Not many weeks after Sarah’s death, another bereaved parent shared that the second year is actually harder than the first. I vividly remember the horror of that statement washing over me in the moments that followed. At that point I was still struggling to sleep more than an hour or two at a time. When I did manage to drift off to sleep, I would invariably be violently jolted awake by the thought that the bus had crashed and Sarah was killed. I would have to painstakingly walk myself through the details that confirmed its truth. Reminding myself repeatedly that she was not safely asleep in her bed, but she was actually gone.
This new idea that I would hurt worse than I had in those horrific preceding moments, hours, days and weeks was devastatingly discouraging. I remember sitting on the bed with Scott afterward, weeping as if from the very tips of my toes, and declaring with certainty in between sobs, “if the pain of losing her gets worse than this, I can’t bear it.”
Since then I have seen countless posts and comments by bereaved parents indicating the second year is harder than the first. Some even go on to say each year gets progressively harder indefinitely. These thoughts have been like a looming dark cloud that has finally arrived as I find myself a matter of days away from concluding the first year of my life without Sarah, and face to face with the dreaded second year.
After much wrestling within myself I am sharing some of my view of the first year along with some of my expectations for the year ahead. My intention is to revisit this post next year to see how my perspective may have changed and what, if any, new insights I may have gleaned over the course of the second year. This is, of course, assuming the Lord leaves me here that long, and also assuming I am miraculously granted the memory capacity to remember to revisit it.
I have some reluctance to share my thoughts on this because I recognize the uniqueness of each person’s pain and grief, and I am fearful of being wrongly perceived as arguing with or attempting to refute the experiences of other wounded parents. That is not my intent at all. I have deep, tender love and compassion for my fellow brokenhearted sojourners, and would never do anything intentionally to wound or discourage them, or to discount their experiences.
On the other hand, my intention in writing about our journey from the beginning has been to provide encouragement for those who will unfortunately journey behind us. Because I found it so profoundly discouraging to entertain the idea that my already overwhelming pain was going to continue to intensify or compound over the coming years, and I now believe that is not going to be our experience, I think it is a topic worthy of thoughtful consideration. If I am right in my prediction that there is a chance that the second year is not necessarily harder for everyone then I want to offer that hope.
Scott and I grieve differently, but we both find ourselves believing that the second year of grieving Sarah’s departure can not possibly be worse than the first year we have just endured. We know the coming year will bring new aspects and challenges possibly coupled with new pain, but at the same time other aspects will be slightly less raw than they have been this first year. We do not expect our pain to be diminished this year. We know we will not be healed. Our constant longing for our child will not somehow miraculously disappear despite her continued absence. We expect this year, like the first, will hold countless hours, days and nights of weeping and indescribable aching in our hearts. But we are equally convinced in regard to grieving Sarah’s absence, that the dark path before us holds no agony deeper or darker than the excruciating path already behind us.
The explanation I see most frequently for the second year being harder than the first is that you are numb the first year but the second year the numbness wears off and the weight of reality sets in. I have no doubt that the parents who share this are speaking the truth about their experience, but I have not felt numb since the first week. Because the pain of those days was so very intense, for me it doesn’t feel accurate to refer to it as numbness at all. I remember very clearly the gut wrenching sensation of leaving Atlanta in a jet, knowing I was leaving one of my four precious daughters behind. I can still vividly recall the agony of my soul as I wrote my daughter’s obituary alone in the wee hours of the morning. I remember the excruciating pain of walking down what seemed like an ever lengthening aisle toward the casket at the front of the church with my beloved daughter in it, my first time to see her since I watched her get on that bus four days before. I remember watching that same casket being lowered in to the ground and questioning if I would ever be able to really breathe again. I remember sitting on the couch day after day, peering into her room expecting and longing to see her walk around that corner any second. I was not numb to those devastating experiences, I felt every twinge and piercing pain. And that’s just a few snippets of the first week.
The days, weeks and months of the first year have progressively revealed just how deep, wide and gaping the hole of Sarah’s absence is. We are acutely aware of how radically altered our family is because of her departure, and we have been for months. It’s an incapacitating thought to think the depth of pain we have consistently felt and continue to feel in staggering waves this first year is an anesthetized version of what is yet to come. Thankfully I do not believe that to be true for us. We are not numb. Though the frequency and intensity of the waves of pain varies, the overall depth of our pain has not plunged any deeper for several months now. I genuinely believe we reached the bottom of this dark valley some time ago and the second year will be a continuation of this same painful deep valley path. Certainly the landscape and obstacles may continue to change along the way, but I do not believe the pain of her absence will plunge deeper yet.
I can’t leave the topic of emotional numbness in the first year without at least mentioning the possibility of a correlation with medications. It is not uncommon for those taking antidepressant medications to experience a feeling of emotional “numbness” called emotional blunting. In fact, in one study almost half of the people being treated with antidepressants reported emotional blunting. I share that simply to offer another factor for consideration. Medication versus no medication may be a significant variable affecting our perceptions of our first year experiences and how they compare to subsequent years.
I am so thankful for the testimonies shared by wounded parents who have traveled before us. Testimonies of countless examples of God’s grace in the midst of devastation. Testimonies that speak hope in the midst of this dark valley. Though our experiences and journeys are each uniquely different, there is tremendous comfort in knowing we truly understand one another’s deep brokenness in the absence of our children.
I don’t believe the second year will be harder than the first year for us, but I won’t be surprised at all if it’s just as hard. We approach the coming year with the experience of His sustaining grace being sufficient for the first year and knowing it will be sufficient for the second as well. Based on the truth of His Word and encouraged by the testimonies of those who have gone before us, we know He will enable us to persevere. I hope to report to you next year that what we believed was true, and the second year was not harder for us. But if I’m wrong and the second year is harder, I will truthfully share that next year. And should that be the case, I trust I will be able to share how His sufficient grace met us there.
“And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 [NASB]
Sarah’s “When you need encouragement” note: