This is a guest post written by Nikki Moungo. Nikki is a self-employed, work-at-home mother to three inspiring children.
As a bereaved mother, my heart goes out to Ann Marie Devaney and what she is experiencing since the death of her son. A word exists to describe the loss of a spouse: Widow. There is no word to describe the loss of a child, because no words can begin to convey the sheer gravity of what we parents experience. It’s an all-consuming loss, and that’s an understatement. Every fiber of your being is stretched beyond imagination. You think of all the ways you could build a time machine. Denial takes center stage. “It’s not over until I say it’s over! I simply refuse!” repeats like a mantra in your head.
One month after my son turned twenty-one, I received “The Call.” I don’t remember the flight. I don’t remember packing my suitcase. All I remember is trying to make it to the city he was in as quickly as possible. When it came time to remove his life support, in spite of my grief, I knew that having the chance to be with him in his final moments was not a “luxury” all parents in my position were afforded. I was able to lay down on his hospital bed with him. I took my grown, young, adult son in my arms, just as I did when he was a baby. I laid my head on his chest and listened to his healthy heart continue to beat for nearly fifteen minutes after life support was removed. Each beat brought with it a ray of hope… but then his heartbeats slowed, until the monitor flat-lined with it’s macabre long beep.
Still, I lay there, holding him, crying, angry. I didn’t want to let go. I remembered the day he was born, how I held him and felt this flood of pure unadulterated love flow though my body, but there was something else, too. Something I wasn’t expecting. This maniacal fear resonated through my entire being. He was my reason for living. He had instantly become “everything that was good and pure and that mattered.” I fully understood it was my job to keep him safe. I realized I now stood to lose something that I didn’t have to lose before. I stood to lose the most important thing in the entire world, and it haunted me, as it does many parents when holding their newborn. So fresh, so innocent, you instantly feel an intense desire to protect them at all costs. You hope that harm will never befall them, because you know it will be an insurmountable loss. Unfortunately, this is not the way the world works. Tragedy doesn’t know or care who you are or what you believe in. Death isn’t picky.
I say all this because I understand and empathize with Ms. Devaney’s desire to let the world know her son is gone. We want you to know. We want you to ask us about them. We want you to tell us stories about them. So often, we grief-ridden mothers are left in the dark, because people don’t know how to deal with us. We are a daunting presence and often hard to approach following a tragedy. But please, never be afraid to talk to us about our kids. That is how their memory is kept alive and we don’t want to be alone in making that happen. If you’re afraid of asking me because I seem happy at the moment, know that the tears you worry will come forth are always there, bubbling just under the surface. It is therapeutic for us to let them out once in awhile.
I don’t try to comfort myself by thinking that my boy is somewhere waiting for me with open arms. Nor would I attempt to take the idea of heaven away from a grieving religious mother. It brings her comfort and I am not cruel. However, her desire to have this cross on public land does not lend her special privileges, nor would I expect any special considerations be made for my son. If we are going to teach our children tolerance, it begins by following the laws that help keep church and state separate. City officials shouldn’t get to cherry pick which laws are to be followed out of reverence for another’s grief.
When Ms. Devaney’s story began making national headlines earlier this month, I waited a few days before engaging others on the subject. I needed time to put my thoughts together rationally and objectively. When I finally approached atheist forums to engage in this discussion, I was very surprised to find many atheists demanding the cross stay in place. They seemed to be saying, “She’s a grieving mother, so she gets a ‘free pass’ in the name of civility & tolerance! Who cares if she’s Christian? You people are heartless & cruel.”
My offering was that I was a grieving atheist mother still deep in the throes of loss, yet I supported the removal of the cross. My opinion was met mostly with bitter, vitriolic banter from my fellow atheists. Despite their “free pass” logic, my fellow atheists were not willing to extend an atheist grieving mother the same “considerations.”
Let me state this clearly: I do not feel my grief should allow me to supersede constitutional law & local ordinances. This applies to any grieving person. If I get pulled over for speeding, should I tell the police officer that I’m a grieving mother & expect to get away with just a warning? Better yet, what if I place a monument with an atheist symbol in honor of my dead son on the grounds of the hospital where he died? How long would the city or hospital let it stand? Wasn’t he also deserving of a visible, public monument?
Others exclaimed, “This cross is hurting no one directly or personally, so what’s the big deal?” Few appreciated my attempts at responding to that question… But I’ll endure being called a “cold, heartless, radical, militant” by my own non-belief “group” because I believe these roadside crosses do, in fact, cause personal harm and shouldn’t be placed on public property to begin with.
They present a painful reminder that any such monument for my son on public property would not be tolerated. They should be offensive to any grieving parents, no matter their religious beliefs, because every deceased son or daughter is not entitled to similar public monuments. Most of us will not be able to grieve publicly or have our community mourn with us, so why do Christians feel so entitled?
When all was said and done, the city of Lake Elsinore gave this woman a total of three public memorials for her son. How many are needed to process grief? My son has no public memorials. A good friend had a tree planted in his honor, an act that I feel is beautiful and appropriate. I am considering using my own funds to have a plaque placed on a park bench, like my good Christian friend did when her son was murdered just a year before my son. They grew up together, neighbors who played on many a sunny day. It is only fitting they be memorialized at a park where they so often played together. I’ve also placed mementos in our home to keep him in our memories. Yet… the thought that we would forget our dead child without these memorials is absurd. The thought we must force our community to grieve with us is even more absurd. I understand Ms. Devaney’s desires, but that doesn’t mean I think we should turn a blind eye to her monument out of reverence.
These roadside crosses on public property say to my other children, who are listening and watching: “This person was more important than your brother because he was Christian and your brother was not; just forget about the laws & play nice.” That does hurt my kids, and that’s where I draw the line. How does that logic play to a nine year old, the idea that Christians are given special exceptions you aren’t entitled to and that you must endure this unfairness in the name of tolerance and civility?
The atheists who feel that the American Humanist Association was wrong only think they’re practicing a form of tolerance. In reality, they’re throwing an entire generation of non-theist kids under the bus. They are forgetting the bigger picture: By not standing up for our rights, what kind of society are we creating for our children? Why teach our children that some get to break the law simply because they believe their rights are “God-given”?
Finally, I will add that there is no time period assigned to grief. My intelligent, sensitive, beautiful bright son is in my thoughts every millisecond of every day. My nights are spent wishing for subconscious nocturnal “visits,” just so I can see him, touch him, feel him, hear him again. I imagine it will be that way until I take my own last breath, at which point I will finally find some relief. That is the curse of the grieving mother.
I am sorry Ms. Devaney’s son died. I know how she feels. I’m a deeply empathetic person. I hope she can understand where I’m coming from, too. This is not a personal attack against her, her son, or her religion. If I lived near her, I would offer to help her raise the cross in her own backyard. I would hold her hand while she prayed for him. I would offer my shoulder for her to cry on. Yet, I have been dubbed a heartless person by even my fellow atheists for advocating for a future free of religious privilege. Does that makes me heartless? Then so be it.