Recently, someone asked me how grieving my son is different now (four and a half years later) than it was during the first year he was gone. Those first months I could barely feel my way through the dark, dark endless abyss of pointlessness. I could not have cared less if my life continued one more day. My life felt shattered. My reason for being: gone.
And it felt as if that feeling would never, ever, ever end.
It’s not that the sadness goes away or that you finally stop missing your baby. It’s not that you don’t still have moments of regret and “what ifs”. All of that is still there, but somehow it is not AS paralyzing, not AS numbing, not AS devastating in that Oh-dear-God-please-put-me-out-of-my-misery way. I promise.
Initially, if it hadn’t been for friends and family who held me up (literally and figuratively), I wouldn’t have made it. During the first month, I barely had a moment to myself. And believe me, I pushed people away. Hard. A few stuck with me, persisted, didn’t take “no” for an answer. Thank goodness for them (although, at the time I just wanted everyone to leave me the fuck alone).
My therapist suggested a grief support group. They’re not for everyone, and not every support group will be a good fit for you and your circumstances. I attended two different groups. The first was for parents whose children had died, many of them from physical illnesses or accidents, none from suicide. I stopped going to that group. My circumstances felt too different; I felt like the weirdo parent because my child had actually chosen death. The second group was specifically for parents who had lost their children to suicide. I attended weekly for six months. I strongly encourage grieving parents to at least try the support group route, and if it doesn’t feel right the first time you go, wait a few months and go back. Being in the safely held company of other mourners can be very comforting.
The best kind of help for me came from those who could listen to me in complete silence. Besides my therapist, there were probably only two friends who were able to be there for me in that way: no words of comfort or advice or how to-s. If all I could muster up during our time together was sobbing, and they could be with that without attempting to make me feel better or change me in some way, this gave me permission to feel whatever I needed to feel.
I learned it’s not about getting over the feelings, or even getting through them; it’s about being with them. Knowing that at any given moment I was doing what I could, even if all I could manage was to breathe. You will have days when breathing will be a lot. Be grateful for the body’s immense wisdom in keeping the breathing going, even when all you want is to die.
Grief will not kill you…even when you so desperately want it to. It starts out as a monstrous, overwhelming feeling that seems infinite. It doesn’t remain that powerful. Time chips away at it; love from others begins to transform it; your own inner wisdom is able to shush it down to a quiet roar and then to background noise and then to an intermittent beep. Never silent, though, never completely silent. Memories can be noisy.
So I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote about every memory. Granted, writing is not for everyone, but finding an outlet – any outlet – to express my raw experience was critical to processing my grief. And although I refer to it as a “healing process”, I don’t know that anyone ever truly feels “healed.” Living just becomes more tolerable. Each year that passes is a little bit more tolerable than the last. It will not always be this bad. One day you will find yourself engaged in life again, smelling the roses, noticing the things that matter. The shift is almost imperceptible. Pay attention.
Getting busy is another coping mechanism. I did that, to some extent. I traveled across the country during months 4 and 5, visiting friends and family, reminiscing about my son, telling his story, our story over and over, taking in the love, and sharing my grief. It was important to me to be seen and heard and held by others, to know that I wasn’t in it by myself, and that my son’s life might be remembered by someone other than his mother.
Getting busy can be a trap, though. It can be a way to put your feelings on hold. Granted, sometimes that’s exactly what’s needed. But trust me; whatever is stored away is going to come flying off the shelves at some point, and will knock you on your ass. So beware when it comes to stifling or suppressing those unbearable emotions.
Instead of turning away from all the feelings, I aimed myself right into them. I wanted to get on with all those stages of grief. Not rush through them, but really have them, live them. I figured once I’d been through one stage, I could check it off my list and get on with the next one. They may be called “stages” of grief, but they are not lived in a linear way (step one: shock, step two: denial, and so on). For instance, just because I’d already been angry as hell, didn’t mean I was done with being angry and wouldn’t feel angry again. Ha! If Only! No, the stages come and go in no particular order, and come back when they damn well please. There’s no knowing how the journey’s going to unfold, no packing smartly for it, no predictable schedule. I’m along for the ride, and grief is in the driver’s seat with lousy navigation skills.
I allowed that first year, and probably quite a bit of the second, to be about taking care of me. Whatever that meant, whatever that looked like. If it meant I needed to scream and rage in my bedroom for 30 minutes, then that’s what I did. If there were others in the house, I screamed into a pillow. If I was at work, I took a break, got into my car and had my mini-breakdown right there. I was unapologetic about it. Most people understood. I can’t speak for them, but I imagine they were just grateful not to be in my shoes.
