It is still difficult for me to acknowledge that it is 3 years since my dear son, James, died. The time seems endless and a split second all wrapped up in one. At the core of all is a disbelief that he has entered the past tense. Not a day goes by that I don’t find myself turning to share a thought, song, news article or passing observation.
Such is the story of mourning.
There has been much learned these past years and I find it incredibly comforting and oddly empowering to talk with other parents in the same situation. Our stories are so profoundly similar and yet intensely personal at the same time.
The greatest observation, is that grief of this magnitude is indeed universal, and you should not comparison shop. No one story is sadder or more terrible, than another. Everyone will, at some point in their life, experience this type of sorrow. It may be a parent, spouse, lover, or perhaps their precious child, but it will be impossible not to feel shaken to the core by the loss. And it does – shake to the core.
You question everything and marvel at how unfair life has become. You doubt your ability to ever allow yourself to be close to another, let alone open your heart enough to love. Touch is at times unbearable as every nerve ending is raw. The swirling fog is everywhere; short term memory evaporates; you retreat into your private world of simple comfort and pray to get through the day. Your existence is reduced to baby steps.
My loss is no greater than anyone else who has loved deeply, and we all share a common thread. How we travel the path of mourning is where compassion is required, as no one approach illustrates the “right” or “wrong”. We will each do it differently, in our own way, and that is valid.
This is not something one “gets over” and that assumption has been perhaps the most difficult for me to deal with. Learning to sit with death is what the work becomes. We don’t do death well in this culture and the need to dance around it, not address its pain or try to dismiss the emotions attached to mourning, have made me become more insular. Needing to explain myself becomes a tiresome exercise and other parents say the same. We end up retreating into our personal safe zone.
I call it my place that asks no questions and demands no answers.
Often I am told by people that “they miss the old Jean”. I miss her too and realize she does not inhabit these bones, as she once did. It is my work to discover who this new person is.
We were warned, when James died, that uncovering the new normal would be the project and how true this has been. I get up, (many days it takes everything just to get out of bed, put on the war paint, do my hair) and somehow muster enough energy to walk out the door. For more months than I would have ever anticipated, that has been the best I could do. If others expected more, they were disappointed
Being asked, even casually, “How are you?” is sometimes incredibly painful and I am at a loss as to how to respond. A poem I wrote this year called “Do you Really want to Know” helped me to answer that difficult question.
Many mourners have written about responding with “fine” to this question, and how dishonest it feels, yet it really is all one can say. It gives a sufficient response without going into all the details of how getting 2 feet on the ground that morning, next to the bed, took every ounce of their being. We don’t go into the honest details, as that would take even more energy- energy that we inevitably don’t have. Authenticity is what I crave most and I long to be totally honest and with others who are in the same place.
Interestingly, something that I had not anticipated is how liberating death and grief are. As heavily painful it can be at times, grief also has given permission to be 100% clear about what I need or want. I have reached the bottom rung of the ladder and realize that I have seen “ the worst that can happen” so the landscape is actually incredibly open.
My personal response to living with grief these past months, is that I need to hibernate. Needing to be on, with a public face for my work, can deplete, and at the end of the day I crave the silence of my nest. Entire weekends can happily be spent in solitude, not saying a word, and I am grateful to have always enjoyed my own company. I am much less social than I used to be and trust that others will understand this.
There is a certain madness to the early days of loss and even now I have moments when I think I am as crazy as Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre. It is okay to acknowledge the madness. That is essential, and if I can leave as my legacy permission to say it is okay and not uncommon to feel so helpless and vulnerable, maybe that is a truth James would like me to share.
I enjoy traveling on my own to different places, perhaps in effort to create new memories. Different terrains become appealing. I begin to quest for new memories. This is common for those experiencing profound loss and grief.
James continues to visit and his energy is a powerful force. Funny little remembrances are left on the front stoop; distinct scents punctuate the air (my sense of smell has become incredibly acute this past year) and the warbling bird song has been replaced by a phantom skateboarder that rolls down Polk Street every morning and evening. Other have heard this as well, so I am reassured that madness has not totally consumed me. He continues to influence his friends and teachers and I am so grateful that they stay in touch.
Being in nature and writing continue to be my refuge and I passionately seek out these moments. Those who are in mourning often speak of their fear in forgetting all the details of their loved one. How they walked, sat, slept, sounded, moved through the world is precious. It can become difficult to recall, over time, since the busy- ness of daily life takes over and a special energy is cultivated for this specific undertaking.
I do have a better sense now that James is and always will be, with me, and with us all. His energy was too big to be confined by his broken body. Being in the physical world I crave his presence and long to hear his music, read his writings, hold his hand once more. It would be a lie to desire anything else. What a great man he could have become. When I am still and quiet and removed from all the frantic energy of the daily world, is when I feel him most with me and perhaps this is why I have cultivated and treasure, this current lifestyle. One day I may be more involved, but for now I feel content and able to move forward with these simple limitations.
Thank you to all who continue to be so supportive and loving. Deepest gratitude to those who have supported Make-A-Wish, Hospice by the Bay and UCSF Palliative Care in James’s memory. Your gifts keep these incredible organizations helping many other families who are walking this path.
I am working on a book “The Last Tear” based on James’s story with his disease, my experiences and what death and grief have taught. It is my hope that it will help others down the road
Our time here is fleeting and we are all indeed, what I like to call, phantoms in waiting. No one will escape the reality of death or the inevitable sadness of profound loss. How we live with those realities is what makes our days rich and fulfilled and we will find our own personal stories revealed while holding on to this truth.
Taking time to be slow and mindful has become my comforting guiding principle and there is so much revealed when one steps away from the need to be on. James’s last poem “How do I want to waste my time?” plays over in mind constantly. The final line has become a mantra of sorts…”for I have found that life is fleeting, must I waste it all succeeding?”
James lives on through his gift of friendship and love.
I send peace to you all.
c Jean Alice Rowcliffe 2012