09 September 2013

An Unbearable Loss

(My sister's best friend, Lisa Henninger, wrote this heartbreaking and bracingly honest post. Today marks the 22th anniversary of the worst day of her life. Lisa and her family have become family to my own. On Christmas 2007, the day after my mother died, the Henningers had me, my sister, and my father over. There is no other family I can imagine we would have felt comfortable being with in our grief. Thank you, Lisa-- Melinda)

A wave of grief swept over me today, catching me by surprise once again.  It has been a very long time since I have cried so much—long enough that it takes me aback at how hard it can be to stop.

The catalyst?  “Futurama!”  I know people who love the show, and last night while browsing, my husband and I watched my first episode.  The boy who was catapulted into the future is trying to save the future world by remembering something from his past.  He gets to relive his time on earth with his family and really wants to tell his mother things he didn’t get a chance to before he suddenly left.  He saves the future world, and they fix it so that he gets a chance to have his talk with his mother.  Afterward, he realizes that the setting was not one that had happened to him on Earth, so he wonders how he could dream about this conversation with his mother.  They tell him it is not his dream, but that he went into his mother’s dream  where her son came and talked with her.

I teared up at the time, but went on to something else, thinking, “Someone really understands!  I wonder if they have been there.”

I have been there.  My son did not suddenly disappear, but died unexpectedly at the age of 4 ½ from a rare disease doctors couldn’t identify until the autopsy.  Naegleria fowleri is present in warm, fresh water and must travel up the nasal canal to the brain.  What are the odds?  The odds were not “ever in our favor” that day 22 years ago, but we didn’t know it then.   We were just proud that Jeb had finally learned to put his face in the water.

It is interesting to look back and try to understand the process of healing that takes place after a horrible loss.  I must say I don’t remember much of the immediate months that followed other than holding my 2 year old, crying, and trying to present a normal face to others.  My husband and I attended meetings of The Compassionate Friends, a group formed to help people who had lost children.  We made good friends who understood what we were going through, because they were on the same path with us.  I learned a lot.  My story had elements that were better and worse than everyone else’s stories, except for the parents whose children had been murdered or committed suicide.  Even in my deepest pain I knew their agony was beyond mine.  (Not that it was a competition, mind you.)

But time does ease the pain, which is a blessing and bitch in itself.  I didn’t believe it could ever get better, but it did.  There was a need to cling to the pain to show myself that I still missed my son.  There was a need to let go so that my other son (and subsequent daughter) would have a functioning mother who was happy and engaged in their lives.

I read somewhere that grief is like waves, and I thought that was crazy because grief was like a whirlpool the size of Charybdis that never let up.  After a while, I began to understand the wave analogy.  I would have days where I felt better and wasn’t overwhelmed with grief, followed by days where it seemed no progress had been made at all.  Slowly, the sad days were further and further apart, with less time spent in anguish.  Then came the period when I would be surprised to suddenly break down in tears and then realize how long it had been since I had last done so.  

I still think of Jeb almost every day, sometimes in sorrow but more frequently with amusement at his stories or pride in his perspicacity.  I wish I knew what he would be like if he were here—26, proud of his younger brother (and sister he never met) I am sure.  Melinda’s sister, Jeannie, and I are positive he would have attended our alma mater, Davidson College.  I would love to have a dream in which he tells me everything he didn’t get a chance to say before he left.  But I am blessed in that I think, in his 4-year-old wisdom, he said it before he died.  Some of his last words were “I love everybody, and I know they love me.”  What else really matters?  Still, it would be a nice dream.

-Lisa Henninger

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