Making Meaning of the Madness
One Man's Journey Through Grief
by Dan Lundine
This is for you, Jeff, and for all of us. We love and miss you.
Jeff's drum beat its individual cadence. He listened to his own voices, and I respected and loved him the more because he was true to them. Early he set a path for himself and I do not believe he suffered many serious regrets. He always seemed to know what he wanted from life, although I do not believe for a moment he considered it would last only twenty-five years, or end as it did.
Our son, brother, friend, shared himself and his wonderful years as long as he was able. Today his spirit both comforts and confounds us as we experience the balance of our lives, but I am resolute in my belief that in a dimension beyond our known confines, we will share with him again.
For every man who has suffered the tragedy of loss.
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1 - Healing
- Chapter 2 - Fear
- Chapter 3 - Dreams
- Chapter 4 - Anger
- Chapter 5 - Self-esteem
- Chapter 6 - Laughter and Tears
- Chapter 7 - Sleep
- Chapter 8 - Looking After the "Me" in Me
- Chapter 9 - Creating
- Chapter 10 - Anniversaries: Having a Plan
- Chapter 11 - Depression
- Chapter 12 - Dad
- Chapter 13 - A Bright and Shining Penny
- Chapter 14 - Jeff's Road
One daughter, two sons, thirty years wrapped in three.
Secure in my world
Love connecting a family blessed.
Now where do I turn? Where does any of us turn
What made me think we would be spared
When others were not?
So tenuous, so fragile, the threads holding lives in place.
Our unit ripped apart
The balance, unbalanced, incredulous, having to accept.
Lives once directed, disconnected
Cast upon thundering seas.
Grasping to comprehend
Desperate to return to a balance safe.
Bereaved men are often desperately lost. We are caught trying to cope with society's expectations of strength. We are confused about emotions. We flounder as we struggle to maintain equilibrium in our lives. We experience pain beyond our comprehension. We cry when we think we should be stoic, dislike ourselves for being vulnerable. Our mortality suddenly confronts us. We discover the world does not turn as we think it should. We suffer guilt. We question our will to survive. We are afraid.
I know of what I write. I lost a child to suicide. Early Sunday morning December l8th, l994, my twenty-five year old son tore himself from those who loved him. There was no warning, no answer to "Why." To my knowledge, no plan. Jeff's death was not meant to happen. It was an accident. But that doesn't alter the bottom line. Impulse killed him, leaving his mother, sister, brother, and me with raw and gaping wounds. Tragedy that in the past happened only to others, happened to us. In an instant my family joined thousands of others whose lives are shattered by suicide. In that instant, Jeff fell victim to one of the most prolific killers of young people in North America.
Nothing could have prepared us for the pain and devastation of Jeff's death. No trail led to his suicide. We talked to him the night before about Christmas plans. His younger brother joined him hours earlier to spend a couple of days before they were to fly home. There was no sign of unhappiness or anxiety beyond normal concerns over final exams and the prospect of saying temporary goodbyes to friends. At the time he was three days short of completing his Bachelor of Education degree at the University of Regina, and was about to head off on an adventure with his buddy to teach English in Pusan, South Korea. He knew his marks were sufficient for graduation, and from all indications, he was happy with his life and looking to the future. But something went terribly wrong with his mind the night he died, something that caused the unthinkable. We will never know what turmoil Jeff suffered. But with his death, my life and those of my wife and two surviving children changed forever. Where stability and direction once existed, pain and chaos invaded in a manner we could never have imagined.
Following is an account of what I have experienced and subsequently learned since Jeff died. I write with the goal of providing insight, support and hope to the thousands of men whose lives have been shattered because of traumatic loss.
More than three years have passed since Jeff died. Grieving has been long and often very difficult. However, with a great deal of help and love and with the passage of time, I am coping. On many occasions I ranted at the unfairness of life. On other occasions I questioned the intelligence of anyone telling me that through time some peace would return. Often I railed at my God who seemed to stand impassively by while my son took his life.
While anyone who has suffered loss will find something to relate to in this short book, I believe men will derive the most from it. Far too often men do not know how to deal with emotion. We feel compelled to "John Wayne" our way through pain, not comfortable with the natural emotions of grief. After Jeff died I had great difficulty dealing with the frustration of not having control of my life and with understanding the circumstances which possessed me. I needed a source of hope and inspiration I was not able to find in books people offered in their kind and sincere attempts to help me. Those books, many written years after the fact, once time had soothed raw emotion, did nothing for me. I was too damn confused and angry to accept their messages.
Somewhere during my struggle I realized I could put to use my journal started almost from the day Jeff died. It would be a source of material to write this book. I became certain many men simply do not know what to do when confronted with death. We need help in understanding grief. Our inability to cope with the world as it unravels frightens and confuses us. We consider our very sanity at stake. It is—but with concerted effort and with time, I have discovered that despite the misery, there is a path that leads to renewed life.
To women who read this book, I admire your intrinsic wisdom and strength in working through pain. Generally speaking, you are more sensitive and sensible than we in matters of suffering and grief. Perhaps your wisdom is inherent, born of countless generations who have not gone foraging among the beasts, but in staying home have accepted the inevitable suffering of those torn from a great love. Whatever the reason, I have found women more intuitive about all of this than men. You allow yourselves to feel, to express your feelings and to draw comfort from those in our world so eager to help. Our society has come to expect that of you. What society does not seem to expect is men giving vent to grief. What a terrible mistake that is. We are taught to be the strong counter-balance to feminine emotion, a role many of us willingly embrace, only to discover that embracing the concept and living the reality can be worlds apart!
To support what I wrote about men fumbling with emotion, I want to mention a golf game about six months after Jeff died. A good friend who had provided tremendous support invited me to join him and three or four other men. I had played numerous times with all of them, but not since the previous summer. As each joined my friend and me, there was a clumsy strain in the air. I took the initiative each time to say something arcane such as, "You're looking as dapper as ever;" or, "Hi, Andy. Is that a new set of clubs?" Such comments seemed to ease the moment, my partners being unable to convey even the simplest condolences. We groped our way through four hours of golf, never once recognizing the obvious. A very large elephant walked the course that day, but each of us managed to chip and putt our way around it all afternoon.
Had my partners been women there would have been an open expression of sympathy and emotion. With that shared, everyone would have enjoyed a much more comfortable afternoon. I am not suggesting that men hug and cry their way around a golf course, any more than I suggest women should, but I am suggesting that we find ways to become comfortable with talking about matters of the soul. And that is another reason why I am writing this.
