Undaunted in 2018: my word for the New Year

Definition of undaunted: undismayed; not discouraged; not forced to abandon purpose or effort.

2017 was the worst year of my life.

Not all of it…some of it was normal, even joyful, fun, adventurous. There was travel, and there were milestones. There was love. There was a lot of work, with effort spent toward family needs, clinic responsibilities, and the daily stuff of life.

And there was shock, tragedy, and devastation.

2017 brought the loss of my son, and with him, something I can’t really define. I’ve written about his death on Facebook, and here on my blog…it’s pretty much all I’ve written about in recent months…talked about it with family and friends. But regardless of the words I use, or how much I say, I’m not satisfied. I can’t really explain the impact, or the sadness.

At 57, I don’t think it was loss of illusion, or naive expectation of life. I’ve been around the block, and I know about hard times, the reality that life hands out surprises, some of them fierce and awful. Some that take your breath.

But losing Alex…I just can’t describe it. It’s a reality I can’t deny. But I haven’t grasped it either.

I can’t fathom that 2018 will dawn, and the only imprint of him on the new year, and the years to come, will be from memories. How is that even possible?

We were supposed to be with him for New Years. Instead, we’re mourning him.

I replay, in my mind, talks we had when he was strong, and determined, and driving toward his goals with purpose. He was undaunted.

And I want to claim that for myself. Not in denial that Alex is gone, nor in expectation of getting over his loss. Some things you don’t get over.

But I ask myself, what would his words be? He’d be philosophical, and tell me that he made the choice he felt was right for him.

Though I can’t see that point of view, there’s no doubt he believed that.

And believing that, he would expect the people who love him to be accepting. We didn’t always agree, but now, there’s no opportunity for argument, or changing his mind. Now, the only option is to accept.

I think about the year ahead, and I know I want to approach it with grace and love, appreciation for what we had, and looking toward the future.

The future with Alex will be in another time and place. But the future with others is here and now, in 2018.

I have a responsibility to the ones I love, and the ones who loved Alex, to be here for them. And that means more than being just physically present. It means being engaged, and connected, not lost in a fog of grief.

It’s only been three months, and to be honest, some days I’m shocked I’m upright, and forming coherent sentences. And to be honest, not all my sentences are coherent.

Other days, I glimpse the future. The ache is in my heart, but I gather myself to do more than mourn. I gather myself to do, and to mourn.

Neither death, nor life, can be ignored.

When I was thinking about my word for 2018, I knew it had to be a word of strength, and determination. Like Alex, I want to be undaunted.

Some would view his final choice as anything but undaunted. Some would see defeat. Or loss of determination, even weakness. But I see someone who believed he had reached the end, and was undaunted by the decision he faced.

I wish I could talk him out of it…help him see a different path, and a different way to live undaunted. But I can’t. I believe he died that way. Undaunted, and making the choice he believed was best. Even if it was a choice that broke hearts.

My choice is to live undaunted. It’s easy to say, and so challenging to confront. What does that even mean? And how will that look, in the coming year, when I’m still raw and walking wounded?

I think it means learning to live with loss, and grief, in ways that both honor Alex, and honor the lives around me. It means being the best I can be, in the midst of mourning. That’s what I’m learning. I’m not just mourning. And I’m not resuming life as though this never happened. I’m combining these realities, and my responses to both.

Spending the last week with Riley and Jack shows me how important this is. We talked about Alex, cried over him, missed his laugh and presence, shared some stories. But we also opened gifts, and played games, and celebrated the here and now.

If I sound like I know what I’m doing, like I’ve figured this out…well, that’s just me telling myself this is what I have to do, rehearsing it out loud, and in print. This is my choice, based on Alex’s choice.

I wish I could continue living the life I had before October, but that’s not an option. So, my word for 2018 is undaunted, the only way forward.

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Alex Gibson, April 2017

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Last family vacation in Hawaii, April 2017

 

 

 

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Alex, my son

It’s been a terrible fall. We lost our son, Alex.

