I had to write a paper for my interpersonal communications class. The topic of the paper i was a critical event that changed me. It was not difficult to pick an event. The death of my son changed everything. Not one piece of me remains the same. I also have to give an oral presentation of the paper on Monday. I feel a moral obligation to take my allotted 3 minutes with an audience of young people who have no choice but to listen and have a suicide awareness talk. My opening line will be one of my favorite quotes: “Life is like an ever-shifting kaleidoscope-a slight change, and all patterns alter.” Sharon Salzberg. Wish me luck and if you interested you can read my paper below.
On Christmas day 2013, I awoke at 4:45 am to find my 21-year-old son had not come home. He was missing and was not answering his phone. My mind raced with possibilities of what had kept him out all night. I called emergency rooms, jails, friends, and family members. He was not in the ER, nor in jail. One friend said they had last spoken around 3:45 am. Every theory I had formed about where my son might be was shattered when the Anderson County Coroner knocked on my door at approximately 8:30 am. Zachary had died at 4:38 am by a self-inflicted gunshot wound while sitting in his girlfriend’s car outside her house. Apparently, they were arguing and the situation pushed him beyond rational thinking.
I have heard many parents say they could not live without their child/children. I would imagine there was a time I felt that way also. But it really is not that simple when it becomes your reality. Your life does not stop when a child dies. You still have responsibilities to your spouse, your other children and even to yourself. Somehow, you continue to put one foot in front of the other and to breathe in and out. It has changed everything; not one part of me was left the same. My personality is different; my perspective on things is different; even my spiritual beliefs are different. It is a long continuous journey navigating my grief and figuring out how to survive.
From the time I was very young, I professed to be a member of the Christian religion; Southern Baptist to be more specific. Immediately following my son’s passing, I lost my ability to pray. It felt like no one was listening. The more other people prayed for me and told me to lean on my faith, the angrier I became with God. I have been unable to reconcile religion with my heartache. If I choose to believe that my son is in heaven, I am forced to accept that my merciful, all knowing, all powerful God allowed my son to die. He did not intervene with a miracle even though He had the ability. If I choose not to believe in the God I have had faith in my entire life, I am forced to accept there is no heaven for my son to be in. If he is not in heaven that means I do not know where my son is. Now, I feel I am agnostic—no faith nor disbelief in God and I do not think we can know the truth about God in this lifetime.
When my children were small, it really upset me when furniture got scratched, or when stains were left on the carpet, or when people did not remember to use a coaster under their drink. After my son’s passing, I discovered the joy of the memories that come from the “damage.” Minor damage is an indication of a life lived. I recently took a really long look at our dining room table and realized I knew where each scratch and chipped tile came from; each “injury” has its own story. Scratches in the wooden dining room chairs from my son’s combat boots suddenly became like treasured gold to me. Now, I cannot find it in my heart to replace the carpet in my son’s bedroom even though it is stained from tattoo ink. I cannot bear to erase the memory of his dream to become a tattoo artist. Those stains represent a work in progress, many hours of practice tattoos on fake practice skins, and my refusal to be a practice canvas. Life’s “damages” to material things are no longer offensive to me.
I now realize the importance of not letting a moment slip past you. The last time I saw my son, I was getting out of my car; he was getting into his. I did not speak to him; I did not even wave. I was not angry, I was just in a hurry to get into the house and out of the cold. Now I have to live with that regret. Oh, how I wish I had known it was the last time I would ever see him. Now I do my best to slow down and take advantage of every opportunity to tell someone how I feel because we are not guaranteed there will be another opportunity to say what is in your heart.
Once, I was a great listener. I was that friend that you could vent to and I would be sympathetic and understanding. Since the passing of my son, I have no tolerance for listening to people complain about everyday things. If your dishwasher broke, get it fixed or wash your dishes by hand. If you are stuck in traffic, oh well, getting there late is better than not getting there at all. Life hands out minor annoyances on a daily basis to everyone; suck it up and handle it. Even more than that, be grateful that we are not handed tragedies on a daily basis. I lost my ability to sympathize with people about trivial things, but I have gained empathy for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one, or caregiving for a loved one with a serious illness. I understand that feeling of carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. As I carry that weight, I have stopped listening, sympathizing, and have become bitter and intolerant.
All of the joy in my life is now diminished. I do not find pleasure in many of the things that I used to enjoy. If I hear myself laugh, I instantly get a pang of guilt. I feel I have no right to be happy without my first-born son. I feel as if true happiness is unattainable, no matter how hard I pursue it. Anything I accomplish does not feel like much of an accomplishment. As a parent, it seems I failed my son somehow or he would still be alive.
I have learned that the universe does not have a heartache limit. Life has a way of piling tragedies on us until we truly feel we will break. In January 2013, my Dad died. When my son died in December that same year, he was the tenth person in my circle of family and friends to die. I was trapped on a death train with no control over how long the ride would last nor who I would be forced to grief and learn to live without next. After so many tragedies rained down upon me in such a short amount of time, finding joy is proving to be difficult.
I have always been an open book. You can ask me anything and I do not mind telling my story. I have found that a lot of people do not want to hear a child loss story and many more than that do not want to hear a suicide story. I have learned to disclose less, especially when someone’s body language tells me that they are uncomfortable. Usually, the first sign comes when I say my child died. If not then, it comes after I say he died by suicide. I agree it has the potential to be an incredibly sad story, but what people do not realize is that there is so much more to the story. I want to say his name and tell them what an incredible young man he was. There was so much more to his life than his manner of death. But instead of sharing, I fall quiet and do not disclose too much for fear of making others uncomfortable.
I always thought my son was on my same level of self-disclosure. I thought we talked about everything. To my surprise, that turned out not to be true. I did not see any indication that he was suicidal that Christmas. Everything appeared perfectly normal. In the months following as I cleaned his room and did the laundry he left behind in his hamper, I discovered lots of alcohol bottles. There were empty bottles, half-empty bottles, and nearly full bottles. I had no idea he was drinking so heavily. It was shocking to me that someone could keep such dark secrets living just across a hallway from me. It makes me sad to think that he shared so much with me, but when he really needed someone to confide dark secrets in, he remained silent. He had asked for my help, guidance, and advice on so many things throughout his life, but when it mattered most he did not come to me and allow me to help him. As it turned out, he did not disclose nearly as much as I thought he had.
This critical event has changed every detail of my life. Every facet of me has been permanently altered in some manner. My personality is unrecognizable even to the people closest to me. The changes are a complex mix of both positive and negative. We learn both to deal with and to heal from the things that life throws at us. It is how survivors are made.