Instructions For A Tragedy

NOTE #1: Today marks the 8-year anniversary of Julian’s death. He was 20. This story is dedicated to him, and everyone he left behind.

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This is how you grieve the suicide of your son.

You start with the basic recipe: Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief. Combine, stir, shake them up, repeat all of them more than once in no particular order, and add a few stages of your own. Feel free to improvise. Eventually you will see there is no getting over or getting through; there is only being with. But don’t beat yourself up if you don’t master this concept right away. It takes practice.

The first stage of grief is typically denial. It comes disguised as the word “no.” A thousand “no”s; a million “no”s, as if two little letters could possibly shield you from reality. Submit. Allow gravity to do its thing. You will fall to your knees or into a seated slump. Perhaps it will be the plush Berber carpet in your bedroom that cushions your descent, or the lawn in the backyard. Maybe you’ll land on the hardwood floor of your kitchen, where you’ve answered the mid-afternoon, life-altering phone call from your son’s father.

“He’s gone.”

“What do you mean, ‘gone’?”

“He’s dead. Our son is dead.”

Be grateful for the hard surface beneath you that prevents your body from slipping between the softer molecules of the earth, settling perhaps six feet under. You may think you want to pass through to the Underworld where you’d be permitted to lie, side-by-side with your dead child. But he is not in an identifiable location. GPS can no longer track him. His essence, the part of him that matters, is somewhere beyond the reach of our technology.

His life flashes before my eyes. He’s twenty years old. As mothers must, I’m slowly letting go of the boy and getting to know the man he is becoming. I treat him to lunch at Romano’s Macaroni Grill off of Interstate 880 in Milpitas. He orders lobster ravioli. He loves his pasta. When I drop him off at his apartment, and am turning my Prius around in the too-tight parking lot, he is already running up the stairs, two steps at a time. He stops at the landing and waves. I blow him a kiss and call out, “¡Adiós m’ijo!” This is just the beginning of goodbye. 

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This is how you handle the shock of his misguided choice to end the life you worked so hard to give him. Let it drain you of your words. Allow your world to get very, very quiet. Perhaps you will hear the swoosh of his Spirit landing beside you. Of course he still wants to be near you. You will forever be his Mama. There are some things even death cannot undo.

After the stunned silence, the shock will pry your throat open into the shape of a scream, a sound unfamiliar to you, a sound from some part of you that has never been given a voice, a sound you weren’t even aware human biology could call forth. My advice: let ‘er rip!

His life flashes before my eyes. He’s nineteen. It’s Christmas Eve morning in a pale peach, semi-private room on the third floor of John Muir Hospital. I haven’t seen the totaled car yet, but I’m informed they had to saw the roof off to extricate my son. I ask him gingerly, without judgment or accusation, “Honey, were you trying to kill yourself?” If he was, his treatment plan will need to involve closer monitoring. He honestly has no recollection of the previous evening. The concussion protects him from reliving the horror and pain of losing control of his father’s Honda Civic, running up an embankment, rolling and landing on the passenger side. The paramedics, the police, the orthopedist, the neurologist, the psychiatrist all tell us it’s a miracle he’s alive. “But for how long?” I wonder to myself, not really wanting to know the answer. 

This is how you negotiate the anger, because yes, there will be anger. Call him an ungrateful, mother-fucking son-of-a-bitch. The irony of this is not lost on you – you, being the mother who’s fucked; him being the son of a bitch. When those particular words lose their sting, turn the vitriol up a notch; summon names that are even more vile. You have it in you. After all, you were the parent with the mouth of a truck driver, the one who taught him to curse in three languages. Scream your entire repertoire of expletives, preferably into a pillow so as not to alarm the neighbors.

Beat the living crap out of that pillow. Flail your arms. Break into a sweat. Do not be surprised by the rage. Do not be confounded by the fact that you want to kill him. Anger does not emanate from a lack of love. You don’t get angry when you don’t give a shit. And oh, dear Goddess, you have never given more of a shit.

Anger asks, “How could he?” And repeats the question over and over. Anger demands to know, “Why would he rip himself from everyone who loved him?” Especially you, The Mother, who carried him and birthed him and offered him the opportunity to get it right this time around, karma-wise. Now, while the fury is fresh, settle in for some self-righteous indignation.

You can be compassionate and forgiving later. For now, the anger will come in handy; it will propel you out of bed in the morning, to brush your teeth and drag a comb through your hair. It will provoke you to do things, rather than be a curled-up ball hidden under the mountain of blankets on your bed. Anger may be what keeps you tethered to this life. Do not dismiss or underestimate its healing power.

His life flashes before my eyes. He’s only eighteen. I visit him in the Santa Clara jail. His wavy locks are greasy. He nervously pulls at the three hairs on his chin. He’s been taller than me for several years, but here he seems so small. I don’t know how much longer he’s going to be locked up. There’s been an altercation with his girlfriend. Her father has insisted that my son be charged with domestic violence. There is no evidence of injuries; it’s a “he said / she said” situation. The mother in me wants to believe my son’s story; the feminist in me is appalled my son might have hit and harmed a girl. The collateral damage of this legal nightmare is an impossible emotional burden for him to bear. Grown men have been pulled under by far less. 

This is how you bargain with whomever, or whatever is in charge. You offer your own precious life. You walk right up to an altar, splay yourself on it and say, “Take me.” And you mean it. You’re in the big leagues now. His life for yours. You’re just waiting for a sign.

Bargaining will make you feel as if you are in control, as if you have a say. You don’t, but enjoy the false sense of power while it lasts. Bargaining is pointless of course, because death, once it has occurred, is brutally non-negotiable. Still, the impulse to offer your own life in exchange is sincere. As much as you may want to throw in the towel today, this impulse will gradually lose its traction. You might as well stick around.

His life flashes before my eyes. He’s seventeen and a college freshman. We are in an emergency room. Again. The call comes in the middle of the night. Again. He needs stitches. Again. Twenty this time, along his inner thigh, where he took a razor and slid it up his leg. I know the stitches will hold his flesh together, but what, sweet Jesus, is going to keep his life from splitting apart? I admit to myself that suicide is a possible outcome for this fragile human I created. And with my own history of depression, I wonder whether his frazzled cerebral wiring is my doing too? I make a mental note: “Brace yourself.” 

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This is how you manage all the crying. The tears will come for no reason at all. Don’t waste one iota of energy holding them back. Allow the sorrow of this loss to crash through the dams that are your eyelids. Know there are epic floods lying in wait. The tears will come whenever you speak of him, or hear about him, or merely have a thought of him in the quiet privacy of your own head. The tears will come when you pick up the phone to share some news or joke or gossip with him, only to remember there is no longer anyone at the end of that line. The tears will come when you can’t figure out the latest technology or when you realize you have no clue what music the young people are listening to now.

The tears will not wash anything away, but allowing them to flow is less exhausting than fighting them. No one will blame you for suddenly crying in the frozen food aisle of Trader Joe’s. Someone may run to your side, and try to comfort you. Don’t fall for this trap. They’re doing it because they want to feel better. And honey, right now, it isn’t about them.

His life flashes before my eyes. He’s already thirteen, and still eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every single day for lunch. I have to trick him into eating vegetables. Ants on a log: peanut butter on celery stalks sprinkled with raisins. He asks me why moms are always trying to get their kids to eat “green food.” He was born at the tail end of the processed food generation, before people became manic about organic. He can’t get enough of those dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, even if there is very little about them that has anything to do with chicken. I wonder if he’ll ever acquire a taste for foods like arugula or brussel sprouts. 

This is how you eat when you are grieving. You don’t. You starve yourself. Eating doesn’t matter. What’s the point? Alternatively, you will gorge. It will be one extreme or the other. You will either lose complete interest in sustenance, or you will want to stuff all your feelings with every diabetes-inducing comfort food ever known to man, down, down, down where those pesky emotions can’t ever be felt. You will either finally fit into those size 10 jeans you’ve been keeping at the bottom of a drawer since the late 1980s, or you will have to go out and buy a muumuu.

His life flashes before my eyes. He’s an innocent eleven-year old. I see the pained expression on his face after his father and I tell him I am moving out. I notice the way none of us says the word “divorce.” I catch the disappointment and then disgust that flash from my boy’s eyes. I can already tell I’ve broken him, and that he will spend years talking to therapists. 

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This is how you welcome in the sorrow, grief, and depression. You won’t know one from the other when you greet them at your door. They all look the same: one miserable band of brothers. Sorrow settles in first. It won’t stop crying. Eventually, it will go take a nap in the master bedroom, burrowed under all the guests’ coats. Grief will take sorrow’s place as the reality of what you’ve lost settles in for a longer visit. Grief is quieter and a little more dignified, but will still need lots of Kleenex. Depression will seriously overstay its welcome and ruin the party for everyone. It will be the last guest to leave. At the height of the party, sorrow and grief will be content at the open bar; depression will want to start mixing the drinks. It wants to be in charge. Depression is the one that will turn on you after a few too many vodka martinis. It will put its arms around you as if to offer a comforting hug, but will sneak its hands to the sides of your throat and squeeze until your eyes roll back in your head. Arrange for depression to get a ride home; the sooner, the better.

His life flashes before my eyes. He’s a happy-go-lucky five-year old. I watch him through our kitchen window. He is skipping back from his buddy’s house at the other end of the street. Skipping! I wonder, “At what point does skipping stop? At what age does one’s inner joy get squelched?” Not at five. Surely, not at five.