I’ve written about this on my Facebook page, shared a lot of the detail there. But I can’t go back to blogging without sharing the story here, as well.

Our world changed on Oct 4. Really it changed on Oct 3, but we didn’t know that until the night of the 4th.

That was when we learned we’d lost Alex to suicide. It happened the day before, but it took several hours after he was found in his apartment in Denver to get word to us through official channels, in Alaska.

That knock on our door changed so much.

It plunged us into a surreal world of sadness, loss, questions, statistics, and community.

The initial shock, disbelief, and the follow-up trip to Denver passed in a blur of unreality, mixed with the stark practicality of death. No matter how devastating, death demands decisions, and actions.

We left Alaska on Thursday, stopped in Seattle to connect with our daughter and son-in-law, and landed in Denver on Friday afternoon. Although we knew from the note Alex left that he requested cremation, we had to sign the paperwork to allow for that, and begin the process of procuring a death certificate.

The death certificate was the key to having authority to address Alex’s estate issues…deal directly with his bank, his apartment lease, his vehicle. Though he was single, and a minimalist, there were still multiple tasks required to close out his physical life, and see to the responsibilities of legal and financial requirements.

Working through everything in a short time-span, we hardly had time for his loss to sink in. Looking back, that was a blessing. I don’t know if I could have made it through that week if I hadn’t been largely numb, still in shock. Faced with the necessity to empty his apartment, decide what to do with his car, and make arrangements for cremation, we literally worked for the next week, almost without stopping, except to visit with friends…some mutual, and some new acquaintances, who were friends of Alex.

That was priceless time, allowing us to connect to people he knew and loved, people he worked with, friends from his past, people we’d known as a family during the years we lived there. It was a precious gift of shared sorrow, but also of shared joy, celebrating the man he was, and the man we lost.

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You hear yourself talking about things you never imagined you’d discuss.  What to do with his ashes. Deciding what to keep of his personal belongings, what to donate. Each possession becomes a question to debate…first, because it was his, and the smallest of his things are suddenly sacred. And second, because…how do you decide, in the emotional whirlwind of unbelievable loss, what will be significant in the future? The obvious things are easy…but so much is not obvious, standing in the apartment of the son you loved, trying to realize what this really means…that he has no more use for these things…that he’s done with them, and yet they’re suddenly your tangible link to his life.

Although humans live with the idea of death,  and the possibility of it taking anyone, at any time, for any reason…you never think it will be your child. Your son. And we never feared suicide for Alex. I worried for him when he was deployed in Iraq with the army. I used to mark each call and email on my calendar, so I could see, at a glance, when we last heard from him during that 13 months. I worried for his safety when he was working security, and when he was driving for Waste Management. I worried about him being in an accident on the road. As a driver, he was out in all weathers. I worried about him working with heavy equipment.

But I never worried that he would take his life.

Even though he fit the profile of someone at higher risk for suicide…young, male, a veteran without a stable relationship in his life…we didn’t see him as someone at risk. We knew he was seeing a counselor through the VA, but he dismissed those sessions when I asked him about them. He made the counseling sound like more of a formality…just something he had to do, as his honorable discharge from the army came with a PTSD rating.

He always seemed so strong, so sure, so determined. He was well-connected to friends, to a job he enjoyed, to his routine of working out, going out, taking care of himself. He was in a good place, for the most part. Most of all, he was intensely, vibrantly alive. He had energy, humor, drive, and plans for himself, with friends, and with us.

He was also lonely at times. We knew that. He and his long-term girlfriend had been through some on/off cycles, and he was struggling with that. Ultimately, from his note, that was the trigger, though we believe the PTSD was a contributing factor as well. Ironically, he had gotten rid of his gun collection, because she didn’t like them. He obviously kept the one he used. Now, I wonder if he kept it with this in mind, or if he kept it for target shooting, or as a weapon for self-defense? We don’t know, will never know. How I wish he had disposed of it, along with the rest!

Rob and I talk a lot about Alex…what happened, what we might have missed that would have allowed us to intervene…we talk about him, the boy and the man, the son we love and miss so much. He’s never far from our thoughts.

