Walking each other home is a privilege. Here are 19 gifts I’ve picked up as I walked alongside my son through the final year of his life.
TW: suicide, depression, grief
On a cold wintry night, just over a year ago, my son and I sobbed and argued together as he finally admitted the truth about his plan to die.
As his mama, I already knew.
I knew him better than any other human on this planet. I feel like I knew him in ways he did not know himself – because I could see his strength and gifting so clearly, how beautiful he was, wanted and needed. I could see how perfectionism (a risk factor for suicidality), feelings of brokenness, and weariness lied to him about his worth and his ability to find his way forward.
As we sat and cried together that wintry night, Jairus opened up and laid out his thought process. He told me the only reason he hadn’t left already was because he didn’t want to hurt me. But now he informed me in no uncertain terms, I was going to have to bury my child.
We loved each other. But despite my pleas, my efforts to love and come alongside and offer practical help and encouragement, despite advocating hard for him (and I did advocate hard – I did not simply accept his decision without fighting for his life and without helping HIM fight for his life), despite his sisters’ love, his dad’s love, the love and acceptance of his best friends – over the next year I would walk him home.
We are all just walking each other home.
— Ram Dass
I don’t want to focus on the details of the horrific pain and trauma we walked through. Of the depth of grief and loss we wade through moment by moment these past 69 days. Nor even of how proud I am of him – and of his sisters – how they loved each other. And how much I liked him as a human – not just loved him as his mom.
I don’t want to focus right now on my deep rage at the brokenness and ineffectiveness of our health care and mental health care system. At how poorly trained most of our first responders are (or how little support they get for their own mental health). Or at how many health professionals had an opportunity to be part of Jairus’ healing yet contributed to him losing all hope and ultimately to his death. I watched the last drops of hope drain from him following these encounters.
Maybe over time I’ll write more about all of this – and join the fight for positive reform. But right now, I’m still fighting for my own wholeness and that of my family.
I’m still trying to face the brutal and crushing reality that this boy that I carried in my womb, that I gave birth to, who I loved for 23 years and who was one of my favourite people of all time – my son who I’d have willingly traded my life for – is really truly gone. I was powerless to keep him alive and well, yet I must keep living – fully and on purpose – without him.
We’re not aiming to be perfect; we’re aiming to be whole. –Elizabeth Stanley, Ph.D.
Instead, as I look back over 2019 and as we step into the new year, I want to focus on 19 gifts I’ve picked up as I walked alongside my son through the final days of his life.
19 GIFTS I’VE RECEIVED AS I WALKED MY SON HOME
1. I’m Intensely Proud of Each of My Children
I witnessed how my three children loved each other, how my girls rose above really scary and horrific circumstances to be there for each other and their big brother. How much my son loved his sisters and did not want to hurt them. I am so incredibly proud of my son, of who he was, and how he fought for life with everything he had left.
2. My Husband and I Have “Moved Toward” Each Other
I am grateful for how my husband and I have moved toward, instead of away from each other, in the hardest season of our life. Even though we had fear about leaving the country while our son was not “ok”, we went to NOLA to celebrate our 25th anniversary this summer. We will continue making regular time for dates and prioritizing each other in this new year. We’re not out of the water though – up to 8x normal divorce rates, depression, and negative health outcomes are common amongst parents who have lost a child (1).
3. I am Grateful for My Girls
My girls keep me getting out of bed. I don’t try to think too far ahead right now but continue to make plans for the next few months of life (like for a girls’ trip to Bath, UK, in February) because they deserve to keep living and to have a full, joyful life and they deserve a mom who is whole and present for them. A woman I connected with via my work told me that the day her brother died was also the day she lost her mom. I don’t want this reality for my girls. Bonus: parents are less likely to experience a marital disruption when they have other living children at the time of the death (2).
4. My Husband and I Have Continually Said Yes to Growth
My husband and I have both been strengthening our coping skills these past years, choosing growth and maturity. We’ve conciously worked at communicating better and practicing vulnerability. Our willingness to do this messy, sometimes soul-stretching work has held us fast through the fear, devastation, and searing pain of this season.
5. I’ve Practiced the Power of Surrender
I think I’ve mostly surrendered my own desires and thoughts about my capacity to plan my own future. Losing my dad 6 and my mom 17 years ago introduced me to surrender. I didn’t choose my son’s suffering and death, I didn’t choose the bad car accident that left me injured and concussed just a few weeks prior to my son’s death. But I have learned this – when I focus on who and how I choose to be TODAY, or in this one moment, and loosen my grip on a precise outcome, when I show up to life awake and on purpose – I find my way forward. I will give myself time and space to heal – this is not something one simply “bounces back from.” My life is changed forever. I am changed forever.
