Grief is exquisitely personal. This makes sense – our loss over someone will be as personal as our relationship with them. Mourning a death is easy. It is an event. You get a certificate. You have a funeral. You bury someone, or cremate them. The hard part is mourning a person. One reason I think we have the event is to make the loss easier to deal with. A formal time to grieve and express yourself is healthy. It can also be inadequate. I am not trying to put down a thesis on grief. I am just trying to understand how it affects myself. My experience will not be yours, and I hope yours passes well and teaches you all you need.
My grief started well before the death of my son. I’ve lost grandparents, parents, and a sister. But losing a son was very different. My first brush with this death was nearly eight years before he was born. My mother was dying from cancer. I was newly wed and we drove to her home in Orem for an overnight visit.
The next morning I was in the kitchen when my mother got up. Over breakfast, she told me of her dream. In it my wife, Naomi, and I had a child with Down Syndrome and heart defects. She also said he had many other problems, both at school and home. It was really hard on us, and then he died.
I told her that her friend, Andrea, had just had a baby boy with the same issues and she was reflecting that on us. It was a logical explanation, but it didn’t feel that way. I felt this was something else. I come from a religious home. This isn’t the first time I’d seen a forewarning or dream that was more than a dream. God opened a window, and I slammed it shut.
Eight years later Andrew was born. He had Down Syndrome, multiple heart problems; he needed surgeries and oxygen. He also had Autism and behavioral issues. He was not an easy child, but he was a delightful one.
I can still hear his husky little laugh in my mind, and often cry when I do. Two years after his death, I hurt in some ways more than I did when he died from pneumonia. The permanence of death took time to build up.
Today I deal with this loss in many ways. My wife and I often reminisce over his life. It is surprising how many stories we have forgotten. We don’t want to dwell on him, but we also want to rejoice in his life with us. Yes, we know he is in a better place, but that does not always help. Our grief is ours, and comes and goes in odd ways. His sister also has an undue burden here. She was older and was kind of a co-mother. She often cared for him. She left for school, then a mission, then more school, and marriage. She really never lived with us after high school. It would be easy to see his loss as just another event in her life. But she loved him deeply and his loss hit her deeply, too.
For me, it took eight months to break. My wife was about to leave for four days at BYU’s Education Week. With Andrew, we had started vacationing separately. Anyone with an autistic child knows they don’t always travel well. For us to enjoy an event like this, we would need a sitter at home with him. I would take time off work and watch him while Naomi recharged. This next trip was planned before he died. I found myself facing a week alone, without him or my wife, and I broke – and broke badly. She changed some plans and we went together.
This is just one way we cope with this loss. Holidays can be hard. Sunday church meetings are difficult. Andrew loved going to church. I knew he was really sick and weak, yet he wanted to go to church the Sunday before he died. The next night we took him to an ER. It was his third hospitalization in six months, and his last. He passed away that Friday.
How do you heal a wound like this? I studied grief and all of its phases. I never really had the denial part, or the bargaining. In fact, I think the whole idea of categorizing grief is ludicrous. It would be like trying to force a special needs child to comply with the standard exams designed for “normal” children. Oh, we do this too. Learning about grief did not help. Counseling helped some, but not as much as I’d hoped. The best help for me has been to spend time with my wife and listen to her thoughts on our lives together. I’d like to do more of this with others, especially with my daughter, but in her life with work and a four-year-old, you don’t just pop in and open up a can of pain.
Right now, I don’t have an answer. I do realize I need to be happier. This needs to be a conscious effort. I cannot wait for it to just come. I need to decide who I am and force march myself there. Nothing is ever easy. Andrew wasn’t easy. I never spent much time worrying about that at the time. We learned to laugh at things, cheer up, and move on. That is my advice to myself now. I just can’t seem to take it.