How to Befriend a Grieving Me, or Anyone

Today starts a new phase in my journey as I leave the ship and over the next few days make my way back to Victoria. During the time I have been living aboard, I have kept my sad news to myself, telling only two or three people, and then only in the context of recent griefs we have in common. When people asked if I have children, I swallowed hard and said no. I know that some people aboard know what happened because of this blog and Facebook posts, but beyond that, I don’t know how widely the story spread, because I can recall only two who acknowledged it.

And now my avoidance has to stop. Everyone I am likely to see in Victoria, and later in March in San Diego, will know that I am dealing with the loss of my son. I admit that this is causing me some apprehension. I know that people who love me are grieving for me too, and I’d like our interactions to leave us better and more meaningfully connected. This morning I thought about things that people have said and done in the past, and what has or hasn’t helped. I phrase them all in the first person because mine is the only story I am sure about, but I think most of them will generalize to grieving people and their consolers, regardless of the loss.

  1. You won’t “make me sad” by bringing up my loss(es). I am already sad. Even when I am happy the core sadness is there. Likewise, don’t worry about “reminding me.” Trust me, I haven’t forgotten. 
  2. My public behavior is a performance of the familiar Laurel. I’m not being falsely cheerful. I am not in denial. I’d just rather hold it together than lose it. I may not want to be unmasked at the moment, so don’t push me to reveal how I really feel if I don’t want to talk.
  3. One of the most painful truths is that I will not be making any new memories with Ivan. If you have a memory to share, please do so. It is the next best thing.  Speak Adriano’s and Ivan’s names aloud. I love hearing them because it reminds me that even though they are gone, they are still real.
  4. Advice about things I could do to heal may be difficult for me to accept, and may even be counterproductive.  I know it will be offered from love, but sometimes it feels as if it’s more about what would please you for me to do. I don’t have the energy to explain why some things simply are not a good fit for me, and if I am feeling weak, it may make me feel alienated and even a little angry.
  5. Be careful with the bromides, like “everything happens for a reason,” or “he’s in a better place.” It is only my beliefs that register with me, not yours.
  6. Don’t think your grief stories are evidence that you empathize. I struggle to have the energy for my own, and other people’s stories weigh me down. And besides, the truth is you don’t understand unless you have lost a child yourself. Or, in my case, both of them. And when you say you can’t imagine what I am going through, trust me that you can’t, and I don’t want you to try. Hug your own loved ones. Tell them right now that you love them. That honors my grief far better than trying to imagine yourself in my situation. 
  7. Don’t shut me out.  Don’t run away and hide. I am a walking embodiment of every parent’s worst nightmare, but I am still the flesh-and-blood person you know. Don’t treat me like a pariah. There is no perfect thing to say, and less may be more, but the best way to deal with me is to acknowledge what happened, say you are sorry and then move on with whatever has brought us together. Discuss the menu, set off on the walk, eat the gelato, get in line at the ticket booth, stop to window shop. I need grounding in the present.  
  8. Don’t judge the way I act or decisions I made or make.  You aren’t walking in my shoes, and just be grateful for that. 
  9. And last, let me take the lead. That will help most of all. And please don’t let all this advice scare you. Read #7 again.  

Past, Present, and Future

I saw a Facebook post today from someone identified only as Amy, and I am marveling at the simple wisdom of it.  She says that to move on from emotional paralysis, “You have to give up your need for a different past. You have to allow yourself to grieve for what happened or a lot of times, what didn’t happen.”  She adds, “It doesn’t mean you’re okay with what happened or didn’t happen, it means that you are accepting life now and in the past for what it was and what it is.”

I look out this morning at a beautiful blue sea dotted with whitecaps lit by the sun, approaching Australia on the last day of a two-month assignment, and I know the answer to healing lies in what she says.

I learned that my son Ivan had taken his life, probably at midnight New Year’s Eve, as I sat waiting in the Vancouver airport for my flight to Singapore to begin this assignment. The news was not unexpected—he had been suicidal off and on for years, and almost constantly in 2022. Perhaps that helped buffer the moment in the airport, because as I asked myself, “what do I do now?” the answer was simple: Go on with your life. Get on that plane. 

I should clarify that I didn’t have family to support in their grief, nor did Ivan have possessions or affairs I needed to be physically present to deal with.  Everything that needed to be done could be done remotely, and many things didn’t really need to be done at all. His creditors and bank would figure out the situation eventually, and when his rent went unpaid, the complex could use his deposit to clear out his apartment. I wanted nothing except what a friend of Ivan’s was able to rescue, and that wouldn’t even fill a shopping bag. So I went to Singapore.

I don’t regret it at all.  Even when you feel as if you are only half in this world yourself, you need a place to be.  The somewhere I chose to be provided distractions, positive things to do and experience, and time the first month with travel companions who are wise women who knew the best way to show their love was to just let me be whatever I needed to be at any given moment. 

