Growing up, one of my favorite stories was The Velveteen Rabbit. In fact, I named one of my own stuffed bunnies Velveteen, and would often sleep with it at night. (I memorized a list of all my stuffed animals, and gave each one a turn sleeping with me, cuddled in my arms, so none of them would feel left out. I can still run through that list in my head, almost fifty years later. I will spare sharing with you the names of my 13 cuddle-mates…)
Just a few years ago, I found a beautiful condensed “read-aloud” version of the book, so I purchased it to be able to share it with my grandkids. When we moved into the Hope Mobile (a 38-foot motor home) I had to go through a life-time collection of two shelves of children’s books, deciding which ones to get rid of and which ones to keep. Only eight of those books found a place in our house on wheels, and that copy of The Velveteen Rabbit is one of them.
In case you aren’t familiar with the story, this little “fat and bunchy” stuffed bunny with spotted brown and white velveteen fur and pink sateen ears, becomes a boy’s favorite toy, which he talks to, plays with, and of course cuddles with each night. The bunny thinks he is real, because the boy tells the nanny his beloved bunny is real when she thinks he is making too much fuss over a toy. Eventually, the boy becomes sick with scarlet fever, and the well-worn and much-loved bunny is taken with the bedding to be burned. A real tear trickles down the face of the bunny, which immediately grows a flower with a fairy in it. Because the bunny was so loved and was real to the boy, she turns the velveteen Rabbit into a real live bunny, to live with the others he met earlier who made fun of him for not being real.
Looking back, I had no idea what the meaning of that story would have to me, after the death of our oldest daughter, Becca.
Let me share an exchange in the nursery between the wise old Skin Horse and the Rabbit.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day…
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you… It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time… Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” (The Velveteen Rabbit by Marjorie Williams)
There are several similarities in this story, to my journey of being a pareavor (a parent who has been bereaved of my child).
• It reminds me that working through our grief is a process; a journey. And it definitely doesn’t happen all at once. It takes a long time… years, as a matter-of-fact.
• “He hasn’t got any hind legs! He doesn’t smell right!” the wild rabbit exclaimed, jumping backwards. “He isn’t a rabbit at all! He isn’t real!” This is the reaction the live rabbits had one day when Rabbit was on the ground while his boy played. I don’t know about you, but many of us feel like the people around us just don’t get it. They don’t validate our loss, because we are so different than they are. They hop away and leave us, not understanding why we are the way we are.
• It is a story of going from being ugly to being real; from being who I was, thinking I was “real,” to being who I am now, on the other side of the suffocating darkness after Becca’s death. As I came out of the darkness and back into a place of hope and light, I began to see myself differently and I began to see others differently, along with a depth I didn’t have before. And that is a good thing.
• The Velveteen Rabbit is also a story of hope. He went from a place of devastation and being thrown away as useless to becoming real. I certainly felt devastated and totally useless. I felt like my soul died when my daughter died. But I didn’t stay that way. And you won’t either.
In order to become “real,” like the velveteen Rabbit, we have been taken through a very ugly place. And just like he was taken to a community of other bunnies, we are a community. We are a bunch of broken wounded people, doing life together. We are now traveling with each other on this journey, where we can learn how to become our best self and to become more real than ever before, within the pain and deep earthly loss of our children, not in spite of their death, but because of their life.
The book ends with the boy playing outside the following spring, seeing a rabbit that looks very much like his stuffed bunny that was destroyed.
But he never knew that it really was his own Bunny, come back to look at the child who had first helped him to be Real.
Our children gave us a great gift. The gift to become truly real. I know so many parents who are much further on this journey than I am, who have said they would not want to go back to being the person they were before their child died.
Why would they say that?
Because our child changed us. Both their life and their death.
We tend to look at how dark our life became after their departure, but there are also ways we have grown and are growing (or will grow), because of our brokenness. For me, I tend to not fret over the smaller things as much as I used to. I am much more aware of the present moment, knowing that is really all I have. My compassion for those who are hurting is way more than it ever used to be.
And because Becca had life, there are things she did that taught me something or showed me the way to being a better person, such as watching how she had a way of accepting everyone (whether she agreed with them in life choices and opinions or not) and how she was able to bring so much laughter while she was deathly ill her last 18 months. And watching Becca live life with only one leg and not letting it limit her, gives me motivation to push through my own difficulties instead of giving in to the obstacles that come my way.
How about you? Some of you may not have gotten to this point yet, because your child’s departure is still too fresh and your grief is still very dark and deep, but is there something you like better about yourself now since your child died? Is it easier to let go of toxic relationships? Are you more aware of what is really important in your life now? Are you now easily able to say “no” when people ask you to do something, when before you always said “yes?” Do you no longer feel guilty about putting your own needs first?
Here is another thought. We often talk about how we are forever changed because our child died, but I want to ask: How are you different now because your child LIVED? What are the new lenses your child’s life gave you, helping you to see the world with a different view than you had before?
As the wise old Skin Horse said: Once you become real, you can never become ugly again.
I would love to have you answer in the comments below this blog. What have you gained through your child’s death? What did your child’s life teach you?
We would like to send you the MP3 download From Pain to Purpose. This is a message Laura Diehl has given at several churches, sharing how God has a plan to take the deepest pain of the loss of your child, and restore your life to one of meaning and purpose once again, if we allow Him to.
Expressions of Hope is written by author, speaker and singer Laura Diehl. She and her husband, Dave, are the founders of Grieving Parents Sharing Hope (GPS Hope). Dave and Laura travel full time in their Hope Mobile (a 38-foot motor home) to be more easily available for speaking and ministry requests, including being invited to hold one-day GPS Hope & Healing conferences.
Laura is a national keynote speaker and has also been a workshop speaker for events such as The Compassionate Friends and Bereaved Parents USA national conferences, along with being a guest on radio shows, podcasts and other media channels such as webinars with Open to Hope.
If you would like more information about Laura as a speaker for your next event or want more information on hosting a GPS Hope & Healing conference, click here.
GPS Hope exists to walk with grieving parents through the suffocating darkness of child-loss, guiding them to a place of hope, light and purpose.
We also support families, friends and coworkers who want to know how to support these parents both short and long-term.
- Check out the Grieving Parents Sharing Hope weekly podcast
- If you are a bereaved parent, we encourage you to connect with us on Facebook.
- If you are not a bereaved parent but want to support those who are, or want to follow us as we give hope to these precious parents, please connect with us at Friends of GPS Hope on Facebook.
- Subscribe to Laura’s YouTube channel.