The reality of death causes us to stumble and reel. Because that was exactly my situation for far too long, I hope this account of my experiences will help ease the burden of others. For if we can accept our reality and understand ourselves, I believe we can begin to heal. In my story you will likely recognize elements of your own tragedy. I hope you do and draw strength in knowing you are not alone. I write in the hope that through such recognition will come the understanding that physically and psychologically we will survive our pain. Lives have been irrevocably altered, but eventually there can come meaning out of the madness.
Putting Everything into Perspective
When life's secondary trials get me down
I collect myself.
Our reality reminds me of their place.
How big can anything else be
Now that I have carried you home
On my lap in a box?
For their help and encouragement in writing this book, I want to thank the following people: my wife, Carol, and my surviving children, Diana and Michael, who supported me throughout; David Ames; David Brummitt; Rae Fetherstonhaugh; Steven Hansen, M.D.; Lani Imre; Trevor Johnston; Arlene Rosset; Crystal Sheehan; Karen Taylor; The Compassionate Friends of Winnipeg, Manitoba; Gordon Wilson.
I want especially to thank Ron and Judy Clarke whose unselfish rescue of our family reimmersed them in their own grief. No greater love exists than when we give ourselves up for others.
Recognize you are unique among all others.
Your healing will occur in your way;
it may take quite some time,
but it will happen.
Journal: Feb ‘97
Very soon after Jeff died I found walking on the beach, through the forest, or just about anywhere quiet and natural provided a restful, restorative environment. Then five weeks after Jeff’s death, my father died suddenly of an aneurysm. Because of the compounded shock of those two deaths, much of my time was spent in a haze, bludgeoned and bewildered. Confusion became an overwhelming condition, a state that would stay with me for many months, and returns even now. My once-ordered life had suddenly come apart, and I was having a difficult time coming to the understanding that the quality of time left to me on earth was changed forever. Irrational thoughts came to me frequently.
I recall walking along a beach on Vancouver Island thinking to myself that here was where I belonged. I would sell the house, leave my teaching job and move with my wife Carol and our two remaining children to this beach area. We would bind ourselves together, protected from the elements of life and just walk the beach for however long it took to get through our misery. I didn’t follow through on those thoughts, but I certainly understand people who act impulsively under stress, groping and seeking any form of release.
Healing occurs at a different pace and in different ways for everyone. My healing has assumed a number of forms: baking bread; taking a greater interest in gardening; realizing that I need to look after me (that thought took some working through); finding a new world in computers; cultivating new friends; writing.
More than anything else, I needed time to reflect—to reflect on Jeff’s life, his death, and the staggering reality of saying goodbye.
My journal, some poetry and a biographical sketch of Jeff occupied much of my time in a very constructive manner. I found I was communicating with my son and with myself. Writing gave me an opportunity to be with Jeff in a spiritual sense, and it gave me an opportunity to come to grips with my situation and to know myself better than I ever had, some of which I didn’t like. I needed a conversation outlet, but being a fairly private individual, I found it difficult to convey my truest feelings to others. Writing provided the opportunity.
Strange how life is. Before Jeff’s death I seldom engaged in conversations of the soul, but immediately upon losing him, I had a tremendous need to do so. While a few men were able to share my grief, I found many could not, any more than I could have mere days earlier. They avoided the subject entirely. Talking with some women became a release, but logistically, often that wasn’t possible. So I found my greatest outlet and comfort in writing.
There were thoughts and feelings that cried for release. At times I questioned my need to write some of the things I did, but I know now how necessary to my general well being those writings were. Not all of it was pleasant, but all of it was therapeutic. Even if none of my other advice or experiences have meaning for the people who read this book, I cannot emphasize strongly enough the benefits I found in writing, especially journal writing. For the first year I wrote almost daily, sometimes for hours at a time. After the first year the entries became less frequent, but they continue to be a very positive thing I do for myself.
I learned to pay attention to beautiful, smaller things: foaming whitecaps on a grey and pounding sea; a red fox streaking across a stubble field on an early winter morning; sunrises; a seagull flying overhead as the setting sun glanced off the whiteness of his underbelly contrasting him against the darkening sky; full moons; a kayak gliding through a kelp bed; baby grasshoppers emerging amidst the cacti on a dry prairie hillside; butterflies; a blue heron doing sentinel duty in a West Coast tidal pool. Their solitude, their silence, were sanctuary.
The most moving of the beautiful things were the flukes of a great whale sliding gracefully beneath the sea. My daughter Diana had the flukes tatooed on her ankle shortly after Jeff died; his initials, JAL, were inscribed beneath. Among its several symbols I see a strong, yet vulnerable animal returning to the environment of its birth, its life, its joys and its end as it moves through the cycle which all of us ultimately must.
If we listen to our inner selves, allow the world to carry us along for awhile without having to control it, absorb love given by family and friends and somehow realize time is our greatest ally, I believe most of us will come out of our grief intact. Eventually enough time passes to allow joy to return, perhaps more profoundly than ever. Time allows us to forget for ever-increasing periods; it provides desperately needed respite.
Fourteen months after Jeff died I recorded in my journal:
This month I completely missed the 18th! My God, how could I? But perhaps that is a good sign. Perhaps I really am healing now.
And just a few weeks later while enjoying the exhilaration of cross country skiing with my daughter in Manning Park, I recall panting to myself as we chugged along one of the trails, “If life is a competition, I’m winning!”
Time, love and the great outdoors were healing me.
I won’t tell you that every day, week and month since then has been an “up” time. Most certainly not, for my ghosts continue to visit. But for the most part they come more softly now, and often remain for only a short period.
After sixteen months, time had allowed sufficient healing for Carol and me to “get away from it all” in Hawaii. A year earlier we couldn’t have done that. Our misery would have spoiled the beauty of the islands. We didn’t go there to forget; one cannot do that. But we did go to reconnect, something very necessary for couples who suffer our tragedy.
Grief puts a terrible strain on marital relationships. From the moment a child dies, life is forever altered. Statistics show that many marriages fail under these circumstances, but the ones that endure often are better than before. The tragedy of losing a child can strengthen, but it can also tear apart. One can only hope, and work very hard for the best.
By the time we went to Hawaii, our world which lingered in suspended animation for so long, was beginning to return. Real healing was happening. We were able to discuss Jeff’s life and death freely without unmovable melancholy; we were aware of the beauty of our surroundings; we assumed an attitude we were happier with. I noticed my sense of humour with my students was returning. Memory was on its way back. I was taking Jeff along on new adventures. Self-confidence that had completely left me for months was returning. I felt good about these things; they were signs of positive healing.
And much to my surprise, I was feeling grateful. Grateful that despite the months of turmoil, my wife and our two surviving adult children seemed to have our lives intact, at least as intact as circumstances allowed. Grateful also for the twenty-five years. They could have been far fewer.
During that period I wrote a poem I would return to many times, for there were to be days I would require assurance I was surviving.
For your mother it has been her books and her emerging faith.
For me, the writing.
In concert with family and friends, these have sustained us,
Been our communion, and quite frankly, our salvation.
Those early months after your death seem a long time past,
The confusion of emotions so baffling
As we struggled to comprehend our new lives.
Most everything had seemed ordered, in place
As we lived our comfortable routines
And looked expectantly to the future.
We seized our opportunities as presented.
Probably would have taken advantage of more
Had we been granted the luxury
(No, not luxury)
Of seeing into the future.
But thankfully there are few regrets,
And little guilt.
Many of the darkest moments are behind (I can only hope)
For none of us wants to entertain the demons
That plagued so many days and nights—
Especially the nights.
Fatigue leaving us virtually defenceless
Permitting self doubt, bizarre thoughts, visions
And at times, wallowing.
But some taking charge returns, Jeff,
Some sense that we can regain control of our lives
As the footing solidifies and we begin our halting ascent
From the black recesses.
Assuredly the darkness returns, and will,
For your death continues to occupy our waking moments,
Colour most everything we undertake.
But there is a softening,
A one day at a time returning to mainstream life
We seized our moments with you as we had them
After, we are doing so again.
But in such a different fashion
Now that we have ridden the roller coaster
And been ambushed by the valleys.
We have put our future on hold,
Appreciating each day for itself now.
Becoming aware we can survive this,
Are surviving this,
As we rediscover ourselves.
Hoping some good will come
Though God only knows.
I hope He does know, Jeff,
Has a plan, and will tell us about it.
Though He’ll have one hell of a time convincing me
The price fit the product.
But between December 18, 1994 and “Taking Charge,” existed a plethora of events and misery which had to be endured and worked through. Before we can emerge whole, each of us must give death its due. To deny grief its existence is inconceivable. To forbid it, to suppress our emotions, is folly.
I compare my healing to the path taken by the roller coaster I rode as a kid at the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver. The exhilaration of being at the top after a grinding climb was quickly replaced by the terror of plummeting straight down. While a crash at the bottom never occurred at the PNE, it occurred every time on my emotional roller coaster. Every high was inexorably followed by a low, and it wasn’t until I had ridden several times that I was able to anticipate the eventual outcome and be somewhat prepared for the crashes. I began to fear the highs because I knew what followed.
Eventually, however, I learned how to approach moments that brought a measure of happiness. I also learned not to throw myself with reckless abandon at opportunities to enjoy life, but to approach them gradually, allowing myself measured amounts of happiness thereby cushioning the lows. For example, after two or three visits from afar by good friends, my wife and I knew we would tell others who wanted to come we would love to have them, but from experience we learned staying for a few days was more beneficial than having them for a week or more. Each up had its corresponding down; we tried to minimize the duration of the latter.
I know I will never get over Jeff’s death, but I know also I am getting a second chance at life. After feeling dreadful for so long, I am in awe of this new state that allows me to function with renewed enthusiasm. Life takes on a holding pattern, a time for us to recover. A time when we are on the mat busted, unable to get up. I recognize very clearly each of us heals in our own way and in our own time after losing someone we love. But I believe emphatically that with help and time, we will recover and find much to live for. In the meantime we must pay the price death exacts.
Fear continues to hammer me.
Should I stop trusting that life will improve,
I fear what the consequences might be.
Journal: Apr ‘95
Losing Jeff took me back to my early teenage years, a time in my life when I was confused, anxious and lonely. His death made me vulnerable to all of the uncertainties that one goes through during that period when it seems every step is a new one, and around every corner lurks a threat to our confidence and identity. We leave that behind during our adult lives, but they were powerful years, and for me at least, the memories and sensations of youth flooded back when Jeff died.
At times I simply could not cope and was as vulnerable as I had been as a kid. Fear was constantly with me during the early months of my grief process. It manifested itself through anxiety, desperation, confusion, loneliness, a need for contact and comfort, a questioning of my self-worth, panic and a need to retreat into myself.
One of the strongest needs I had during the first months after Jeff’s death was solitude. But I was afraid. I recognized that I required contact with people, but I was so miserable that I wanted to get away and not negatively influence the lives of those around me. Had I been left to my own resources, I am certain I would have gone, but my wife and several friends were able to convince me otherwise. Carol is a people person, my great velcro strap, so that friends and acquaintances were constantly about. This condition was sometimes a horror to me, but in the long run, did me more good than harm. My real fear at that time was turning everyone away from her by my conduct. I would say, “How will they ever stick with us? I should go away so as not to bother everyone.” Obviously I had little understanding of some aspects of humanity, for our friends’ faithfulness in remaining with us was astounding, and now I am thankful I listened to them and my wife when counselled.
Friends were there to help and would not run away now that things were tough. But there were times when I fled to my bedroom when people came. Society had its expectations, but I needed to provide for me.
Incidental, everyday occurrences created anxiety: going sailing with several men three weeks after Jeff died (I couldn’t relate to their successes; nor could I follow their conversations); entering a barber shop and listening to hockey commentaries; sitting through a video of any description; having my surviving children leave the house; looking in a mirror; waiting for my wife to get home from shopping with a friend; going into stores crowded with people and goods; going to bed at night; keeping social commitments; finding articles or pictures in the house. In August of ‘95 I came across a basketball book I gave Jeff one Christmas, and I remember well the flood of tears.
One of my greatest fears was for the safety of remaining family members. I wanted to envelop everyone and keep each safe with me, especially after Dad died and the knowledge of life’s tenuousness intensified.
Returning to work produced one of the strongest anxiety attacks I can recall. I have been blessed with good relationships with my students, but getting back among them was no easy task. I did not want my situation to impact negatively upon anyone, especially the kids, and I shied from the attention I knew I was going to attract.
For my return I planned to arrive after the halls were free of students so I could slip unnoticed among them and try as unobtrusively as possible to get back into the routine of daily high school life. However, one cannot slip unnoticed into a building occupied by 700 young people.
As I approached the front door, I noticed about fifteen students having a meeting in the foyer. Seeing them stopped me in my tracks. I fled to my car, drove around town, gave myself a pep talk and wondered how I would get in. Finally I parked at the far end of the school and slipped quietly through a side door. The corridor never looked so long. However, the students welcomed me so genuinely my anxiety soon dissipated and I was able to greet, hug and talk with them freely. There was a good deal of emotion because kids possess an awesome power to move me with their honesty and their generosity.
