Jason’s death was a very, very traumatic event for me. Having people we thought we could count on leave us alone was traumatic. Although not nearly as traumatic as Jason’s death by a long shot, it caused lasting damage. Going through Jason’s room and cleaning it out before I was ready was traumatic. Moving from Seattle to Oklahoma when I didn’t want to and wasn’t ready to move was traumatic. Each successive move hasn’t done much in the grand scheme of things to lessen the trauma and emptiness. Opening my heart in recent years and trusting people who have proven untrustworthy has hurt me horribly and has been traumatic. In some ways, I feel like I’ve given up on trusting people and making meaningful friendships.
Although I have never been to a doctor who diagnosed me with PTSD, I have had (and still have) PTSD-like symptoms. I probably should have talked to a professional counselor or something about it a long time ago. At the time, PTSD was something that was almost entirely associated with Vietnam-era veterans and not bereaved parents. There were not many coping or helpful resources at the time for a parent whose child had died. I tried going to a grief support group, but that was a disaster. We had very little support. I was so used being independent, to doing everything on my own, to coping on my own before Jason died that I just kept on going by sheer willpower the best I knew how. At one point after Jason died, I talked to my general physician about some of what I was feeling, and he put me on anti-depressants for a while.
At the time, my husband and I were trying to decide if we wanted to open a coffee shop or what we wanted to do with our lives since he had been laid off at his job. I knew someone who owned a coffee shop and was looking for help, so I asked her if she would hire me. I wanted to start at the very bottom rung – cleaning toilets, washing floors, taking out trash, closing up the shop – so that I could learn each job, both to determine if we wanted to actually take on this venture and so that I would know what each job entailed should we decide to go ahead with it. I ended up doing every job and then managing the place before Joe and I decided that was not what we wanted to do.
One day, a lady I distantly knew from homeschooling came in to get coffee. I greeted her and told her my name when I realized she didn’t remember who I was. She seemed shocked and said, “You’re Jason’s mom! But you’re smiling and laughing!!”
Now, there are a couple of things I would like to say about that encounter. First of all, this lady’s demeanor and tone communicated to me that she didn’t seem to feel that, as a parent whose child had died, I should be smiling or laughing. I felt judged for smiling and laughing.
I want to state unequivocally that it’s okay to smile after a child dies. At first, I felt guilty for even smiling, let alone laughing. I would put my hand over my mouth when I smiled. I felt guilty. I guess we almost have to give ourselves permission to enjoy certain things again and to laugh after our child dies. It’s not necessarily an easy thing to do when the death of a child and grief looms so large. It can take a long time to laugh or to smile again.
The second thing about that encounter was that I realized that the anti-depressants weren’t actually helping me. Yes, they took some of the edge off of what I was feeling, but I realized that what they were doing was helping me to avoid the necessary things I needed to do to grieve Jason’s death. For me, it felt like I was artificially suppressing my grief behind a facade. The pills were masking my true feelings and my grief. I may have been depressed to some degree, but I think that I was also deeply grieving.
I understand that sometimes bereaved parents end up clinically depressed when a child dies and that there may be a place for use of medication to treat depression. There is no shame in that. I think sometimes the symptoms of depression and deep grief are mixed up or confused, even by medical professionals. Did my doctor rush to medicate me? I don’t think so. I think he just didn’t understand how long the grief process following the death of a child could be, and he was trying to help me cope.
This same doctor prescribed sleeping pills for me the day Jason died. I had called him because I had such a horrible headache. I guess I was just reaching out for help. I didn’t know what to do, either for the headache or how to grasp the unthinkable fact that Jason died. He prescribed something for the headache, but he also prescribed sleeping pills.
I probably took the sleeping pills way longer than I should have. I took them for a long time just to get some rest at night so I could function during the day. Some days, I specifically had to concentrate on taking just one of the sleeping pills and putting the rest aside. Some days I was in so much pain and I felt so broken and lost, I really wanted to take them all. One day, I just decided I shouldn’t take them any more at all. I wanted to learn to sleep and function without them.
It’s tempting to want to use medication to take the edge off of grief. Grief can be so overwhelming. Living life after the death of a child can be so hard and so overwhelming. Some days it seems impossible to do.
I look back now and I really don’t know how I made it through those times. I got up, I went to school. I did what I had to do – one day, one step, one breath at a time. I did most everything alone. I tried to pretend I was okay, when I really wanted to die. I cried and cried and cried. And then I cried some more. Some days I was so overwhelmed with grief I couldn’t even walk. I had no energy to walk even more one step; I just fell to the floor like a rag doll and cried. I railed at God for not protecting Jason when I had prayed and prayed for our kids and for how betrayed I felt by “His people” deserting us.
It’s almost as if I can step back into that time. I remember it all – the phone call from Alina’s dad telling me Alina and Jason weren’t at their house and that he had driven by a bad accident, the mud I left on the steps as I left the house to go to the accident scene, the sound of the sirens, praying to God, “Oh, God, please NO! Please, God. NO!! I need him!!” Asking the fireman if that was our son in the car in the ditch. Joe telling the policeman, who had confirmed Jason’s death to us, that maybe he was just unconscious and needed to go to the hospital. Going home to call family and friends. Answering the phone in the afternoon when one of Jason’s tutoring students called to ask him a math question and having to tell the boy that Jason had died. Rushing to hold Joe or Jenna as they sobbed uncontrollably, and them doing the same for me. I remember everything about that day like it was yesterday.
I guess I tend to get reflective as those “huge” days approach – Jason’s birthday, holidays, the anniversary of his death. March 3rd, the anniversary of Jason’s death, is approaching rapidly, and memories and feelings feel so much closer to the surface. My mind tends to drift to that time.
I still have a huge emptiness inside of me, a huge loneliness, a huge sadness. I get up, I go to work. I do what I have to do – one day, one step, one breath at a time. I try to do my best, to be the best version of myself I can be and to treat people as I would want to be treated. I still do most everything alone, especially now that our daughter and her husband have moved away. Our older son is across the country and busy with his life, business and family, and our daughter-in-law is not especially helpful in promoting close reltionships. I still try to pretend I am okay, when some days it takes concerted effort and energy to make it through the day. I don’t take sleeping pills any more, but some nights sleep is a welcome refuge. I still hurt so bad at times. I miss my boy every single day. I try to hide it, but I am still walking wounded.
Oh, how I miss my boy.
© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney