Life’s Earthquakes

Author: Tiffany Intal

We’re used to experiencing small earthquakes here in California, but fear of “the big one” is always there. I’ve come to realize the death of a loved one is a lot like a devastating earthquake—you know it’s coming, but you don’t know when. Preparedness is the best defense when disaster strikes, so emergency survival kits are a must in earthquake country. And in a sense, I suppose, I emotionally prepared myself for death in the same way. I knew I would lose my parents and grandparents someday, so I had my own “emotional emergency survival kit” packed and put away for safe-keeping. You expect these sorts of losses to happen, because death is a part of life.

The first earthquake I experienced was the Loma Prieta earthquake on October 17, 1989. I was 7 years old when it rocked the San Francisco Bay Area. My sister and I were home alone when it happened, and the experience traumatized me. My mother was stuck in horrendous traffic, and it took several hours for her to get home to console us. I distinctly remember crying and panicking with each and every aftershock that struck for days after. Sure, I can shrug off tiny earthquakes now, but the ’89 earthquake taught me how important it is to have a plan when disaster strikes. In fact, I’ve gone over our family’s earthquake plans with John on numerous occasions because, frankly, preparedness gives me a sense of comfort.

I wasn’t prepared for Ethan’s death at all. I thought I was “safe” because, you know, babies aren’t supposed to die, right? So, I felt like I was 7 years old again when his passing shook my soul to the core. Although I had experienced the death of a loved one before, none were as intimately connected to me as my own child was. It was traumatizing that my first real encounter with death was also the least expected. John and I were 25 years old when Ethan died. We were babies ourselves—we hadn’t even lost a parent or a grandparent. I didn’t have an “emotional emergency survival kit” packed for my sweet baby’s passing. But then again, what parent does?

The Aftershocks of Grief

Ethan’s death was the equivalent of an earthquake with a magnitude so high that it wouldn’t even register on the Richter scale. Loma Prieta had nothing on what it felt like to watch Ethan die. The emotional pain more intense than anything you can imagine. And, I’ve come to learn that the aftershocks of grief are equally terrifying. I never know where or when my latent anguish will rock me again. I’ve been known to bawl when I hear certain songs at church. If something triggers my memory, my eyes sting as I fight back my tears. The “big quake” has come and gone, but the occasional rifts instill a heartache that words cannot begin to describe.

It’s been nearly three years since Ethan passed away, and I guess you could say it has resonated within me a lot like the Loma Prieta earthquake did. I’ve survived the worst, so now I can deal with death. I’m able to shrug off “smaller quakes.” When my maternal grandmother passed away a few months after Ethan did, I was sad, but my grief was nothing like it was with Ethan. In a sense, death is easier for me to deal with now because nothing—and I mean nothing—will ever compare to losing my son. I’ve been desensitized to death, and that is a little sad. But that doesn’t mean I’m not terrified of another “big one.” I don’t think I could survive losing another child, and I’ve become a more fearful parent because of this. And that is sad, too.

Sometimes I feel like a broken record—like I talk about my grief too much. But, to be honest, earthquakes will never go away, just like grief never will.

Read more about Tiffany's life at The Art of Lion Taming.