Living with Loss
It never goes away, but you survive.
Four years ago today, I lost my son to suicide.
I’ve written about the experience of child loss. I wish there was a better way to express this. My son was 30, so hardly a child. He was a child in relationship to me as a parent, so that’s technically correct. But it feels wrong to state it like that, somehow diminishing the status of the man he was.
Those early writings reflected the acute stage of loss, when it was so new, so fresh, it was staggering. It was all-consuming.
When it first happened, when we first learned our son was gone, I literally didn’t know what to do with my body. I could hardly stand, as if I didn’t have the strength to be upright. But as soon as I lay down, I couldn’t bear to be there either. It was a physical response to a reality I didn’t want to accept.
At first I was sure it was a horrible mistake. There was no warning, no clue that he was struggling to live. No sense that this could be a choice he would ever make.
Suicide was a reality we never imagined living with.
Those early weeks…when I remember, they’re both a blur and seem like something someone else experienced. I was a ghost walking through the days. I kept thinking that I was functioning, doing the things we needed to do. We broke the news to everyone. We packed up his apartment, sorted out what to keep, what to donate. We took care of the legal and financial pieces, met with his friends, co-workers, talked and shared and cried.
I realized later I was in a fog I couldn’t pierce. I remember sitting on a flight and trying to think what month it was. What month! I didn’t even know where I was in the year. This, from a woman who lives by her calendar. The days and nights blurred together in one long haze of disbelief and grief.
Several months later, we had a celebration of life for him in the mountains where we lived before he left home. We dedicated a bench, invited friends and family to come, had some of his favorite foods, shared photos, stories, tears, laughter. Several of us did a group blood donation in his name. We spread some of his ashes…just a few. To be honest, I couldn’t empty the box. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to do that. We made photos to mark the day, the bench, those who gathered. We had a bagpiper play. We only learned at the end of the ceremony that the bagpiper's son had died by suicide 20 years earlier. Somehow it seemed fitting, like bookends, parents whose paths crossed only because of the last acts of their sons.
I often feel like I need to call him to let him know something. Anything. What we’re doing, some piece of family news, something funny that’s crossed my life. In my heart he’s still here, still needs to be in the loop, belonging in our circle. I imagine him looking down, seeing everything going on, knowing what’s happening in the world, to his family, to his friends. I can’t decide…is he sorry to be missing from the scene? Or is he at peace? Is he relieved to be done with this life? Does he miss us? Does he hear us?
It’s still all-consuming. But it’s also different. Living with his absence now is like living with a filter, an all-encompassing filter that colors everything I see. Sometimes the overlay is negative…the sadness, the missing. Sometimes it’s positive. Often I can focus on the joys of his life, the gift he gave to those around him. But dark or light, the filter is always there, and I’m always aware that it’s there. And I don’t think it can ever be different.
From the moment I had children, they filled my life. Why would that be different now just because one of them is no longer physically present? I don’t know where he is. But I know that he is. Somewhere. I’m not sure what lies beyond this world in terms that make sense to my human self. But humans are such grand beings: I can’t believe there’s nothing more. Somehow, somewhere, he’s out there, beyond. And I rest in that belief.
Living with the loss of my son, one of the two people I birthed, takes me down paths no one else can see. I hear a song that he liked, or hear a reference to something he talked about. I see a movie title, and it’s one we saw together a few years ago. Every touch-point that reminds me of him catches me a little off guard and I have to pause for a moment and acknowledge, to myself, maybe to anyone with me, a memory just brushed my heart.
They’re not all poignant. Often the connections to his life are funny, or sweet, or inspiring. The sadness wells up unexpectedly though, sometimes over something that wasn’t the least bit sad at the time he said it, or did it, or shared it.
But memories are fluid in their capacity to pierce your heart.
You never know what will tug at you, fiercely, when just a moment before you were composed, going about the business of life, just being yourself.
As the mother of someone lost prematurely to this world it’s easy to be consumed by the loss. It’s easy to focus on what’s gone. No new photos of him. No more holidays, birthdays, vacations together. He had no children. No watching him develop and grow older, maturing, changing, growing into the person I sometimes glimpsed.
He was a gift and a joy and one of those people who filled the room. He was fun and funny, kind and generous. He was also opinionated, stubborn, and confident, and he always had a plan.
He wasn’t perfect. But death, especially untimely death, has a way of minimizing faults and emphasizing the positives. At least that’s what it does for me. As the mother of a son who’s not here to grow a legacy, that’s what I want to do for him. I want to be sure he’s remembered, and remembered well.
I want people to know he loved a good joke, an Irish pub, a deep conversation, a challenging mind game, that he was kind. I want people to know he loved to buy girl scout cookies to give away, he donated blood as often as he could, and he had his friends’ backs. He had a mind like a steel trap, an almost photographic memory, and a sharp and sarcastic sense of humor. He was a gamer and fiercely competitive and stubborn. So stubborn. He had a smile that would melt your heart and a laugh that was infectious.
My son was so much more than a statistic of early and self-inflicted death. But when suicide ends a life, that fact stands above all else. Of course we keep counts of death in any form: accidents, disease, violence, wars. Stillbirth and SIDS. But none of the others carries the same stigma.
No one, not one person, has ever said anything unkind to me about my son’s death. I know this is probably a rarity. Most people who have lost someone to suicide often deal with thoughtless comments, at a minimum, and many report feeling shunned, abandoned, or somehow isolated, as though suicide is something that might rub off on others…death by association, so to speak.
But still, when people who don’t know our story asked me how he died, I can tell, they don’t know what to say. Suicide casts a long shadow.
In my thoughts, I can never escape the questions that come, even if there are no answers, and can’t be, since the person with the answers is no longer here. The questions form, a conversation that’s never finished, one-sided, and varies from self-blame to merely wondering why. He left a note, we know some of what he was thinking in the moment. But I don’t know when he began to consider suicide as an option, what struggles compounded to overwhelm his spirit. What could we have done to make our son more resilient? What did we miss? The mystery to me is that he seemed supremely confident, self-reliant. He never seemed to waver or falter. We talked often and widely. He seemed so focused, so sure of himself.
Or maybe he just didn’t want to worry us with his doubts.
Clearly, he didn’t share everything he was thinking. I don’t fault him for that. What adult shares everything with anyone else? Don’t we all have words that we don’t say out loud? As much as I wish he had asked for help, let his family or friends know the edge he was standing on, he didn’t. And that was his choice to make. He was an autonomous adult, living independently, working, making a life.
Accepting that doesn’t stop the questions. It doesn’t stop me looking back, wondering, again, always. It doesn’t stop the sadness that we couldn’t save him.
It doesn’t stop the missing.
I’ve realized, unbelievable as it seemed in the beginning, life goes on. Of course it does. I’ve heard of people dying from broken hearts, but I don’t think it happens often. I think the broken-hearted just continue, and it’s up to us to find our way through the fog.
This is what I’ve experienced: grief and life cohabitate. I hold a space for my son in my heart every day; at some level, every moment. At the same time, I’m living in the present with my husband, daughter, other family, friends, work…everyone and everything else in my life. I’ve chosen not to wall off from life, as if that would bring my son back or heal the wound his death left. Nothing changes that, and ghosting myself would be another blow to our family.
So here we are, the fourth year since our lives were changed forever. We survive. And today, that’s all I can be. A survivor.