It’s June 6, 2023, today we pass the 18th anniversary of the death of our perfect 20 year old son James.
James was home from a brilliant first year at University on a prestigious full tuition and fees scholarship that he had been awarded. He was newly in love with a beautiful young woman that was such a good fit that I can imagine that they might well have married. He had his dream summer job, managing the bar at the yacht club he grew up at two blocks from our home. He had worked and trained as a volunteer firefighter since he had turned 18, and the Fire Hall was two blocks from home and two blocks from the yacht club, so he signed up again for the summer to help a community he loved.
James died in a firefighter water rescue training accident in Hudson, Quebec. Ironically, he was ejected from and run over by the rescue boat that he has helped raise the money for our small waterfront town to purchase. The official report on this death clearly defines the accident as avoidable.
In the sleepless night following his death, I immediately saw that if I presented as angry, I could potentially destroy more lives than the one we had just lost. Anger from me could subject those who were there, those in the decision chains and those who held the wheel to my anger that would attract the collective anger of a town. I had that power. I decided that it would be unfair and unproductive to wield it in anger.
The official report a year later focused on weak chain of command, lack of professional training and inadequate safety equipment. The young man driving the boat made a bad decision, in large part because he lacked enough specific training to not make that terrible decision. It was his mistake, but it also rested on the shoulders of a fire department and a municipality.
Immediately before the accident, James had swapped places with another firefighter who was uncomfortable with the high speed maneuvers being demonstrated. Had he not compassionately traded places, another family would have likely lost their son and ours would have remained more whole.
The politics of elected officials hiding from accepting responsibility made it worse for everyone. The nerves and emotions of a small close knit town were stretched past the breaking point, because James was correctly seen as an example. People who knew James saw and felt his great promise for the future and also knew he was a firefighter. And some even became angry at me for not being angrier than I presented as.
Small town closeness brings unique outpourings of support for grief. Our house filled with people offering sympathy and food. The town filled with satellite equipped news trucks and a phalanx of reporters gathered at the end of our driveway. We became the top sad news story for a very long week.
The mechanics and expectations of a Line of Duty death are complicated, often inconvenient, and anything but small and personal. The emotional and spiritual challenges surrounding the processing of grief for an “honourable death” linger for a lifetime, but all of that pales in comparison to the real challenge of losing a child under the magnifying glass of media and public attention. The media sought anger, and in that I am proud to say that I disappointed them.
I am immensely proud of our family and James’ friend for the ways we have rebuilt our love for each other and for life over the past 18 years, for the impossible work we have each done to repair our individual souls and our collective family soul.
We often express the journey of grief as being a climb out of a deep dark place we have been thrown into by a loss of a loved one. My perspective is different with time to better understand grief.
We were not tossed into a canyon of darkness, we remained in place, but it became a place darkened by the sudden draining of the love we all carried and shared with James. Slowly, as we each healed this tremendous loss, as we each managed and grew around the perpetual pain of the loss of a son, a brother, as grandson, or a friend we each found some thread of new light in our love for James, a light that we could climb towards.
Paths through grief are individual; it is not a team sport. Yet, literally hundreds of us each followed very different parts of that light that was guided by our love for James. With each passing year, we look around and ponder James’ life and his death from a position on a slightly higher plane or plateau than we once were. We are gathered on a high ground, a plateau build on the shared collective love of a special person. We have each changed, we have each redefined ourselves with influences from the best of James.
A charitable foundation wisely being managed by friends of James who are now professionals with families of their own will award the 18th James Ratcliffe Scholarship this year to a deserving student young enough that they could have never met James.
There are many wonderful stories of how James’ life, through his death, brought positive changes to the world that surrounded his life. The people, who loved him in life, still love him long after his death.
If I have a message on this anniversary, it would be to forgive the mistakes of others.
Forgiving frees us from carrying the anger for the wrongs of others. Forgiving does not free them from the responsibility for those wrongdoings, or from the requirement for them to mitigate the damage they have caused. We forgive for us, not for them.
Anger is a cancer of the human soul that consumes love. If we remain angry our soul becomes a brittle hard hollow shell, we lose our humanity. If we forgive, we stop the cancer of anger from emptying our soul, and we can begin to rebuild our life and our love of others and our love of life.
We must also forgive the Universe for its unthinking randomness that brings pain to so many of us. We cannot change the Universe, but if we harbor anger at the Universe we destroy ourselves and our own life.
Please find forgiveness for those who have wronged you. When forgiveness seems most impossible, it is likely the only key to the prison of anger.
Be well and peaceful. Seek to build and rebuild love each and every day, and grant forgiveness for those who have failed you.