Okay To Let Go by Kelly Haas Shackelford

A mourning mother tries to come to terms with her guilt; by Kelly Haas Shackelford.

Sitting across the breakfast table, I stared at the man who once adored me. Now, I am object of his pity. I glanced at last year's kitten calendar tacked to the wall beside the refrigerator. Fighting back tears, I closed my eyes as if that mere act could wipe away the date mocking me.  It was Liam's death day. The day I let go of his hand.

"Honey, you need to finish your breakfast," Kevin instructed, and frowned, always taking care of me, his new child.

"You should divorce me," I announced, throwing my unused napkin onto the table.

"No." He sighed, shaking his head, tossing his own napkin down to do battle. The same battle we spar every day.

"I don't deserve to have any more kids," I shouted, slinging my plate of sunny-side up eggs onto the floor. It crashed against the pale blue linoleum.

Without a word, he grabbed his napkin and dropped to his knees, singing the Barney song that Liam liked. Replacing dishes had become a family tradition. Yet, he refused to eat off paper plates. Real families eat off real dishes, he would say, as if the clanking of silverware against fake china could mimic a child's laugh.

"He was only two." I ran over to the calendar and snatched it off the wall.

I began to rip it in two, when Kevin stopped me. "It was his favorite," he whispered, taking the calendar and placing it out of harm's way.  

"Three-hundred and sixty-five days," I shouted, collapsing to the floor. Every day, I woke with the same pain. Whoever said it got easier with time was a damn liar. Nothing gets easier. Every day I lose another piece of him. Yesterday, I emptied out all the clothes in his dresser, sniffing each piece, trying to find something with his scent. I can't remember his scent. What kind of mother forgets her child's scent? What will I forget tomorrow? His laugh? His face?

"Honey, please." Kevin lifted me off the floor, carrying me into the living room, placing me on the couch.

"I let go," I sobbed, rocking back and forth.

"It's not your fault." He brushed back the loose locks of my hair. "They told you to."

Reaching out to the coffee table, I grabbed a 8x10 framed portrait of Liam smiling. My fingers shaking, I traced his face.  Framed at the bottom was a tag with our address and instructions to send it back to us if found. No one had bothered to send them back. A month after his death, we had tied them to balloons and sent them to Liam in heaven as if round balls of hot air could float our pain away.

Kevin slid down in front of me, his back to the couch. His head hung down with a thousand pounds of pain. I knew the weight. Constant. Gnawing. Consuming.

The nurses had told us we were keeping Liam from going on to Heaven. We had to let go, to let him know it was okay to cross out of the pain of his sickness and into the light. We had to let him know we would be okay if he went.

What a lie.

"You were stronger," Kevin sobbed. "I couldn't let go. I was a coward." He dropped his head even lower, tears rolling down his face. He had held Liam's hand to the end, begging him to stay. While I, who birthed him into this world, let go of his hand, telling him to run to the light and play with the angels.

"What kind of mother lets go?" I cried.

Before Kevin could answer, the doorbell rang. He slung the tears off his face, jumped up and opened the door.

A young boy smiled, holding a cardboard box. Beside him, a gruff looking farmer in overalls stood.

"Is this 156 Ivy Lane?" the boy asked as scratching emerged from the box.

"Yes," Kevin said, opening the door wider. "Come in."

I sat up, staring at box as it moved.

"We found this litter of kittens. The mom's dead," the boy said, dropping his head and shuffling his feet as he entered into the living room.

The man stepped forward. "Tom Swank here, and this is my boy, Jerry." He reached out and shook Kevin's hand before adding, "Looked like a coyote got her. She had a tag with this address wrapped around one of her legs. I was hoping she was yours."

I sat up staring at one of our tags like the one that was framed on Liam's portrait. Could it be? Could one of his balloons have somehow gotten tied around the momma cat? Trembling, I stood. 

"I'm sorry, the kittens are not ours," Kevin said.

"Wait," I shouted, rushing to the kittens before they could leave. "We'll take them."

"They have to be bottle-fed. I thought she was your cat or I wouldn't have bothered you," the dad said.

"I can do it. I used to stay up with Liam." I stopped, bracing myself.

The little boy reached into the box and pulled out a solid white kitten, handing it to me. "His name is Braveheart. He protected the other kittens."

Gently, I took the kitten and pressed him close to my chest. Closing my eyes, I sighed as he purred. It had been so long since I had felt another's heartbeat against my chest. Then, without warning, he wiggled out of my grip and fell to the floor.

"Oh no," I cried, afraid he was hurt.

Braveheart ran under the couch as the boy laughed and told me, "It's okay to let him go."

Sinking to my knees to look for him, for the first time in a year, I hummed the Barney song. As it ended, I whispered, "Thank you, Liam, for my present." and scooped up Braveheart. Perhaps tomorrow, I could make it through breakfast without breaking a dish, knowing it was okay to let go.


  1. this is absolutely brilliant. heartbreakingly sad. i do hope you´re not writing from experience. very nice and clever end.

    michael mccarthy

  2. Thank you for your kind words. Thankfully, it is fiction. I cannot even fathom the thought. :>

  3. Nicely done, Kelly. You've really captured the raw and neverending emotion of losing a child. But such an ending!
    And you're right (in your reply to Michael), I couldn't even fathom the thought, either.

  4. Nicely written and quite a gruelling read.


  5. Excellent job, Kelly. So sad and touching. I love the way you circled the end back to the beginning by mentioning the dishes. And when the boy laughed after she dropped the kitten, and his words...it just was perfect. :)


  6. Oh this made me tear up... so sad. Very touching.

  7. Thanks everyone. It was a tear jerker to write and I am very happy to see those emotions came through.

  8. Very touching, and probably happens more than we will ever know.

  9. beautiful story, very raw emotions. Well done.

  10. Yes, touching. The emotons do come out.

  11. Very well done without being too obvious.

  12. Lovely story, Kelly.

  13. A nuanced story told with a lightness of touch that enhances the seriousness of the subject. A brave exploration of the hinterlands of grief, and the infernal emotional logical/illogical forces that dominate that territory. Ending with the beautiful juxtaposition of apparently random events that finally allow for the possibility of a future to be grasped. Thank you.