Today marks the three year anniversary of my son’s death. These past three years were filled with over-whelming grief, much of it detailed in this blog. But they also held the seeds of eventual healing. Recently I began another effort; a website called The Grieving Path. It is intended as a place to begin the hardest journey a parent will take, that of grieving the loss of their child. If you have suffered the loss of a child, please visit http://grievingpath.com
Today is December 7th. 2010. Mason died one year ago today. We’ve reached the first anniversary of losing one of our own, one of our children. There are names given to people left behind after a death. A wife who loses her husband is called a widow. A husband who loses his wife is called a widower. A child who loses his parents is called an orphan. But there’s no word for a parent who loses a child. We all experience loss during our lifetime, no one is spared. The loss you can reasonably anticipate, like the death of an aged parent, though heart-breaking, is at least within the realm of what most of us would consider to be the natural order of life. A parents’ death severs a life-long connection to the person who first gave you unconditional love, the person who created a refuge where innocence could unfold into wisdom, the person who gave you legs to stand on and wings to fly. I thought my heart would break when my parents passed. But parents die before their children. You always knew it would be so.
It is said that when a parent dies you lose your past, but when a child dies, you lose your future. I think this is especially true when a baby or young child passes. With the death of a young adult, the grieving is more for the future they have lost, a future being fully realized as you watch nearby, sometimes in amazement, sometimes in amusement. The absence of Mason’s physical presence in our lives is palpable. But on occasion I am fortunate enough to sense him, nearby, only a breath away. In trying to understand why life that is so lovingly given to each of us, is at times so cruelly taken away, I asked questions that cannot be answered, not in this lifetime. When I stopped asking and started listening, I began to see. It’s not about finding answers, it’s about having faith, faith in the Divine. Faith comes first, then understanding and hope follow. Even so, a year later, we still struggle to accept that when the phone rings, Mason won’t be on the other end, or when a car pulls up in front of the house, Mason won’t be getting out. Mason won’t be sharing his wit, his wisdom, his enthusiasm, his energy or his light. Or will he? My resolve is to take a leap of faith, believing without benefit of proof and learning to see with my soul and listen with my heart. So, I talk to Mason and he hears, I smile at Mason and he sees, I believe in Mason and he knows. He’s always been gifted.
“Faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe. It is not enough that a thing be possible for it to be believed.” – Voltaire
If you are reading this and have lost a child, the first thing you should know is how truly sorry I am for you. The second thing you should know is that you are not alone. And the third thing you already know is that the first two things are probably of little comfort right now. I know, because I too have lost a child. It is my hope that something I’ve learned along the way can be of help, however small. The process of grieving is a long one, but I can offer you hope and healing one day. If you have been spared this loss and find yourself on this site because of a personal relationship with Mason, you may want to skip ahead to the next entry which begins at the end of his life, moves on to remember an ever-evolving, truly unique soul and eventually ends with the beginning of hope.
There are no shortcuts on the path to healing. I still walk that path, maybe slightly ahead of you or maybe slightly behind you. Even so, I can’t say that I know how you feel, because every experience is as unique as the life that was lost and the family left behind to mourn. Let your family, friends and faith accompany you on this journey, understanding that grief has to be experienced. It is not optional. We must be willing to walk through our grief, knowing one day we will walk beyond it. Our loss will accompany us the rest of our days, but at some point during the process of grieving, our perspective will evolve bringing with it the ability to integrate the memories of our child’s life less structured around grief and more structured around love.
We share something, you and I. We belong to an exclusive club we never asked to join. To qualify for membership, you have to have suffered the unimaginable loss of a child. At the beginning, surviving the rite of initiation into this club feels improbable, if not impossible. And indeed your own survival may not be something that concerns you one way or the other. You know only that your child is gone, you’ve lost your baby, no matter the age. But time passes, one hour at a time, one day at a time, till one day the veil of grief parts ever so slightly and reveals just a hint of desire to more fully inhabit the life you now own. This is a good time to put your thoughts and emotions into form. You may want to write the story of your child’s life or death. You may prefer to paint a picture, meditate, join a support group, compose a song, plant a garden, volunteer, become an advocate, run a marathon. It’s the process that’s important, not the medium. Whatever you choose should speak to your soul and give voice to your pain. Talk, cry, scream if so moved. Hold on and let time pass. Grief is not unlike a teacher you may have had who was especially hard on you, one who wouldn’t let up until you learned what it was you needed to know. You will learn from grief and eventually you may even be wiser, but the lessons learned and the wisdom gained are hard won and costly beyond words.
