“Grief blisters like third-degree burns, trying to form scabs, struggling to heal, ripped off without warning by the sight of his favorite things: scuffed Adidas, an autographed Tony Hawk skateboard, Rice Krispies treats, macaroni and cheese from a box. I see him in all of these things now, but he quickly evaporates, setting off a silent alarm that plays full volume inside my head.”
I wrote these words in my book “Griefland” more than a decade ago after losing my son, Alex, to a drug overdose. He was 22. Prime time. A single phone call divided my life into the before and after. I mostly remember feeling numb to the bone.
Time, relationships, my entire world suddenly collapsed – everything distorted, blurred, completely out of focus. For months on end, I was constantly walking into walls, a stranger in my own skin, a fragmented Picasso – arms, legs, brain, and body parts scattered everywhere.
Now, almost 13 years later, when asked about the aftermath of grief, asked how I am doing, shockingly, the first thing that comes to mind is a string of words I heard not long ago in the movie, “Collateral Beauty.”
How is it, I wonder, that this unthinkable journey has left me with “a profound connection to everything?” Somehow, this nightmare has proven to be not only defining but also transformative. Grief has changed me on a cellular level – given me abundance of life, a sort of X-ray vision to see inside of people, things, moments in time.
At first it leveled me in such profound ways I wondered if I could ever feel human or sane again. The loss of my child transported me to the ends of the earth and then dropped me into an abyss of unimaginable proportions.
My co-author Nancy Miller and I would later describe this place as “Griefland,” a foreign country filled with darkness, cavernous landmines, silence, and solitude. You crash land there exiting the world as you once knew it – now stark naked, without a passport, luggage, any sort of itinerary or knowledge of what to do or how to act. In that precise moment, it felt like a one-way ticket with no way out.
I recall telling my therapist, “I want my life back.”
Sitting quietly, looking me straight in the eye, she replied, “This is your life.”
I realized then it would be up to me to discover a new normal and do whatever heavy lifting might be required to save myself.
Grandchildren were being born, my mother needed me, and work colleagues kept asking when I was returning to the office. The world wanted and needed me back.
Finding solace in writing, words became my oxygen. I wrote newspaper columns, magazine essays, spoke at women’s conferences, grief seminars, hoping that the process might help thin the emotional goo paralyzing every ounce of me.
What happened during this process was miraculous. I began discovering a pull propelling me back. Its power and fury would revive and resuscitate me – become my “profound connection to everything.”
I met people willing to lean in and accept me as is – broken parts and all. For a very long time, I straddled between life and death, carrying my secret sadness. Looking back, what my eyes saw during those early days and months was so vast and endless it stripped me of all identity, deleting and dissolving the person I used to be.
A friend whispered that I could reinvent myself – maybe write through the darkness. It was then that my co-author, Nancy Miller and I met and decided to chronicle the journey, describe the acute moment-to- moment experience of complicated, messy grief. There was little on the bookshelves describing the horrors of losing a child, no 10-step manual for recovery.
We wrote nonstop for one entire year, knowing that walking through the fire would either melt or illuminate us. It did both. Our friendship and magical alliance became the glue holding us together.
As those early years passed, as we became grief collectors sharing our own stories but also listening to others, we forged a kind of “Cemetery Club,” a community where it was safe to simply be. It was during this period I felt myself inching toward humanness again.
There was no magic bullet, no single moment, but rather, a series of dots connecting in the universe to create a constellation of compassion, caring, and renewed purpose.
I learned about my own resilience. Even on my worst days, I could sigh knowing another day was around the corner when I could start all over again. There are still days I wallow with sadness – others when I find joy without even trying. I refuse to deprive myself of either. I no longer fear the grief monster who for the longest time, seemed to follow me everywhere. I think we both grew tired of the torment.
I eventually gave myself permission to be happy again. It’s something you almost consciously have to choose. Staying stuck is so much easier. At first, you maybe live for others, but then one morning you wake up realizing you slept through the night, or maybe you didn’t drink yourself to sleep or have to take Ambien, or maybe you even discover the fire burning inside your belly again.
Feel it. Honor it. Hear the voice saying, “Yes, you can.” And that’s when you grant yourself license to give life another chance.
Somewhere between year 10 and 11, I finally got the courage to enter Alex’s room, transform it into a writing room, a creative space now filled with love and light. I wrote two more books – collections of essays on love, loss and the human condition, an effort to capture and preserve the precious and fragile moments of life so often lost or forgotten.
A few months ago, while vacationing in Mexico, my bare feet luxuriating in white sand, a cool ocean breeze brushing against my face, I caught myself smiling, inhaling the magic of Mother Nature in all her glory – and not taking one bit of it for granted.
I had worked hard to arrive at this destination. Relaxed, unhurried, anxiety-free, next to normal in mind, body, and spirit, I brushed shoulders with a woman exiting the ladies room near my cabana – our eyes locking instantly, as if destined to meet.
Making small talk at first, I learned we came from opposite coasts – she was from New York; I was from California. She confessed this was her first solo vacation as a recently widowed woman. Her fresh grief palpable, she was grateful for a time out from her new dual role as mother/father.
I told her of my loss, and somehow the conversation shifted to “post-traumatic stress syndrome” – a condition both of us are living, breathing and navigating. By the end of our visit, we agreed it should more aptly be called “post-traumatic growth syndrome.” Albeit the horrendous challenges, grief teaches you so much about being (more) human.
Healing takes time and patience. Thirteen years is a long time. I should be better at this, I think to myself late at night. But I’ve arrived at a place where there are more good days than bad. I’m healthy, alive, and passionate again. Some mornings I wake up to skywriting that leaves me breathless – gigantic X’s I swear he has sent me as a reminder to keep looking up and skyward.
Author Cheryl Strayed writes, “Grief means you truly loved.” She also suggests we “look for the loophole, the bright twist in the dark tale that reverses your story’s course.”
I’ve stopped asking myself what’s written in the stars and focusing more on the words and poetry etched inside my scars – scars that over time have morphed into marks of distinction. Life tattoos. Beauty marks.
Armen D. Bacon of Fresno is co-author of “Griefland: An Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship.” Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org, @ArmenBacon.