On June 10, 2018 when a pair of cops walked up my sidewalk, an avalanche swept me off my feet. I had no choice but to be falling down the side of this mountain. Here I am still tumbling, twisting, falling; waiting for the end. As I am thrown about like a rag-doll, I am told I am strong and brave.
I really dislike being characterized strong or brave. Like many survivors of child suicides, I believe I am neither.
People seem to think we want to hear how strong, brave, courageous, happy we are. To help the public so they might help someone later, I have some insights. Remember, these are my insights from experience and talking with others. Also, to some extent these can apply to other child loss and possibly other losses. Your milage may vary.
My experience comes from two miscarriages and a suicide. The first, an early term miscarriage, differs from the second, a later term miscarriage. Both were hard though the second was the worst thing I could imagine until my son died by suicide. Losing my 21-year-old to suicide is unimaginably more difficult for me to handle. After our miscarriages, a friend’s son died by suicide. I tried to help, but it quickly became apparent I had no clue what they were experiencing. It was only after my son left did I have any idea. It is not possible to imagine even a glimpse into this reality until you are here. This does not mean I want you to run away. Your absence is not just noticed. It is adding to the grief. We long for stability, unconditional love, and we want our grief heard. I hope this encourages you to help your bereaved loved ones armed with knowledge.
First, and foremost, please do not try to comfort or fix it with platitudes. Trying to get us “back into life” or even saying “It’ll get better” is disingenuous or naïve. If you add the words time or heal, it is ten times worse. We accept, or are coming to accept, our life without our child. Our society thinks they should ask “How are you?” when a simple “Hi” would be just as good. If you want to ask this, be deeply invested in the relationship, look the person in the eye, genuinely ask, and prepare for the 20 minute version. Yes, I allow long-term survivors to talk about ways life gets better because they have been here and their meaning of the words differ completely from someone who has not lived it. Time allows us to move past rawness. With time we learn how to manage the crippling emotional breakdowns so we can give the appearance of normalcy. I know I will never get over losing my three kids. We need your support but you need to accept our brokenness.
A huge second is please do not avoid talking about our children, especially if you knew them. Some avoid the awkwardness and some to keep from their own pain. Some avoid to keep from reminding us. Really, every surviving parent thinks about their child many, many times a day. You cannot add to the reminders. Also, we are in pain most of the time. Talking about Caleb is one of the few pleasures I have. Don’t you want to talk about your children? You may not realize it but your excuses for not talking is just selfishness. You can talk about our kids if you are wondering what to say, or if you want to say “How are you”, or if you are thinking “Why are they not better?” If you do not want to talk about them, talk about something else. Do you think we do not notice when you consistently avoid conversations? If you do not know what to say, you can still talk to us. Thinking your words will impart wisdom is the problem. Noone knows what to say, and it is okay. We value you and your presence. We value our time together. Maybe you can lead with “Hi! It is so good to see you.”
We are constantly struggling with happiness. Even at our best we have a constant duality within us. Most things which make us smile also have an associated aspect reminding us of our child. Pain taints most moments of joy. When we laugh at something we can instantly feel regret. “How do I dare laugh?” we ask ourselves. We took a cruise this Christmas to get away from everything and everyone. It did not help. The last time we took a cruise Caleb was there. Every little aspect of the ship and excursions reminded me of him. Sure I enjoyed the cruise, but it is a bitter-sweet experience, like most things now. Every parent survivor counts days (268). Everyone has an empty chair, real or imagined, at the holidays. It does not matter have much time has passed, our child should be with us on holidays. Holidays are therefore extremely difficult for surviving parents. The last time I saw Caleb alive was the weekend of my birthday. Those memories are forever burned into this holiday.
At our ugliest, most people would be uncomfortable to be around us. I do not know the way many parents react but from those I have talked to, my experience is not extreme. Emotional breakdowns are not binary. The persistent yelling within my spirit eventually pours over. At some point I may end up on the floor yowling a wail so guttural it scares me. If I tried to describe ripping my insides out while flailing in the worst hell I could conjure it would not convey the entirety of pain. The yell is so deep and long I wonder if I can take another breath. Once I am spent, the emptiness is more void than the deepest abyss or darkest part of space. You then feel yourself slipping into this void; a pervasive cold, evil dread enveloping. You see shadows of your life walking by and you try to muster a smile and hold on until it repeats. Lately it is more holding on, exhausted with a tiredness which sleep does not cure, and the yowling is a constant yell from within. The emotional breakdowns are less often now but just as bad.
We avoid places where people are present. Eventually someone has to go to the store because we need food. We pray we do not see someone we know. Sometimes you see one who has not seen you since learning of the loss. Even worse is when they do not know and say something awkward. Group settings are the hardest. We have to have an exit plan. We have to navigate around those wanting to avoid conversation. We have to know of those seeking inappropriate information. It is best practice to jump from a safe harbour to the next if possible. We have to know at any moment we can leave. Nothing ruins a party like uncontrolled sobbing.
We need certain dates off. We need more grace on other notable days. For most it is the anniversary of the death and their birthday at a minimum. I know I am in a funk every month around the 9th & 10th. Christmas is hard since we were always together. His birthday is harder since it is a day next to my daughter’s birthday and, unfortunately for my supporters, way too many just-because days. Days off does not mean we do not want friends around. It means open grace for whatever we need. Some days I do not want to leave my chair. Often on hard days I do not want to go anywhere but I need support.
Supporting a grieving friend means you take action. This one is a hard one and we know it. I am sorry. It just is the way it is. If your friend feels distant, it is your job to check on them. Do not expect them to call you. Do not expect them to ask for something. Do not expect them to say anything they need. Do not ask your friend what they need. If you want to do something and do not know if they want you to, ask if you can do it. When one is having a bad day and grief is over-whelming, we do not ask for help. I have had offers of help during early grief and some I accepted and some I did not but all offers were so very appreciated.
I should not have to say but since I have seen it, I must address. I am annoyed when people bemoan how little they get to see their children or grandchildren and incensed when people complain about “having” to spend time with their child. The latter really boils me. Noone should be upset with spending time with their child. If your kids do bother you, I am the last person to show you sympathy.
Grief is not linear. The phases of grief which so many people reference is a feeble attempt at helping to describe it. The author later regretted writing the book. We can look like everything is okay while inside we are crumbling. We can be functional and by the afternoon be a wreck. There is no progression. Over time, the fluctuations may subside but we could have a bad day anytime. If you want to be in our life, you will need to learn to accept this unpredictability. We know the points mentioned are difficult. We know we are difficult. You can choose to leave. We will not like it but we will survive.