What I have learned in the six years of surviving the death of my son.
Six lessons in life, death, grief and love.
Six years ago on the 3rd of April, 2013, I woke but my son didn’t. For the first hour or so of April 3rd, it was an ordinary day. I started my day with coffee and conversation with my sister Kath in her kitchen, my mother sat out back on the verandah with her coffee and a book in hand, my sisters rose one by one, my niece and nephew went off to school. The only person not awake was my son, Sage. This was strange as he was usually one of the first up. I had decided he must be feeling unwell and allowed the morning to slip by so he could rest. Little did I know that his deep rest from this world had begun hours before as the night held dreams and we all slept.
By the end of the day, my world and heart had shattered. I was in deep shock, my son lay in a morgue, and I began the long road of life as the mother who loses a child. Death had come knocking and had burst through the door to my soul. That first night of the long road I had no knowledge of what this journey would ask, take, give or reveal. It is a blessing that we only ever know, what we need to know when we are ready. The reveal of our lives is divine.
The Deathday - Life is random. In the blink of an eye, or a slip of the night, your world can change, people can be gone forever.
On the deathday, my reveal was of the impermanence of life. All it takes is the toss of a coin and all upon a sudden the game changes. My knowing of this day was, I was deeply in love with my son and so relieved he lived his life knowing this. My senses reached to my soul as the leader and I began a new relationship to prayer and despair. The long grief journey my soul had designed had begun, and I reluctantly stepped onto the path.
The 1st Anniversary - Ritual works, nature heals, and neither ask any questions.
The first anniversary of the death day I felt calm. My heart was still broken and nowhere near repair but some of the stitches were holding. In the approaching weeks, I knew with every fiber of my being that ‘the’ day was on my horizon and I knew that it would hurt. With no guide book to turn to for a ‘how to do the first anniversary of your sons' death’ available, I leaned on what had worked in keeping me from drowning under the waves of grief for the past twelve months. I reached to ritual and nature, as both had held me and I was sure they would hold me again. I trusted them and appreciated that they served without questions. I chose three places of prayer and ritual. I was gifted a morning meditation ritual in the local Buddhist temple I had recently been introduced to by a close friend, I sat in a pew in church with my sister Kath and prayed to Mother Mary, and I took a walk alone in the amazing Australian bush. The day hurt but not as much as I anticipated. In truth, the lead up was worse, the unnerving anticipation of the bullet that had left the barrel and was aimed at my heart was scarier than any horror film I had ever watched. The bullet hit but my heart kept beating. Ritual and nature had done their job silently, no questions asked.
2nd Anniversary - Grief is not a competition. There are no winners or losers and no matter how hard you try you will not be awarded a ribbon, there are no prizes to be given out.
Hungover from the days of drinking beer in an effort to avoid the bullet, I sat outside under a tree at a friends country house in Massachusetts. I was with my sister, her dog, and my berating mind. Self-love was almost nonexistent as my loathing of the grieving me took hold. I convinced myself I was losing the race and grief was winning, I challenged myself to further squash my feelings and get on with getting over it and moving on. I was six months into living in the United States after a leap of faith move to New York City that I assured myself was going to be my fresh start. Nothing was fresh and the smell of stale guilt, fear and resentment reeked even in the outdoors under the trees. “It is two years now, enough already,” I told myself. “Do better, no more excuses.” Looking back I see that this is not the path to healing, recovery, or even basic decent self-care. All I knew was I wanted the pain to go away.
3rd Anniversary - Pay Attention! If you turn your back on grief, just like the sea, it will swell and a wave will wash you ashore or dunk you under.