My grief has two distinct parts.  The first is that my son was so miserable in life.  It wasn’t going to get better, at least anywhere near enough to have a life he would consider successful or happy. I think about a line from a Jackson Browne song: “And though the future’s there for anyone to change, still you know it seems/ It would be easier sometimes to change the past.” I don’t think Ivan had the power to change his future. The past, and a present taken up with things he could not manage, were too strong. I had to let him go.  It was the best mothering I could give him in the end.  

From time to time I talk to both my children and tell them how sorry I am that things weren’t different. I am sure I will grieve that way for the rest of my life. All I can do, though, is shake it off and tell myself, “enough of that thinking. It does no good.”  Any lessons there were in all this, I have had plenty of time to struggle with over the years. I need to be kind to Laurel now.  

The second aspect of grief is that Ivan won’t be here ever again for anything.  I didn’t get to have the fun phone call where I listened to him praise and frequently trash the Oscar nominations.  I couldn’t send him photos from places I knew he would love seeing. I can’t share in his highly intelligent and knowledgeable rants about the day’s political headlines. He was always better informed than I am.  And the ambushes are frequent. The other day I saw a shirt I thought Ivan would like hanging in a market stall in Noumea, and I took a step or two in that direction before remembering there is no Ivan to buy it for. And there won’t be, ever again.  

Funny, how we say those who commit suicide have taken their life, when everyone else who dies loses theirs.  I do think in the end I can say that Ivan finally took charge of his life on his own terms.  I, on the other hand, like every survivor, lost a little of mine. I have to figure out how to get it back.  My life has changed, and I feel in my bones it will be different—still unknown and intangible but, as always, beautiful and abundant. Time to walk into my future, with my grief tucked into my heart. I’m ready. 


Stop, Drop, and Roll

It has been six weeks since my beloved son Ivan died. Since numbness doesn’t produce much coherent thinking, I haven’t figured out much I want to share until now. 

One of the themes of early grief is the screaming desire for a do over.  Just a chance to have him back, give him one last hug, try one more thing.  But when the death comes, as Ivan’s did, after a long, agonizing end stage from which there didn’t seem to be any other escape, I would only want him back healed and happy. If there is anything after death, he is both of those now, and reunited with his brother Adriano, who is healed and happy as well.  It would be utter selfishness to want it otherwise. Still, the drone in the background of this stage is two words:  Too Late.  For anyone who cared about a dead loved one, those words are heartbreaking.

I think about the new hard facts.  There is no one now I can share memories with about our family. I will never see either of my sons settled into happy relationships with women they love. I will never have a grandchild. No one will ever say, “Hi, Mom” to me again. I had difficulty for years looking at photos of my intact family because we never saw all of this pain and loss coming.  My last chance for a happy outcome is gone.  Except for me, I remind myself. I will go on, and though I already know I have changed, I will find a way to be happy and at peace in this new reality.

I sometimes thought that if I had to do it all over again, I would still marry their father, not because he was a good choice for me, but because I wanted those two beautiful people to come into this world. But giving the gift of life to my sons and having them in the end not want it calls for some difficult reckoning. I can’t imagine any mothers of children who ended their lives not wondering whether it was a good thing to have brought them into this world. Yet, when I look at photographs of Adriano and Ivan as children, I  see that their faces are happy and that there were many, many good times.  They knew how much I loved them and they loved me back.   I will have to settle for that love being enough of a reason to have taken this journey together. 

 I feel as if I am beginning another stage. I accept that Ivan has died, but I can’t quite grasp that there is no more Ivan. Nothing that happens from now on will include him. That is where the ambushes come from and will never completely stop.  The French writer Colette  put it this way:

‘It’s so curious: one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses.”

A few years back I was going through some memorabilia and came across an old audiotape of Ivan when he was in preschool.  He was telling me what he had learned that day about keeping safe in a fire. In his tiny voice, filled with solemnity,  he told me I was supposed to stop, drop, and roll. I wish I still had that tape, but maybe Ivan is still trying to tell me that. 

Stop, drop, and roll, mommy.  Just stop, drop, and roll. 


May my heart always be open

A year ago today, while in Costa Rica, I learned from a neighbor that Ivan was missing from his apartment and had been acting strangely for days. Eventually a social worker found me and told me he had suffered a manic episode extreme enough to be hospitalized. I had to leave the ship I was on to rush halfway across Costa Rica for a flight to Phoenix to be with him. The drugs he took to keep future episodes at bay sent him on a downward spiral of depression and other health issues that he tried in vain to overcome all of 2022. Now, a year later I am once again in a place of great beauty trying to comprehend what happened, and what it means for my own life.

I am still sifting through my thoughts and don’t quite know what I want to write yet, but tonight, as I wait in Tahiti to join a ship in a few days, I saw this sunset, and an ee cummings poem I hadn’t thought of in years came to mind. I will let him speak for me.

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old
may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young
and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile

Tonight I pulled the beautiful sky in this photo over me and smiled. I am going to be fine.