This is what I’ve learned, these past few months, living with a grief unlike any other I’ve experienced:

This grief is like clothing. Sometimes it’s the outer clothing I wear. That’s when the tears come so easily, triggered by the smallest of memories or links. Sometimes grief is the layer underneath the face I show to the world. But whether it’s visible to anyone else or not, I’m conscious that grief is there. Ever present. Palpable.

Grief can be triggered by anything, however insignificant, or even seemingly disconnected…because suddenly, there is significance between the one grieving, and the one lost. A scent, a word, a photo, a food, or something random that triggers a memory…a favorite color, music, a place, a line from a movie, a joke…anything that takes you to that person, in a flash of remembrance. There may be a flood of tears, a laugh, a sweet longing. There’s not one possibility for response, but many.

I realize that Alex was a grown man, and he had friends and connections who are strangers to us. I’m grateful he had many people in his life, that he was well-loved, by others as well as us. We didn’t own the man, we just had a piece of him. I’m thankful for our relationship with him, thankful that we’ve had so many of his friends share stories of his kindness, his humor, his integrity, his place in their lives. I’m thankful for the man he was. I’m thankful for the memories we have, of calls and texts, trips to see him, and for him to come to us. I’m so thankful for our last family vacation in April.

Grief has a positive side. Feeling the intensity of Alex’s loss, I’m even more conscious of other family and friends…how important they are to me, how much I want to spend my time with them in ways that are memorable.

Grief makes me appreciate so much. I appreciate that my son and I had a loving relationship, that the last words we ever said to each other were “I love you.” And the best part is, that was our usual way to say goodbye. We didn’t speak those words out of some sense of healing a wound or mending fences. No bridge building or fence mending was needed.

I appreciate the connection he had with each of his family…for the ties that bind, and continue, even now. I’m thankful for the messages we read, the photos we have, that remind of us the good times, the funny exchanges, the humor and joy he brought to our lives.

I’m so thankful for the years we had with Alex. I’m so thankful that he was with us 30 years, that we saw him grow up, and we knew him as a man.

Mourning my son has freed me from fearing death. I used to be fearful of what was beyond. But since my son is on the other side, I’m not afraid to go there now.

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We’ll do a celebration of life event for him, when the time is right. For now, I’m not ready or able to spread his ashes. But the time will come, and when it does, he’ll be in Colorado, the home where he grew up, and the place he chose to be his home as an adult.

For now, each day is a new experience of learning the depths of this loss, and how to keep living, when a part of us is gone…how to make sense of this, as best we can. We talk, cry, go through our days, look at photos, connect to him in a hundred small ways, and get up the next day to do it again.

We look for ways to honor him. He was a dedicated blood donor, so that’s a new focus for me. I hope to arrange digital blood drives, and plan to donate myself, as often as possible. Others who knew him have joined me in this.

We’ve used Alex’s choice to connect to others who might benefit from some part of his story. We’ve been given an opportunity to reach out, through Alex’s death, and we take that responsibility seriously. It’s not a community I expected to join, but once you’re a survivor of a suicide victim, you become more aware of others’ circumstances, and ways you can help in the fight for life. We speak respectfully, but seriously, to say…don’t do this…please don’t consider this option. Please choose life.

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We have a few pieces of Alex’s affairs still to work through. Next month we’ll turn in his phone. We kept it to help with managing his accounts, and to be honest, because we couldn’t face disconnecting his phone number just yet. His Facebook page is still up, though we should probably transition it to a memorial page. We plan to request his records, to find out if he had a diagnosis of depression…if there was a clinical condition that contributed to his choice. And we have a series of significant dates to get through…holidays, his birthday, the first anniversary of his death.

I don’t expect to get over this. We’ll be the rest of our lives absorbing his loss. How could it be any different? There are many definitions of grief: “grief is love with no place to go;”  “grief is the last act of love;” “grief is the price we pay for love.” It’s all true. And the realest definition of all: grief is our new normal.

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Alex Gibson, Apri 2017