I fought with grief for a year with full armor and blood-curdling will in the year that led to the third anniversary. On the outside I was well rehearsed in telling others I was fine, and on the inside, I was eroding. I was the living version of the theatre masks, one side comedy, the other tragedy. I was working on an applied theatre project in Kosovo, the project I had created with my friend and colleague Hayley, to honor Sages memory. The project was going well, but I wasn't. On the outside, I was smiling, teaching, meeting new people, living my new fantastic life. And on the inside, the part that really matters, well, that part of me was put in a box to be opened later. I was too busy trying hard to be someone, to be seen as a leader, to be my supposed best self, that I missed the moment the box is torn open and the grief is released like a storm over the sea. The waves came crashing. Being dunked again and again leaves you with only one choice, try to breathe. The day of the anniversary I was again hungover and could do little more than breathe. Not many words were shared with those seeking to comfort me and I felt the water lapping at my lips.
4th Anniversary - The wide horizon of your future heart stretches with a sorry and surrender.
The day is warm, the water is calm, and I am relaxed on a beach lounger looking out over the sea on a Jamaican beach. I am alone. After days alone writing and reflecting it is almost time to pack my bags and head to the airport for my flight back to New York. My time away had served me well by gifting the space needed to cry, feel, write and dream. With the ocean calm and the sun high in the sky the horizon was a perfect line across the sea. It was deep and wide. My relaxed heart and mind saw the width and depth in me and I took note. ‘The horizon is wide and so is my future,’ was the thought that got me into the minivan transfer to the airport. The year past had been a deep dive into saying sorry, asking for help, surrendering and making friends with grief. I started the year calling her a bitch and ended with a close relationship that had led me to a wide horizon of possibilities for my heart and my future.
5th Anniversary - Graduation day and the promise of a big life.
I woke on the 5th anniversary of Sage’s death on day six of a ten day silent meditation. My first thought was “What have I done?” I was again in Massachusetts, but this time in silent retreat with not a soul who knew me. Eye contact, speech and especially touch was strictly forbidden. I would survive the day without any human touch, in silence with my mind, memories and dreams. As the day broke I felt I had made a mistake. By day's end I knew I hadn't. Without anyone to save me, soothe me, or any stimulation to divert me, I sat the day out with my new friend grief. I pondered the souls journey, and sat with the reality that mine was continuing in this earthbound body and Sage’s was over long ago. Missing him had and is still my reality but the silence whispered a new note to the missing. Sage was gone as his soul had graduated early. Oh, my son was an overachiever! One of my pain points as a grieving mother was the absence of my mum moment of pride and delight as my son graduated. I never even got a primary school graduation, let alone the gown and ceremony of a college graduation. But now, in the silence I smiled broadly, the proud mother, who saw through the eyes of my heart, my son graduating early and moving up in the school of souls.
6th Anniversary - Allow love. Accept support. Feel all the feelings; the hurt and the nurture, the sad and the happy, the loss and the love.
I had nowhere to go. The trip I had planned was canceled and I was at home. I woke in my own bed on the anniversary for the first time ever and I woke with a heart that felt at ease and with messages of love and memories of good times. If someone had told me six years earlier that I would wake on the 3rd of April feeling joy blended with my grief I would have felt offended, unseen, and misunderstood. I would have seen them as a nasty soul-less animal with no heart. But I woke feeling love, for myself, for my son, and for all those who journeyed with me. The day had a magical feeling and I floated on the sparkles of light. I was waiting for the bullet to hit, but that was impossible as the shot had never been fired.
The day was especially warm in comparison to the lousy early Spring weather New York was having. In the late afternoon I ventured out to the park. I sat on a bench that overlooked the children’s playground. I watched parents delight in their children, I saw little bodies try to master the equipment, I saw normal life rolling on by. My calm heart smiled and I wished Sage a happy graduation day. A breath later I saw myself in the gown and hat. It was also my graduation day. I had learned to allow grief to be my teacher and I had passed the imaginary tests and was receiving the joy available to a heart that has survived and endured deep grief. Grief sat with me on the bench, the proud teacher in her beaming.
Looking towards the seventh year without Sage
Graduating doesn’t mean you stop learning, you just move up to the next level and into a new classroom. Each day I turn up to class in my new school. I am still the new kid there. I’ve made a few friends, still feel kind of awkward, but I am hopeful. The classes are interesting and my next graduation day is far away so it is best to focus on the lesson of the day and get on with loving.