6. I Witness the Truth That Joy and Pain can Coexist
I am able to see beauty in this season of life – like in the gift of my son’s friendships. I practice gratitude day and night. I give myself permission to laugh in the moment, to make love to my husband, to grieve intensely. To be fully present to what is. None of this “fixes” what is broken. It all simply coexists side by side reminding me that life isn’t ALL bad or all good but a messy tangle of beauty and suffering, strength and struggle.
7. I Live on Purpose in Every Season
I do not seek to find purpose in my son’s suffering – there was so much pain and violence in it all – I won’t make his precious life a means to an end. But I do live with a strong sense of purpose which propels me forward and will lead me to wholeness, slow and steady. And I will use this life experience to love and encourage others, thereby helping build a kinder world. It won’t bring back my son and that makes me angry. For people suffering loss via natural or violent death, there exists a “link between inability to find meaning in the experience and the intensity of complicated grief they suffer.” (3, 4)
8. Walking Each Other Home is a Privilege
Walking each other home is, in itself, a gift. To belong to each other is a gift. It was a privilege to know, love and share life with my son. Every day we had with him was a gift – even the really dark, scary days. I loved him so completely and although the journey was messy and hard, although I wanted him to find healing and to have a future and a hope, although I would never wish a life of suffering upon him given the chance to choose, it was a privilege as his mom to walk him home.
9. Community is a Powerful and Necessary Gift
I witnessed in tangible ways, the gift of community. Although people can cause harm – by making assumptions, refusing to respect boundaries, or making our loss about them – mostly, what we have witnessed is that people want to come alongside and offer love and help. We’ve received financial donations (so incredibly helpful), gifts of food dropped off at the door without expectation of hugs or conversation, prayers or thoughtful encouragement, my sisters came to feed us and drive our daughters on errands, friends and family came to help me bring my vision for my son’s memorial to life. These examples are the tip of the iceberg. We have needed community. We need each other.
10. Writing my Seasonal Mindfulness Journals
Never would I have imagined that writing my seasonal mindfulness journals would act as a lifeline for me through the final year of my son’s life. Never would I have imagined that publication of the Winter Mindfulness Journal would mark the end of Jairus’ life and be used to start an art scholarship in his name. I don’t understand how or why life works the way it does – but writing these journals was a gift.
11. Living Mindfully Keeps me from Drowning
The only way I could survive this year was by pulling my heart and mind back over and over from yesterday and tomorrow to focus on breathing in this one moment. Focusing on what needed doing in the moment or what I had control over in each day. Overwhelm lurked behind every corner and I knew that I could not keep advocating for my son or offering any kind of hope or possibility to him if I fell apart. So I focused on one small step and then another. This is how I continue to survive today.
12. Asking for and Receiving What I Need
I’ve needed plenty of help in this season – counselling, texts with a family support person, meals, friends who keep reaching out to remind me I am loved, emergency rides, people to pull me out of a car wreck, the list goes on and on. But here’s the thing I want to highlight – I have used my voice to ask for help and I have chosen to receive help. Many people don’t do this. Life isn’t perfect – this goes without saying – so there will be times we feel let down, deeply disappointed, or even that our boundaries have been violated. But that is not a good enough reason to give up. I asked for help searching for my son one day when we felt he was in grave danger, I’ve asked for consistent walking partners to get me outside and moving my body each week, I’ve asked for help to cover funeral costs, I’ve asked for (paid) help cleaning my house after my car accident and then death of my son because I cannot keep up with everything I normally do, I did EMDR sessions (trauma therapy) this summer and will likely do more. I’ve asked for so much help because I’ve needed it. But I still had to risk asking.
13. I said YES to my Brave & Beautiful Community
Saying yes to this community (a seed that was planted a few years ago) in the middle of uncertainty and sorrow was an act of saying yes to life – to the fullness of it. The sorrow and heartache and to purpose, health, and joy. This gathering of beautiful, growth-minded women in the messy middle of life makes space for me to teach and encourage as I dive into the research around self-compassion, mental health, mindfulness, and more. It gives me a place to operate in my gifting, to make a difference in the world, and to commune with other people who feel a little beat up by life. I am proud of myself for saying yes to meaningful work and connection when it would be easy to spiral down. I am proud of each of the women who have said yes to joining me.