As a grieving parent, you may have the desire, even the compulsion, to hold all the memories of your child inside you, lest you forget. So many of these moments are swirling around in your mind and filling your heart that you may feel anxious that a detail of your child’s life, or even of their death, may be lost. So write the memories down. For the time being, put them in a safe place outside of your heart and mind.
If fortunate (and I realize thinking yourself fortunate is relative), you will have someone who shares your pain and feels your loss; your spouse, children, siblings or parents. Let them be your strength. Eventually, you will regain the desire and the ability to feel the love that still exists in your life, including the love you will always have for the child you have lost, alongside the love of the family and friends who stand next to you. If you’re a relative or friend of someone who has suffered the loss of a child, the greatest service you can do is to listen. Don’t judge, don’t edit and don’t try to fix things. You can’t. You can however, let them know they are being heard.
Writing has been my companion during the long days and nights since my son’s death. At times, it has been my lifeline. Writing allowed me to move some of the memories that I couldn’t bear to forget to a safe place, nearby. I hope you can find a safe place to put your memories. When we are stronger, more of them will find a permanent home in our hearts. But till then, we’ll keep the memories where we can always find them.
I will tell you my story because the telling is as important as the remembering. If you’d like to leave a comment, there’s a button following each entry. And if you’d like to share your story of loss and healing, regardless of where you are on the path, please visit the Share Your Story page. I’m certain we will feel a kinship.
But first, you should know how my son died.
My son, Mason, acquired what’s known as gram negative sepsis from having common dental work done: the simple reattachment of a crown that had become loose. However, when the dentist decided to do a full mouth debridement (a major teeth cleaning) during the same visit, bacteria that had been present under his crown was forcefully introduced into his bloodstream. This caused Lemierre’s Syndrome and a domino effect of devastating, life threatening conditions including liver and kidney failure, fusobacterium endocarditis, ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) and stroke. Mason spent three weeks in one of the best hospitals in the country, intubated, sedated, paralyzed and fighting for his life. We lost Mason on December 7th, 2009, less than three weeks before his 35th birthday. My son was a healthy, vibrant young man with his whole life ahead of him. Or so it had seemed. We held Mason’s Memorial Service at St. Philip Presbyterian Church on December 12th, 2009. The Service was performed by Mason’s uncle, William Poe. It was a fitting farewell to a remarkable man.
What follows are the letters I wrote to Mason in the months following his death. Though personal and specific to our loss, it is my hope you will feel a sense of recognition, acceptance and validation for what you are going through now, or in days past or in days yet to come. Some experiences are universal, even when the details are not. Unlike a typical blog, my entries begin at the beginning and move forward in time as does the grief and healing. Disregard the ‘Posted on’ dates. They only serve to put the entries in chronological order.
After each entry I have included the words of other more wise and articulate people who have walked with their own grief. These words have inspired, comforted and encouraged me. I hope they bring some peace to you now and some perspective to you in the future. (Click on photos to enlarge)
“…I put down these memorandums of my affections in honor of tenderness, in honor of all of those who have been conscripted into the brotherhood of loss…” – Edward Hirsch
You left us in a heartbeat, and what was unthinkable has become unbearable. I find myself in waters unknown to me, so deep and dark and threatening. As I fight to stay above the surface, I am suddenly and completely overcome by a wave of grief of unspeakable size. It pulls me under as if to drown me, and I go willingly. I know it is stronger. And then, when I have no more air in my lungs, it releases me and I float up to the surface once again, gasping, choking, alive. I should feel thankful, but when I look around for you and you’re nowhere to be found, I only feel empty. My heart is broken.
It has been 1 week. It has been a lifetime.
