Definition of EMPATHY1: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
2: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this
Definition of SYMPATHY1 a: an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other b: mutual or parallel susceptibility or a condition brought about by itc: unity or harmony in action or effect <every part is in complete sympathy with the scheme as a whole — Edwin Benson>2 a: inclination to think or feel alike : emotional or intellectual accord <in sympathy with their goals> b: feeling of loyalty : tendency to favor or support<republican sympathies>3 a: the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another b: the feeling or mental state brought about by such sensitivity <have sympathy for the poor>4 : the correlation existing between bodies capable of communicating their vibrational energy to one another through some medium
Initially, I thought empathy had a deeper meaning. But in some ways, I found the definition 1a of sympathy encapsulates the collective mourning we all went into. I found that some people lacked empathy and used it as an opportunity to make political statements. They seemed unsympathetic towards the loss that many of those parents must have felt, and by proxy many of us who are horrified by the thought of innocents cut down because they were innocent. The massacre speaks to a fear that every parent has. And for me, it reminded me of the trauma my family faced when my sister died. I spent all weekend thinking about my mother who lost a child and my brother who survived a tragic accident.
I don’t remember everything, but flashes here and there come back to me. Now more often than not, I have memories of the memories. Every once in awhile my mother reminds me about the events that my brother wont speak about. I don’t even know the exact dates, but my world fell apart somewhere between four and five years old. Muslim aren’t supposed to believe in omens, but something ominous happened. I see it through my mother’s eyes, as she watched my older sister Melissa go into hysterics over a bird flying into the house. My sister knew the omen foretold death. But none of us would know the scale at that time.
My older brother and sister are my half siblings. Most people in my mother’s family didn’t like my father and knowing how he treated my mother at times, I could understand why. My mother recounted recently that no one wanted to babysit us when my father’s parents died shortly after that bird visited us. So, all three of us kids got ready to take the 10 hour drive with my mom, dad, and their friend (I can’t remember his name and I’m writing this story off the top of my head). I remember knowing how sad my sister was as my mother combed her hair. Funny how those things stick with you.
When we were alone, she asked me to keep a secret. I promised. Then she said, “God told me I’m going to die.” Children are terrible at keeping secrets. But this one I kept. Hours later…in the darkness…flashing lights…tears. When my mom found me I was thrown out the car, like my brother and sister, and landed on the road. But I landed on a pile of coats with only a few scratches. She said I kept repeating, “I knew this was going to happen. I knew it.” My brother was thrown the farthest. But my sister had the most extensive injuries, including a broken hip.
The hospital to me was this bright place and I remember my sister’s calm. My sister taught me about God. Maybe I thought he changed his mind, because I don’t remember being sad. I used to remember more 20 years ago and damn the memories fade. I remember wanting her jello. She had to have surgery because they put her in traction with a broken hip. My mother said just as they were closing her up, she went into cardiac arrest. Her lung was pierced by a broken rib, something that likely contributed to her death. It was all preventable, There was a malpractice suit, a shady lawyer, and a small compensation for every year that she died. Years later, there was some controversy in the family because after my mother left my father, my father signed for the money. Whether he smoked it, shot it up, or my uncle. Somebody used it. No one knows whatever happened to the trust fund.
After my sister’s death. I stayed with my father’s sister and she spoiled me. My aunt was a smart woman and my father said that she favored Oprah Winfrey. She just finished her Ph.D. in psychology, but hadn’t walked stage. I flew back home and entertained the whole flight with my Shirley Temple routine (I was such a ham then). My aunt Pattie told my mom that she never had to worry about me, that I’d be okay. My mom took it literally through most of my life, even when I wasn’t okay. But looking back, I think she was right. Shortly after I took that flight back home, she was preparing for a trip. No one thought twice when they didn’t hear from her in days. But she had diabetes and had died. She had been dead for days when they found her.
So, between four and five I knew death and dying. Sadness used to over take me. And over the years, my brother became angry and those things unspoken bottled up inside of him. Melissa was much closer to my brother, who had to be about 11. We all had survivor’s guilt somehow. My mom said our family friend who was behind the wheel never got over it. When I finally reunited with my father after 18 years, he cried about what happened. One of the rare times I’ve seen my mom cry was when I was in my 20s. She began to talk about that dark time and how she was so numb, but had to pick up the pieces. She left my abusive dad and we moved to California where a long lost aunt lived.
Almost a decade later, my brother lost his temper in an argument with my mom and over turned a table. To blow off some steam he went fishing with his friend Henry. That night my mother dreamed that Melissa was sitting outside. My mother tried to get her to come inside. My dreams were also disturbed that night. Henry and my brother never made it to their destination. A drunk driver hit them head on and for hours they held on to life until they were finally rescued. We rushed to Santa Cruz hospital and my mother losing another child, a young adult this time. Henry passed, but my brother held on even after going into cardiac arrest several times. I was in ICU for so long and in the hospital for months. He picked up his shattered life because he had a daughter to live for. Years later, I heard that fear in his voice one time when we thought were losing my niece, when she stopped breathing and turned blue. We live near a fire station and they came within minutes to resuscitate her. In her teens, I remember a doctor telling my brother to make sure he had life insurance policy for her because she had a condition that could result in her death. No one wants to hear that fear in someone’s voice, the fear and sadness of a parent losing their child. My niece pulled through and is healthy. She has a beautiful daughter now, named Melissa.
When my daughter was first born, I’d wake up in a panic if she was sleeping to still. I spent the whole first year afraid of SIDS. Becoming a mother has made me much more prone to irrational and rational fears. No mother wants to bury her own child. My sister was just a year older than many of the children who were murdered last Friday. I can’t imagine the pain and loss my mother felt when she put her daughter in that small casket. Twenty parents are laying a piece of themselves in the ground in tiny caskets. And losing a loved one hollows you out, leaving a void far larger than the hole they dig for their caskets.
My mom always felt a bit empty after losing Melissa. I think that’s why she was so happy to have my youngest sister some 8 years later. My mother once related to me about an evening when Melissa told her to look at the stars. Melissa said with amazement, that’s how many descendants of Abraham there are. Through my sister, I fell in love with those old Testament stories. I’ve always found meaning in my sister’s life, as she is the one who taught me to love God. And I spent my young life trying to find a spiritual home and a place that allowed me to find comfort in Melissa’s narrative. I found that in Islam, where children are considered innocent and when they die, they go to paradise. I always knew she was called to be with God. Even during my darkest times, I could not deny that my sister foretold her own death. I could not escape the peace she made with that. I could not deny the unseen world that always seemed to exist beneath the surface. All those precious children who are taken from us are not ours, but God’s. I don’t feel sadness about where they are now, but how terrible their last moments were. I feel sad for the parents who can’t hold them and see them grow. We are left picking up the pieces and numb, wondering how do we make this a better world.
One thought on “On Children Dying”
Thank you for sharing your family’s story (very powerful and poignant in light of recent events).
I am glad to know you are well and looking forward to the new articles, whenever you get around to writing them 🙂