You may believe that with the death of your child, you have lost all reason to live, or that happiness is never again going to be a part of your emotional repertoire. It will be. You may not be willing to contemplate this right now. That’s OK. It will probably sneak up on you. One day you’ll be watching late night TV or chatting with a dear friend, and you’ll have yourself a hearty, uncensored laugh. You may be horrified by this, and feel guilty about it (“My child is dead; how dare I feel any joy?”). I’m here to tell you: It’s OK. Your baby wants this for you…more than anything. Be on the lookout for this moment. When it comes, rather than beating yourself up for it, relish it.
This confrontation with death will put a lot of things into perspective. Things that once seemed really important are now the stupidest bullshit. You’re not going to sweat the small stuff because, compared to what you’ve been through, everything else is a cakewalk. You will no longer have patience for idiots; you will no longer tolerate people wasting their gifts and their time, because you know – in a very visceral way – how precious each moment is.
Although it seems very wrong, the young die too. Freakish accidents happen. Illness doesn’t consider a child’s age; it’s just looking for a host, a body where it can flourish. Evil and sick people do unthinkable things, even to our young. Mental illness grabs hold of very young minds and can result in suicide. Our young die. It’s not the way it’s supposed to happen. No mother gives birth imagining her child’s funeral; we imagine our children by our side when our time comes. But “supposed to” is not reality. The reality is: your child is dead and you are not. And it’s no one else’s job (not even your partner’s, not even your parents’) to decide what you are going to do and how you are going to be with that.
These days, I choose living, but that first year (which was a bit of a blur) I was barely aware, barely paying attention to anything but my own sorrow, and certainly not making any conscious choices! It took a whole first year of abominable pain. It took a whole second year of noticing the months slowly shifting from heinous, to hideous, to harrowing, to horrible. “Horrible” was an improvement. It took a third year of beginning to address that damn question of “now what?” There were many false starts. It took a fourth year of baby steps back to the world of the living. In this almost fifth year, I realize that aiming for a return to “normal” is ridiculous; I’ve settled for what I call a “new normal.”
This is not the life I expected to be living at the age of 56. My son would be turning 25 this year. He would be a college graduate, embarked on a career, possibly in a relationship with someone willing to marry him and have his children, my grandchildren. None of that is going to happen. Does it hurt my heart when friends talk about or share photos of their children or grandbabies? You betcha. Do I go home and have myself a good cry? For sure. Does the anger at my son for ending his life resurface? Of course. Do I begrudge my friends the happiness their children continue to bring into their lives? If you must know: yes, a little.
I know now (although I didn’t at first) that everything – including the worst pain ever – is temporary. When an intense surge of emotion surfaces, think of it as a rogue wave that can’t be avoided. It will be a crazy, wild, uncontrollable ride. You will feel un-tethered, flailing and fighting for breath. You will most likely wipe out and get thrashed by the force of that wave (emotion), but the Universe will always deliver you to shore, depositing you on solid ground. Stand up. Congratulate yourself for surviving that one. There will be other waves of emotional intensity, and you will – out of necessity – become an expert surfer.
The alternative, after all, is to drown, which might be tempting as you begin this grieving journey. I know this temptation well. My son took his own life. He was my only child. I wanted nothing more than to be with him again, even if it meant being dead myself. All I can tell you, almost five years later, is I’m glad I did not pursue that impulse. At the time of those feelings and thoughts, I could not imagine a tomorrow that looks like today. So wait. Wait for your future “today.” It is waiting for you.
On Tuesday, June 1, 2010, at 2:36 p.m., when I learned of my son’s death, I became “The Lady Whose Kid Killed Himself.” I will always, till the day I die, be that lady. In spite of this, I can confidently say I am not the same person I was on that dreadful, nightmare of a day. I have come a long way in a little over four years. There’s no secret to getting here; it’s one breath and then another, one step and then another, one day and then another.
I recently attended a birthday celebration for one of my sisters. She told me her friends noticed how I’d changed since they saw me less than two years ago: that I seemed “lighter”, as if I were carrying the burden of my son’s death – not with more ease, but with more grace. There are enormous lessons that come with this kind of suffering. I encourage you to be open to this learning. It won’t bring your child back, it won’t undo the pain, but it will make still being here, without your beloved baby, seem a little less pointless.
Tell your story. Tell your child’s story, over and over to whoever will listen. You never know whom it might affect or help. And in helping others, I swear to you, you will be healing another little part of your ravaged heart. Say your child’s name, out loud for all to hear. Because, even though it may be only wishful thinking on my part, every time I say or even think his name, my son, my Julian, lives on.