“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” – Charles Beard
We never said a proper good-bye. This time, this last time, was filtered through layers of sedation and shock in a room that was unbearably bright, strangers looking on in witness. This final farewell held nothing as familiar as a kiss, a hug, a smile and a wave good-bye as you took your leave. This good-bye was something we were not prepared for.
We never knew how aware you were during those last three weeks. We hoped somehow you could hear us talking to you, encouraging you, singing, praying. We hoped you didn’t feel pain or discomfort or fear, especially fear. Your eyes were closed, maybe that was a blessing, you couldn’t see the fear in ours. When weeks earlier you had to be intubated, sedated and paralyzed, we failed to recognize the permanence of the procedures and the moment had come and gone unknown to us for the loss it ultimately was. We were never again to share communication with you, eye to eye. You were never again to see the love so present in our eyes. We always expected you to heal. We always expected another chance to look into your eyes.
All I wanted was time; time for you to live and love and laugh and cry and breathe and grow old. All I wanted was to see you smile again. I didn’t want much. I write about my pain, my loss, my grief, when it is you who lost your life. My son, what you lose, I lose. What hurts you, hurts me. We cannot be separated. There was a time when you couldn’t tell where you stopped and I began.
You are loved. You will always be loved. Smile and feel the warmth of that love on your face, and I will smile back at you.
When facing the unknown, hope is as reasonable as despair.
Next week is Christmas and then your 35th birthday, or what now is the 35th anniversary of your birth. And what birth it was. All 10 lbs. 1 oz. , 23 1/2″. You were some baby! Someone mentioned on your obituary guestbook that she remembered you as the most beautiful baby she had ever seen. Who am I to argue? Now it seems almost everyone remembers you for your smile. You smiled with your whole face, and you smiled a lot. I will miss that the most, seeing you smile.
We’ve been dismantling your home, your life, bit by bit. What a few short weeks ago belonged to you, was used by you, enjoyed by you, we now distribute among the family for safe keeping. Maybe someday it will be used by us and enjoyed by us. But for now, we’ll just keep what was precious to you near to us.
The world knew you as brilliant and capable, driven to succeed, the go-to guy for anything involving technology. You charmed many and were loved by many more. And yet I always felt you were so vulnerable, so capable of being hurt. From the beginning you touched a place in my soul that could make me cry and not know why.
I was with you when you entered this world and with you when you left. And both times I sensed your strength. Now your ashes sit on my desk. I know it is not you, only the physical remains of what was your body. I know your magnificent soul, your essence and your energy still exist. Someday I’d like to feel that energy again and catch a glimpse of your soul. I would consider that the greatest gift possible.
At the bottom of the well, one can look up and see the sky.
I begin to write my memories down, to keep them safe.
It is my most sincere pleasure to be your mother. I think we go together like beer and chips. See, another mother may have said peanut butter and jelly, but not yours. You were special from the beginning. You were born only when you were ready, not a minute earlier. And don’t ask me what you were doing the whole time, but apparently it involved working on an alternative language, because when you started talking, the words you used were harder to pronounce than the words you were replacing and they somehow made even better sense. You were happy, goofy, bright and beautiful. It would seem that you grew into the man who was father to the child, still doing things in your own way and only when ready, not a minute earlier, still happy, goofy, bright and beautiful. How I miss you. You were always so full of energy and life that you found it hard to sit still. Pacing was more suited to you. It may have made some people nervous, but not me. I knew that shortly you’d come out with a pronouncement that would most likely stir the pot that is our family, get us talking, possibly arguing, definitely thinking. We all have strong opinions and they were honed around the dinner table and the fireplace. I think you kids have always known you could say anything, think anything, be anything, and as long as you were happy you had our blessings. We now have a gap, a hole that exists in our family both physically and spiritually.
We will always be one short at the dinner table. We will always feel the absence of your presence. We will never be the same.
“Watch your way then, as a cautious traveler; and don’t be gazing at that mountain or river in the distance, and saying ‘How shall I ever get over them?’ but keep to the present little inch that is before you, and accomplish that in the little moment that belongs to it. The mountain and the river can only be passed in the same way; and, when you come to them, you will come to the light and strength that belong to them. ” – M.A. Kelty