14. Connecting With Other Mamas Who Know What I’m Walking Through
Connecting with other mamas who have lost a child reminds me I can survive this – women like Cynthia Lee who lost her son in a car accident two years ago or Kathy Escobar whose son Jared ended his life just 5 days after Jairus – memorials for both our sons were even held on the same day. Or my dear friend, Jenn, whose sweet daughter Nora died of a brain tumor just before Christmas 8 years ago. There are also countless parents who have emailed or messaged me with their lived stories. If you have buried a child, if your child struggles with mental illness or suicidal ideation, if you are part of the club of parents who’ve lost their child to suicide – you are not alone.
15. Learning to Hold Space
A few years ago I came across Heather Plett’s blog post about holding space and having lost many people I loved, the idea made sense and offered a new way to think about walking “alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome.” But these past 12-18 months “holding space” has moved from theory to alive and visceral as I held space for my son as he poured out rage, fear, pain, hope, desire and desperation. And now I continue to practice for my daughters and husband and for myself as we each find our way forward.
16. The Car Accident
It feels ridiculous to list our car accident in September as a gift – but there it is. I am still living in pain from it, experiencing anxiety and fear from it. But the financial pay-out from it, instead of paying off the loan for a replacement car, went into the bank to cover months of lost wages (at a time when we needed more money than usual) both from the accident itself and then the death of our son. And the physical treament plan (physio, chiro, massage, doctor appointments) forced me to get showered, dressed, and out of the house when I’d rather have hid in bed forever. I’m pissed off about the injustice of it – and also naming it a gift all at once.
17. Talking About Death and Our Wishes
While uncomfortable, I believe it’s important to talk openly with our loved ones about our wishes after we die. Avoiding death doesn’t change its inevitability. Losing someone is incredibly hard work – we had to clean out my son’s apartment, close accounts, plan a memorial that would honor who we was, figure out how to “disperse” his important life. My son and I had many conversations over the years (both when he was healthy and while suicidal) about his wishes re: cremation, no life support, no graveyard ceremony, etc. I knew what he wanted. Over the years I’ve modelled this by talking with my husband and kids about important passwords, our will and life insurance policy, my wishes after death. It seems horrible but really it is a gift because it makes the work easier for those left behind.
18. Compassionate Police & Medical Personnel
Some of our experience this year felt like a horror movie. It was so ugly and scary and amplified by an archaic medical system, ridiculous laws, untrained first line responders. It confirmed my son’s deepest, worst fears about what it would mean to admit the truth of his suffering and seek help, or to spend time in a mental health facility. It was bad. But there were good, hopeful bits too. There was the Edmonton Police Constable who did everything in his power to treat my son and us with dignity. There was the young adult program in Edmonton (Unit 12-A of Alberta Hospital)* which showed us that there are people who care and programs that treat people living with mental illness with dignity and who understand that some of the laws in place cause harm. Although I take issue with their decision to release my son from care in just three weeks despite my urgent protests, they showed us that there are “safe spaces” in this world.
19. The Gift of Writing
I thought writing would come more easily after Jairus left than it has. But even the snippets of writing I find energy for in my grief journal have felt helpful. The depth of my pain and sorrow is scary. Writing can be healing but it also triggers panic attacks some of the time. I tread softly. I listen in and trust myself. But I know that I must find a way to get some of this love and sorrow and pain and missing Jairus out of my body and heart and onto paper or I will implode. Some days it feels like I will die if I don’t talk about him. I announced recently that I was finally moving forward again with my book, Unshackled but it is very slow going. Life is hard right now – but I do think that writing will serve as an important catalyst in my healing and living on purpose in the next year.
I don’t think it is right or fair that a parent ever have to bury their child. I never ever could have imagined that this would be part of my journey. That I would only get 23 years with my son who I adored. He made life better. But he is gone and there is not a thing I can change about that fact.
What I can do is to scan for beauty and the gifts in each ordinary day like my life depends upon it, and to use every day that I have breath to offer up the tiny bit of light I have to others.
We are all simply walking each other home.
NOW WHAT? Please share in the comments a gift or two you’ve picked up as you walked through 2019. Or head over to the resource page I made for you On Grief: Living Whole and Brave after Loss.
“Less than 25% of Canadian youth in need of mental health & addiction services, receive the care they require. This is often because of a disconnect between the places where youth typically present for help and organizations that provide the help they need. This results in most youth experiencing significant delays in seeking help, excessive wait times, and long, often traumatic pathways to care. It also contributes to disengagement of help-seeking youth, resulting in reduced youth participation, increased drop-outs, and minimal health benefits.”
**ACCESS Open Minds Edmonton is a walk-in clinic for youth/young adults aged 16-25 seeking addiction and mental health supports (it can also be used as an outpatient clinic). If your child, friend, sibling needs help – this may be a starting place if you live in or around Edmonton, Alberta.