Does it Hurt?

“You’ve been so brave.”
He could not speak. His eyes feasted on her, and he thought that he would like to stand and look at her forever, and that would be enough.
“You are nearly there,” said James. “Very close. We are. . . so proud of you.”
“Does it hurt?”
The childish question had fallen from Harry’s lips before he could stop it.
“Dying? Not at all,” said Sirius. “Quicker and easier than falling asleep.”. . . He knew that they would not tell him to go, that it would have to be his decision.
“You’ll stay with me?”
“Until the very end,”
said James. . . “We are a part of you . . . Invisible to anyone else.”
“Stay close to me”
he said quietly.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling, 2007

Sirius, like so many fictional characters tells a truth that is not all truth. Within those lines is a profound truth, the truth of the duty the living owe the dying. The truth that we do not come into this world alone, and neither should we ever leave it alone. But, within the words is a lie. Sometimes, often, death hurts.

My son, born at 10:26 on December 10th, left sometime around 11. My son, who was with us for only half an hour, my son who died in the arms of his family, suffocated to death in those arms. Premature infants do not have surfactant in their lungs. They are unable to breathe. And when my son was born alive, in defiance of any one’s expectations, that lack of surfactant meant that he suffocated to death. He was a fish out of water, this babe out utero.

I gave him what I could, the shelter of my arms, the comfort of my songs, his family’s prayers. I gave him baptism, the living proof of my faith in the resurrection. I gave him not just the duty of the living to the dead, but every ounce of goodness and mercy I could pry from my broken body. I walked with him to the very end, I stood in that place of life and death while I could barely stand. I gave him primordial and fierce love as a bulwark because he had to go to a place that eventually I could not follow. I gave him love and tenderness as he suffocated because they were the only things I could give.

Almost a year after he died, I listened to the Deathly Hallows on audio book.  Something in me broke. Something in me realized that my son died. Not just that my hopes and dreams were gone, but that like all mortal things, his body broken, he died. His heart stopped beating, oxygen stopped reaching his brain. A marvellous and intricate machine stopped working. My son, a person in his own right – not just the embodiment of our hopes and dreams – my son, his body stopped working in a horrific way.

I realized this, and then I hid from it. I could not bear the how right then, while I still struggled with the why. It was not a place I could go. The truth, the pain my tiny son felt – pain we could not remove – in dark and secret places, it crippled me. It ripped me asunder.

The why of death is relentless until you make your peace with it. The work of grieving is to bring the darkness into the light, to reconcile the irreconcilablewith truth and life. I have had many tasks in my grief, and this was only one more. It is not just the why I must reconcile, but the how. I must stand and perceive. I must accept what is unacceptable.

It has taken me three years to write this, to give voice to this last, terrible truth: my son, with a central nervous system, with neurons and pain receptors, fully human son, suffocated to death. My son, the person. My son, a creation of God. My son, who could, and almost certainly did, feel pain as he died. Creation has its own ruthlessness.

And all I have is that bulwark. All I have is this – that dying is a part of life. It is the end, even when that end comes much too soon. Sometimes, it hurts. And there is no antidote against the hurt. Sometimes passings are not easy and there is nothing we can do. My son’s passing cannot have been easy. There was nothing to be done differently.

This too is truth – measured against our breaths in that room are the breaths that Gabriel could not freely take.

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17 Responses to Does it Hurt?

  1. a says:

    Abiding with you…

  2. Michele says:

    The other day, we were in the car and, somehow out of the blue, this realization hit me too. My children may-most likely- I cant find the words to say WERE- in pain when they died because they would have suffocated. Nicholas, born just shy of 16 weeks and living an hour… How could he breathe? But he did. I remember the EMTs telling me, in awe, “he’s breathing”. How he must have struggled… Please, let me know God, that he didnt suffer and that he fell asleep, gently, peacefully. Sophia and Alexander, five sweet minutes, but were they sweet for them? I dont know. I have to believe it so because the other side is too painful, too terribly painful.

