffer—how could you forget? Not because you need it to be in the club—your membership here is eternal, unchangeable, unarguable. But because, like me, you may long to be seen. You may desire to wear your truth on your skin and not just on your heart. You may hope for a way to know if the woman next to you in the checkout line, or your dental assistant, or your child's homeroom teacher, or anyone else is like you—agonizing like you, longing like you, crying like you. When you belong to a club with no name, it's hard to know who is carrying a card and who isn't.
And I want to credit my friend for her amazing gift. Tracy Smedes-Hepler, you are the soul sister I wish I didn't need. And I know you understand that completely. And yet, there are no words to express the gratitude I feel for you as I hobble this godforsaken road of grief.
I hope, if any of you decide to make your loss visible with this symbol as well, that you will share your stories and pictures with me. And I hope that you all have your own Tracy, or that this may help you find one—someone who shares your suffering and who shares their suffering with you. Who can sit with you in the dark of your heart and invite you into theirs. Who will trust you enough to whisper all the unthinkable, unspeakable words they harbor, and love you enough to listen when you whisper back.
I hate our club. I wish every one of us could leave.
But I feel absolute love and gratitude for each and every one of you.