When I first heard the news of my son dying, it was a phone call from his dad at the hospital and we heard the news at the same time as the doctor came out to explain what happened. Later we’d find out that he’d been gone since 2:55 am and nothing could have been done. His pacemaker was steadily going and would later tell us what happened. His heart sped up then stopped. Just stopped. In his sleep. Those words his dad said before he dropped the phone echo in my mind like a bad song or a radio jingle. “He’s gone.” Then silence. Then screaming. Then my son’s uncle giving his condolences and telling me to call him when I’m ready to talk. At that point, I didn’t know how the stages of grief would play out. My world had ended and I only knew that my heart was broken.
It’s been 13 days. We’ve had a funeral and 2 memorials. I’ve driven from Washington, where I live, to California, where my son lived with his father, and back since then. I’ve had a memorial service for him for family that couldn’t make it to California for the funeral. I’ve also had said family not show up to the memorial because of previous plans, namely a birthday camping trip that could have waited until morning. But I digress. 13 days later and I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel. I just know that the things you’re supposed to do to help everyone else with closure is done. What’s next?
They say the stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I’ve also heard it said that these stages are fluid and not linear at all. You can jump from stage 3 to 1 to 4 to 5 and back again. You can even skip stages altogether, never experiencing them at all. Everyone grieves differently and this is the account of my grieving process thus far.
When the news first hit me, I was anguished. Is that a stage? Where would that fit?
Bargaining and anger seemed to mingle as I looked for a reason for this. I wanted to blame something. Something other than his faulty heart. I thought the pacemaker stopped working or the kid had taken something–committing suicide. My son was not suicidal, so that made no sense, but my brain was going anywhere it could to find a reason for this. Not that his heart simply gave up the 15 year 4 month 2 week 49 minute fight. No. It couldn’t have been the Ebstein’s. We fixed that when he was 10. He had a pacemaker put in at 12. He was fine. It had to be something else.
Then I felt the warm blanket of depression. That has yet to subside, even for a minute, for another stage to take over. It colors everything I do, everything I think, everything. I struggle with making food, though I will eat if you bring me something. I’ve taken up smoking half a pack a day. I started during a move the weekend before all this happened, but picked up on my frequency after it happened. Showers. What are those again? Brushing teeth. Meh. I’m on automatic mode when anything actually gets done. And I have to move into my new apartment next weekend. It’ll happen. It’ll go smoothly and quickly. But that warm blanket will be calling me the entire time. They have a new name for this: functional depression. I’ve been doing it for years for other reasons, but nothing this heavy. Nothing this hard.
Anger hit, over and over, until his rhythm specialist told us what the pacemaker said. I wanted to sue the pacemaker company for a minute, then I wanted to sue his cardiologist for cutting the nerve in surgery–nevermind that I had signed a waiver for such things–then, after I found out he was drinking Kickstart energy drinks without his parents knowledge, knowing that he wasn’t supposed to drink those due to his heart, I wanted to sue the liquor store that was selling a 15 yo boy energy drinks. Someone had to be blamed. I wanted to hold someone accountable, but could find no one. None of these thoughts were reasonable. As if anger ever is.
Bargaining was the most disturbing to me. I thought of saving tissue for cloning, saving sperm for grandkids (this one fucked with me the most), keeping his pacemaker, taking his ashes home… if you notice they get less and less disturbing as I went on. This is actually the main reason I wrote this essay; The very disturbing thoughts of bargaining that can happen when you lose a loved one too soon. I want others to understand that grief can make you think things that don’t seem normal. It can bring you to the point of irrational thought, but it’s not disordered. It’s okay to think these things. Reason and rational will win out in the end, but grief is never reasonable or rational, so never fault yourself for these thoughts. Never give yourself over to them either. Let them play out in your head and allow them space. They will eventually be exposed for the frauds that they are and you’ll come out in the end with a better perspective. Fighting these thoughts and shaming yourself or others for them will actually make it worse. Allow the unreasonable thoughts room and space to work themselves out. Your brain will find its balance naturally. If you continue to have these thoughts after years and try to take action on them, please seek help. Therapy isn’t something to be ashamed of either.
Denial, though labeled stage 1, didn’t hit me until later. I actually went all conspiracy theorist about it. I had an idea play out in my head that they were faking all of this to keep me from my son. Seriously. After I let the thought play out, I realized it’d make a great short story or even a book, but that’s as far as I allow these irrational thoughts to go. I still get a tinge of denial here and there, even after seeing him in his casket. I still fight with myself that this is real. I want to wake up so bad, crying and sweating in my bed, to be held by my partner and find none of this ever happened. I know that’ll never happen, but it doesn’t keep me from wanting it with every ounce of my being.
Acceptance comes and goes as well, usually after a ridiculous denial story my brain made up to make me feel better. All of this is to make you feel better and your brain will try anything. Mine has resorted to a blank mind. I can do things, talk and interact just fine, but there are no pre-thoughts. Surprisingly, I’m less awkward and more in tuned with the people in my environment due to the complete lack or over analyzing and anxious thought. It’s just quiet in there and that’s weird for my overworked, constantly running, unquiet mind.
It’s ok to miss them when they’re gone. It’s ok to cry, be sad, skip a few meals, eat only cake for a week, and even take up smoking for a time. It’s not ok to allow it to rule you. If you find yourself not carrying on after grief, please seek help. Your loved one would be devastated to find out you’re allowing yourself to waste away. My son loved school and played the cello, piano and guitar. He loved learning and loved life. It’s now my job to honor him by carrying on that spirit. That spirit that I bestowed upon him in the first place. Will it be hard for the coming months? Fuck yeah, it will. No parent should lose a child. But missing him will never keep me from my goals. He would hate me for allowing it to.
Here are some national helplines to help you with your grief.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
United Way Helpline 1-800-233-HELP (1-800-233-4357)
Youth America Hotline 1-877-YOUTHLINE (1-877-968-8454)
IMAlive online chat help http://hopeline.com/online/
Crisis Chat http://www.crisischat.org/