Today is my youngest son’s birthday. He would have been 26 years old today, and he died tragically two months before his 21st birthday.
This blog is a departure from the topics I normally write about. It’s not a pretty space picture, and it’s not another astrophotography tip. This blog is sometimes really just a home for off topics that didn’t fit anywhere else (and I am burdened with the need to perform creative writing on a regular basis), but only once before have I written about something so deeply personal to me as fatherhood. This time I’m going to share a bit about my personal journey with grief over the loss of my youngest son. More people than you realize carry this kind of burden, most of us do so in silence, but it changes us in ways those who have not had the experience cannot possibly understand. I’m writing this, not just to remember my son, but also for the benefit of anyone else who is an unwilling member of this exclusive club.
People grieve in different ways. My wife and I do so very very differently even. It is an ill for which there is no cure, and with time you only grow to accept it. There is no getting past it. There is no moving on. There really is only coping, and with time coping with increased skill and effectiveness. This is of course my experience, and it may not be yours. The half life on grief if it has one is long… I lost my father when I was 18 years old, and that was over 35 years ago. I still stop and think of him, fondly, sadly, and sometimes am close to tears over what he and I have missed together, or over the long lasting detrimental effects it has had on my brother, sister, and mother. Losing my dad at that age was hard. It changed my life in ways I bitterly did not welcome, and yet it was absolutely nothing at all in terms of the horror that it is for a parent to lose a child.
I could write a long book on things you think are helpful but should never say to a grieving parent, and my disclaimer stands that everyone experiences this differently. Yet, I am going to share some of the things and epiphanies that have helped me to cope. They may apply to you, or they may fail spectacularly. As the kiddies say these days, your mileage may vary.
When my father died, my family got no help at all in terms of grief counseling or support. Being tossed to the wind to “wait for time to heal all wounds” is possibly the very worst strategy that you could apply. When Alex died, my wife and I went to a grief counseling group where we met with other groups of people experiencing loss. The first salve you will receive is all the very horrible things you are thinking, the overly creative ways you invent to blame yourself, the way you are irrationally afraid of losing your other children, the nightmares… you will find that you are not alone. There is something strangely comforting to knowing that you are not alone after all, and a complete stranger can understand and relate to what you are going through in a way that your very closest friend in the world who is trying to be supportive, can’t possibly match.
My son died cross country skiing, doing what he loved, but he made some poor decisions that led to a heroic rescue effort that ultimately failed. I was watching a promotional video by Apple about how the new Apple watch could dial 911 for you, and how someone who got lost’s life was saved. I SCREAMED at the computer… It doesn’t work if you don’t have cell signal! My son had tried twice unsuccessfully to dial 911 on his iPhone. Apple would not have saved him with their marketing gimmick. This is what I call a buried dagger. They are everywhere, and you will step on them or fall on them frequently with no warning at all. Some little thing will remind you of your loss, the circumstances, etc. People think it’s funny to post pictures of freezing to death in the winter when it gets cold for some reason for example. What the hell is funny about that?!?
“At least he died doing what he loved”, is another one of those things that saying will get you punched in the nose for.. yet when I heard some stories from the other grieving parents in our group, another valuable perspective was won. No matter how bad it is… it always could have been worse. My advice, for what it is worth, is do not grieve alone no matter how much you want to just crawl in a hole and wait to die yourself.
If you are going through a grieving process, you are going to need more than my pitiful blog here to help you through it, but let me just share two really big things that I’ve gained that might apply to you, or might not.
A really big thing for me, was at the beginning, the pain is so unimaginable and you don’t know how to handle it. All you want to do is to make the pain go away, and the only way to make the pain go away in your mind is to bring your lost loved one back. When I finally accepted that this could not happen, that this was not a bad dream I could awake from, there was no bargain that could be struck with the universe, then there was only one solution. Forgetting about Alex, as if he had never existed was the only thing that was going to make the pain go away. Some people may well take this road, but for me, that thought was the only thing that seemed to me to be more horrible than his loss. For twenty years he was one of my biggest fans, and he was my hero in many ways I’d never be able to share with him now. But to obliterate that? To erase all those years, all those adventures, all that joy… No. I wanted that. I wanted to keep those 20 years, and I wanted those 20 years to be real more than I wanted to not hurt anymore. This was the famed acceptance moment for me, when I embraced my pain because it was all that was left of my son, and embracing my pain keeps him real to me, and it preserves the wonderful life we shared together for our far too short a time.
Oh, it still sucks fantastically — don’t get me wrong, but I choose pain over oblivion. Again I’ll say it… this may not work for everyone. It worked for me, and it took a bit of time before I could accept this.
The last gift that grief will confer on you is a superior appreciation for the value of human life. Losing someone close or a child will imbue you with super powers. When you hear of tragedies your mind will never ever react in ways that are politically motivated again. You see straight through the rhetoric and will think only of the parents, of the children, of the pain you yourself know only too well. Individual lives and worlds changed irrevocably. Tradeoffs that could have prevented the tragedy will have a different weight in your mind. During the pandemic, I have been struck with how easily many are willing to trade off a “few lives” in the name of false politically motivated dichotomies (and there really were more options than just the two extremes everyone seems to be obsessing over). One well placed loss in the lives of many would have dramatically altered how we responded to the pandemic I think. Yet, it is still a perspective I would not wish on my worst enemy. Every time I hear “more people die from…”
A fight to save one life is a fight worth fighting. I solemnly promise you it is. You can think I’m wrong if you like. I also solemnly hope you never find out just how wrong you are. Perspective is a costly thing to purchase.