Language is a funny thing.
Within any culture, words are created to describe the most common of contexts. In the English language, those who lose a spouse are called widows or widowers. When a child loses a parent, they become orphans.
But there are no words in our language to describe who a parent becomes when a child dies. There is no label to gloss over the pain, or to make people more comfortable talking about it.
What’s more, there are never easy answers to questions like, “How many children do you have?” There is no response that slips nicely into conversation without leaving an awkward silence.
And, there is no word to describe the monumental effort it takes for a parent to continue to walk through life, one step at a time, with a hole in their heart that nothing can fill.
But there are other words that become more important than ever—words like “family,” “friends,” and “laughter.” Because often, those who share memories and stories become more important than ever, and for a surviving parent, the ability to laugh and simply be normal is never again taken for granted.
My friend Linda and her husband Chris learned these lessons when their son, Ryan, died. Five years ago, Ryan was killed in a house fire in New York, ending a remarkable life that left few, if any regrets.
Ryan was quick with his mind and quicker with his wit, and he didn’t have a dream he didn’t chase. By the time he was 28 years old, he had visited castles in Europe and put himself through school in Scotland.
He had already learned to value people over things, and most of all, he loved his family. He was very close to his parents, and to his two older brothers.
“Anything he wanted to do, he found a way to do it, and I’m glad he did,” his dad said. “I’m glad he didn’t listen to me when I tried to get him to be more practical. Money was never important to him.”
Ryan’s lessons weren’t over, even after his funeral. “Live simply and love each other” was the resounding message.
At the time Ryan died, his parents and brothers were scattered in North Carolina, Michigan and Arizona. Within a year, they were all living in the same Phoenix neighborhood to be closer to one another.
Then Ryan led them to another venture. He’d loved donuts, and for years, every time his parents had visited him before he died, he took them to his favorite shop. What better way to honor his memory, his family thought, than to open a donut shop in their new neighborhood.
And so they did. Three years later, Desert Donuts is thriving, and it has become a place of happy healing for the entire family. They all pitch in, and they have created one of the sweetest labors of love. There is no doubt that the mindfulness and care they have poured into it in Ryan’s memory has everything to do with its success.
In a corner of their shop, in a spot where the morning light shines through, Ryan’s initials are a reminder of all that was lost, and all that has been found.
Linda and her family choose gratefulness instead of bitterness, and joy over regret. They have learned that the biggest tragedy is not always the abrupt ending of a beautiful life, but in the failure to fully live and deeply love while there is still time.
As Linda told me this, tears still showed up uninvited five years later. The pain never really goes away, she told me. Still, she feels fortunate, in ways. “Some people say they didn’t get a chance to tell their loved ones they love them, but there was nothing like that. We knew.”
“It’s not how many items you buy,” explained Linda as her youngest grandson flashed an innocent grin in her direction. “It’s how many memories you make.”
After all, their story is apropos. Life is like a donut. We can pick and choose what to sprinkle it with, and it can be filled with sweetness, if we choose.
And even when there is a hole in the middle that cannot be filled, it can still be quite wonderful if we decide to make it that way.
Author: Amanda Christmann
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: With permission from Linda Burris