In one- month my son will have been gone three years. I find it difficult to believe, and when I think back to the awful day he left me; the wound opens as if I have just said goodbye. Grief is forever, they say, and in some respects, perhaps it is. I know in the early days following my son’s death, I was numb. I didn’t cry the moment the doctor called Rikki’s time of death. As a matter of fact, I didn’t cry until I saw my brother several hours later, and then again when my husband got to the hospital. I cried the next morning, and then I held it together until after his Celebration of Life. After that, I cried every day for a solid year.
The metaphor of the seesaw is too simple an analogy for how grief graphs on a chart. There are not solely ups and downs; there are great sweeping tidal waves of tears and then there are droughts, and sometimes there is smooth sailing and even a transcendent peace. There is no plausible explanation for how that peace comes about. There is no way to explain to someone else how to get there. Peace comes to my rescue,[ and] I don’t know what it means (Sam Phillips, “I Need Love”), and I am always grateful when it does. Peace often comes right after a meltdown begins to subside, when I am too exhausted for anything but peace—and surrender. I really don’t need a clinical explanation for how it happens; it is enough just to experience the wash of peace – after a prolonged period of extreme sorrow.
The meltdowns don’t come as frequently as they did in the early days of my grief journey. I still have the ache from missing my son. He was my only child, and the love of my life. I convince myself on most days that he would not want me to be in a state of grief, the kind that immobilizes me. I know this at a deep level.
Feelings are intensified in grief, and damming up the floodgates becomes a type of self-preservation – for me. I allow myself the overflow when I am strong enough to handle it, because I still fear the sense of overwhelm I felt the first year after I lost Rikki. Being out of control is scary as heck. What do you do for self-preservation? Do you purge? Do you meditate on healing contemplatively? We each find methods that work best for us. I won’t lie; I’m still learning, fumbling toward a more sustained healing.
Self-preservation doesn’t come easily, and it certainly doesn’t come the first year; at least, it didn’t for me. Every single thing in the universe, the actual universe, stars, planets, black holes, brought me to my knees, doubled over in pain, and the earth did not provide much comfort either, until much, much later. Every time a star twinkled I prayed it was Rikki sending me a message in heavenly Morse Code and then I’d weep from the doubt that comes with the loss of faith after you lose a child. Tears are unpredictable…especially in the omnipresence of grief.
I’d close my eyes and think about our outings to the beach and how we fed the birds on sunny or overcast days, and I’d burst into tears. I cried on drives home from work. I cried at the grocery store when I passed the pickle section. I’d cry any time I saw a baby, or someone complained about her children. I wished my son were here and I would never complain about him again. Triggers for meltdowns were everywhere. I ached in a way I could not convey to anyone else’s understanding, unless they had been through the loss of a child. I even cried at others’ good news.
So what did I do? Purging came easily to me; I’m a writer, so I poured on to my computer screen, and I watched the words inadequately define my pain. I bled my heart until it was thin and anemic, and until I had the strength to build it back up again. I needed to weep; I just did, and I have often wondered what my neighbors must have thought when I wept and wailed so loudly every day for several months.
I cried, mostly alone, and sometimes I cried with other people who were in grief themselves. We have people who love us, who want the best for us, who wish they could give the best of themselves to us, but the bottom-line is, seeing someone in emotional pain is scary! When my son was very ill toward the end of his life, he began to mourn his waning life, and I was powerless to do anything to relieve him of his emotional pain. No one wants to feel powerless. We all like to think we have some control over our lives. Nothing changes that notion more profoundly than watching someone you love die. I learned to shelve my feelings until more appropriate times so I could be there for my son. The ability to hold off on my own pain illustrated to me that we do have some control over our overwhelm. I don’t burst into hysteria anymore at the mention of Rikki’s name. Purging is good, and whenever there is a healthy way to do it, through art, visual or literary, gardening, etc., I try to pour my love for my son into an activity that is creative, an act of honorarium, or love.
