I am in it now, a fitting season. I have, for the past 18 years had a natural annual period of introspection that begins on March 22, which is our son James’ birthday, and ends sometime soon after June 6, which is the day that James died in 2005 at age twenty. I am different during this period, not better, not worse, but just different.
This period provides important things to my soul, an annual reset where I back away from other things just a bit to give myself room to be sad, room to be pensive or quiet, room to explore how grief has changed me, and this year room to finally launch an introspective retrospective on grief with this blog and pending free eBook.
In the aftermath of the death of a child, we are defined primarily by the loss. The rest of what we think or do remains in the shadow that we are “those parents”. People treat us differently, social contacts are fewer and different. Fewer invites to happy gatherings, people are reticent to include us because they don’t know how we will react, will we make the party sad, and mostly I believe that they just don’t know how they will react. This is mainly a function of people not knowing how to confront speaking of our loss with us. Many are compassionately afraid to hurt us at a time when we can’t possibly be more hurt, and their silence often redefines friendships past as either shallow and fragile or deep enough to survive and change as we do.
We are still married, but the divorce rate for couples who lose a child is statistically astronomical. Especially in a marriage, we need both time and space to process and adapt to our own grief, to understand how this will shape us and shape our views on life, and our spouse is having the same struggle. In the early days and years, we can’t possibly describe or pin down those changes, we are being swept away from our past selves by grief. Over time, we make more and more room for ourselves, and also for our relationships with other people. Couples will need to fall in love again, with this survivor who has changed dramatically as you changed dramatically. And we must make room for two different sets of explanations and reactions to the same death.
Each person grieving a loss has had a different experience with that person that they have loved. Each person will manage and react differently in grief. Making that space to allow multiple perspectives and changes is critical to keeping lovers and friends together when the grieve.
Each year, I look at how I have changed in the past year. This is probably a normal part of aging, but for me it includes wondering how James would feel about how his death has impacted my life. The reality is that I have become more like the 20 year old James than I have ever been. James’ morals and ethics were reflections of our teachings and guidance as parents, and since he has died I have assumed much more of the idealism of a 20 year old than I had as a 52 year old father when I lost a son.
Life prior to James’ death had worn away much of my idealism, a phenomena common to most people. I have become more active and vocal politically than at any time in my life prior to James’ death. Fitting because his accidental death was avoidable and the causes were rooted in bad management by a municipality.
Governments mostly kill by oversight and omission, which is a breach of the trust we place in the governments that we elect. My political views had always been centrist, fiscally responsible social democracy. My present views are similar, but much harder on the concept of responsibility, social, environmental and fiscal. This change is the result of my pondering how James would have wanted his world to be governed.
The foundation we set up in the aftermath of James’ death has awarded annual scholarships since he died. In the past year, a group of James’ friends, now established in their 30’s, with families of their own, have taken complete charge of the foundation and are expanding the scope and purpose, as well as the fundraising. It’s a wonderful healing process for them, for the community, and also for us. It’s natural to set up a memorial foundation, but the fear of the foundation dying is palpable, so we have passed the responsibility to others who will carry it forward in his name and in the process enrich the community that raised James by their active and constructive involvement.
Always the question is: Have I done enough ? Never, but I am satisfied at what has been done, and that I am finding time and energy to write and share. Perhaps I can help others reach this point of comfort with loss faster than I have, because looking back I flailed for a long time as I sought tools, explanations, and new purpose.
The great challenge in presenting this annual few months as introspection is that it seems like I am seeking sympathy, or feeling sorry for myself. Sympathy without understanding is pity, and pity has negative value to those grieving because it makes it about us. It’s hard not to make a statement about loss without attracting condolences.
So, this is now a period of marveling at the power of a 20 year old son’s death to continue to change people for the better, including me, his father. It is a period of amazement at the power of love to carry on, to hold individuals responsible and engaged, to continue to set teachable examples. This is what life after death is all about, because in hundreds of minds, love for James is still guiding people who loved James.
It is also a period of marveling at my soul’s ability to limp through grief, to heal, to recover from a the worst of a series of harsh and untimely losses.
Mostly that has happened by getting out of the way of myself and providing a flow of love to my soul so it can heal itself. We must let our soul resolve the pain of grief, and it only needs us to find the energy of love in things we love about life and things we will love about life and in the people we love in life. Then, we need to let the healing happen by accepting that we are being changed by grief, by our own good soul which will have our best interests at the center of that healing. The thing that extends the pain of grief is mostly that we fight the inevitability of change that this loss will cause us.
Another part of my introspection is to look at how I will teach those who will grieve me, how to efficiently and comfortably grieve the eventual loss of me, how not to fear grief. This is not morbid or self serving, it is caring about my loved ones and looking for ways to make their journey through grief more easily understood and less unexpected. This book should help them, so I will continue to work on it.
I am comfortable that I have grieved responsibly and productively and at every point have minimized the damage to myself and to those that I love, and that love includes the memory of James. The pull of these few months annually cannot be resisted, it cannot be ignored, and each year it seems simpler and affects my daily life less, but in no way diminishes the memory of James. This is exactly how I imagine that James would want me to grieve him, comfortably never forgetting to be guided by his memory.
Simply put, James followed in my footsteps until he died one day. Since his death, I follow imaginary footsteps that I believe that James would have made had he lived. The father guided the son, now the enduring spirit or important parts of the son guides the father. We shall travel together in this way, at least until I die, hopefully long into the future.
The death of a child is not the end of a parent’s life, but it is the beginning of a different and much changed life that will be shaped and guided by what you distill from the grief you feel.
Enough about me, in the coming posts, I will start providing some tools and especially some fundamental understanding of love and how we heal loss.
Be well and peaceful. never stop building love in your life and the lives around you., because love is life.