Survivor’s Guilt

I was looking through old photos on my Apple mac desktop, looking for a cute one of Hannah as a toddler to post for her 17th birthday.  I was scrolling through photo after photo of Dragon and Hannah, when Hannah turned to me and said, “Sometimes I have Survivor’s Guilt.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I think about all the things I got to experience, that Dragon never got to experience,” she said, thinking of her brother, Dragon, who died at age 14.

“I got to turn 15.  I got to get my driver’s license.  I got to go to Prom. I got to take an AP Test.  Next year, I’ll get to be a high school senior, and then I’ll get to go to college.  I feel bad, that Dragon never got to experience any of these things.”

The photos on the screen stared back, my children’s childhoods unfolding before my eyes.  Dragon giving Hannah a hug on her first day of first grade, both of them with backpacks bigger their backs.  His big brotherly hug saying, “Hey, I’m here at the same school, I’ll see you at recess. Anything you need, you come to me.”

More photos: Dragon and Hannah standing in a glass-bottom boat in Catalina, orange Garibaldi fish swimming past the glass windows.  Dragon and Hannah on their bikes on an overcast morning, ready to ride to middle school.  Dragon and Hannah laughing while dressing up our puppy Koda in Dragon’s beige hoodie.

I never thought about it that way.  I had watched Hannah hit all these milestones — learning to drive, going to Prom, becoming a high school senior — and mourned the fact that Dragon never got to do these things.  Last year, I watched all his friends graduate high school and post photos of themselves in their new college sweatshirts, and then looked at my Facebook profile photo of me and Dragon from his 8th grade graduation, the only graduation he would get to experience.  I watched all this with a knife in my heart, knowing there would be a lifetime of such moments, when I would mourn Dragon’s absence and the unfairness of him not being here.  But I didn’t think of how experiencing these milestones has been for his little sister.

Daniel and I have wrestled with our own Survivor’s Guilt, with our own wish that that tree would have killed us instead and spared Justin and Dragon.  For many months following his death, it was painful for me to go anywhere beautiful or do anything fun.  How dare I enjoy this ocean-side sunset without Dragon? People would tell me that Dragon would have wanted me to be happy, not brokenhearted, and that made sense, but I could not control my visceral resentment and sadness that life simply went on without my son.

Throughout all this, Hannah has been a champ.  She has watched each parent fall into a pit of despair.  She has watched us mourn alternatively with dignity and with abandon.  Each time, she has quietly and consistently come to stand by me and to simply hold my hand. She has done everything she can to support us as we turned our attention to starting and growing the Dragon Kim Foundation.  She allows us to mourn, but she also sticks up for what she needs.  That first Christmas, just four months after we lost Dragon, I thought I could not put up a Christmas tree full of our family ornaments — handmade ornaments made from painted popsicle sticks with squiggly signatures or the delicate, ceramic ornament printed with “2000 — Baby’s First Christmas.”

“I don’t think I can do it,” I said, dreading a season of Christmas carols, and parties, and church services singing Silent Night, and the silence of Christmas morning, opening presents without Dragon.

“Mom,” Hannah had said, “Can we please put up the tree? It’s my Christmas too.”

I had already come to terms with the fact that every happy occasion from now on would be a dual-edged sword: This is a happy day, but one that Dragon is not here to share with us, because he is dead.  And now I recognize that these moments are also hard for Hannah.  I think that’s what hardest for her — the understanding that somehow she was blessed to get to enjoy these moments, big and small, and that Dragon and Justin were not.

I hugged her, and thanked her for sharing with me her feelings of Survivor’s Guilt.  Hannah’s eyes were wet with thoughts unsaid.

“It’s almost time to go,” she finally whispered. “Should we go get ready?”

I thought about the evening to come: Hannah’s birthday dinner, followed by a concert at OCSA, which was originally Dragon’s school, but now, more Hannah’s school than Dragon’s.  Our younger child, our daughter, Hannah, turning 17.  Three years older than her older brother.

“Yes,” I said, turning off the computer, and turning to Hannah.  “It’s time.  Let’s go.”

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