Some years ago, a young man stopped me after church. His little daughter played happily in an empty pew behind us. “How will I know," he asked, “when the time comes – how will I know the difference between typical adolescent angst and something more sinister, something life-threatening?” His sister, a young adult, had died of suicide; his father, grief-stricken, had followed her five years later.
I have some answers, now, for his question. I know what to look for, what to ask, how to find help – both emergency and long term. What I do not know is how I have survived long enough to have learned those things. How have I lived eight years without you?
I do not pretend to be in possession of answers for anyone else. I know so many mothers now . . . so many women who live, sometimes in the shadow, sometimes in the light, of life’s most crushing blow. Some have found answers in deeply-held faith; others shrug their shoulders when asked whether God lives, or cares. Some have become activists and pour themselves into causes in the hope that their loss will mean something, will be transformed into other lives saved; others run as fast as they can in other directions; and a few isolate themselves. Perhaps most of us sense an impetus to respond in all ways simultaneously – I have had dinner conversations with friends after long days in Congress in which we have seriously discussed the possibility of simply walking away from our lives.
Where are you? I wonder . . . How might you have influenced your world, you with your multitude of gifts, your expansive education, your wit and geniality? Who might you be – business executive, architect, photographer? Husband, father? Where will you be as your father and I age, and we and your brother and sister need you to help us? Need you to be present in our lives? The door has been slammed shut on the answers to all of those questions.
Work . . . that helps. The women I know who have survived have all embraced creative, other-centered lives. Brilliant artists, every one of them – painters, restauranteurs, nonprofit volunteers, writers, therapist, spiritual directors, businesswomen. Finding one another . . . that helps. We need others who understand when we exclaim, “And you won’t believe what that person said to me . . . ” . We need others who understand about the birthdays, the holidays, the vacations, the . . . the everything, actually. Re-forging relationships from the past that is no more . . . that helps. Few people really know us anymore, but they do care about us. And we, about them.
Eight years. The weight that threatened to suffocate me has lifted. I sleep, frequently through the night. I can concentrate for hours at a time and often on several things at once. (My short-term memory does seem to have been a permanent casualty.) My family remains intact. My own work is challenging and joyful. My life is no longer defined by loss, by horror, by grief.
But: eight years. Not a day, seldom an hour, passes in which you, and the you-now-gone, are not foremost in my mind and heart. I love you. My darling boy.