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This is how you wrestle with your guilt. Do not expect this to be a short, single round. The fight will continue long after the voyeuristic crowd has grown weary of the sight of you being pummeled to a pulp. The guilt will act as if the fight is fixed, as if it knows you’re going to lose. If you think you’ve battled demons before, just know your previous opponents were lightweights. Guilt is an experienced, professional heavyweight champion. The good news: guilt is not interested in a flashy knockout. The bad news? It wants you in the ring for the long, bloody haul. People will assure you it’s not your fault. “You did everything you could!” they kindly offer. But you had one job: to keep your young from harm. And you failed. You are The Mother and this child died on your watch.

His life flashes before my eyes. He’s barely three. He’s sitting on his newly assembled tricycle, feet on the pedals, one hand nonchalantly on the handlebars. He’s wearing one of those exorbitantly priced Gymboree t-shirts, and royal-blue-rimmed sunglasses, the shape of his father’s Ray Bans. I’m biased, but damn, he is the coolest toddler dude in the park.

This is how you cope with the relief. It will surprise you. You will want to wiggle and wriggle your way from it. You will wonder what kind of monster you must be to have such a thought or feeling. Just remind yourself: you are not relieved your child is dead. Of course not; that would, indeed, make you a monster. No, you’re relieved he’s no longer suffering. It’s that simple; it’s that generous. When relief happens, don’t push it away. Relief is a little taste of peace.

His life flashes before my eyes. I see our beginning as if it were today, the moment his gooey body, still umbilically attached to me, is delivered onto my sweat-drenched chest after thirty-six hours of labor. I beg, in my half-conscious state of exhaustion, “Can someone please take him from me?”Is it possible I sealed our fate with this request?

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This is how you begin to forgive yourself. Because you must. Because the dead child, the one who chose his own exit, could not possibly want you to continue on this road of self-punishment. He expected the end of his life to end the pain. His pain, certainly. He probably could not foresee the world of hurt that bottle of pills would deliver to friends, to family, to you.

No doubt he wishes he could somehow soften the blow, but he knows that’s your work. Joy is an inside job. Aren’t you the one who taught him that? “You have to choose happiness every day,” you droned over and over. He groaned in agony then, but he gets it now.

This is how you move on, not beyond grief, but hand in hand with it…

You surrender and accept what is. This is not giving up. This is waking up. Death is finite. All the wishing, praying, candle-lighting and séances are not going to bring him back into this plane of existence. Would you prefer to struggle against that reality for the rest of your days? Denial is pointless. Resistance is futile. Why would you choose such a grueling journey? Haven’t you been through enough?

You submit to all the feelings. Fully. No matter what shows up, you dive in and swim all the way to the deep end. Just remember to come up for air. Breathing: it does a body good.

You forgive. You start with him; you end with yourself. You do so whole-heartedly. You are generous. Both your souls deserve some peace.

You start looking forward. There is nothing behind you but memories. Don’t worry; they’re not going anywhere. His life will continue to flash before your eyes, until the day comes when yours does.

You face each day as if it could be your last, because it could be. You don’t drag your ass. You don’t use his death as an excuse to settle for a meager existence that barely has a pulse. You live what is left of your time here with all the gusto you can muster, because no matter when it ends or how it ends… it does end. You know this now, better than most.

Claim tragedy’s lessons. There are many.

Step into your wisdom. It is vast.

And choose happiness every day.

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NOTE #2:  Earlier this year I was published for the first time ever. An earlier version of this story appeared in “A Wiggle And A Prayer: True Stories from the Berkeley Public Library Memoir Writers,” edited by Frances Lefkowitz (Paper In My Shoe Press, 2017).

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17 comments

    1. Thank you Carol for “stopping by”. Words may be inadequate, but they’re what we have – they’re certainly what I have – and hopefully my experience and my words will touch and help others. I appreciate your kindness.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Such a beautiful piece, Celenia. It took me three days to finally sit down to read this. I have found that sometimes reading other parents stories of loss triggers my own loss, but sometimes it will bring you comfort, solidarity, and the feeling that I am not alone in this life-long grief of the death of my son. Thank you. It was so good to “hear” your voice again.

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    1. Yes, Sharon, I admit that my work can be triggering, and I SO appreciate your willingness to step into your own loss as you read about mine. AND you are spot-on about other people’s losses having the capacity to deliver comfort, solidarity and a cracking open of that isolation that can be so damaging (on top of all the damage we’ve already shouldered). Thank you for your beautiful feedback; it was good to hear from you as well.

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  2. Dearest Celenia, I love seeing the photos with this story. I have read, and reread, the piece several times. Like others, it’s a trigger for me, but beautiful at the same time. Sending love, and warmth.

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