Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2019.
Mother’s Day can be an incredibly challenging time for any mother who’s experienced the pain of losing a child and for those close to her. What do you say to her? How do you offer your support? Will you ever find peace again, if this is your story?
Earlier this year, one of my closest friends lost her 7-and-a-half-month-old baby. I remember when she told me he passed and I was lost, completely confused. I thought I must be misreading her text. But, in the worst possible turn of events, what we thought was a stomach virus ended in unspeakable tragedy. She was in New York City and I was in Los Angeles with two newborns. I couldn’t just jump on a plane and hold her — and what would that do anyway? Her life was changed forever.
Every day, I felt so helpless. It felt silly, but one night I googled “what to say to someone who has lost a child.” The article I found had first person accounts of loss and grief and good and bad words of comfort and I came to understand that I should listen as much as possible and not disappear. I started thinking about Darrell and Susan Toler Carr, a couple my husband and I interviewed for the first season of Black Love who lost their 16-year-old son Justin in 2013 to an undetected heart condition. My heart broke for what they went through and are still facing today. I appreciated how candid they were with us about their grief, their struggles to support each other, and the ways in which they get through each day and honor the life of their son.
With Mother’s Day on the horizon, I asked Susan to sit down with us at Black Love. I’ve seen the messages year after year on various sites: “Don’t forget about the moms who’ve lost a child” and “What about the children who have lost their moms?” And I think about my friend who is about to experience what should be her first Mother’s Day with her son and I thought it was important to show the other side of this holiday. Some people are grieving. I am grateful that Susan, this beautiful vessel of strength and grace, was willing to open up about finding peace on the other side of grief and how we all can best support mothers who are navigating this holiday after the loss of a child.
On finding comfort and her smile again
Justin was our only child. He was 16 years old, 6’3″, strong, strappy and a kid on his way. He was on the swim team for high school and he had been swimming since he was 10 years old on the Rose Bowl swim team. They said he went swimming and he just went under. They pulled him out and they tried to resuscitate him and he died from an undiagnosed cardiomyopathy, which is a thickness in the heart.
When I look back on it, we allowed Justin to be who he was. People just assumed that because he was 6’3″ and he was Black that he should play football or basketball. He would always get “Black kids don’t…” “Swimming’s not a sport.” So allowing him to do that, allowing him to be creative, allowing him to [paint and] draw… that makes my husband and I smile knowing that we didn’t squash who he really was. I can smile knowing that he was happy in what he was doing and he felt happy and comfortable in his own skin.
On what to say to a mother who is grieving
There’s really nothing to say. All you can do is listen. It’s unimaginable, there’s nothing to say. Just be a good listener like a heart with ears. Don’t say anything. Just let them talk and I think that’s what most people [who have lost a child] want to do.
I’m a changed woman. It’s never going to be the same. But I do know for sure that I’m always going to be Justin’s mom.
On sharing her story
I’m honest. Every kid that I meet who doesn’t know me, they know about Justin. I’m like, “Do you know my story?” Because I can’t go any further until I tell you who I am. It helps me get through this hurdle.
On her partnership with her husband
Darrell and I have two different personalities. I am more extroverted and he is more introverted so I couldn’t force him or say, “You better go to the support group or you gotta do this.” For me, support groups help. For Darrell, I try to encourage him but he wants to go when I go, that’s the partnership there. People always ask, “How are you guys doing?” because statistics are such that when trauma happens or tragedy hits, people sometimes split. We are good for each other. Darrell was Justin’s dad and I was Justin’s mom.
On it being okay to have a bad day
When they ask me, “How are you?” I’m not going to just say the usual “fine.” It depends on how I am, and I will say I had a bad day, or I miss Justin. And that allows them to open up and talk about what people don’t want to talk about. That’s important — being open and honest. It’s been six years, but it seems like a day. There are certain days where you might smile [versus] before I couldn’t even move. But there are certain things that still will trigger the what-ifs and the future that we’ve lost.
On the saying “time heals all”
On finding peace
Peace for me is that I did the best job that I could as a mom for Justin. Sometimes I think it wasn’t good enough. Sometimes I have the regret and the guilt like why didn’t I know? Why couldn’t I have saved him? So peace for me is knowing that I did my best and that my best is good enough.
Enjoying this beautiful holiday
Happy Mother’s Day to everyone who is a mother at the heart as you nurture and love the kids around you. Teach them and just let them be who they are. It doesn’t matter when you’re a mother or how you’re a mother, just enjoy the presence of giving and loving someone else.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Justin Carr and Josiah Nana Osei Baawuah.