We experience all kinds of loss every day. Petty losses like the loss of an argument or the temporary loss of the TV remote control. Then there are the more significant losses. Loss of friends and family who move to other cities. Loss of peace of mind that results from excessive anxiety and stress. Loss of leisure time when we take on the extra responsibilities of parenthood, or elder care, or a promotion at work. And, finally, there are the profound losses: the end of a relationship, the permanent loss of good health, the death of a loved one. I know that my loss is not unique, not even unusual, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
In the past, I always had room for God in my heart and in my life. But, for a year now, grief has smothered my gratitude. From the very beginning I looked at my son’s life as a gift from God. I was sick during most of my pregnancy and lost his twin, but my son survived. They say that twins often exhibit an uncanny connection, so perhaps he felt a loss growing up that he couldn’t explain, a part of himself that was missing. I’m sure it was hard for him to know his life came with a death. Growing up, when he got frustrated and angry he would say, I didn’t ask to be born. Maybe he felt that he had to make up for his twin’s death, that he had to somehow be worthy enough for two lives in order to deserve to be alive himself. Feeling worthy was a life-long struggle for him, a battle he ultimately lost.
I was able to love my son for 24 years, to hold his hand, drive him to school, make him supper, patch his uniform, scratch his back, hug and kiss him goodnight, send him off to high school and eventually college. After college came graduate school and moving back home. Oh, the dread of living with a teenage rebel again. But he was a man, now. He loved and appreciated his life with us, and told us so on many occasions. We laughed together at memories of his teenage exploits. He seemed to have settled into himself. But, looking back I have to wonder if he ever really heard any of the praise or approval people expressed during his last few years.
I may be grateful for my years with my son, even the difficult years, but they weren’t enough. Each night it is possible to imagine him alive and escape into dreams where I relive family memories. But each morning I awake to the awareness of loss all over again. The shock isn’t as great as it was that first day after his death, but somehow the loss is always a surprise, a jolt to my senses followed by an overwhelming heaviness. Breathing requires a conscious effort, as I sit on the bed and wait for the panic to subside enough to let me begin my day. I survived yesterday, I can make it through today, I tell myself, only partly believing it. Somehow surviving seems a betrayal. The fact that life goes on seems almost grotesque. Some kind of existential joke.
These last couple of months, I have felt angry with myself for my self-pity, for writing self-indulgent reflections. Perhaps it is easier to be angry at myself than God. I know it is impossible to be angry at my son. It would feel like the ultimate betrayal. But how can I support his act of self- annihilation? I can’t. Not out of some religious righteousness, but out of anger over the vastness of the loss. I didn’t lose my son on my own, the loss is shared by his father and brother, his cousins, aunts and uncles, his close friends, even those who were not so close but knew him and appreciated his humor, compassion and kindness. At his funeral, hundreds upon hundreds lined up to say goodbye. We stood for three hours as people we knew, and people we had never met, told us how much Malcolm had touched their lives.
Perhaps I am beginning to be angry at him. How could he hurt so many people? But, the truth is, I don’t think he imagined for a second that his death would cause so much pain to so many. I don’t think he was able to internalize the love people expressed to him, in fact I don’t know that he even recognized it as love. That would require that he felt he deserved to be loved, and I don’t think he ever did.
Just yesterday a young man whom my son had mentored through a difficult adolescence stopped me on the street to give me a hug. He shared with me how difficult his year had been; my son’s death had broken him, he said. His pain was palpable; his love as apparent as the tremble at the corner of his mouth. I felt helpless, unable to offer consolation. Loss speaking to loss. Hearts too full and too empty.
Psychology teaches that the experience of loss will be compounded when there is a history of loss. So, what does this mean for me and for all those grieving the loss of my son? Living as we do in a post-Katrina New Orleans, we all have multiple losses to contend with, so our feelings of loss are magnified. But new buildings are going up and houses are being reclaimed. The blighted neighborhoods are slowly healing, the debris being swept away. It has been nearly three years since the storm and signs of renewal are overtaking signs of chaos and decay. But it has only been a year since my son’s suicide, so we are still experiencing the effects of that storm. Emotional debris still dominates our landscape.
This has been a year of firsts: first Father’s Day, first Christmas, first anniversary of my son’s death. So many firsts. They say the second year is easier, but in some ways I am not ready for it to be easier. I need to live in the loss a while longer.