The days and nights move so quickly in grief; each day seems one step farther away from our loved one. I hated that the days would accumulate, and one day would turn into 365 -- 365 days since the last time I had seen my son alive. There were desperate days, days I could scarcely catch my breath, days when the pain seemed endless, and the wounds oozed with hopelessness. I thought they would never heal.
They do, though. They have. Seasons change – and so have I. Certainly, meltdowns are just a hair-trigger away on any day, but my inner-strength has been developing over the past three years. I have found ways to heal myself, a little at a time. I write. I exercise. I started a website on Facebook for other parents who have lost children to addiction. I think helping others is the fast-track to healing oneself. We share a common thread at After the Storm. We share openly and honestly. We have never met, and yet I feel a closeness to these parents as if we’d known each other forever.
I am not suggesting we are all in the same place on our grief journey, because we are not, but because we are each in different places, we can help each other in a way that offers hope for whatever stage of the process we are in. When I was newly in my grief, I met a mother who promised me “one day you will smile again”. I didn’t believe her. I was a wreck and the only thing I could manage each day was basic hygiene and tears.
She was right, however, and the tears are not as frequent as they were in the early days of grief. Her promise rang true, just as I hope my promise rings true for the parents at After the Storm, and other parents I meet with whom I can share my experience, strength, and hope. Life goes on around us. The whole world doesn’t stop living as we struggle to get through one day at a time. Bills come, crises emerge seemingly out of nowhere, babies are born, people get married, kids graduate, and loved ones die.
Grief takes on a life of its own, and we, as grievers, must find a way to balance the healthy grief from the self-destructiveness that complicated grief hemorrhages into our lives. Sometimes it’s the single note of a song that reopens a wound that had been healing for months, or even years, but – as I’ve learned on my own grief journey, I do have some control over how I will respond to the pain, how I will navigate the cycle of highs and lows, dams bursting, and grueling misery, i.e. on those days when my “utterances are too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
I vacillate between grief and mourning all the time. Mourning is something I can work through. I can read the works of others who are successfully navigating their processes, and learn from their practices. I can, and do, work my own process. I take the deep internal feelings and I embrace them and allow them to heal my heart so I can move forward. But grieving is in the viscera, the part where neither meds nor therapy can help. Grief rises up in your Soul and it sometimes seems unnavigable; it can take you captive for as long as it takes for you to regain your composure, to remember that it is you who steers the grief ship and not grief that controls you.
As I said earlier, a single note of a song can send me careening to the dark side of grief. I have to find a new song, one that puts a lilt in my heart, one that reminds me there is light too. I used to hate during the darkest night of my soul, after my son died, when well-meaning people told me “happiness is a choice” -- . I would rage and feel defeated because I just wasn’t finding it to be true. I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t sure I ever would be again.
But there’s something to be said about platitudes when they are innocuous -- . Sometimes it is in the benign where rude awakenings catapult us out of our sadness. Epiphanies don’t always come out of lambastings -- thankfully. As a matter of fact, I think mostly the things that awaken us may at first glance seem small and insignificant, like a mother telling me I will smile again, and that joy is still possible, even in the face of tremendous loss.
My precious son died, but I don’t think all things happen for a reason; they just happen, and at the end of the day, we get to choose our responses to the painful incidences in our lives .
Grief, in fact, is a dark part of life; but so is light and so is peace.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR-----
Sherrie Cassel is a freelance writer and poet who has most recently been published in Addiction.com and Grief Digest. She has written a book called LOVE SONGS TO A JUNKIE SON about her son's struggle with the disease of addiction. She is working toward her B.S. in psychology and will be attending graduate school in the Fall of '19 with a major in Positive Psychology and Theology. She is currently working on a book on grief and chronicling her journey with her son, who died of substance abuse disorder in January 2016. She lives in Joshua Tree with her husband, Ben, and their three cats, and she loves life and is, in fact, healing from her loss.