My son died nine years ago, April 9. There’s some nine thing going on (this also being 2009). I’m not doing very well. Who knows why this year seems particularly bleak to me. Some years aren’t so bad.
The gory details, which are never far from my consciousness, are that he was crossing a one-way street on a sunny Sunday, trying to get home from work around noon to talk to a girl on the internet, someone he was infatuated with. He looked the wrong way, stepped out into the street and was hit by a GMC van. He died instantly, as he was being held by a stranger who saw the whole thing and ran into the street to cradle him. This stranger’s action is the most soothing memory I have of this horror.
The first months after Aaron’s death, everything was yellow. Really – there seemed to be a yellow light around everything. I had enormous compassion for people, knowing for the first time that really horrible shit happens. My eyes were opened to human suffering as they had never been before.
Never did I consider going on meds. I wanted the raw experience of grief, because I wanted to be with my son. I didn’t want the only connection I had with him, grief and awe over his transition to the void, to be diluted. I sought out other parents whose children had died, and found no groups that did not gag me with talk about angels and being with the Lord. I tolerate anyone’s methods of dealing with crushing tragedy, but I felt it was an insult to my son to drag his essence into a world that seemed to both of us as the desperate product of wishful thinking. I left these poor parents to their own rituals, to smile about how God called little their little angels home. Aaron told me once that the only higher power he believed in was death. Stunning wisdom.
I chastise myself this year for falling down the grief tube and coming out the other side with a puffed up face and a whole day gone. Shouldn’t I be used to my son’s death by now? Shouldn’t I have moved on?
I have moved on. I’m in my 23rd year of a teaching job I love; I write novels and plays; I have great friends, most of whom don’t envision me lying on the floor one or two days a year weeping and calling my son’s name. Who wants to know such things? When I was in school, no one told me that Mary Todd Lincoln was mentally ruined by the death of her children. Her depression was always taught as a weird defect that was a ball and chain for her beloved husband (who, by the way, was assassinated in April.) It didn’t dawn on me until my own trauma that, “Hey, maybe the woman was depressed because her children died.”
The truth, of course, is that children died a lot in the old days before antibiotics and such. Only recently have people in wealthy countries seen the death of a child as deviantly odd, except for in war zones. And when the child belongs to a family that speaks a “foreign” language and has a non-Christian belief system, well, what did those mothers expect? Well, I suspect that no matter how common death is, even for those who believe in Jesus or an afterlife with 72 virgins, the loss of one’s baby has always been sickening and damaging.
My 18 year old son who loved Ska bands like the Mighty Mighty Bostones and Jimmy Cliff’s reggae classics, is most likely not sitting beside Jesus singing “How tender is thy love, oh Lord.” Maybe someone else’s little angel or dearly departed gramps is doing that; hey, maybe we all get what we believe in when we die. If you want to hang out with those women who hold their hands up and close their eyes and say, “Thank you Jesus,” that’s your business. As Mark Twain said, “I prefer Heaven for climate, but Hell for company.” If Aaron’s essence is anywhere, it’s where people are joking around and eating pizza, and I would look for him there, no matter how hot it gets.
Actually having no belief in a heaven and hell other than the ones we create for ourselves in this life, I’m left with “I don’t know,” and some interesting experiences with other theories about the after death process. My best guess is that our parts get recycled, and that may include mental and emotional parts. And then there’s always the infinite void, which may or may not have a buffet.
The most important thing one learns in hospice work is not to impose one’s spiritual views on others, and not to show any disdain for theirs. Dying people and their families need whatever they can muster to not be crushed by their trauma. And I would say the same thing about grief. We should not impose our own notions of how long or how hard someone should mourn. On the other hand, I understand that the howling sorrow I can lapse into once a year or so is more and more a private matter. I don’t want to unload it on others, but I can write about it, and hope that it will reduce the shame or judgment other grievers heap on themselves for “not getting over it.” Some things you do not get over – not with meds, not with therapy, not with the Bible and not even with time. It is not weakness. It is a part of life many want to pretend does not exist. And transforming sorrow into art or compassion for others, or, if you’re really lucky, gratitude for what you did have and do have — those are possibilities that can give some hope. But this shit is hard.
So if you believe in Heaven and you run into Mary Todd Lincoln tell her you understand, and that she wasn’t just some burdensome crazy lady. She was a woman who saw the corpses of her own children.