Flailing about for answers after my son’s sudden death a few years ago, I leaned on some of those crutches that become familiar to many dads.
I dove back into work, changing careers to become a high school teacher. I put extra elbow grease into buffing the topsides of our boat, venting, churning, then finally ready to unwind a bit on the water for another season. I tried to anticipate the needs of our two younger children, noting when they were sad or vacant.
Taking long solo runs, I called on Mike to help me make a final push. I cursed at my mistakes as his father. I asked for his strength in helping us get through this.
The questions would not relent.
How did this happen? Why us?
How do we continue to hold you close?
When the workweek ended, my wife and I took off our game faces and cried together on a couch in front of our woodstove. We hung on to one another as if to ward away our worst fears: of splitting apart in our grief, being unable to protect our children, or losing a connection with our son.
At times I wandered into dark and deep crevices. The worst was a burning, persistent itch, like a sudden and strange rash that flares up when you least expect it.
Did his life matter?
What is the point? A mom is not supposed to outlive her firstborn. A dad who is unable to see his son grow as a caring, productive young man. Siblings who miss out on a brother’s wedding, or becoming an uncle and aunt to his children.
We had been awakened in the middle of the night to a parent’s worst nightmare.
How does one carry on in a world that is suddenly devoid of rationality or fulfillment? Without a moment’s notice you become an outsider: joining a despised club with no name; isolated even from friends who cannot bear to know where you now exist; with rituals like celebrating holidays and birthdays forever altered.
Battling this numbness can be debilitating. There’s a nothingness that threatens to rip you and your family apart. Your life’s narrative, your very identity, is turned upside down.
Yet the odds of eventually making sense of a loved one’s death are actually pretty good. This may stem in part from being resilient, centered in faith or other spiritual practices, and having supportive relationships. Still, creating a meaningful life again, whether in a few years or many seasons later, seems to require something else.
As crazy as it sounds, we braid our pain and joys together—celebrating our loved one’s strengths and passions, perhaps carrying some of those on, while remembering him, re-telling stories, and perhaps not shuttering his room. We can integrate our grief into ongoing life, even as we struggle with setbacks, those triggers and guilt and the what-ifs.
These feelings and experiences co-exist in a new way. A fabric of patches that may seem like a contradiction. A clash of vitriol and grace. Whiskey and wine.
Practitioners who assist families trying to cope with the loss of a child say this struggle to find meaning is most intense when a death involves suicide, senseless violence such as homicide, or a sudden accident—versus natural causes, even to cancer or another disease. As parents, those of us who have surviving children feel impotent from protecting them. We fall short understanding their grief and how this may change as they grow older.
If your younger daughter retreats more often to her room, burying herself in her artwork or reading fantastical books, is that a healthy thing?
If her brother ramps up risky behaviors, perhaps years later after bottling up his emotions, how do we help him come to grip with all he has lost?
A study I recently read about sheds some light on this. (From Grief and Bereavement in Contemporary Society, Eds. R. Neimeyer, D. Harris, H. Winokuer, G. Thornton. New York, Routledge, 2011. Pg. 101) Parents expressed some of the challenges they faced attempting to make meaning from the death of a child. One dad described the new hurdles of parenting, beginning with his shattered faith. “Sometimes it’s a very black thing,” he said. “Whatever it is it’s not something that I want to convey to my son.
“I can’t offer him that. I can never tell him that things happen for a reason. I can never tell him that things work out in the end because he knows that’s not true. He can never tell himself that.”
The despair he voices, an existential angst, may be the hard ground many of us find ourselves teetering on. Yet we dare not stop trying to make sense of our loss. Or find ways to patch things together and step forward.
I was fortunate to learn this from my son’s best friend.
About ten years after we lost Mike, his buddy Jeff opened my eyes. Our son died in a drunk-driving car crash that also killed one of his buds. Four of them went out drinking underage at a sleazy bar, and the driver who called Mike his best friend failed in his duty to bring them safely home.
After our tears had fermented into rage, before my wife and I began reassembling the pieces, I questioned the meaninglessness in the wreckage. Not keeping it at arms length, but delving into it. I needed to know what lay at the bottom of the crevasse.
Mike’s pal Jeff, who was not with him that night, told me that if he never had another good friend, he had known Mike. Their relationship could not be replaced. And Mike’s death, he told me, had made him stronger—he carried a shield of armor, equipped to deal with lesser struggles and stay balanced.
Always remembering Mike.
A conviction I so desperately needed to hear.
We are now close to fifteen years living without him. He is part of our lives, intrinsically supporting the work that my wife and I do. We learned to be receptive to signs of his presence. My wife and I—and to some extent, our children acquiesced—decided to face it all, opening ourselves fully to grief, wanting to help others who are fresh in their loss. That’s how we made sense of it.
While I have regained my footing, some of those old questions still reverberate.
I do wonder, where will Mike’s voice be recalled? And the voices of everyone who loved him? Our joys, the celebrations of his life—even our regrets? Will they be drowned and eroded by time?
Not yet. Not whenever we hold him close.
Nor whenever we reassemble a piece, hearing a new anecdote, or stepping outside of our pain to listen to and acknowledge someone beginning his or her walk on a similar road.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR----------------------------------
Ken Brack is a grieving father, author, and co-founder of a nonprofit bereavement center, Hope Floats Healing & Wellness Center in Kingston, Ma., (http://www.hopefloatswellness.org) a trusted resource for families in southern New England. His new book, Especially For You, Finding a New Purpose After Unspeakable Loss, tells the stories of people whose transformative response to loss and trauma lifts others up. The book is available on Amazon, at independent bookstores via the Ingram catalog, other retailers, and on the author’s website, http://www.kenbrack.com.