Category Archives: losing a son

Loss is like a tsunami

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In New Orleans we are very aware of the power of great waves pushed up by hurricanes. Driving along the coast recently I was reminded of this power and how much had to be rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina.

The loss of a loved one can be compared to the power of the hurricane tidal wave: it drags off someone we love and leaves devastation in its wake; the landscape of our life is forever changed. We look around and we recognize the pieces of our lives but they are all scattered, out of place. Some are damaged beyond recognition. Some merely broken. And the realisation that we have to rebuild everything again feels overwhelming, impossible, unreasonable. We just want to sit down in the midst of the devastation and quit. But we can’t. There are other people who have been made emotionally homeless along with us and we have to pick ourselves up for their sake and begin to build a new shelter, a new emotional home, a new sense of safety.

So we gather the pieces together, we reclaim our foundation and we start to rebuild.

It has been 12 years since Katrina and the coast boasts new construction on higher foundations. But in between the new houses are empty lots still unreclaimed, whose owners barely manage to keep the grass under control. Having given up and decided to rebuild their lives somewhere else the owners don’t even want to visit any more.

It has been ten years this March since my oldest son, Malcolm, died. My husband and I are still together, our emotional home has been rebuilt. We have hope and joy; we share holidays with our youngest son and extended family; we build new memories. But in our emotional house, as in our physical house, remains a room full of scattered pieces of Malcolm’s life. We visit the room, using it for hanging up shirts and holding boxes of Christmas items until they return to the attic. And on the bookshelves and in the locker remain pieces of Malcolm’s life that don’t fit anymore but we can’t part with. And that’s just how it is.

Originally written for my Traces of Hope blog, tracesofhope.wordpress .com

 

 

Hope in Seasons of Loss

traces of hope

How do I process my grief?
Does suffering have any meaning?
Do we live in a random chaotic universe?
Is it time to re-evaluate my understanding of “God”?

This book is for anyone who has suffered a loss – of safety, of one’s home, of health, of a loved one or a relationship, or of one’s faith … and found themselves asking, “Why?” And then wondering, “Who am I asking?” and hoping they were not alone.

http://www.amazon.com/Traces-Hope-Surviving-Grief-Loss/dp/1937943275

The Giant Sad

Emoticon__Sad_Face_by_Nockor

Once upon a time there was a little boy called Malcolm who had a mummy and a daddy who loved him very much. And he had a baby brother called James that he wasn’t so sure about at first, but who he grew to love and love.

Little Malcolm really liked to laugh and make jokes. He loved camping and fishing and making a secret language with his cousin T.J.. Little Malcolm had a giggle like his mother. But some days Malcolm was sad, and some days he was very, very sad. And the Sad inside him grew like a big rock.

When Malcolm was all grown and finished college he came back home top live and study some more. His baby brother was all grown up too and just starting college.

Time passed at home and Malcolm had some lovely days and lots of good friends. He went to Austria and took beautiful pictures. The sad inside him was still growing but there was room for the Happy, the Silly, the Serious, and the Helpful as well. Malcolm was helpful to lots of people, and even to his own mummy when her Sad became too big.

One day Malcolm began to feel that his Sad had grown too big; there was no room for Happy and Silly. But Helpful continued to smile a big smile so no one noticed. Then Malcolm began finding it hard to breathe because Sad was so big it filled up his whole chest.

Malcolm was so good at helping others but he hadn’t learnt to help himself. His smile was so big it could shrink other people’s Sad, but it didn’t help his own. If only he had believed he deserved help; if only he had believed he deserved people’s time and love. But he didn’t believe it. he never had.

Then one day the sad was too big altogether. It was bigger than Malcolm. And Malcolm did a very bad, very sad thing.  He took a gun and shot himself in the heart. It was the only way he could think of to get rid of his giant Sad. But he didn’t get rid of it, he passed it on to his mummy and daddy and his brother and all his family and friends. And when he shot himself he killed his whole Self – the Happy, the Helpful, the Silly, and the Serious as well. Now there was nothing left of his beautiful smile.

And now Malcolm’s mummy and daddy and his brother James  have a giant enormous Sad that is Malcolm-shaped and is sitting on their hearts and making it hard for them to breathe.

The End.

 

Rediscovering hope

It is now 2014. This year we will mark the seven year anniversary of Malcolm’s death and it will also mark a number of changes in my life. I lost my job in September and that could have been a real crisis. Well, to be honest I thought it was! But in retrospect it turned out to be more blessing than not. I have taken the time to examine where I want to go next, and I have decided it is neither back into Catholic education or into another office job. Instead I am returning to school to pursue training in Pastoral Care. Will it work out? I don’t know. But it is exciting to be trying something new.

There is a real sense of freedom when you have nothing to lose and no one to prove anything to. A small inheritance from my parents’ provided the fiscal freedom and the support of my husband provided the emotional freedom.

During this hiatus from work I have refinished lawn furniture and an old desk and chair. I have patch painted a water-stained ceiling, twice – they were very stubborn stains. I have cooked healthy meals and kept a clean house, and enjoyed doing all of this because I knew it was temporary.

The most important change was not home improvement, though, it was a change in my outlook. I have rediscovered hope. It wasn’t a sudden discovery it has been creeping up on me slowly and gently for a while now. The reason I didn’t pay too much attention was because it was not immediately obvious, the change was not linear but cyclical, just like the grief.

More to come.

The Play

When will I stop listening for the gunshot on March 19? When will I be able to leave the house without asking myself, if I’d stayed home that day would he still be alive? If I’d just told him I love you that morning would it have been enough to tip the balance? Why did I hesitate that day when I so often added those words? When will I relinquish the magical thought that doing it differently this year would bring about a different outcome, and he’d re-emerge from his other dimension and join ours again? When will I be able to drive away from the house on March 19 without thinking I was causing his death over again, abandoning him again, complying with the script of history instead of fighting it, re-writing it, recreating it?

Like a late night re-run the morning passes and everything is old and familiar and predictable; I know the words and the actions, the schedule. And now he is heading to class. And now he is handing in his last paper. He’ll get an A. And now he’s returning home unexpectedly, instead of going to his on-campus job. And now he is gently taking down the family portrait from the kitchen wall and placing it in his back pack. He will be adding his gun to that bag soon. A gun we didn’t know he had, didn’t want to know. A gun he kept hidden from us but legal, documented, following all the rules of safety. And now he is driving to the lakefront and choosing his location. He will lie down on the levee in view of the water, out of site of the houses. He will listen to the water and the birds one last time. He will breathe in the smell of spring grass and dust, oyster shells and fish. He will turn his face to the sun and feel the warmth, closing his eyes to savor the last moments of life. Then he will turn his right shoulder towards the ground and with his right hand pressing his gun against his heart he will squeeze the trigger and muffle the shot with his body, not wanting anyone to see his wound if they walked by.

A neighbor will hear the shot and call her friend who lives across the street from us. I think someone just shot himself on the levee near my house. I’ve called the police. I wonder who it is. And soon afterwards our neighbor will see a car pull up in front of our house and two plain clothes policemen will walk up the path to our door. Mal will be doing the dishes. I will answer the door. Does Malcolm villarrubia live here? My husband or my son? Your son. When was the last time you saw your son? Do you have id? Mal it’s the police asking about Malcolm.

They’ll come in then and we’ll sit down at the kitchen table. Is Malcolm in trouble? Ma’am your son is dead…we found his body…

And the air will be sucked out of the room and someone will be screaming I don’t understand over and over but in a soft voice – the screaming going on inside her head. Then the script will take over and we will be actors in a drama we would never audition for, and cannot remember the words to. But somehow we will move from one scene to the next, lip syncing while someone speaks our lines for us and someone else rearranges the set. Now the funeral parlor, now the house again, and then the chapel at Jesuit and someone is lowered into the ground.

I wish the play were over and we could go back to normal but someone is asking me to move closer. I don’t want to move closer I don’t like burials. Is this someone we know well, everybody here looks familiar. And then there is a party at our house. Where’s Malcolm, he should be here if we’re having a party? Why is James in town shouldn’t he be at school? Then everyone leaves and the play seems to be over but no one has told us how to exit. We are left on stage with the empty theatre and echoes of the last scene. What do we do now? I don’t know. Do we sleep? How can we sleep? It’s not our life any more it’s a play. Do we exist between the scenes – an R and G question? Will someone enter soon and give us our cues? And the floorboards in the darkened theatre creak in sympathetic tones as the lights slowly dim.

From Faith to Doubt to … Hope

This is a draft of an introduction to my next book. I would very much appreciate feedback.

Natural disaster, institutional evil, the suicide of a loved one. The experience of each of these tragedies results in grief and loss: denial, anger, blaming, depression, and eventually, so the theory goes, acceptance and renewal of hope – a new beginning. In the face of tragedy, understanding the common stages of grief and loss can offer victims some sense of order in an otherwise chaotic emotional landscape. But what if, while reeling under the impact of a tragedy, we also face the loss of our religious faith, and along with it the very structures of meaning that have held us together for so long? What if we find ourselves doubting the goodness of our church, the existence of God, the purposeful nature of creation, the meaning of life, the very possibility of hope?

Three separate tragedies – Hurricane Katrina, the Catholic abuse scandal, the loss of a son to suicide – connected through the common ground of grief and loss, and carrying in their wake a profound challenge to religious faith. This may seem too wide a topic for a single book, but it can’t be: this book is not an intellectual exercise; these tragedies tell the story of my life. The questions I raise here surface from the depths of my own grief and sorrow and from my desperate need to reclaim hope, the hope I once relied on, the hope I tried to offer my students, the hope that my son wrote of, even as he prepared to die.

If you are looking for a story of spiritual transformation, a wrenching tragedy followed by a poignant renewal of faith, then this book is not for you. If you need to find immediate comfort, and the reassurance that God has a Plan and everything happens for a Reason, this book will not serve you well. I’m telling you this because I don’t want to cause any more pain: grief and loss are too damn difficult already. But if you are grasping for a raft in the midst of overwhelming tragedy, emotional chaos, or spiritual drought, if you are disillusioned with organized religion, and not even sure about God, let alone God’s plan, then we are on a similar journey and maybe we can share the road for a while.

Typically, spiritual odyssey stories generate speaking engagements, t-shirts, and affirmation cards. They take the reader from the pain and chaos of suffering, sin, and loss to the comfort of forgiveness and the renewal of faith. This story travels in the other direction: from a career teaching theology and leading liturgical music — feeling that I was in God’s hands — to the desolation of suddenly feeling that God had let go.

I used to readily call myself Catholic; now I don’t know what label fits. If “Catholic” can be a cultural descriptor, the way “Jewish” is for many Jews, then I am certainly Catholic. I was born and raised in the Church, received all the relevant sacraments, earned two degrees from Catholic universities, taught theology for nearly three decades in Catholic schools, and raised two sons in the Church. I would not hesitate to check “Catholic” on a census or on a hospital admissions chart. Nonetheless, I am currently ambivalent about God and find it too distressful to attend Church with any regularity.

My story will not nurture a soul hungry for immediate spiritual enrichment, but to those who are struggling to make sense of suffering and God it offers the consolation that you are not alone. It may even help you let go of the guilt of doubting God. And for those who are searching for some sense of meaning and purpose when life seems devoid of any, perhaps it will even offer you a little hope. That is certainly my hope.

Grieving a Loss — again!

As I sat through the Synagogue service last night (when I wasn’t running to the bathroom to blot my face and rehydrate) I realised that this was more than about Billy leaving.  And I realized that grieving a loss is something that you revisit when another loss occurs.  Billy isn’t my son, but my grief over his leaving has become exacerbated by my ongoing grief about losing Malcolm.  So this is about Billy, but it is also about my other loss. Truth is, when my bunny rabbit “Pretty Girl” dies (she’s already 9 year sold) I will probably grieve excessively then, too.

Maybe it is the heart’s way of surviving a profound loss. It isn’t possible to feel all the grief associated with the loss of a child at one time, or in one season of grief, and so, when your life moves into a new season of grief because of a new loss of some kind, your heart gets in touch with some of your original pain and helps you release and process a little bit more.

Once I understood this I was less judgemental about my tears and more compassionate towards myself. I actually let myself cry and it was ok. I didn’t die and no one laughed at me, or got angry, or over-reacted as if I needed emotional triage: they just let me be and later just checked in with me and asked if I was ok. And… I was.  Sad, damp, but basically ok.