The nightfall of my son’s passing was more than a dark sky devoid of moon and stars. Both above and beneath me, it seemed there was only darkness, the night above and the abyss below.
“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.
And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”
– Fredrich Nietzsche
Epigram 146, Beyond Good and Evil
As I looked into the abyss of grief it did indeed stare back, reminding me that life is different now and no amount pleading will return the life I thought I securely held in my hand. At this point, I must pause once again.
When I began this book, I set out to tell my son’s story, not mine. But in order for his story to have meaning, in order to understand his touch—his influence, which is the very reason for his story to be told—the impact of his departure must also be given voice.
This story is not intended as an instructive essay in coping with grief, or what to expect when the departure of a loved one is foisted upon you. It is instead the acknowledgement, by proxy of my son, of each person’s effect on the world as each walks the planet.
Grief nonetheless follows the departure of a loved one and, if that loved one is a child, the grief, while not worse than that of losing someone who is not your child, is amplified, because things have happened out of order.
When a parent dies, I can only imagine that bereavement is overwhelming, yet something we ultimately expect, regardless of whether we have given thought to it. When a close friend, a sibling, or a spouse is taken from us, especially if the passing is untimely, the stabbing blade of sadness is searing, but we understand that death is ultimately part of living. But when a child is taken, the grief is compounded by the unnatural character of the event.
The child is meant to bury the parent; the parent is never prepared to bury the child. It is, quite simply, not meant to be. Yet all grief, regardless of the cause, has certain things in common.
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”
– C.S. Lewis
A Grief Observed
The drunkenness of grief.
There were so many moments when the madness of grief was, to my wife and friends, indistinguishable from the drunkenness to which I would readily admit. There were times when I would pass from the intoxication of alcohol to the madness of grief and back again without anyone being able to tell the difference.
Physical and virtual outbursts were not uncommon. Social media became my most humiliating enemy. Late in the evening I was often alone because I couldn’t sleep and in those moments I would crave the quiet presence of my wife or a friend. Talking was not useful, for it rambled, sometimes angrily, sometimes through choking tears, and sometimes incessantly and endlessly—and I knew that.
None of this behavior is lost on the bereaved. We know when we are not coping well. We know when we are self-medicating and—if there is a history of self-medication—we know exactly what we are doing when it is the grief and not bad habits motivating the behavior. But for those who care for us, who want to help, who want nothing more than to take away the pain, it matters not one whit. What they witness is the destruction and they rightfully hate it.
During this time I tried to cope, failing miserable through most of it, and I watched as stamina failed. Patience was exhausted. Understanding became threadbare. And such drunken madness creates a cycle that mirrors the addiction cycle.
You hate yourself when you inevitably come to your senses. People apologize for you in the beginning but getting past the grief of losing a loved one is often not counted in weeks but in years, and during this time you live your life in an endless cycle of repeat performances.
You get up; you go through the motions of going to work and trying to be productive, a little embarrassed about your outburst the night before, and you sit at your desk trying to do the work you are paid to do.
And then 5:00 rolls around once again and you quietly leave the office trying to avoid eye contact with anyone, afraid they will see through you and know the terrible range of emotions at war within you. It’s as though you are rendered emotionally naked and your greatest fear is that casual acquaintances will see the turmoil you want so desperately to hide.
You head to a local bar because you don’t want to face anyone you really know. While you’re there you make small-talk with the bartender and watch everyone around you living normal lives. People who are out with their friends and who just wanted to have a drink and visit with each other. You see them glance your way as though you are normal too, and you politely smile back at them when they tell a joke and laugh.
With nowhere else to go, you go home. You kiss your wife hello as she looks at you with that knowing look that pierces your soul and sees the pain, helpless to take it away. And you? You just try not to think about it. The terrible thing that never abates, stubbornly abiding without invitation.
You try to have a bite to eat when the very thought of food is revolting and you hope to hold it down unlike the previous night. All the while promising yourself you will not commit yet another embarrassing outburst in a medium that was never meant to take the place of friends and family—but somehow has become that very surrogate.
And that is your life for a while. It was my life for more than two years. Through the chaos, though, most of my relationships did not fail, though a few did; some were even strengthened. And for that I am thankful.
As for God, he did not forsake me despite my curses. Like my friends, sometimes, in the still darkness of nightfall when I was alone, I would hear him and feel the comfort of His Spirit.
And I somehow made it through. In spite of me.