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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My father’s 80th birthday

Today my dad would have turned 80. He died four years ago on February 1, just a few days shy of his birthday.

It is hard to believe it has been four years since that day. My mom has adjusted, as much as possible. She is busy, active, energetic, continuing to pursue their life dream of mission efforts. But she doesn’t forget, of course.

How does it work that life goes on, the current carries us on? There is no choice, that’s how it works.

I think of him often, at odd moments here and there. Little things bring him to mind, and four years down the road, the sadness is mostly gone, and sweetness is in its place. The memories are good, and I smile when I’m reminded of some funny thing he said or did. Sometimes the tears still come, often when I least expect it, surprising me that emotion can bubble up, nearer the surface than I knew.

I’ve been thinking a lot about creating passion in my life. I should say, expanding passion. There are some things I am passionate about, primarily my family. I think about my dad, and how he displayed that quality in his life.

He wasn’t a flashy person, not the cool one in the crowd. But he was a man of faith, an old fashioned faith that wasn’t about fame or fortune. He was a minister, a preacher, a missionary. He had goals for sharing his faith, and he pursued them. He spent most of his life focused on sharing his faith with others, and lived many years in foreign countries to accomplish that goal. He and my mom were partners in life and in faith, and their mission was their passion.

The last couple of years of his life he was not able to travel, except to doctors’ appointments and to hospitals. His world grew smaller, at a time when mine was expanding. It was about that time that Rob and I moved to Alaska, and we traveled a lot. I always called when we traveled, checking in. I would hear his voice, “Where are you now?” A little wistful, it seemed to me. I’m sure he was thinking of past years when he was well and able to be about his life’s work. It pricked my heart to know that he would likely not make those journeys again.

This week I’m traveling again, in Anchorage for a training, and I heard a little voice in my head as I was packing. “Where are you now?” I’m right here, Daddy, thinking of you, and wishing I could sing happy birthday to you in person. But you’re where you belong, too. I know that because I also have a faith. It is a bit different from my dad’s. My faith has not prompted me to live abroad, or to choose a missionary life. But it is there, nonetheless.

Milestone birthdays are always special, celebrated with a little extra excitement. If my dad was here, we would do a big family gathering, make a special event of the day. But without him, of course that isn’t happening. Still, I like to think that he’s having his party. I like to think that he’s off on a journey, traveling like he loved to do. And because I haven’t been on that journey myself, I ask him, “Where are you now?”

Happy Birthday to my dad. Happy birthday, Daddy.

Theola Jane Kite Burton, 1921 ~ 2011

My grandmother died tonight. She was my last remaining grandparent, and at 90, was still going strong until just a few days ago. She was a product of a time that lives in grainy black and white photos, history books, and memory. She was a child of the depression, married at 14, raised five children with few resources, loved my grandfather, Grady Clyde.

She was “Mama” to her grandchildren, and spent countless days of her life gardening for the family, or sewing, or cooking. She was a gardener of vegetables from necessity, for most of her life, making ends meet with lady peas, butter beans, tomatoes, and whatever else she decided to plant. Her thumb was green. She grew flowers out of love, and knew how to graft, root, transplant, and do amazing things with bulbs. She collected daylilies, and roses. She loved browsing the latest catalogs of flowers. A visit to her house was never complete in the growing season without a tour of her plants, mostly moved outdoors to grow in the hot Mississippi summer.

She was a woman of faith. She believed, and she believed strongly. She was a pretty good preacher too, when the occasion and the grandchild required. Mama was no story book grandmother. Although she loved us all, she could scold when she saw the need. She was always ready to make some point, and I remember that she encouraged us as children to memorize the fruits of the Spirit and the Beatitudes.

She was a seamstress and a quilter, and her winter project was often a new quilt or two for someone in the family. Now her quilts will have a special meaning, because there will be no more from her. But the ones she left behind will be treasured.

She was a cook of country foods, southern foods, traditional foods. She made biscuits and cornbread, perfect every time, knew how to cook anything in a pressure cooker, was legendary for her fried peach pies. She made a creamed chicken dish that was pure comfort food, and knew how to make lady peas that were perfectly seasoned, perfectly cooked, served up with steam rising from the bowl.

She laughed at herself or whatever was funny till she couldn’t talk, a trait that I think I’ve inherited. She loved a joke, although she couldn’t really tell one. She wasn’t a successful tv watcher, except for the news. She couldn’t stay awake through most programs. I think she was too accustomed to getting up early to watch tv in the evenings.

She lived in same small town for most of her life. She knew pretty much everyone, and could tell you the history of families, events, all sorts of things from past doings in Winona, Mississippi.

She was salt and light in my life: salt as a good seasoning, light as a lamppost to guide the way.

As an adult, I’ve recognized that many things that are part of my life she would have no understanding of. She didn’t work outside her home. She didn’t move about, although she did travel a bit visiting her children in different parts of the world. But in many ways, her world was centered in her community, her family, her faith. I like to think that although our lives are very different externally, there is some of her goodness in me; that her influence and her faith are in my heart.

She believed she was going to a better place at the end of her life. She believed she would see my grandfather again. She believed.

And so do I. Thank you, Mama, for sharing your life with me, and with so many. Thank you for the conversations through the years. Thank you for your love. Thank you.