Five years ago this week our 16 year old son Matthew unexpectedly died. You can read about why I consider Matt the happiest person I have ever known here, and today I’d like to chronicle my excruciating journey from grief back to happiness.
Every person’s journey is different, though most people make it eventually. The problem with the journey is that a) you never signed up for it, and b) nobody gives you a map, so you have no idea if the destination is actually getting closer or you are just walking around barefoot on broken glass for the sheer joy of it. Oh yeah, and c) there are days you feel like you are trapped in one of those horrible children’s board games like Hi-Ho Cherry-O or Sorry!, where you are one (just one!) spin away from winning and being allowed to thankfully, mercifully conclude the whole mind-numbing experience, when suddenly (Sorry!!!!), for no logical reason you wake up and are back at zero all over again. It’s deeply discouraging.
I would divide my journey into four periods, each lasting roughly 9-18 months. Your mileage may vary.
Part 1: A lost year. Despite death, life goes on, but much of that first year is just a blur to me. I vaguely remember a friend’s child being hospitalized, but it was not until two or three years later that I realized he had almost died and I had been simply unable to process it at the time. Everything I saw reminded me of Matt, because he had been part of almost everything around me. All my wonderful memories of time at the grandparents’ for the previous sixteen years included Matt, and visiting them was like scraping a wound. Grief not only robs you of the person you have lost, but also of experiences that once brought you tremendous joy, and you wind up mourning those losses as well.
This journey was emotionally excruciating, but mind and heart and body are tightly intertwined, and I hurt all over. Physically, there were times I just ached. Remember that study we looked at in which stress led to illness? I spent a lot of time that first year with random ailments, including a strange infection that took weeks of antibiotics to clear up. I slept a lot and tried to help my daughter and wife get through all this, and woke up and went to work (most days,not all) because it seemed like the only viable option.
Part 2: Pins and needles. Once you get through the first year, with all its firsts (first Christmas without Matt, first family vacation without Matt, first new school year pictures without Matt) things are supposed to get better. I’m not sure they did. Part 2 is less of a blur in my mind, but what I remember of it was not great. I still had symptoms of depression, my students from that period would tell you that I was not a very happy guy to be around, and I was still sleeping a lot. There were intermittent good days when life felt ‘right’ but there were also totally unexpected days when I woke up only to be hit full in the face with all the old pain.
If you have ever fallen asleep on your arm, you remember wanting it to come back to life so you could use it to slap your little brother or whatever. You also remember that weird “pins and needles” sensation that is a bridge you have to cross to get there, as your dozing limb sends uncomfortable data to your brain in the process. I didn’t find that the second Christmas without Matt was significantly better than the first. At some point during this phase I put a picture on Matt on the lock screen of my phone, as a reminder of the good times. I left it on there for a couple of weeks and every time I saw it I became sad, so I took it off.
Part 3: Hints of light. I am convinced that we rarely realize our depths of sadness/depression/addiction/grief until we emerge and look back. In this stage I was having more days that felt right, and fewer slap-in-the-face mornings, and from the outside I probably seemed normal, or as normal as I am capable of seeming. Holidays were still hard, and memories of Matt were still always close by but not as heavy. There were still the occasional, unpredictable days that just hurt.
I put a different picture of Matt on my phone, one I chose because it showed his zest for life. It lasted less time than the previous one had. Sometime during this phase my father died. He had been sick for a long time and I had really said my goodbyes years before, but of course his death dredged up all the old feelings again. I just kept walking each day because I didn’t know what else to do. There were more good days than bad and life in general seemed brighter than it had in a while. It took me more than three years to get here, which is depressing just to think about.
Part 4: Renewal. I don’t have a picture perfect ending to share with you here, as those only happen in pictures and on Facebook (which is where many of you read this, so I’m sorry it doesn’t end that way). I can tell you that today I usually smile as I remember Matt and the wonderful times we spent together. I put another shot of Matt on my phone, and this one took. I am told I will always have unexpected days when I am sad about losing a child, and I believe it. There are traditions and events that are lost to us forever, which is sad, but we are replacing them with new ones. And almost every day I wake up feeling good about the world and grateful for sixteen wonderful years with a good friend who just happened to be my son, and oh, by the way, couldn’t walk, which in many ways made the journey even more of an adventure.
It took me around four and a half years to get here, and I have no real wisdom to share except that it’s going to take longer than you want and it’s going to hurt like nothing you can imagine, and even when you are ‘well’ you are not going to be the same person you were before because you can’t make this journey without being changed by it.
“Time heals all wounds” is one of those truisms that we tell ourselves when someone is in pain. Rose Kennedy said the wounds heal, but the pain is never fully gone. Worth Kilcrease proposes that it’s not the passage of time that heals, but what we do with that time. In my life this consisted largely of ‘going through the motions,’or doing all the things I once did, even though they seemed pointless. Eventually, they began to make sense and provide meaning again. Today I celebrate the great memories, endure the occasional sad moments, and still ponder the impact of Matt’s life and his death on me. (Note: I have gone home early three days this week to take a nap, so birthday weeks are still tough.)
Laura reminded me the other day that we had to learn that it’s OK to feel good again after we lost Matt, and that it’s not a sign of disloyalty or disrespect to rediscover joy in life. Today we enjoy a lot of outdoor activities that we never could before, due to Matt’s physical limitations, and I am 100% certain he would approve. This irrational struggle with illogical guilt is just one more thing I can’t explain, but struggle we did.
My hope for you is that you never walk this path. If you do, I hope you are surrounded by people like we had, who led us, walked with us, and sometimes carried us along the way. Thank you, again, to all of you.
And thank you Matt, for everything. See you soon.
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