How does one heal from the death of a child? My son, Wells, died of a heroin overdose last year, the weight of grief shaped me into a woman I did not know – angry, bitter, hating the world and God. I believed Fantine, from Les Misérables, when she sang, “there are storms we cannot weather.” How do you accept the reality that your child, no matter the age, dies before you?
My son, who had just turned 30 was finally on the upswing in life, and we thought he’d kicked the habit for good this time. His daughter was visiting that week, and the itinerary of activities was all set. Yet, that wasn’t enough for Wells, he had to use one more time, gambling on his life like Russian Roulette. He lost. We lost. We were inducted into the grief club we never thought we’d be in. That was for other people. We were Christians, this wasn’t supposed to happen. His death amputated my heart and I folded into my sorrow. Where was God?
Hadn’t I prayed all these years for the Lord to protect my children? Didn’t the Word say he’d give us the desires of our heart? I felt betrayed, and a fool for believing this lie. I quit going to church, I quit reading my Bible, I slept and ate and cried and went back to work teaching with sudden bouts of sobbing; my students looked on, wide-eyed. Every single day for ten months. I’d be teaching and right in the middle of my lecture, I’d stop and wonder where I was and what I was supposed to be doing. It was an out of body experience. I couldn’t remember anything from moment to moment. All I wanted to do was slide down onto the floor, supine, anywhere I was, the pain deep in my bones. In Walmart, the grief ambushed me as I reached for the bread. I laid down in the aisle. The manager came and lifted me up and called my husband. I couldn’t go anywhere, anymore, without falling apart. There was no way to escape; the pain cemented in my heart.
Leslie with Her Son, Wells
The first month after his death, the highlight of my day was the mealtrain that friends had started for us. All we talked about was what they were bringing for dinner. The food became the lifeline to sanity, at least for an hour or so. Then, we sat or laid down, not speaking. What was there to say? We had set up camp at my daughter’s house: everywhere she and her husband went, the rest of us followed. No one could be alone.
After the first few months, the shock wore off, and the realization I’d never hear his voice or feel his hugs ever again became more intense; how could this be? I walked with a weighted limp of grief in the shadowlands of after. And continued my life in repose. In Target, Kroger, and my favorite place by the donuts in Walmart. Looking up at the ceiling with a donut clutched in my hand, I cried. People walked by me, sensing my pain, and left me alone. Except the managers. They didn’t quite know what to do with a lady in khakis lying down crying who wasn’t on drugs or drunk.
My doctor upped my mood stabilizer.
I’ll never forget that hot summer afternoon when my daughter called me, screaming “He’s dead, he’s dead, oh, God, Wells is dead.” Time stopped. That news became the dividing line that ended my life as I knew it into the after of how do I go on? My handsome, kind son, who could light up the room like a ray of sunshine. Who always called me, “my beautiful mother,” and ended every visit or call with “I love you.”
I stayed in zombie mode, doing the bare minimum; barely talking, but eating. Always eating. I put on 20 pounds stuffing my grief in a desperate attempt to ease the agony of this loss. After yelling once again at my youngest son over nothing, he said, “Mom, you’re becoming mean and bitter. You’re not the only one who lost someone, I lost a brother.” He stormed out of the room. He was right. I needed to change.
The shadow woman I’d become was killing the rest of my family. How do I get better? My daughter took over. As a recovered heroin addict, she suggested I go to Al-Anon and begin walking again. Now a CrossFit trainer, she knew how powerful fitness and food are to healing the body and soul. So I began, one foot in front of the other, reciting the first step of the program, “I am powerless over other people’s isms; I didn’t cause it, couldn’t control it, and certainly couldn’t cure it.” The pain lessened. I was moving forward. Upright for the most part.
I ordered my groceries online and delivered them right to my kitchen cabinets. My daughter helped me make a months’ worth of healthy meals I could pop into the microwave when I got home from teaching. My husband stoic while I beat his chest, lamenting the horror of this tragedy. He never let go. The sequoia to my quicksand.
The shift began ever slowly. Walking along the beach, a quarter mile became a half, then two, and today, five miles four days a week and peace a newfound resident in my spirit. Surrendering each moment to God, he gently helped me to let go of what I couldn’t control. “Trust me, Leslie” was what I heard. And I believed again that he was with me.
I continued to work the steps, and got better. I was a good enough mother overall, I didn’t make my son an addict. He chose to put the drugs over his daughter. As a mother, I can’t imagine making that decision. Al-Anon has helped me understand the power of addiction. And turned my heart back to the Lord. My anger and bitterness loosened from my heart. Gratitude for being my son’s mom for 30 years and for what I still had and love from family and friends filled it. God didn’t do this to him. He allows us to make our own choices, and he cries when we destroy our lives. In Deuteronomy, the Lord says, “Choose between life or death.” It’s up to us.
As an English teacher, books are my foundation. So I read and read books and stories written by parents who had lost a child and made a truce with grief. Knowing I wasn’t alone in this tragedy connected me to them. I knew if they could make it, so could I. In the Bible, when King David’s son was killed, I understood his pain when he cried out, “my son, my son! How I wish that I had died instead of you.” I have screamed that many times.
Now, eleven months after his death, I don’t cry every day, and I don’t lie down in stores. I have gone back to church and recently quit sobbing during worship, except for last week. But grief is a sneaky thief, always waiting to ambush me and take me down. I fight it now, I must live and share my story. Perhaps someone else will find comfort in my journey and know they aren’t alone either. We’re all connected in some way.
I will never understand why God allows one to die and another to live. His ways and thoughts are higher than mine. Though my heart is bent in two, I still trust him. I miss my son every moment. I love him now even more than I did then. I don’t understand how that can be, but I just go with it. The woman after has become kinder, more patient with others, and generous with time and love. I never miss an opportunity to speak with my children and husband. Every day, I tell them how much I love them. I’ve learned that I’m not God. I can’t make anyone change. I accept that and the people around me. The woman I am after is still on the journey to healing. I believe it will be a path for the rest of my life, but just for today, I can smile and laugh and love.
I carry his smile, his voice, the weight of his dreams. He enriches my life, though I will never be the same. Nothing is as it was. His life has taught me to be fearless, and to live life moment by moment. Life put me on a path that I never wanted. To honor my son’s life, I must heal and use this pain to help others. My lacerated heart forges a new trail. I press on, able to weather this storm with grace and love, with God always by my side.
English instructor 25 years, secondary and post secondary. Monthly OP-ED contributor for The Galveston Daily News (my local paper), Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction Award, among others. Published poet. Mother of four adult children, one of whom is in heaven.