All things children hurt. School buses, even though my kids never went on one. Mothers holding hands with their little ones. Pregnant women. Diaper commercials. People talking about their children, saying “my son” because he is alive. Maybe I can still say, “my son,” but talking of him reminds me and whoever is listening that he’s dead, makes it real and uncomfortable.

Natalie and I were out and ran into C., a woman whose son is Philip’s age and whose daughter is a year younger than Natalie. The four of them were friends. I hadn’t seen C. since Philip’s funeral. Nothing, of course, is mentioned. Our hello-hug is held a little tighter, a little longer. “How are you?” is asked with an emphasis on “are.” “I’m doing good,” is my standard reply. The inconceivable has happened, this death that shocked and grieved me, that changed me and my family forever, but even the people who were affected by it keep a psychic distance. I think in part they do it for me. I think they’re afraid if they bring it up it might remind me, might hurt me. As if I don’t already think about Philip every day, as if it doesn’t hurt me every day, as if “hurt” is the word that comes close to describing what living with his death feels like.

And I think people don’t like to talk about it because of what they might feel. It’s not contagious, I want to say. Inevitable, but not contagious. Still, it’s death and it’s taboo. Do we think if we don’t talk about it, it won’t happen to us, to those we love? Do we think it’s better not to think about it, to deal with it when it’s too late and it steam rolls over you and if you’re lucky, you’ll have someone to peel you off the floor?

Philip was a young man when he died, but he is my child. He once had that innocence, that heartbreaking vulnerability I am reminded of when I see children. And much as he lost that innocence as we all do, he had a soft and tender heart. Which is exactly what keeps me close to him now, all the love that we were, that we are.

Sometimes I feel trapped. Philip’s not coming home. I will never have children again. I broke up my family when I left Phil. I might grow old alone. Life will have its way, not my way.

Much of what I feel comes from what I think. It doesn’t seem that way – emotions are what kick my ass, make it difficult to see that I am stirring them up by the stories I tell myself about the situations I find myself in. Reality becomes personal. In other words, it’s me that’s kicking my ass.

But Philip’s death is so big. I don’t know how to think about it any more, I don’t know what to say. I avoid. Which is why, in part, I haven’t been writing. I’m in protective mode. Like an opossum, I’m playing dead. I’d been reading through 18 binders of emails Ed and I wrote to each other from 1997 through 2013, the year after Philip died. I did it because I’m working on a memoir and I wanted to see what I’d written about my kids, what I could use for my work. I didn’t think about the fact that I’d also written about my mother. Had no idea that her past cruelty could shut me down. Because it’s not past, not really. It informs much of my life – too much of my life. She is so much a part of my story and I freeze when I think about writing about her.

After Philip died I was gutted. Everything poured out of me, so many words, so desperate to write my way through this. Devastating as his death was, I was alive. My heart was broken, but open. That’s where my words came from. There’s a place I go to when I write that I can’t now access. Even now I feel like I’m stringing sentences together. I can’t find my voice, can’t find the rhythm. I’m dull and hurt and shut down and all I want to do is quilt. I make beautiful quilts to hang on my walls. I play with my fabrics. I create. But I can’t quilt 24/7 and I find myself daydreaming about what I’m making and what I want to make because it soothes me. Too often I am unhappy. I don’t want to be at work, I don’t know what to do with myself afterward. I long for the weekends so I can get lost in my fabrics. I feel helpless about writing. The fire I had turned to ash.

I don’t want to be the mother whose son has died. I wrote so much in this blog about how pointless it is to argue with reality, yet here I am doing just that. And since that is so painful I shut it down. I don’t talk about Philip’s death, don’t write about it. I tell myself I can’t live with it – but that means I’m killing myself off. Resisting reality is resisting life.

I don’t yet understand what’s happening. I can’t find my sea legs. They must be there because I’ve had them before. But whatever this psychic regression is will not last. I think I’m going to emerge from this a different writer. I may feel helpless about getting back to my work, but I’m not hopeless.

© 2016 Denise Smyth


19 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jmgoyder
    Nov 18, 2016 @ 09:03:58

    I can’t possibly feel what you are feeling, but I do ‘get it’ to some extent I think as Ming has been in the throes of depression for months (if not years) and recently things have been ghastly. Your blog gives me hope x


    • Denise
      Nov 19, 2016 @ 18:40:24

      Julie, how good to hear you say that. I had a difficult time writing this – and I’m way too hard on myself about writing.

      My heart goes out to Ming. Depression leaves people in a world of their own. And you said “ghastly.” That’s scary. I hope you’re hanging in, and I’m glad you’ve been writing.

      Love to you. xoxoxo


  2. Ed Hack
    Nov 18, 2016 @ 09:48:07

    Tough, tough stuff, and you’re writing from the sinews of it–these sentences are those sinews. They are exactly what the poet Theodore Roethke means when he writes, “I’m naked to the bone, / with nakedness my shield.” You may not think that you’re “writing,” whatever you mean by that, but you are.


    • Denise
      Nov 19, 2016 @ 18:42:53

      Phew. I struggled with this, then thought it was blah. It would be nice if I could write and get Mother out of my head.

      Love you and I’ll call you tomorrow.


  3. Rose
    Nov 18, 2016 @ 13:28:34

    Denise, first of all it’s sooooo good to hear from you. I missed your writing, because it’s through your writing that I hear your voice and know how you are doing. I was worried about you. I’m glad that somehow you were able to write some and through your words lets us know a bit how you are doing.
    You are not the mother who’s son died. You are the mother of a beautiful, beautiful gentleman that the world lost way to early. He might not be here for you to hug and kiss, but he is here in energy. He was here once, and he is still here. As long as you and yours keep him alive on yours and everyone’s else memories, he will never be gone.
    I will never forget about your sweet child, and my kids won’t too…because I did tell them about him, and how smart and handsome and nice he was.

    I hope you will find all the comfort you need quilting. And if want, an idea would be to quilt and donate your quilts to children in need. This way, you would somehow be spreading your love to those in need, and I’m sure, almost 100% sure that whomever receives your gift on the other side of line will feel all the love and warmth you have in your heart. And, I’m sure that will bring a smile to Phillip’s angel face.




    • Denise
      Nov 20, 2016 @ 09:23:51

      You’ve no idea what a comfort you are – you, who I never met, out there thinking and caring. Yes, you’re right. Philip is here in energy. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t let me know he’s around. But the holidays are here, then his birthday, then the day he died. Five years it will be. I did not think I’d survive.

      You have helped me along the way – how to say thank you? I’m sending much love to you and your family and if we don’t hear from each other before then, have a lovely, warm and wonderful holiday. xoxoxo


  4. Lucia Maya
    Nov 18, 2016 @ 14:10:43

    Dear Denise, my heart is with you. As always, I can so deeply relate. I also felt that aliveness, that broken-open numinosity, the words flowing through me, in the year or two after Elizabeth died. And now I often feel I can barely write a sentence. Even trying to comment on Facebook my words feel stilted and awkward, not conveying my true meaning.

    I love you and trust that we ARE finding our way, that we are being guided even when it doesn’t appear that way…even when I can barely remember what it was like when Elizabeth was alive…

    I’d love to see some photos of your quilts – I LOVE quilts.

    Love, Lucia


    • Denise
      Nov 20, 2016 @ 09:29:45

      So good to hear from you. I think what bothers me about this withdrawal from words is that it feels like a withdrawal from Philip. I know – nonsense. But that’s how I stay connected to him and I’ve felt so flat inside about writing he seems far away. Even though he doesn’t stop letting me know he’s around every day. And that’s not a phrase, it’s a truth.

      Creativity energy is endless. Quilting is tied to writing and even if I’m having a hard time stringing words together, it’s important I keep with that energy. Quilting feels good and satisfying, and I trust, like you, that I’m finding my way in ways unseen.

      Love and peace to you, Dear Lucia. You’re often in my thoughts and I wish you well during these holidays. xoxoxo


  5. Pedro
    Nov 18, 2016 @ 17:13:45

    I can see that a few people besides myself have missed you.



  6. Imogen
    Nov 18, 2016 @ 19:16:58

    I lost my mum this summer, suddenly. I find it so hard that people don’t talk to me about her, I totally know what you mean about people being too afraid to ask me how I am, or about my mum, in case it might upset me. It’s so isolating. Thinking of you…I wish words could be stronger and mean more to say something helpful.


