In this powerful reflection ESR MDiv student Anne M. Hutchinson shares about the loss of her son.
Everything about that phone call felt wrong, even before I answered. It had started as an ordinary evening in April. I was in an empty classroom preparing for an English as a Second Language class that I was subbing for, when my phone rang, with an unknown number showing up on the caller ID. It was my son’s stepmother, and she quickly put my son’s father on. He said starkly, without any preliminaries, “Your son is dead.” My son? Not our son? When had he become exclusively “my” son? Almost mechanically, I asked the requisite questions: how did it happen, when would the funeral be. My ex said he had just come from the coroner’s office and was too upset to talk any more. My son had taken his own life at the age of 27.
Trying to take it in, I called my sister and a close friend to let them know. It was too late to cancel class. The students would be arriving within the half hour. Somehow, through the shock, I finished my preparations and greeted the students as they arrived. The subject was spring, which would begin in a few days. In a numb state, I put on my bravest face and got through the session. I invited the students to generate English words about spring: flowers, seeds being planted, rain, frogs—of all things. From the words, they created sentences to practice vocabulary and verb forms. They worked in their textbooks in small groups, as usual. Finally, time was up and I sent them home.
My friend was working late in her office at the university, and she had suggested that she stay there and that I pick her up on my way home. It was raining hard, and I drove the hour-long route barely holding back tears enough to drive. When she came out of her building, she came to my side of the car and hugged me. We went to my apartment, and she sat with me until I went to sleep. I called my supervisor to tell her what happened and that I couldn’t come to work the following day. I knew that life would never be the same again. There was a before my son died, and there would be an afterwards. The afterwards had begun.
There were so many people to notify. My sister held back on telling my mother, not wanting to upset her, until at last I told her that the news would be made public, and that Mother should learn it from us. My daughter, who wailed with pain when I told her, was too upset to continue the conversation. There was my circle of friends, near and far. Some of the people I might have expected to be supportive weren’t, and other people came out of the woodwork and offered unexpected consolation. The following day, my friend Patti brought me a home-cooked meal and a roll of toilet paper, saying she didn’t have any tissues in the house. One friend offered condolences and said, inexplicably, he wished he could do more. Flowers and cards came. I kept the flowers for as long as I could, and sent a thank you note for every card. I wore black for forty days. The spring and the earth in bloom were jarring contrasts to his absence and what was happening inside me. Fall would be just as harrowing, with the knowledge that the glory of the changing colors of the season was gone for him, forever.
My friend Donna came and prayed with me regularly, and brought me a pamphlet of Bible verses about God’s comfort.
Psalm 34:18 spoke to me in particular: “God is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” This was a heartbreak like no other. Donna told me that it was all right to be angry with God about it, and that I should take my anger to God.
I had joined a club I had never thought of joining, never envisioned being a part of: the fellowship of grievers, the so-called grief world. The horizon was blank for me. The days yawned before me when I woke up in the morning. I stayed in bed for the first few weeks, not caring about taking showers or getting out of my nightgown, venturing out only for absolute necessities. I went back to work after two weeks, and stared blankly at my computer. Finally, I told my supervisor that I just couldn’t do it. He sent me home and told me to take another week off. The long commute to work seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. Sometimes I got halfway there and didn’t have the strength to continue, and turned back. The highway seemed to be littered with the bodies of dead animals, more so than usual. I just couldn’t fathom that the world hadn’t ended entirely. When I started going out again, to work and to meetings, I came home to face evenings of emptiness and the pain of my thoughts and memories. I don’t know how I managed to get through those awful first weeks and months, for it wasn’t willpower: It was beyond my own powers. It was grace.
There is no word for parents whose children pass away, as there are words for other kinds of grievers: orphan, widow, widower. Is it because this pain is too great for words? Is it because of the banality, the frequency of this loss? All the tiny infant gravestones in old country cemeteries, bearing the exact lifespan of each deceased child in months and days stand witness to its universality. Eve. David. Mary. The parents of soldiers and of AIDS victims.
There are so many kinds of loss and grief, so many ways to lose a loved one, and one doesn’t compare with another. I hated it when someone would say that they knew what it was like because they had lost a grandmother or a parent. Does a loss to suicide or traumatic loss hurt more than an anticipated one? I can’t know. I only knew the aching unmendable loneliness and pain that I felt.
You can read more from Anne on the ESR blog here