I will always remember Sunday, July 20, 2003 as one of those days which felt right. Twilight was particularly beautiful that evening, the clouds reflecting the beautiful, brilliant fiery red of the setting sun. I now know why the intensity of the moment will always remain so immediate and powerful, searing my soul, preparing me for what was coming. We sat with neighbors on our patio by the third fairway of Sugartree golf course and I watched my healthy, happy 5-year-old daughter play with the neighbor boys. All the kids were laughing, running in the yard, out on the fairway and having fun. It was a perfect day; God had truly blessed my family with abundance. Rarely had I felt so complete and in the moment.
At 11:45 pm that night the world inexorably changed. My dear father was tasked with calling me to tell me my 22-year-old son Travis had been in a hiking accident and he was dead. Surely this was a mistake; it couldn’t have been my Travis. Imagining the pain of losing a child and actually losing a child can be likened to the difference between carefully looking over the edge of a deep, rugged, precipice imagining the fall versus having someone come from behind you and with no warning forcefully thrusting you into the abyss. There you are … falling.
I was truly carried through those first days of tragedy by my faith, family and friends, moment by moment by moment. Travis’ funeral was in San Angelo, where he was born. The trip down to attend the funeral was heart breaking and the trip back to Fort Worth afterwards was void of any feeling other than loss and finality.
Then life went on for most everyone else. For me, I woke up every morning and my first thought was “Travis is dead”, then there was nothing. It was as if a ticker tape was running through my mind displaying the words: “He’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone.” Remembering that my sweet, precious daughter needed me to be present in her life enabled me to persevere, so I made my way through intent on continuing to live. For the first days right after Travis died, a successful day entailed getting up, making my bed and brushing my teeth. Anything after that was extra. Eventually, I made it back to work, back to life. I “came to” in January of the next year realizing that for the last six months I had been living the same day over and over again. It was time to move onward.
Fast forward to now, 14 years later. Having gained entrance into a club one never wants to join and cannot leave, I’ve observed first-hand how our society has difficulty dealing with any tragic loss, particularly the loss of a child. There is no overt way to know if someone is experiencing those first stages of grief. We no longer wear all black for a year or wear a black armband signifying that someone we love is gone. Our culture focuses mainly on events that leave us feeling warm and fuzzy.
For me, grief is not sadness, it’s the feeling of an irreplaceable loss. While the initial season of grieving ended, the feeling of loss continues to be a muted presence manifested through poignant moments continually arising on life’s journey.
Simple questions like “How many children do you have” were hard to answer in the beginning. Do I say two and then explain that one of my children is no longer here causing an awkward moment of discomfort or do I say one and feel as if I just negated my son’s life? I’ve developed my own answer along the way depending on the situation. While a shadow still runs through my mind when I’m asked the question, it is not the thunderstorm it once was. There are other examples but this is a blog, not a book.
There are specific things not to say to someone grieving. “I’m sorry” felt flat for me, one should only say that when they are acknowledging their part in a situation that has not produced a successful outcome. Or theologically baseless platitudes offering hollow reasons for the loss such as “God needed another angel in heaven” or “Only the good die young”, etc. And one other, “You should be over that by now.”
These comments provided hope, empathy and support: “My heart breaks for you;” “My thoughts and prayers are with you;” “I love you and am here for you;” and “Tell me something you will always remember about him…”
Even now there are specific instances that touch the wound of loss and summon its intensity back to the surface. I never know what it might be, it’s usually random and unexpected. I’ve learned to feel the emotion all the way through, it’s okay to let the sensation wash over me and move on.
Celebrating my son’s life is much more important than mourning his death. Daily moments and memories will always be touching. Travis loved my cherry pie, tuna casserole and strawberry ice cream. His memory will always be attached to them. When he was really tickled about something, he had a hearty, robust deep-felt laugh that my daughter Alyssa shares as well. They both sneeze the same, too. He loved baseball. When I attend a baseball game he is always right there with me. It’s a good feeling. We used to race to stores in the parking lot starting the race with the phrase: “Are you healthy?”
Grief is not depression but can easily cause depression and trauma. If you have experienced a deep loss and the world feels gray, please reach out for help. Grief can also exacerbate substance use issues. If you or someone you know needs help from substance use disorder or mental illness, call or text MHMR Tarrant’s 24/7 ICARE at 800-866-2045 or reach out to Mental Health.gov.