Sometimes along the path of grief, we experience mysterious moments—times in which we have thoughts that change our story of grief. These “aha” moments allow us to see our loss in a new way. They help to make meaning out of our suffering, offering healing and hope. Here is such a story about a mother’s loss of her son.
Mary Alice opened her worn, red leather billfold and withdrew the old photograph of a thin, sick toddler in denim overalls. Her son had died before his second birthday, and she had never shared this photograph of her sick child with anyone else.
Mary Alice Hunter was raised in the Mississippi Delta shortly after the turn of the century, when hard work was prized, and stoicism was a virtue. Children died more often in those days, and the implied rule was simply not to talk about it.
Her family was “financially well off;” her father owned both a dairy farm and a general mercantile store. Relative prosperity, however, didn’t shield the family from life’s hardships. When Mary Alice was two years old, her mother died of uremic poisoning. Her father, struggling to manage the farm, store, and a two-year-old, soon married her mother’s best friend.
There were happy times, and Mary Alice remembered her early years as “idyllic” as she spent time chasing animals on the farm and catching crawdads in a nearby creek. Things settled for a while, but then tragedy struck again: Mary Alice’s father died when she turned 13. With his death, the family lost both the farm and store.
After her father died, Mary Alice and her stepmother were facing financial ruin. They moved in with Mary Alice’s older sister, Elizabeth, herself a widow raising three young boys of her own. Elizabeth relied on her teaching position to provide for the family. Her sister’s earnings were meager, her stepmother had difficulty adjusting, and Mary Alice was left to raise herself emotionally.
Mary Alice found comfort in playing the piano. Her musical talent earned her special opportunities including a college scholarship.
In 1935, Mary Alice married Walter Smith, a friend since junior high. Walter had waited until Mary Alice completed college and he had established his own farm. They lived in a house designed and built by Walter. Both Mary Alice and Walter loved children and wanted them desperately.
Despite their mutual desire for a family, challenges arose. Mary Alice had four miscarriages and a stillbirth before the joyous birth of their first child, Rebecca. Mary Alice recalled, “The doctor who delivered Rebecca was almost as excited as we were because it was a live child.”
Shortly after Rebecca’s birth, Mary Alice was notified of the death of her favorite nephew, William. He was serving in the Army during World War II, and a grenade was thrown into his unit. William jumped on the grenade and saved his small group of infantrymen. This death affected Mary Alice deeply, and she was struck by the thought that his young life was cut short, robbing him of the future he should have had.
“William never had a chance to live,” she said. “He would have made something of himself. He was the cream of the crop.”
Despite this sorrow, life again went on, and when Rebecca was eighteen months old, a second child, Hunter Lloyd Smith, joined the family. Finally, Mary Alice thought, the normal joys of ordinary life could be hers.
But within a day of his birth, Hunter was diagnosed with a condition then known only as “blue baby.” A “blue baby” lacked oxygen in the blood due to a congenital heart defect, and her precious baby did indeed look blue: his lips, tiny fingers, and toes all had a bluish tint. They took him to Memphis, but no medical interventions were available at the time.
For the next 18 months, the family lived with a dying child. Outwardly, Mary Alice tried to remain upbeat and positive, as she’d learned from dictated southern social norms. Inside, however, the uncertainty of loss created a landscape of fear. When Hunter had a good day, she was hopeful, but bad days brought on repressed feelings of despair. She nursed, rocked, and held her child: a child she knew would be hers for an undetermined length of time.
Hunter’s suffering became visibly more apparent. His breathing was unpredictable, and his parents fixedly stared at each rise and fall of his tiny chest. They watched, heartbroken, as his color turned ashen, and he gasped for breath. When death came, it was initially a relief. At least his suffering was over.
After Hunter’s death, Mary Alice started teaching, earned her Master’s and became the principal of the local elementary school. Outwardly, she appeared successful in both her professional and personal life. But nothing in her environment took away the distress of her son’s loss—not her religion, not her profession, not her family. Her feelings about his death remained raw but unexpressed. She could vividly recall the feel of his tiny fingers on her face and smell his distinctive scent; there was no reconciling his innocence with his suffering.
Her grief never left her, but years after his death, a measure of comfort arrived in an unusual way. One cold evening in 1965, Mary Alice was at home watching the evening news. The brutality of the Viet Nam War was particularly graphic with disturbing pictures of death and destruction. As she watched, she grieved for all the young men being killed and for their mothers all over the world. She thought of her nephew, William, killed on another faraway battlefield. And she thought of Hunter, who would have been just 18 years of age and newly draft-eligible. Picturing her sweet baby as she often did, suddenly she was struck by the realization that at least he never had to be drafted, or to fight, or to kill, or to be killed in a jungle war far from home and family. This notion, after all these years, brought her a peace with his death that she had never experienced before.
Years later, Mary Alice had a visit from one of her daughter’s friends. They talked at length about Mary Alice’s life in Mississippi. Freed momentarily from past cultural norms of stoic silence, Mary Alice removed the picture of her sick child from her wallet and began talking about Hunter and her grief when he died. She unexpectedly revealed the important realization that came as she watched the graphic war footage on television.
“Hunter didn’t deserve to die,” she said. “But he never had to take another’s life. He didn’t have to die alone and afraid. His short life was filled with love, and he died surrounded by those who loved him most.”
Though Mary Alice’s longing for her lost son always remained, that thought had freed her from her suffering. She looked at her visitor and smiled, and she carefully replaced the picture and closed her billfold.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR--------------------------------------------
Portions of this story came from "Mysterious Moments: Thoughts That Transform Grief" by Jane Williams, Ph.D. The book contains 10 stories of individuals who had transformative moments that altered their course of grief. It is available through Amazon ( https://www.amazon.com/dp/1618460293/).