Category Archives: losing a son

A mother’s son

venezuela-prison-fire

I work as a hospital chaplain and yesterday we were involved in the tragic death of a young African American man in police custody, just a block away.  The young man was brought to us, and large numbers of police and family and friends followed him to our ED. The death was a Coroner’s case so there was a certain protocol in operation whereby the family could not be in the room with the deceased.  Outside the hospital tempers flared and emotions were raw. Those gathered distrusted the police and anyone in uniform, including police chaplains and our own security guards. They screamed, “They killed him.” It was bad.

The mother had apparently come to the ED and been turned away and told she couldn’t see her son. So she left. I spoke to a family member and had her call the mother to come back: we would make sure she got to see her son. Somehow.  I knew how important this was. My son’s death had been a coroner’s case. My desire to see him was so intense it felt like I couldn’t possibly survive it.  I didn’t want that for her. At least she could see him even if she couldn’t touch him.

The mother arrived back on the scene. She was, of course, devastated; she begged to see her son one last time.  She felt that the authorities were trying to cover up the details of the death. We (the other staff chaplain and myself) assured her that we were there for her, and we took her and her son’s Godmother inside the ED to a waiting room.  Outside the crowd was given water and apparently calmed down some once they saw the mother was being shown respect and care.

The other staff chaplain and myself advocated with the coroner’s representative on the mother’s behalf, and eventually they agreed to let her see her son through the glass door of the ED room.  She was in a wheelchair, as she had difficulty walking for physical and emotional reasons, so I wheeled her to his room. She just needed a minute or so, then motioned them to close the curtain.  I wheeled her out of the hospital to join her family. It was then that her emotions overwhelmed her and crying and keening ensued from her and all those around her.

In white America we have learnt in good Anglo-Protestant fashion, to suppress and control our outward expressions of grief. We weep silently into tissues, and later take our grief to a doctor to be medicated, or to a counselor to be talked through.  We track our progress according to rationally identified and researched “stages.” It is considered inappropriate, even distasteful, to noisily cry and moan at deaths, wakes or funerals. Instead we medicate our unpleasant emotions. Anger, sadness, grief…take a pill. Take two.

“Stiff upper lip.”  “Be a man!”  “Don’t embarrass me in public.”  “Hold it in.”

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But African Americans often grieve differently. In my experience in ICUs they are often very vocal and physical in their grief. They sometimes physically “fall out,”   in ways that Anglo-American nurses find disturbing, even disrespectful, and label as a form of exhibitionism. But this is not the case. The people are grieving. Explaining this to our hospital superiors outside the ED was important: we should not be trying to restrain and contain their expressions of grief, we should not be considering arresting them for disturbing the peace outside the hospital, we should be tending to them, giving them space, offering them water and chairs. And so that is what the staff did.

The deceased’s mother and her family members were expressing their grief in culturally acceptable and, from a psychological perspective, probably healthier ways. But the hospital onlookers were uncomfortable and, sensing that, the family shepherded the mother into a waiting car. The gathering then quickly dispersed to return to their neighborhood, continue their grieving, and tend to the family.

I used the word “keening” above. Keening is a form of very vocal crying and moaning that was part of many cultures’ response to grief in the past. In my Irish background culture it was normal to have keeners at wakes and in the funeral procession to the grave.  In a sense, they had the job of giving voice to the pain and grief being held inside by the stoic family.

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To the mother and her family and community gathered at the hospital, keening was not a conscious choice but a visceral reaction. This was how they showed each other and the world their pain. To do any less would probably have been emotionally and physically impossible and, within their community, to do any less might have seemed disrespectful and unfeeling.

In our ever more melting pot of a society we need to learn about the ways of expressing grief that our neighbors are likely to have. And as an adopted Anglo American myself I need to overcome my Catholic and cultural discomfort with showing physical emotion and making noise to accompany my grief.  So far I have managed to scream and cry while alone in the car – not while driving.  I have yet to do it in front of anybody else.

