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.
LeslyeApril 6, 2009 at 1:23 pm
My mom passed away 17 years ago and I still on occasion, have a day or two where I am overwhelmed by her loss and other days, I feel her presence, where she points out something to me in nature that I should not miss.
May you find some peace this year.
Ernest GarciaApril 11, 2009 at 7:05 am
I miss my mom and dad (died 1979 and 1986). I have a black and white photo I took of him sitting across the table from me about a year after mom died. A couple of years ago I used it in painting a 16″ x 12″ canvas in full color as I well remembered his coloration. I wept as I painted it feeling I was bringing him back – and that deep look of perception in his eyes. Its like a Fayum portrait in a way. I gave it to my elder sister. She caught her breath and wept when I unveiled it. Was I kind? Was I sharing our sense of loss? Art is artifice. Truth is somewhere in our heads.
So what is death? Near as I can figure:
Death is our home – the void. Death is the void from whence we came. Life is the insensate universe regarding itself. And while we breath we’re IT.
Jeanne CassinJune 29, 2009 at 1:15 pm
Hi, Kate. Reading about the weight in your heart reminds me of a different kind of heartbreak – not as bad, but still a physical sensation that never seems to relent completely. I chose the medication route, and I do sometimes wonder what would have happened had I not. Would I actually have recovered? Would I have changed my life around? I am not creative, so I don’t think that would have happened. My son, suffering from depression when he was in his early 20’s, was put on meds and then took himself off. He is a poet (among other things), and found he could not write on medication. I thought I had to be well enough to take care of my children, and I don’t really re-think that much (what’s the point?), but I’m sure I would have had a different life if I’d just faced up to things and changed it.
I’m sorry you’ve had this great sorrow in your life. I love reading your work. Wish I could have been a fly on the wall in that classroom!
zanSeptember 17, 2009 at 1:34 pm
Not sure about the angels (though i hope), but i do believe the universe sends us messages when we need to hear them. i grieve too, for a son lost, but thank the gods (i think) not to unforgiving death, but to ongoing drugs and alcohol and perhaps traumatic brain injury. i fight the urge every day to lose myself in something mind altering. Thank you for the reminder that it is okay for me to grieve as i need to.
CarolOctober 25, 2009 at 8:34 am
Grief is a strange country. Are we there alone, or do we share it? Other than in the ritual of funeral and burial, I haven’t grieved with anyone. Just visit that strange country, where I weep, remember, and try to stay above the quicksand.
LindaJanuary 12, 2010 at 12:36 pm
Finally, someone who understands. I lost my husband 7 years ago, almost 8 now this coming May, and I still greive. Sure, I have moved on too, but I still long for his arms around me, his sense of humor, his compassionate heart and all the things that made him, him. You are so right, this is one thing you never get over, it is always my constant companion and I would give anything to have him back.
GloriaJanuary 25, 2010 at 2:37 pm
If I lost any of my children, I would suffer in a way that would not heal. I agree that no rules should be imposed upon anyone about how grief should look. I would be crazy with grief, too. I would be Mary Todd Lincoln.
Your words, like always, are beautiful and strong, Kate. As are you.
Thank you for crafting this for others to share in. You are amazing.
maida hendersonAugust 22, 2010 at 12:16 pm
December is my “cruelest month.” I lost my talented, gorgeous, brilliant, magical 16 and a half year-old son, Galen, on December 1, 2007, when his car was hit by an Amtrak train at an unsafe crossing in Rowe, New Mexico. Everything I had ever thought about life and death, which had been about karma, went out the window. I realized that I truly know nothing, except the pain of loss of someone I loved unconditionally and of whom I was in absolute awe. I want to be able to cherish each day as Galen did, but my grief is still too strong. What keeps me going is my belief that a universe that could give me the gift of birthing and raising such an extraordinary person must have a lot magic and a lot of love.
AngelaDecember 4, 2012 at 6:41 pm
You honor grief. When I lost my daughter almost 1/2 way through my pregnancy with her and had to deliver her after 3 days of hellish induction only to be whisked into surgery 30 minutes after she was born I was thrown into grief head first. I always said, why NOT me. Mother’s in Africa often lose childREN to horrific circumstances. I had the fortitude in those early years and days to just let the gauntlet fall. It still falls. No rhyme. No reason. It JUST falls. I honor it, I embrace the tears and the screaming and the anger and then I enjoy the peace for however long it may last. It’s beyond, how to put this…enlightening to read of someone else’s grief that they allowed. Without numbing it all out for years and years, or rocking in a corner, or the thousands of other ways people self-destruct. (though I’d venture to guess we all self-destruct a little bit) I’ve always felt like my grief for Reese has been my only connection to her. It honors her in a way no one can ever take from me.
I am so sorry you lost your son, and in such a tragic and sudden way. I truly cannot imagine. I can imagine the aftermath though. I kind of guessed in class that you’d been through some powerful shit. You most definitely have, the way you carry yourself is a gift to your son. You didn’t fold. You’re still living, and I’d hazard to guess that would make him smile.