When I was a child, cemeteries scared me to death.

I associated them with every terrifying image that I had ever seen in those scary Hollywood horror flicks of my childhood– especially the one about the disembodied green hand that terrorized unsuspecting young lovers at those once hip drive-in movies. Years later, Michael Jackson’s graphic Thriller video did little to help dispel these disturbing images when it aired repeatedly on MTV. I found myself going out of my way to avoid driving by cemeteries, especially late at night, when it was storming, or on Halloween when the spirits were said to be especially restless and feisty.

I didn’t understand that cemeteries could be places of great beauty and healing until my 12-year-old son, Eric, died suddenly in February 2003. Now, I’m part of the Cemetery Gang, a term my husband and I have coined for grieving adults of all ages who visit the cemetery searching for answers to life’s tough questions. Many of us have buried children.

We come to the cemetery looking for healing and relief from grief. Some days we find it.

Marcella is our gang leader and a friend to all. Her husband died seven years ago and she still mourns deeply. The petite, silver-tressed senior citizen serves as the living cemetery angel. She tells newcomers the best clippers to buy to trim around family gravesites, and where to buy candles that burn for hours, providing light for our loved ones on the darkest night. Eric was afraid of the dark, so that information has comforted us. She gently and confidently introduces the shell shocked to this new place of refuge.

Marcella shares cemetery expertise to help mend her own broken heart. She waters wilting flowers on children’s graves on the hottest days or when families try to out run tough emotions if only briefly by escaping out of town. When the grass surrounding our loved one’s gravesites isn’t groomed to family standards, it’s Marcella who takes a gutsy stance and advocates for needed change.

When her husband died, cemetery rituals gave Marcella a reason to go on living.

The cemetery gang is only one blessing found here. The cemetery is an important social gathering spot where true community is still found. That’s a priceless gift when death blindsides you in the middle of the night and steals away your only son. The cemetery has become my refuge, my friend and confidant, a place where strangers share intimate details of a loved one’s death.

When the cemetery gang asks you how you’re doing, they listen to your answer.

Here, I have watched innocent children gently lay flowers on the fresh dirt of gravesites and realized that we’re not born fearing cemeteries. Still, cemeteries can be brutally honest. My son is buried near a college student who was murdered, a popular cheerleader who died of leukemia, an eight-year-old boy taken by sudden illness, and an infant girl who lived long enough to receive her name.

It’s common to see graduation hats, birthday balloons, enchanting angels, well-loved teddy bears, even Christmas trees at our children’s gravesites. These stark reminders that death doesn’t discriminate, impact how survivors walk. Our gaits are less steady, our immortality less certain. We grant strangers unconditional support. Instant friendships and loyalty are formed. There is little room here for meaningless, idle chit chat.

We protect each other’s cemetery turf, and one another.

The cemetery now serves as my life raft in grief’s unpredictable raging storms. After being with my son, the rough waters of daily living seem somehow easier to navigate. I have rushed to the cemetery eager to share exciting news with Eric. Then the reality of his death slaps me hard again, and I wistfully add, ‘but you already knew that didn’t you?’ I am convinced that my son now serves as my omnipotent, ever-present protector.’ In the rawest cemetery moments, I’m certain that Eric can see and hear me.

Some days, I share my lunch.

I have reconnected with Eric graveside after rushing frantically to every room in my house, desperate for his scent, desperate to hold him. At my neighborhood cemetery, Eric is not lost, and neither am I.

There is comfort in cemetery rituals that defies explanation to those who have so far been saved from from this rocky path. No one escapes forever.

The cemetery offers me peace and resolution, solitude and friendship. The people here never tire of seemingly endless stories of loss, nor do they urge you to get over it and resume normal life, whatever that means. In the sacred stillness of this place, I can hear children playing on the nearby school playground where my son once played, and church bells ringing as the setting sun hides its face in a dense forest of trees. Here, I have argued tough faith issues with God, while cemetery birds sang bedtime lullabies to my son.

I have learned that cemeteries are resting places for the living. When the cards, phone calls and lasagna stop coming and people go back to business as usual, the grieving come here to remember. At the cemetery, I talk to my son and tell him how much I love him and always will. I grant myself permission to release powerful tears that have threatened to overwhelm me. I remember that Eric’s life and death both hold great meaning and promise to honor his remarkable legacy, whatever the cost.

The cemetery has made me increasingly bold. Life seems simpler, the choices clearer when you are standing on the tender grass or pristine snow of a loved one’s grave. Whatever time each of us has left is far too fragile to spend living with regret or anger. You learn to put one foot in front of the other and move forward, moment by moment, day by day, until the pain begins to ease and gentler breathing returns.

Somehow I have survived every parent’s nightmare. My son died suddenly from medical complications fueled by cerebral palsy. He died peacefully, but my grief is not less intense. My husband and I raised Eric as a child of value. He dreamed of studying music in college one day, a dream we planned to support fully. Hundreds attended Eric’s funeral, touched deeply by a life rich with promise and talent, one cut far too short. I remember all their words of love and support and admiration for my son- and remember how lucky I was, and am, to be Eric’s mom.

Visiting Eric at the cemetery has helped me resume my passionate work as an author, journalist and speaker on disability parenting issues, important work he and I began. It’s work I now continue alone, fueled by Eric’s teachings and regular cemetery visits.

As I survey gravesites well tended and those rarely visited, I think Hollywood may have done a great disservice to many grieving souls by promoting cemeteries as places of fear and horror. Today, I know that cemeteries are instead peaceful places of healing and great beauty, and the Cemetery Gang understands far better than most that I didn’t bury a ‘disabled’ child whose value was too often questioned by society. I buried my beloved son.

In the neighborhood cemetery, everybody’s equal.

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