A day in the life, 2018

February 25, and this is where I am. In between the day’s demands and the shadows, this is what grief looks like…how it wears, almost five months into my new reality.

This grief is like no other. First, it’s all-encompassing. Losing my son has changed my calendar, my reckoning of life’s history, into a great division of “before” and “after.”

Even when I look fine, and I seem to be involved in other things, awareness is just under the surface. Loss is on my mind and heart, even if I’m able to disguise it and appear “normal.”

I no longer have to remember when I wake up. I wake up already knowing. I know the fact that Alex is gone, and I take up that awareness as soon as I’m conscious.

I recognize that while people have been very kind, and I’ve felt free to speak about Alex, I also have to function, and that means I have to be able to have work conversations; logistics conversations; I want to be able to ask a question in the market without falling apart. I don’t need to answer simple and casual questions (from TSA agents, checkers, hallway passers-by) who initiate the pleasantry of “how are you?” with more response than they want or need to hear. They are not asking for my truth. They are asking for my veneer. And that’s ok. I accept that for the most part, our culture does not expect or invite real answers to these questions of courtesy.

Grief is surprising. It’s not all about sadness, though a lot of it is. I love to talk about Alex in happy moments, remembering funny things he said or did, sweet memories, good times. I talk to him a lot as I move through my days. It’s a one-sided conversation, but I like to think he hears me.

I play music he loves, and I believe he hears that too.

Sometimes grief is overwhelming, and for reasons I don’t always see coming. Walking through the grocery store, the sadness is sharp and deep. We used to talk a lot when he was shopping, he would call me and share all sorts of stuff…we used to laugh a lot. He was picky about food and diet. And bacon. He loved good bacon. How do you manage yourself when you’re suddenly drowning, looking at one of his favorite foods in the market, melting into a pool of memories?

The big times you can see coming, and you brace for them. Holidays…we’ve been through the first round already. I think his birthday will be harder. But I know where that date lives on the calendar, and I’ll be as prepared as I can be to make it a day of happiness that he lived in this world, rather than sorrow that he’s gone.

(I’m trying to train myself to still speak of him in present tense, though I know that may be confusing, and it isn’t always appropriate. I say I love him, not I “loved” him. He is still living, just not in this realm.)

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It’s the small things that sneak up on you that are hardest, really: the moments you just double over because something catches you off guard; the times you have to stop and breathe deep because you can’t just keep going. You have to stop and physically give in to what you’re feeling in the moment. Sometimes I begin sentences in a normal voice, but can’t finish my thought because I’m suddenly overwhelmed.

I never get in his car without feeling like I should thank him for using it. Not that I ever wanted his car. No. I would so much rather have him, infinitely more than a vehicle. But we paid off the car, and brought it up, so now we drive it. I have survivor’s guilt, even though we had no say in what he chose. Even though we would give anything to have him back. The guilt that I am alive and living is so strong, and I don’t know why. I remind myself that he left. He chose to leave, though I know it wasn’t anything that he did to wound us. But even without intention, it did wound us, and we are forever walking around with that hole, that gap, in our beings. Sometimes I think that must be visible to everyone.

I miss talking to him in the places and times when we used to connect. He’d call while I was making dinner, or on my way home from work, and we’d chat. About the little stuff, and the big. Now those times of day are empty, and I wait for my phone to ring, knowing it’s not going to. Or if it rings, it won’t be him.

I hear his laugh, his hearty, doubled-up-with-joy laugh, when he found something so hilarious he had to share. He had a keen sense of humor, and loved a good joke and a funny story. He was quite the story teller too. He had the Irish gift of gab, and he could spin a tale like he was born to do it. He had favorites that grew with the telling. He could turn on accents, face animated and body following the story, going through all the motions, giving you the full force of his personality, filled to the brim with life, overflowing with charm, his personal brand of attraction. He was handsome and sweet. He was the kind of man who grabs your heart, for the best of reasons.

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Grief bounces off every-day items and situations that have no connection to Alex, at least as far as anyone else could see. But there are links to him everywhere, and I see all of them.

It works like this:

We last saw Alex in Hawaii on a family vacation, and I used a new brand of hair dryer on that trip. I liked it so much that I bought a hair dryer like the one in the hotel when we got home. I had used it for months before Alex died, with no thought connecting him to the dryer. But now, every morning, I see the hair dryer and I pick it up to dry my hair, and there is an immediate path that opens to Hawaii, and to Alex, just because that’s all connected now.

The whole state of Colorado is linked to him, and a million other things. Things like an ad for In ‘n Out Burgers, which he loved. I see that chain is expanding to Colorado, and I mourn that he won’t get to enjoy it in his home state. He’ll miss that. As though it matters, with everything else he’s missing, or everyone who’s missing him! But it does matter. It’s another dart to my heart, sharp. And yet so trivial. How do you explain you’re crying over a burger chain your son liked? It seems silly. But in grief, nothing is silly, nothing is meaningless. The smallest, most insignificant connection can feel momentous. And the links that really are meaningful can take your breath.

Anything that touches our life with him growing up falls into this crevasse. Anything that touches on something he loved, or even something he disliked…anything that reminds me of something that reminds me of him…like the hair dryer, the object or situation or memory is not necessarily something anyone else would connect to Alex. But I do, effortlessly and instantly. It is an involuntary response to awareness of him, and awarness that he’s not here.

Grief is both exhausting and effortless. I say effortless because it happens naturally, without putting intentional thought or emotion toward my grief, or toward the one I’m missing. It just happens. It is lightening fast, and penetrates to the marrow. Like a physical jolt or wound, I feel the hurts, deep and painful.