 

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Memories – Beautiful and Painful

I recently discovered the work of a local artist who had an exhibition where I work. One painting struck me to the core: it was Malcolm! Or at least it could have been. Same build.  And the cap. And he is fishing – and Malcolm loved to fish. I had to have a copy. So I contacted the artist and now I have a print hanging in the dining area.

herb willey's malcolmArtist: Herb Willey                                                                                                                              https://www.facebook.com/herb.willey

 

The painting was a beautiful reminder of Malcolm. Another reminder at work recently was completely devastating. A young man jumped off the parking garage to his death. I was at work when it happened and it plunged me into a depression. I should have been able to save him. Why hadn’t he waited, maybe I could have talked him down?  Magical thinking, of course. I didn’t even know him and had no way of knowing what he planned to do. But reason had nothing to do with my reaction.

A few weeks passed. The anniversary of Malcolm’s death loomed. And then the daughter of one of the patient’s on my floor committed suicide and they asked me to come and support her brother – he felt guilty. The mother was in a coma, and would probably never know. So he was actually losing both of them. I couldn’t do it. I had nothing to offer; I felt empty.

I walked out. I told my boss I needed a few days off.  A few days turned into a few weeks and now I am heading back to work tomorrow. (Positive thoughts and prayers would be welcome.)

What have I learned from this? Life is full of reminders, positive and negative. I cannot ever be free from them. However much we might try to insulate ourselves emotionally from the effects of our loss, there will be days when we are stabbed in the heart once again. There are suicide attempts in the hundreds every year in my city and some of them will end up in the hospital where I work.  It is inevitable. I have to find a way of keeping myself emotionally protected while being able to offer support and empathy. A difficult dance. But March 19 comes around every year, so I have no choice, I have to find a way – or give up my job as a hospital chaplain. And May 14 comes around every year, too – his birthday. I don’t want to miss the positive reminders so I will have to accept the painful ones, too. The painful and the beautiful memories – every year.

Just for Today

Ten years. Ten thousand sighs. Ten million tears.

Inconceivable that it could be so long, that I have carried on.

Unbelievable became the truth;

Grief became the norm.

But slowly inconsolable became absorbed

And glimmers of hope emerged.

Would there be new life one day,

Would I be glad I stayed?

Today.

I’m glad today.

And that’s all I have.

malc smiling

I am struggling

mother hug

These past few weeks it feels as if the tsnumai is winning. Each day I feel as if it is pulling me down and I am struggling more and more for breath. I thought it would get easier after his anniversary passed, but then we moved towards his birthday and I realised it is on Mother’s Day this year: May 14th. I can’t seem to get past this. I want to write something for mothers who have lost children and who are facing mother’s day with that pain. Maybe that will help.

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 physical house, as in our emotional house, remains a room full of scattered pieces of Malcolm’s life. We visit his 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.

 

missing you

Malcolm is gone
Malcolm is cold
Malc cannot laugh
Malc cannot smile

Malcolm is forever silent
in the world
But in my head Malcolm laughs
And says ” ‘ello Mum”
And giggles, probably high on weed
Little did we guess how often, how much
But there is nothing to forgive there

Malc we don’t care about your bong
But we miss the songs you would have sung
with TJ at Flint Creek
And the jokes
And the smelly fish you would have caught
We miss the friends you would have brought to meet us
And the stories of their exploits

We miss the graduation we would have celebrated
And your struggle to find
Your bliss behind a camera or a pen
we miss your smells and your noises
your moods and your fears
we miss the comfort we might have offered
Or the support we might have shared
We miss our growing old and feeble around you
And knowing you would always care
we miss your eyes your nose your hair
– you, we just miss you.

Dreams of Malcolm

Malcolm visits me at night,

a character in my dream-stories.

One night he cried,

because he was dead,

too scared to live.

Can I do it over, mom? He wept.

No, my sweet, it’s done.

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.