    • Denise
      Nov 20, 2016 @ 09:35:34

      Just your reaching out is helpful – it’s good to know someone is listening. I am so very sorry for your loss – you’ve lost a loved and unique person in your life. Of course you want to talk about her – words, whether written or spoken, help keep our sanity. I don’t if you’ve ever tried this, but when I sit down with a paper and pen and listen, I hear Philip and write down what he’s saying. “Hear” isn’t exactly the word, but I know it’s him. If that appeals to you at all, try it. It’s not magic. It’s just sitting quietly, maybe writing down a question you have for her (or not), and just listening.

      My heart is with you – I wish you peace. Remember all who love you.


  7. Rebecca Carney - One Woman's Perspective
    Nov 19, 2016 @ 11:07:33

    Hi, Denise.

    I can so relate to what you have written. After Jason died, I filled journals with words that I couldn’t seem to stop flowing. I started writing a blog a few years ago, feeling that I had something useful to say. But now I feel like the words have dried up and I have nothing else to say, nothing useful to contribute. I feel like I am struggling more than I should be, after all these years, and more sad than I should be. I look forward to weekends, but then don’t know what to do. I, too, don’t want to be the woman whose child has died. I don’t want to have to celebrate another year without him here.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing your heart. I appreciate it.



  8. Denise
    Nov 20, 2016 @ 09:40:22

    Thanks, Becky. You know just how I feel. It doesn’t help that the holidays are here. Or at least it’s a mixed bag. I love the holidays, the decorating, the anticipation, the giving of gifts…but walking into people’s happy homes whose families are intact is jarring, and i find pieces of myself withdrawing. Sometimes it’s like a quick stab to the gut. I just remember to breathe, breathe, breathe and spend time with people I can takj to about this. Even if I don’t, I know they’re there.

    Much love,


  9. vera elisabeth
    Nov 22, 2016 @ 00:12:48

    When I saw your post I realized how much I missed your blog posts…. You’ve helped so many people with your writing including me. But i understand the struggle to find the words to continue sharing. It was a year ago in October that my son passed away suddenly and tragically. I started a daily journal almost right away and I kept it up for a full year. The day after the first year anniversary I couldn’t write a single word. I was empty of words. It wasn’t just writing but speaking too. There weren’t any answers to all the questions still unanswered and I had used up every adjective to describe the pain his loss had brought. I miss him beyond words and I think that is why I am silent now. There are no more words to express how deep the pain is in my heart , mind and soul. I would just be repeating what I have written or thought of every day for the past year and it is now beyond anything I can describe. I hope that you find the words again though. You have a great gift .

    Wishing you peaceful memories throughout the holidays. vera elisabeth


    • Denise
      Nov 26, 2016 @ 17:12:35

      I used to write that the words weren’t invented to describe what I felt like when Philip died. Any word I could think of to try to talk about this I’d used already – grief, mourning, despair – and if I’d used it, it didn’t apply. I felt things I’d never felt before, even in my darkest moments. And I am sorry that you know exactly what I mean. I’m also grateful that you’re here. If this has to be, best we are together in it.

      I’d like to write more. I’m stuck, just as you described. I miss him too much.

      Wishing you, too, some peace during this season, wherever you can find it.


  10. nataliehemmerich
    Jan 03, 2017 @ 14:57:58

    Thank you for writing even though it hasn’t felt as natural. He is still with you, and you’re right, the energy is in the quilting now. Now he’s in every quilt you make!

    I think you should write about your mom if she’s your block. Why not? There’s no rules saying you can’t talk about the multi-faceted nature of grief and how things with your mom informs your grief over Philip’s death.

    Sorry my reading of this post was so delayed. I hope you survived the holidays. Peace and love to you.


  11. Denise
    Jan 04, 2017 @ 14:18:17

    Thank you, Natalie – and peace and love back to you. I think you’re right about writing about my mom – but that’s what shut me down, and that’s what I’m still struggling with. And it’s the “psychic” mom I’m talking about, the one that’s living in my head more than the one she’s physically turned into now. Like all of us, my childhood’s part of my bones and I can’t always step back and understand what I’m reacting to. I’m just trying to trust I’m not going to stay stuck here.

    So good to hear from you!


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