Updated: Jan 10, 2020
They say life imitates art.
I sincerely hope that isn't true.
When my 18-year-old daughter unexpectedly died in her sleep two months after I signed my first solid book deal for a novel about a family that lost a child, that is exactly what I was afraid of.
Which brings me to a facet of the experience of child loss that I don't often hear people talk about, but which I think is really common—the fear that we as parents unintentionally manifested our child's death.
This is different than survivor's guilt. It is different than regret. It is different than the constant cycling of the brain over every detail of every event leading up to your child's death where you obsessively pinpoint all the moments you could have chosen differently and maybe, possibly detoured from the fatal path you had no idea you were both on.
It is different than feeling responsible in the normal, physical way. It is different than all the if onlys and should haves.
That kind of thinking is based in fact.
If only I had stopped my child from getting in the car that day ...
If only I had taken her to the doctor sooner (my personal favorite) ...
If only I had been there, said something, paid attention ...
I should have said no ... I should have checked up on her ... I should have called sooner ...
These are all tangible actions that might have been taken or that we wish we would have or didn't take in order to course correct.
Thinking based in fact is rational. The kind of belief I'm talking about is irrational. It is not based in fact. It is based in fear.
And it goes like this.
When I did (thought/felt/said/etc) ________, did I make this happen?
When I thought to myself that I just wanted a moment's peace, did I cause my child to die?
When I felt frustrated and impatient with my child, did I cause them to die?
When I watched that documentary about teen suicide, or read that article about children with cancer, did I cause them to die?
When I didn't answer their call ...
When I told them to handle it themselves ...
When I bought them that car ...
When I thought they could die from ...
When I worried they would wreck or get sick or hurt themselves ...
When I said, "You're going to kill yourself if you don't stop ..."
The one that torments me is:
When I wrote that book about child loss, did I cause Evelyn to die? Did I bring this on us somehow?
This kind of thinking is the very same that forms the basis of superstition. It assumes that we carry a power or control we don't recognize or understand. It implies that we attracted our trauma—in this case, our child's death—into our life unwittingly through the mishandling of this sacred, unwieldy power. It circles the small ironies that pepper our daily lives unacknowledged until something large enough happens to cause us to pause, reflect, and dissect those previously meaningless events.
Carl Jung called this synchronicity—the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.
I have heard it better described by author Robert Moss simply as life rhymes.
Usually, we like synchronicity because it makes us feel empowered when we are otherwise powerless. It makes us feel watched over, cared for, communicated with by a larger, benevolent being, an entity that has our best interest at heart. Synchronicity gives the mundane meaning and helps us find purpose in a world that often forces us into purposeless tasks. It makes us believe there is a direction, a path laid out for us, that we can take to our grand destiny if only we are sharp enough to spot and heed "the signs".
Synchronicity is implicit in our beliefs about intuition, the subconscious, magic, the law of attraction, and even God.
Synchronicity gives us an edge.
Synchronicity says that hawk that flew across the road in front of your car after you watched a nature documentary about hawks is more than just a hawk. It's a message. It's a sign. It negates entirely the perspective of the hawk, which was likely nothing more than, "Looks like there's some tasty mice on that side of the road—let me go over there for lunch."
Synchronicity highlights the woman who dreamt about winning the lottery the night before she did, and negates however many other people might have dreamt about winning the lottery the night before they didn't.
It tells us some things are are meant for some people and not for others.
Synchronicity plays both sides of the chicken-egg dilemma.
It tells us we have more control than is accurate because every major event in our life will be preceded by this psychic imprint, which we can then use to inform our choices, thereby magnifying or avoiding the event entirely.
Or it tells us we have more control because the tiniest flex of our subconscious muscles can send whole sequences of events winging into being. If we flex with caution and control, we can manifest what we want or avoid manifesting what we don't.
It comforts us by telling us those who suffer, suffer because they weren't paying enough attention to external clues. Therefore we can avoid suffering because we will pay closer attention.
Or it tells us that those who suffer, suffer because they weren't paying enough attention to internal cues. Therefore we can avoid suffering because we will pay closer attention.
Even though synchronicity makes us wonder, What are the odds? Statistics are the nemesis of synchronicity. Because the odds are probably greater than you've calculated.
Statistics remind us that things we oversimplify are often far more complex, and things we over-complicate are often far more simple. Statistics consider all the data—or at least a far larger pool of it—where synchronicity picks and chooses the data that most serves our desired or established beliefs. Statistics remind us that for every external clue or internal cue that appears to point to a proceeding event, there are countless more that don't.
In other words, for every thought, feeling, action, or word you think led to your child's death, there are countless others that, if examined, negate that fear because they didn't lead to anything.
Synchronicity works because our brains are designed to recognize patterns and our egos are designed to ignore data we don't like.
While it may hurt us to believe we, at worst, did something to manifest our child's death, and at best, ignored something that might have helped us avoid our child's death, our belief in synchronicity is stubborn because it implies we can keep it from happening again if only we get it all right next time.
I'm not saying there's no truth to synchronicity, or that's it's not real or not valid. I'm not trying to take your magic away from you. But I am saying that we have a very black and white way of thinking about synchronicity which may serve us when the chips are up, but doesn't when the chips are down.
It is this faulty thinking about synchronicity that lies at the heart of a grieving parent's faulty belief that they are the manifestor of their child's death.
There are a number of bizarre synchronicities surrounding Ev's death, and in particular, the writing and publishing of the book I mentioned—a book that is coming out on October 1st. As the release date approaches, I can't help replaying them all in my mind. And I feel that old fear resurfacing ...
When I wrote that book about child loss, did I cause Evelyn to die? Did I bring this on us somehow?
Some days, the synchronicities of this book and Ev's death serve me.
Some days they make me feel like there is a larger design at play. Something we have fallen accordingly into, rather than deviated from. Something that is watching over her and us still. Something that tells me I didn't fail, even though I often feel like I did. Something that even whispers, Perhaps she chose to go ... Perhaps she is playing a part I can't see, and at the very least, her death wasn't against her wishes.
On these days, synchronicity makes me right.
Other days, these synchronicities just add up to a dozen or more glaring signs that I missed, right alongside her symptoms, as I stumbled blindly at her side, focused on all the wrong things. They taunt me with hindsight. How oblivious can you be? they ask. Another mother would have seen. Another mother would have done something. We tried to tell you, they say. We tried.
On these days, synchronicity makes me wrong.
I'm never really sure which is true.
Synchronicity makes me wish I never wrote a book that I am in fact incredibly proud of and grateful for. It causes me to forget that this little piece of her is left behind in my work, a piece I can hold onto when my arms ache to wrap around her shoulders. It overlooks the powerful work this novel can do around loss, death, and grief-awareness, and the voice Ev's death has given me—however much I may wish to trade it back for even a few more minutes with my baby girl.
Synchronicity makes me feel stupid and blind. It makes me believe that parents whose children are all living are staring at me with judging eyes, thinking that the real internal flaw that led to Ev's death lies not in her heart or DNA, but in me and my failures as a mother, my failures as a person.
But synchronicity also makes me see a kind of magic weaving itself around our family tragedy, holding Ev's spirit tightly to us as we navigate the rest of our lives and her death together.
It is at the core of "the signs" we believe Ev has sent us—statistical anomalies that combined with unusual timing and deeply personal specificities seem to be directed straight from her heart to ours, helping us find snippets of hope in a once-desolate landscape of pain and sorrow.
Synchronicity is writing a novel about a family moving through the paralyzing grief of child loss only a year before your own child dies, and then reading that novel almost like a manual you wrote to yourself with your deceased child's help after they are gone.
It is writing an aquamarine ring into the novel's symbolism—a stone once revered for protecting people from drowning—and receiving an aquamarine ring as a gift after your child's death because that was her birthstone and you are drowning in your grief.
It is writing the anniversary of the child's death in your novel as a day "divisible by that many threes" when the birthday of the child you will lose is also made up entirely of multiples of three.
It is writing about a child who dies by drowning when the child you will lose has an astrology chart full of water signs—who you often tease for being at the intersection of Pisces, Cancer, and Scorpio.
It is a thousand other things I can't get into here, large and small, that may mean nothing or may mean everything. It is a mythology that seems to have built itself up around this book, our family, and our daughter's death, that I can't deny but also must be careful about what I ascribe to it.
It is a riddle I will never solve and a question I can never answer. But, let me say this. If you are a grieving parent who is also grappling with the unspoken fear that something you did or felt or thought or said somehow caused your child to die, I want to reassure you.
Whatever those "signs" mean, whatever those ironies may be saying, YOU ARE NOT THE MANIFESTOR OF YOUR CHILD'S DEATH.
You don't have that kind of power. You are not in control at that level.
This is just another trick of a limited mind and a desperate ego trying to make sense of a senseless loss. When synchronicity works against you, shut it down. There is no point torturing yourself with your limited understanding. When synchronicity works for you, hold gratitude in one hand and perspective in the other. There will always be more than you can know, no matter what you think you know.
I don't want this post to turn into a book plug, so I will leave it at this. If you are interested in reading my novel, you can click here to learn more and access buy links. If you are a member of the child loss community, check out the trigger warnings on that page first to be sure you can handle the content of the novel. It may be fiction, but it is still a raw, unflinching portrayal of grief and several other dark subjects. And as my loving friend Tracey so often reminds me, you are already hurting—please be oh-so-fucking-tender with yourself.