It is exhausting because it doesn’t end. You know the way you feel when everything is going right? When you’re well with the world? I don’t know if I can ever feel that again. I believe Alex is in a better place, as they saying goes. I believe he’s at peace, and I believe he can see us and know how much we love and miss him. But even believing all of that, it doesn’t change the reality that I miss him being here. I miss knowing he’s out and about, doing his thing, being Alex. And when I do my mental checks to see that all is right with the world, I feel for him. And he’s not there. And I can’t connect. I can’t fix it. I don’t know how to make it right.

So I live with this. It’s ok. I accept this as part of what it means to love, to be vulnerable, to invest in another person. I invested in my son, and he repaid that investment with so much that was good, and beautiful, and sweet. I just wish I could have changed the ending.

But that too, I’m coming to see differently. I’ll always regret that he couldn’t continue. But I’m coming to accept that he felt that way, and it was his right to make that decison. And I believe that even the dead have a right to privacy. I don’t know all the issues that led to his choice to die. But he was 30, an adult, and as much as he shared, he was not under obligation to share everything. We all have chapters we don’t read out loud, and I accept that ultimately, he chose not to share what he was thinking those last hours. We know a bit, from the words he left. But we don’t know all, and we won’t.

Just because we are mother and son, the relationship doesn’t erase the right to our own lives, our thoughts, and our choices. Just as I haven’t shared everything in my life with my children, so they have a right to filter their lives. It’s a matter of respect, and it’s also reality. Everyone should have the privilege of managing their choices and their privacy.

If that sounds like I’m approving of suicide, or even advocating for it, I’m not. I am trying to accept what I must, and recognize that life is not a given. We don’t have control over anyone beyond self.

I belong to a FB group of survivors of suicide who have a military affiliation. The stories I see posted are all so similar…stories of (mostly) young men who seem to have had so much to offer, who were loving and generous, and seemed fine, or mostly fine, until suddenly, shockingly, they were not. The spouses, mothers, fathers, siblings, and children of these individuals write from varying places of disbelief, sorrow, depression, and confusion. What happened? What did they miss? What went so tragically wrong?

I understand. We know some of Alex’s story, but not all. He didn’t choose to share everything with us, or seemingly, anyone. Or perhaps he shared bits and pieces with different friends and family, but not all with anyone. We are left trying to piece together the puzzle.

What I’m coming to feel, to believe, is that the why is not really important. It would have mattered if we could have understood enough to have stopped his death. But now, knowing more…well, it feels like dissecting his last days and hours is an invasion. If he wanted us to know, he would have let us know.

This isn’t coming from lack of love, but rather, from deep respect. My son was a strong person, a deep thinker. If this choice to end his life was what he came to after considering his options, even if I strongly disagree, I know, in that moment of decision, he believed he was doing the best thing. I may disagree with his choice, but I also respect that it was his choice to make.

This is a hard stance to take. Aren’t we all connected, and don’t we owe something to the others in our lives? By choosing to remove himself from his family and friends, he impacted all of us, and it’s so hard to bear. It’s so hard to accept his loss.

Yes, I believe we do owe something to the people in our lives. But when anyone reaches the point Alex reached, I don’t think they’re capable of seeing that. I believe with all my heart that his choice to die wasn’t made to hurt anyone…not family, not friends, not his girlfriend. He was choosing to end his pain. It seems so incomprehensible. Didn’t he grasp that ending his pain would be painful for everyone? How could he not see that?

That’s why suicide is often viewed as an act of selfishness. But I believe it isn’t about selfishness. I believe suicide reflects the victim becoming so blinded by their pain they don’t recognize the enormity of the loss they inflict on everyone who loves them.

I think about all this, turn it over and over in my mind, try to come to some place of peace. I talk it out loud, reason it out to Alex. I want him to know what I’m thinking, what I’m working through. I want him to know he is loved, in the here and now, even if he is beyond us, living in a different realm.

It turns out I need his approval for going on, and maybe it helps him to feel my acceptance, as much as I can accept without endorsing his choice. Maybe that doesn’t make sense to anyone else. I don’t know.

I only know what I have to live with, or without, more accurately. And I know that to live with this reality, and to live without Alex, I have to find a way to make some sense of it. Making sense of an act that seems senseless to me is a feat of mental gymnastics. But I’m doing it. I’m trying to see from his perspective, and remove myself. That’s the only way I can confront this.

I come back to the same place again and again. If I couldn’t save Alex, maybe I can save someone else? Maybe in reality; or maybe I can help someone else who struggles with loss. Come along side and say I understand. Push for awareness, interevention, blood drives, laughter, and all the things Alex stood for and loved. It’s the only path I see to walk. Honoring my son with strength, and with understanding, as much as I am able.

The grief is there, a part of me. I don’t know how it will be five years from now, or ten. I expect it to continue. Maybe finding ways to use our story will soften the pain a bit. Or maybe not. Whatever I can do for anyone else, it won’t bring him back. But maybe he will see, and smile, and know his spirit is still having an impact. He’s still doing his thing, in this life, and in the next.

Quotes…there are so many powerful words that speak to pain, to loss, to grief. This is one I like…only one of hundreds, maybe thousands.

‘You know’ – she shrugs – ‘most people’s lives are a struggle. This is just my recipe. You have a choice with your experiences, even if they have been negative and difficult, and one thing you can do is turn pain to power.’   – Thandie Newton

That’s a beautifully succinct way to put it…the recipe is to turn pain to power. I don’t interpret “power” as personal power or for personal benefit. I interpret this as the power to overcome, to make something positive from great pain and loss. And that’s what I’ll try to do, for Alex, for myself, for my family. For everyone who knew him.

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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