While I detested the fear and the anxiety attacks, I understand now that they too are an integral, though uncomfortable part of the recovery process. Just as physical pain warns us of dangers to our bodies and is necessary to our existence, so fear is necessary. It tells us that something is amiss; it runs up a red flag. Life is somehow unbalanced and we need to pay attention to the alarms.
Fear helps us to retreat, to pull back to where we are comfortable so we do not blunder recklessly beyond our limits. Recovery requires that we understand our limitations. Traveling beyond them is not a sound idea while we are vulnerable.
He didn't do it, Dad.
Journal: Apr '95
For several weeks I didn’t dream of Jeff, and that gave me anxiety. Because there were no dreams did that mean I didn’t love him? (Irrational thinking characterized my thoughts in those early weeks and months.) Then exactly two months after he died, I had my first. At 3:20 the morning of February 18th I woke from a dream, its content very fresh and clear. During his life, Jeff was a poor money manager, a characteristic which often caused me consternation, but I don’t think it ever did him. In the dream, as in life, he was there asking for money. This time, however, he wasn’t borrowing; he was asking for money owed him. An interesting turnabout. I was awake the rest of the night.
Four weeks later and just days after I returned to work, I left during lunch to rest by the river. I reclined in the seat and was drifting off to sleep when I awoke with the realization I was having another dream, a vision of Jeff and my father. In the dream I saw two large trout swimming calmly against the current along a stream bank. They were startlingly beautiful, their image very clear, and they were definitely swimming against the current, a direction Jeff would have preferred. Instantly they symbolized my son and my father coming to let me know they were O.K.. Dad was there to take care of Jeff, and together they were having the relationship they had not developed during their lives.
What gave so much emphasis to this dream was that right after Jeff died I experienced considerable anxiety about a simple thing; I had never taken him freshwater fishing. Fishing was something Dad and I enjoyed frequently. Diana, Michael and I had taken some great trips into Northern Saskatchewan, but aside from one salmon excursion, Jeff had not been fishing with me.
When we visited him at the funeral home, I wanted to leave something meaningful so I slipped my fresh water licence into his shirt pocket. I needed us to have this bond, if only in a spiritual sense. For much of my life I have not considered myself a spiritual person. However, as more time elapses I accept what I saw that afternoon as more than mere chance.
Last night I had another dream about Jeff. It was set in the present. As I walked into a room, there he sat looking a little younger than twenty-five but very similar to that time. There was a shy, apologetic look on his face. He said, "I didn't do it." In the room were Michael and I think Jeff K. Michael repeated Jeff's words: "He didn't do it, Dad." I remember sinking to my knees crying and then falling right to the floor. No explanation was given as to what had actually happened, but there was a sense that he'd needed to go away for a while. My next image was that he was a little boy running naked through a hallway in one of our previous houses. Joy and an immense sense of relief overwhelmed me when I saw and heard Jeff. Then I woke up. An intense sorrow filled the rest of a very restless night.
Journal: Apr '95
Sometimes we ask ourselves where dreams come from. I don’t know their origin, but I do know in times of grief they come as a tremendous source of strength. When I discuss dreams with other sufferers, they tell me the same thing.
Last night's dream involved an incurable disease which Jeff had contracted. He was lying on his stomach in a hospital room and he had an incision down the length of his spine. He looked about six or eight years old. A doctor was examining him to figure out what the disease was. The doctor pried opened the incision and examined Jeff's flesh. I recall it was startlingly pink. Jeff stayed asleep through this until the doctor got to his lower spine. Then Jeff's eyes opened. He asked what the matter was. I told him we didn't know, but we were going to make it all better. I had a very clear image of the trust in his eyes, the kind a child has for a parent during a time of crisis. That was all. I woke up.
Journal: Sept '95
For some weeks I tore myself up over the symbolism of this one. During his most terrible crisis, I wasn’t there.
To this point there have been very few other dreams, and none has matched the intensity of these.
This is bloody tedious.
The damn black returns and sucks me under.
Journal: Oct '95
How could he do such a stupid thing?
Journal: Jan '95
Anger drilled me sometimes with the crushing power of a sledge. While I am not normally a violent person nor given to deep, brooding moods, there certainly were periods after Jeff’s death when anger visited. I was mad at life and its lack of justice. After all, I had lived a decent life, had tried to be a good neighbour, husband, father. Why our family? Thank heavens I read Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People fairly early after Jeff died. This wonderful book put many issues into perspective for me.
At times I wondered if guilt was a source of my anger. It is an issue most of us have to wrestle with at some point, and I suffered my share.
Sometimes I was damn angry our family was going to be held prisoner by our reality the rest of our lives. At other times I was angry at Jeff. When I allowed myself to think of it, the future seemed a nightmare of confusion and distress.
You know, Jeff,
Sometimes I almost beat myself to rat shit
Wondering what the hell went wrong
With a young man who seemed to have
So much going for him.
You were healthy, intelligent, loved,
One good looking boy.
Possessed a sensitivity and enough humility
To help keep your feet on the ground,
Obviously had little difficulty cultivating friends
And were about to graduate and venture
Into a whole new life phase.
I have read the articles about seratonin research
And can buy the plausibility,
Because if I don’t, I start going out of my bloody mind.
Nothing else makes any sense.
Otherwise it was one dumb-assed thing to do!
I keep shaking my head in disbelief.
Rejection and seratonin wouldn’t have been enough.
I wondered long and hard about this poem. Should I destroy it? Did I need to write this stuff? Why deal in such a manner with my anger? And then, should I make such dark thoughts public? But then I remembered this book is meant to discuss what is real; it is meant to help others dealing with similar turmoil understand they are not in this alone. They are not going crazy. We are suffering, and the suffering does bad, tough things.
After this poem was finished, I recall the relief of “getting something off my chest.” A freeing came to me; I felt lighter than I had for some time. It was then I decided not to destroy the poem, because I realized I had a need to express my anger in this manner.
"Bottom Line" is behind me
I guess there was a need to write that stuff
To purge my soul of the anger being carried around
Without realizing its presence
Perhaps I’ll be a little freer now
As I look back through my journal spanning more than two years, I find a number of entries which exhibit anger. When I first began to read about grief and what to expect from it, I was puzzled about why I would go through an anger phase. I wasn’t angry at first, just beat up and utterly lost. What was I to get angry about? Certainly not about Jeff! What I felt for him then was sympathy and a need to defend him, keep him safe, something I obviously hadn’t done while he was alive. Well, it didn’t take long before those thoughts and emotions were pushed aside by the anger. It was only three weeks after Jeff died that the first anger entry appeared.
Initially I was uncomfortable with anger, but now that I have accepted it as part of the healing process, I am content I wrote about it. Recognizing it helped with subsequent bouts that continue even now. I believe acknowledging the anger and dealing with it helps me be at relative peace with life.