    We were in the car, driving home from the Shrine, when I just broke down. For some reason, nearing 3 years from Nick’s birthday, this realization slapped me so hard that I still havent stopped spinning. I havent even been able to write about it until now.

    Sending hugs and much love…

  3. Virginia says:

    My first question to our doctor was, “Did it hurt him?” And he told me no, but I suspect he was just being kind.

  4. Maureen says:


  5. Jane in London says:


  6. brown owl says:

    My baby girl managed a bare breath, a tiny tiny wail … and she was gone. I can still hear her. It echoes in my heart
    Abiding with you…

  7. Jamie says:

    Holding you in my heart and abiding with you.

  8. Erica says:

    These are the thoughts that still sometimes jerk me awake at night. Thinking of you and your Gabriel and holding you in my heart.

  9. loribeth says:

    I know my husband has been tormented by these thoughts in the past (probably still is from time to time). I try not to think about it too much — I could go crazy if I did. 🙁

  10. debby says:

    Mrs. Spit? I will tell you my understanding of it. I watched my father suffocate (late stage lung cancer) over the course of three days. We stood there at his bedside, and there was nothing we could do. Nothing.

    Three days. Three days. He would sometimes rouse from the depths of his morphine, gasping and pleading, begging, and we would rush to the nurse, and she would bring the shot. Three days. And it was awful. Unending.

    Unending from our perspective though. He is on the other side now, and he deals in eternity. What seemed interminable to us was merely a blink of an eye after he bridged that chasm and moved on into eternity. And this is what I comfort myself with. When next you see your son, both of you will hug and you will scarcely remember that small moment at all.

    Much love.

  11. Aunt Deb says:

    Maybe it’s the time of year. I watched the last episode of Medium and her husband died and she could not accept it. That may be me in the future. For whatever reason, this show hit home hard and I suddenly thought one day I will lose your uncle, one day I will lose you….one day you will lose me. It just is, and there is no way out of it. I will endure. I won’t like it, I will be angry, I will cry, rant and rave but in the end I will endure. I don’t know if there is a “passing” in the world that is not marked by some sorrow by someone. We all must go though it. Pain is a funny thing, each person feels it their own way and I am not sure we can really know how much and if others feel pain the way that we feel it. I believe it to be a thing unique to each just as what gives us joy is different for each. Another thing I believe that we will all be together again one day and that is the one bright shinning thought that makes it bearable.

  12. HereWeGoAJen says:

    I don’t have anything well thought out to say, except that I am thinking about you.

  13. jen says:

    I think about that a lot, how much dying hurts. With what was wrong with my son there was no easy choice and he would have been in pain regardless. I hope that the option we chose was the quickest and least painful, but I’ll really never know. So many times I’ve begged that he didn’t suffer, as if I could go back and change what has already happened. I couldn’t watch as the doctor inserted the needle that stopped his heart, but my sister did. I’ve wanted to ask her this past year – did he flinch? Did it look like it hurt him? I feel like the world’s worst monster and then I remember how much it would have hurt him to go through the surgeries and still have his brain squeezed into his spinal cord. I still don’t know if I made the right choice, but I’m coming to accept that dying just hurts. I hope that my love was enough to carry him through those painful minutes and he is at peace now.

  14. Ya Chun says:

    This is a mental place that I don’t care to go to often either.

    I can try to fool myself, since Serenity died ‘out of sight’, that it didn’t hurt. But I have my doubts.

    You don’t have that luxury, since you saw him while he was in your arms. A blessing and a curse.

    Holding you and Mr Spit in my thoughts. xoxo

  15. Kristin says:

    Wow, just wow…abiding with you.

  16. Natalie says:

    I think that is the one thing w e don’t talk about, my husband and I – how Devin slowly died. How the umbilical cord slowly cinched tighter. How it was not quick or painless. How he suffered. Chokes me up….

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