I have used this space to talk about the difficult topic of losing a child since 2003 when I first sensed something horribly wrong with our son, Alex. Many of you know I wrote a book sharing my personal experience – an acute moment-by-moment description of (my) life after death. Deciding to grieve out loud was the most difficult and challenging thing I had ever done.
This month marks year 12 of Alex’s passing. It sounds like a long time, I know, but in many ways feels like yesterday. Just one of the many side effects of grief: distortion of time and memory, exasperated by phantom aches and pains, sleep deprivation, moments of acute anxiety, insanity. My handwriting has changed.
The date creeps up on us like the boogeyman and doesn’t care if we’re home, in Paris, or halfway to the moon. It finds me. Then it finds Dan. We dissolve like Jell-O in boiling water, melting into the earth, both of us teetering, walking into walls. The nightmare and steady stream of memories begin their unfolding ritual a day or two before I flip the calendar from June to July, then lingers.
This year it is especially daunting since the entire nation also grieves – blanketed in its own unique, complicated sorrow. One newscaster, referring to the police officers recently killed in Dallas, reminds viewers that these men were fathers, brothers, uncles. Sons.
We are also still unraveling from Orlando and the 49 people who died that night. With no time to catch our breath, we learn of yet another attack, more casualties – this time in Nice, France.
Right about now the “reality of gone” starts taking hold, sinking in for parents, grandparents, partners, brothers, sisters and friends. Grief is not something one quickly gets over. People often hear me say that any way you get through it is heroic.
There is no 10-step program. It’s always right there – the presence of absence, like a hideous monster sitting on your shoulder, an elephant in the room, or an empty chair at the kitchen table reminding you that something is missing. The something turns out to be a “someone.”
Last week I received a note from my cousin, Richard, giving me permission to “hate it, love it, despise it, embrace it.” He was referring to the actual date, July 17, just last Sunday. He knows it’s permanently tattooed beneath my skin, the ache ever-present.
He suggested Dan and I go out for dinner, preferably somewhere dark and quiet, move at a slow pace, then dine on wine and brownies. He offered to bake and deliver, which is quite thoughtful since he lives in Modesto.
Navigating this journey year after year, I continue finding remarkable men and women choosing survival – even though the concept itself is hard to fathom let alone say out loud. It sounds disrespectful – as if we are betraying our children in some strange way.
We have forged a kind of community, a “cemetery club,” if you will. Whether we meet in cyberspace or in person, at a neighborhood Starbucks, the patio of Le Parisien Cafe, in a parking lot or cul-de-sac, the bond is always immediate. We become each other’s light source – travel companions through the dark caverns and landmines of a place we call Griefland.
One such friend is Allison Murphy. We met a few years ago when I was invited to speak at a Survivors of Suicide luncheon for moms. Lighting candles honoring our children, we shared stories about their lives. We also brought their favorite desserts – each recipe sparking a treasured childhood memory, now drizzled with tears.
Allison and I made immediate eye contact that day. She had lost her daughter, Chloe Anne Lacey, a beautiful transgender woman who struggled with her identity and eventually lost the battle. Her mom continues carrying the torch for love and understanding, respect and tolerance.
I admired Ali’s openness and vivacious spirit despite the freshness of her grief. She brought a framed picture of her daughter, clutched it to her chest – so tight at first I remember thinking to myself the glass might break. But it didn’t. I saw in this woman’s resilience and strength, an indomitable, unbreakable spirit.
A few months ago, I learned that Ali had been diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer. Talk about life in full doses. I also heard she was financially strapped, without income or disability benefits. A mutual friend, MaryAnn Jones, invited her weekly yoga students to gather in friendship and support – in Ali’s behalf.
We met at our usual spot – an old church sanctuary near First Street and Bullard Avenue. A sea of caring, compassionate women filled the room, celebrating and honoring each other, generously sharing hearts, hopefulness and whatever we could afford financially to help Allison.
Honored to be part of the group, it was in that moment I experienced one of the unspoken gifts of grief: It’s as though we are so many dots scattered in the vast universe, capable of finding each other, then connecting to form a stunning and breathtaking constellation.
As communities strategize efforts to bring citizens together, the healing process now begins for the countless families who have lost loved ones. These tragedies remind us that grief is everywhere and that every single life matters. We must all be part of the solution. Doing nothing is simply no longer an option.