We have lost a great love,
but we are not "losers."
Journal: Apr '95
Little wonder those of us who go through catastrophic loss suffer a lack of self-esteem. The successes of a lifetime teach us that we are decent people capable of giving and receiving love, raising a family, developing a career and generally being in fairly good control of our lives. We develop goals and quite often are successful in attaining them despite periodic setbacks. But nothing can prepare us for the devastation which suddenly invades our life when a child dies.
For years I thought my background with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had provided me with the capacity to manage death. I had handled my share of traffic fatalities, plane crashes and farm accidents. I assumed those exposures buffered me from being emotionally involved with deaths that various friends suffered within their families over subsequent years. My friends' grief and serious problems moved me to be sure, but I was able to maintain a certain detachment.
Then my son died, and any ability I possessed to detach evaporated. Not immediately, for shock seemed to envelop me, leaving me utterly dumbfounded as I struggled to bring some meaning to my new reality. I couldn't comprehend what had happened to Jeff or to my ordered world. More than anything else, I felt bludgeoned and I recall stumbling about looking for reason and balance to return. When the shock wore off, cold, stark reality overcame me and it was then the ghosts visited with a vengeance. A terrible sadness set in, a depression, and for what seemed a long time I cried and I ranted at the forces that had allowed this.
I need to scream at my God and the demons that brought me to this.
But I do not scream-not at my demons!
Journal: Mar '95
With depression any semblance of self-esteem vanished to be replaced by doubts and bizarre thoughts. On reflection I understand why self-worth abandoned me. To that point my life balanced on three major sources of satisfaction: I was a decent husband, a successful teacher and a father of three good, happy children. When Jeff died, the security and sense of well-being provided by those left me. The strain of his death placed immense pressure on our marriage. I was no longer effective in the classroom—there wasn't enough of me to share. And the big question: How good a father had I been that one of my children would tear himself from me? Good friends and family did their utmost to convince me I remained a worthy person, but because I was so miserable, much of their counsel simply washed over me.
In terms of my well-being, I made several mistakes after Jeff died, but one of the more serious was returning to the classroom too early. The doctor I visited advised I stay away from school until the September semester. Eight months! I couldn't fathom the need for that so I returned much earlier. In retrospect, he was right. One day in the middle of an English class I suddenly walked out. I couldn't handle the content. Literature is filled with accounts of death and human suffering, and a particular play we were studying was too much. Thankfully a friend took over for the next two weeks while I covered her class, but that incident was hard on me because it provided another example of how little control I had over myself at that point. My male ego took another blow. The doctor understood something I did not. I didn't have a job where I could close the door once in a while to remove myself from the world. I had to be on stage all day giving to those kids. There wasn't enough of me.
I found through time if I was able to anticipate situations I knew would produce anxiety and steer away from them, I had better success handling my emotions. Generally I avoided situations that involved gatherings of people. Friends wanted to help Carol and me by taking us out to dinner or into the city to get our minds off our troubles. From my experience, early in the grief period, "getting my mind off my troubles" was impossible despite the best intentions of those who rallied around.
Many people did their utmost to help, often in quite creative ways, but because my nerve ends were raw and because my focus was obviously elsewhere, I found it often intimidating to be in the company of confident people who were taking time out for me. Their lives continued to prosper. I was struggling with mine, and from my perspective, it certainly wasn't prosperous! I found safe routines to be the best routines—routines close to home. As frustrating as it may be, there is a time for lying low, a time for the soul to undertake repairs.
Often it seems the gears of my mind have been stripped,
Or one wheel is spinning on ice
Screaming as it digs itself deeper.
Trapped by its own frantic quest for release.
It feels a long time that I have been so,
As an old man, lonesome and befuddled,
Wandering through life, steps uncertain
Not comprehending his loss, his wanting youth.
But I am not an old man.
Why then my wandering
Such a futile question.
Can the wheel climb out so quickly?
I would contemplate brighter themes,
But I find I cannot.
My focus is locked in its groove,
But perhaps not fruitlessly.
Perhaps this pause, a lying low, is required
To allow the gears to again mesh
And the wheel to grasp certain ground.
I did not like myself when so damn vulnerable! And I was miserable not having control of my life, but I had little choice. I could not function normally. It was humiliating to find myself exposed, unable to think, laugh, remember, respond intelligently, display any wit. Feelings of helplessness and anxiety overwhelmed me. People saw me, knew me, in a raw, weak state. I would do well to remember how incapable I was of getting my life back.
Journal: Jan '96
Laughter and Tears
Misery comes readily enough;
why deny its relief?
Journal: Feb '95
Survivors of severe loss sometimes add to their burden by placing unreasonable pressures on themselves. I am speaking about those who believe laughter in the face of death is disrespectful. My son would be very unhappy if he thought his father believed that. I am certain he is relieved to know I still find humour in life.
To deny oneself a good laugh at a movie, joke, human situation or whatever seems to me a waste of opportunity. Laughter takes pressure off and gives momentary relief from unhappiness. It provides a support source to help us endure. Many months have passed, but I recall very clearly how wonderful it felt to laugh the first time after Jeff died. And I remember the sense of relief it brought, however brief. I will always be indebted to the friend who gave my wife and me that opportunity, and to the other friends who later stepped in to help us find humour. Discovering laughter could still be a part of our lives was very gratifying.
To help return some youthful laughter to our lives, eight months after Jeff died we accepted a fifteen year old international student from Taiwan as a boarder. Doing so was one of the best decisions we made with respect to healing. Carol and I needed a positive focus, and we needed youthful giggles and exuberance to return to our household for we feared coming home at the end of each working day to a sombre and often very sad house. So we welcomed Amy. She and her sister (who coincidentally lived across the street) provided us much needed spark. We could focus on teaching English to Amy, helping her with homework, including her in our travels around the Lower Mainland and generally accepting her into our family. I could tell by the light in her eyes what we gave her was appreciated, but what she gave us was so much more.
Carol cried so much that Judy recommended 'Preparation H' for the swelling under her eyes. Thank God for some humour!
Journal: Jan '95
Aside from a few abbreviated bursts, I did very little crying in the immediate period after Jeff died. I think I was still concerned with control, and I think denial was a huge factor. How could our son’s death possibly be? Even at the funeral home during visitation there were no tears, just profound disbelief.
How do I work through the memories of touching you at the funeral home so cold, knowing then as we said goodbye there would never be another greeting? I don't think I fully accepted the reality of your death. I talked to you as though you were asleep, and I walked away stunned, but not crying, unable to grasp what was happening. I was not yet understanding that never really is forever.
Journal: Sep '95
Men have a good deal of trouble with tears. Much of that we bring upon ourselves. Perhaps we are too concerned with being in control. Perhaps we are misguided. Perhaps we have watched too many testosterone movies that teach us real men don’t cry. I think that is a shame because when tragedy strikes we find ourselves in a morass of confusion. Our whole being is devastated, but we don’t know how to give vent to natural emotion.
Sometimes I wasn't sure if I was crying for Jeff, for myself, for others who were hurting, for the kids we taught, or for the kindness and love being shown us. Sometimes I felt guilty and selfish because I felt I was crying for the wrong reasons.
Journal: Dec '94
Not crying for the past two weeks has begun to bother me. Why? Didn't I love my boy?
Journal: Jan '95
Suddenly today while driving home from the dump I realized Jeff would never again be coming home. I had to pull over to the side of the road for fear of hitting the ditch. The reality overwhelmed me-no more contact, golf, tennis, visits, laughs, stories. The last time he and I were together he finally beat me at tennis. He was very contented with himself. It was an amazing relief to suddenly cry uncontrollably. My despair at realizing his and our reality seemed to take until today to hit me. The mind is such a strange thing. I had been talking rationally for days about his death, using the words dead, death, suicide, freely-but not really comprehending the depth of the words.
Journal: Jan '95
Still not crying. Just shaking my head in disbelief every time one of the visions comes. How does one comprehend all that has changed in the past few weeks? Jeff and Dad both gone.
Journal: Feb '95
Found myself unable to stop crying on the plane home from Toronto. A movie triggered my emotions.
Journal: Jul '95
At times it was more NOT crying that bothered me than crying itself. I thought I should be doing more and was feeling guilty I wasn’t. I was starting to beat myself up about being unfeeling. I was beginning to curse the years in the police force, wondering if the emotions I’d suppressed had robbed me of the ability to feel. I was beginning to wonder if not crying was a sign I didn’t love Jeff as much as I thought. (One of the aspects of grief that tortured me the first year or so was my inability to control irrational thoughts, especially when tired.) Then the trip home from the dump opened the flood gates and washed away guilt for the moment.
At this point it is all well and good to understand how needless some of the guilt was, but I enjoy now the advantage of time, the great healer.
I have noticed on a number of occasions when particularly unhappy that eventually my emotions build to such a point that I end up crying. Each time this happens I definitely feel better afterwards. The tension has increased, often without my knowing it, to a level where it demands release. The ensuing tears are a safe outlet. Thankfully I take that route to release my emotions and not one that would be destructive.
Just as we require laughter in our lives, we require tears. Life is not a “soma” bath, but it is a lottery. We can know bounteous joy, but we can also know unspeakable misery. We hope for the former, but we should understand few escape this world without the latter. We need to laugh when there is something to celebrate. And we need to free ourselves to cry when life pulverizes us.
Wearisome nights, nine times nine,
Shall he dwindle, peak and pine.
Avoiding bed became an obsession. Because I often couldn’t stay asleep I would toss about in agony. Those periods when regular sleep did occur, I was able to cope with much of what was happening, but when sleep deprivation hit, dealing with life became difficult.
…an overwhelming fatigue since getting out here.
…I'm not sleeping again and along with this, despair creeps into my consciousness each time I look into the future.
…All I need is a few days rest to clear my perspective of things.
…Here I go again. The nights are a horror.
…No sleep again. I’m exhausted, but no more pills.
…Bought some new runners today, and will take David's advice re a naturopath.
Journal: Dec '94 - Nov '95
Soon after Jeff died it became obvious I needed sleeping pills. Nights in succession would pass when I would get two or three hours sleep. The balance of the night was spent tossing restlessly with Jeff on my mind. Each time this happened, going to bed became a horror. I knew what lay in store. So I swallowed my male pride and those little red and white beauties, and each time my quality of life improved. But not without fight after futile fight against them.
I tried most of the pro-active things: brisk walks half an hour before bed; warm milk; warm milk and bananas; half an hour on the walk fit; reading; writing until the wee hours; and often various combinations and permutations of these. Nothing worked. Running ten kilometres was out of the question; I didn’t have the energy to get past one or two. I tried. Each time I eventually gave in to the medication, and thank goodness I did.
In retrospect, I understand why I didn’t earlier. Male pride and stubbornness prevented me, and I am not much better as I write this, for I have recently gone through the same sleeplessness and wrestling with myself. The big difference now is I have the luxury of time and experience. Those two luxuries don’t help me sleep, but they have taught me a few things.
While I stand behind what I said about sleeping pills, I do not recommend their continued use. They got me to sleep, but I felt groggy after and I always worried about addiction despite the advice of doctors. I now rely on naturopathic remedies and strategies because I find them successful.
If the reader of this little book follows no other advice, find a way to sleep. Try everything that seems reasonable, but having done so and found nothing that works, do not let pride get in the way of your getting sufficient rest. You may have to resort to sleeping pills, if only for short periods of time to re-establish sleep patterns.
No other factor impedes healing more than fatigue. Do it for your mind, and do it for your body. Nothing strips you of your health faster than sleep deprivation, and as a good friend said to me at one point, “You’re no good to your family dead.”
Spare yourself the horrors of tossing about or simply lying there in agony suffering through the ghosts from which you cannot extricate yourself. We can wish much of ourselves, but we must first be in a healthy mental and physical state. If we get sufficient rest, we can be pro-active in our healing.
Looking After the "Me" in Me
The most important person
in your life now is you.
Journal: Oct '96
When I first read or heard that I would now have to look after "me" as a result of our tragedy, I had no concept of what that meant. For so many years, looking after me meant being husband, father, teacher, friend. I never stopped to ask myself whether I was doing what I really wanted; wasn't being all of those things expected, and therefore what I wanted? Expected and wanted had become one and the same. How could I now suddenly focus mainly on "me"? What kind of selfish tack would that be? Didn't I need to be strong and look after everyone—be the male?
The whole concept of "me" seemed strange. Unfortunately I dismissed it, and it was many months before I again gave it consideration, but only after I had grown utterly fatigued trying to do what I thought everyone expected.
After eighteen months I was worn out, pulled in far too many directions and getting far too little rest. My body rebelled as only it can, by getting sick. First a messy rash, followed by pleurisy and then an attack of facial shingles, the worst of the three. Normally I would have paid little attention to any of those problems, but all three hit within a matter of weeks, forcing me to take notice.
Stress was having its way with me. It forced me to rethink my priorities and to care for myself. I came to the realization that my children and my wife were grown people, perfectly capable of looking after themselves. In fact, they were doing so quite nicely! So I stopped worrying about them.
The same idea occurred with respect to my work. It would still be there when I got back, and if I were to leave for a lengthy period, someone else would very competently take over. Arriving at this point meant I could now focus on myself. I realized I was spreading myself too thin, so I said no to work, to society and to an extent, to my family. I began to put me first. With that thought, I stayed home for awhile.
My mortality was now confronting me. How much time did I have left, and what was I going to do with it? I began to do what I wanted and concern myself less about what others thought of my actions. I began to realize that some problems that had grown large, weren't large at all. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, they really didn't matter.
What mattered was me. I was fifty-three, and if I didn't soon focus inward, establish some peace of mind and provide for myself, perhaps I would become a statistic like so many other fifty year olds one reads about in the paper. It took time and a good deal of thought, but I have recently come to some understanding of what people mean when they say the most important person in your life now is you.
Survivors lives have been irrevocably changed. It is all right to embrace the concept that patterns of old need not be patterns of the present. It is all right to change the way we do things and become a little self-centered. After all, if we do not look out for ourselves, who will? Life does not go on as usual no matter how much we want it to, nor how much society would like that for us. We need to "go with the flow," but the flow needs to be our own.
- To create:
- to bring into being;
- to cause to exist.
The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary
Within a short time after Jeff's death I found new interests were evolving and some lifestyle patterns were in transition. Much to my regret, teaching, which had been a passion, became a job, something that throughout my career I hoped would never happen. I lost interest in keeping my cheque book balanced, when the car got dirty, it stayed dirty and a previously extensive interest in televised sports waned significantly.
New interests were taking the place of old ones. They included such simple things as baking bread, acquiring computer knowledge, learning how to cure and smoke fish, perennial gardening, writing poetry and short stories—none of which I had done before. I wondered why I was suddenly doing those things, but some time passed before the thought occurred that I had an intrinsic need to create. Understandably so. We parents "create" our children, and when they are taken from us there exists a terrible void which begs refilling. I was unconsciously satisfying that need.
For weeks after Jeff died I recall reaching out to touch people; I needed the reassurance of human contact. Previously I had been uncomfortable with people who ventured inside my physical space. I had not been a "touchy" person; I would never have considered putting my hand on the shoulder of a friend or of a child while talking to him or her. But all of a sudden I found myself doing just that. I remember at the reception after Jeff's memorial holding onto the jacket lapel of a former colleague, pulling him closer while giving advice about going home and hugging his children before there came a day he wished he had done more of it. That was not me, but Jeff was gone and I know now that I needed to replace his love and his presence.
One way I could do that was to pull others close, to have their contact assure me that despite my current desolation, the world was still a safe, warm, nurturing place. I believe physically and emotionally reaching out to people was satisfying the same need baking bread and developing other interests eventually accomplished. My unfathomable wound was somehow being salved over.
While I believe those of us who hurt need to keep ourselves safe within our status quo world for awhile, I also believe creating new interests helps to give life new purpose. It is no great thing to ask oneself, "Why should I carry on?" Many of us, I am certain, have entertained that thought when pulling a blanket over our heads in the morning has far more appeal than throwing it aside to head for the shower. The answer I have is that we have two ways to respond to the question: We can choose to carry on, or we can choose not to. The majority will choose the former, finding new interests in their recovery.
Some fortunate people will find new interests readily. Others will have to work harder at discovering what gives life renewed purpose. Either way, nothing in the grieving process comes easily.
To believe I have received some "enlightenment" that enables me to put everything behind could not be further from the truth. There is seldom a day goes by I do not ask myself why this happened, the question and its impossible answer bringing me renewed anxiety. To date I have not been successful in freeing myself of this. But I will tell you that without my new interests, life would be a good deal more difficult. Of that I have no doubt. I do not wish to discount the tremendous amount of loving support, but because of who I am (unique among all others, as are we all) taking advantage of new interests, especially the writing, has been my saving grace. And on the worst of days I find if I bake a new batch of bread, somehow the process renews me.
When life seems intolerable
Fated with before and after…
If we can block looking into the future
To focus on our gifts of the moment
One day at a time
Life can be granted new perspective, new purpose.
I believe new purpose comes partly out of creating focus. We require focus to survive, an interest so we can immerse ourselves in a positive fashion. I am not suggesting survivors rush out and purchase an exotic property, begin a new career overnight or take on something sudden in an attempt to flee reality. For flee we cannot. But I am suggesting we try to develop an interest or a vision attainable within the parameters of our new lives. Initially we require diversions, activities that occupy our minds if only for moments. But diversions are temporary, and if we never progress beyond them, not very therapeutic. It is my contention that if we turn an interest into a positive focus with longevity, it then has a chance to grow and nurture us. It will increase dramatically our chances of healing and surviving.
I believe, too, that creating a focus satisfied part of looking after the "me" in me.
Anniversaries: Having a Plan
One place less set at the table
Journal: Apr '95
The eighteenth of every month, Sunday mornings, significant holiday dates, Jeff's birthday, all cause problems. Especially during the first two years, any date with particular memories or symbols caused heightened emotions. Through Carol's initiative, we discovered that if we formulated a plan going into certain occasions, we usually got through them with reduced anxiety. Along with forming plans we learned to anticipate some ambushes, thereby reducing our chances of breaking down privately or in public. We certainly didn't escape all situations, but we were successful in reducing their numbers.
Some plans are as simple as on Sunday mornings lighting the votive candle that was on the altar during Jeff's memorial. Others, like getting ready for his birthday (which coincided with Easter the first year), are more complex and sometimes involve several people. We gather our children with us and very close friends and engage in symbolic activities for the occassion. Sometimes we share a meal; sometimes we go for a hike; sometimes we plant flowering bushes and shrubs.
Your birthday, Jeff. Actually a good day-much easier on us than anticipated. Planted some trees and rose bushes. Bob, Rose, Jeff K., Kim, Bruce. Nice meal after the tension was broken by a toast. Everyone very aware of one place less set at the table. Too many confusing emotions to write any more.
Journal: Apr '95
Another anniversary today, Jeff. I don't know why we survivors place such significance on dates, but there is little question we do, and some are significantly worse than others. Your Mom had a surprise, embarrassing cry attack today. She was in a friend's gift shop when a young woman brought in her new baby to show the shop owner. That really set her off.
Journal: Apr '95
The day was actually pretty good. We made some changes, Jeff, like no stockings and we cut down on the gifts. Bob was here again for support as was Bruce with Katie. What a sweetie. Having a child in our midst really helped. I wonder if Bruce understood that would be the case? We stayed at Madrona. Beautiful scenery and weather so we got in our long walk on the beach. The emotional level was generally up-beat and positive. Good for all of us.
Journal: Dec '95
The other significant event I want to mention involves our first New Year's Eve, just days after Jeff died. It had been planned for months that some good friends would come out from the prairie to spend a three day holiday with us on the beach at a resort on Vancouver Island. Thankfully they did not change their plans, which under the circumstances, would have been understandable. We went ahead with shucking a pail of oysters and cooking them over an open fire on the beach, mulling some wine and generally enjoying each other's companionship. The preparations and close company helped to distract and warm all of us.
Of course, plans are not foolproof as witnessed by the incident in the gift shop, but generally we find them extremely helpful. It is usually our experience that the emotional build-up to the date is rougher than the date itself, especially if we have given some thought about how to occupy ourselves. Victims often feel alone and frightened enough without having those feelings exacerbated by being caught unprepared on anniversary dates.
So where the hell are those
Journal: Oct '95
Jesus, this is supposed to get easier!
At least that is what people said would happen.
So when do the miracles begin?
Nerve ends are no less raw
Emotions still take control
Kinder memories have not yet pushed aside
I'm supposed, expected, to be strong—
So where the hell are those damn bootstraps?
Every fabric of my being rebelled against accepting depression as a reality. Before Jeff's death I never recognized depression. It was something that happened to other people. But eventually there was no denying the fact ghosts had come to visit, and they had come with a vengeance! For quite a while I reached for those boot straps but to no avail. It seemed the longer I struggled the more frustrated I became because I always believed I could control my destiny. I had never been against a force of this magnitude where no matter how hard I struggled, one step forward invariably took me two back.
Depression had arrived. The black thoughts visited in all manner of deviance, and much of what came terrified me. Hopefully I have been as low as I will ever get, yet none of us has that assurance. Certainly I have been so low that I pray never to return. Some very startling statistics exist regarding the conduct of survivors of suicide, not the least being the number who contemplate their own death. When I first read that, I scoffed. How could anyone being victim to such loss contemplate inflicting similar misery on a loved one? Experience is a great teacher, and from it I have learned recently far more than I ever cared to.
When Grief Overcomes
When grief overcomes
It is no special thing to ask
Why carry on
I have been with this thought
And it terrifies me.
For if I harbour it
Why not each of us?
In my other life, my life with Jeff, nobody could have convinced me that I could or would harbour such thoughts. I am now wiser. Today there are very few surprises. I will never know what torment my son was going through the morning he died, but the night I wrote the above entry, I came as close as I care to having a glimmer of comprehension.
Each of us who has lost a great love knows life will never again be the same. That doesn't mean we won't heal and go on to lead a rich life, but it does mean we will each take a different path getting there. We heal in individual ways. For me it required solitude, juxtaposed with an intense need to communicate. For the most part, my journal took care of both.
What a crappy world! My mind is playing tricks on me. Too many ups and downs. Just when a good day happens, all hell breaks loose again. The visions of Jeff's end return to haunt me when just days ago I thought I had arrived at some peace.
Journal: Jan '95
Shape up, Lundine, you're beginning to wallow. Goddamn it, this is awful. I just can't shake the foreboding and fear and loss and miserableness. Don't get caught feeling sorry for yourself.
Journal: Mar '95
A heaviness has descended over me. Jeff is seldom off my mind. Doing things to stay occupied knowing I need to but none of it brings me any satisfaction. If I was clinically depressed, would I do anything constructive? Either I enjoy wallowing in my unhappiness or this condition is normal. I have no yardstick with which to compare. Surely I owe it to myself to break out of this state.
Journal: Mar '95
Bills, income tax, correspondence for Jeff continue to arrive. Each brings a new miserableness. This is one of the most difficult things I do.
Journal: Apr '95
Sometimes there doesn't need to be any special reason for feeling particularly awful; the feeling arrives of its own volition. Our minds develop coping mechanisms to get us through the days, but obviously the subconscious stores emotions that must spill over and out from time to time, too often at night.
Journal: Jul '95
Some mornings I don't want to get out of bed. I don't know where the feelings come from, but despair and apprehension are two of the biggies. I need a purpose. I need a goal. I remember Michael saying to us that perhaps the biggest thing we will do each day is make that first step toward the shower. The young have so much to teach us.
Journal: Aug '95
I am beginning to harbour thoughts of medication. Even to write these words causes tremors, but I have to face facts. The thought has been there and I am in a very unhappy state that I cannot get out of. Diana has come for a visit, but even she can't make a difference. So here I am wallowing again. This is bloody tedious. For periods of time I am able to push the ugly away and focus upon what is good, but this damn black returns and sucks me under!
Journal: Oct '95
My ghosts have returned to haunt me much earlier than I thought they would. You'd think they would have the good graces to wait until December.
Journal: Nov '95
I wonder if I failed Jeff in any way?
Journal: Nov '95
Not every moment was spent miserably. Certainly there were lighter times, as there must be with all of us, otherwise we would fill to overflowing the mental institutions of this world, but for a long time I was a very unhappy individual! Jeff and Dad died within five weeks of each other; my world as I knew it had collapsed and I was not dealing very well with my emotions.
After weeks of agonizing I reluctantly tried medication for depression, but the side effects were so severe they forced me to abandon pills as an option. For someone who was already fifteen pounds underweight and constantly struggling to keep things clear, pills that caused me to lose my appetite and feel groggy were the last thing I needed. As I watched them swirl down the toilet, I recognized a metaphor. I recognized also they scared me worse than the state I was in.
That scare and a coincident visit from my mother, who must have recognized I was in trouble, were catalysts in helping my recovery. I still had much to work through, but at least I was able to handle my emotions better than when I wrote:
Never IS Forever
In the middle of the night in the rain
The phone rang and I knew there had been a wreck.
But it was your voice on the phone.
Your friend had been badly hurt,
And you were banged up though physically intact.
You sat miserable beside me after the hospital,
Spoke in such anguished tones.
I knew you didn't mean it when you said
You wished you were dead.
Four years later
The phone rang again in the night,
But this time the voice was your brother's.
Beside his, your anguish paled.
Just a gut-tearing "D-a-a-d."
And this time I knew
From you there would be no more phone calls.
What is the point of this dark, morose material? The point is that when we hurt to the degree that losing a child hurts, we are easy prey to the visitations of all that is black and bizarre. We have been bludgeoned, and for a while we cannot function normally. Our entire being becomes unbalanced. My ghosts haunted me day and night, until by the nature of their severity, at times I thought I was losing my sanity.
Give Your Head a Shake
Sometimes I think I am going crazy—
My son sits in a box in the garage
And I sit here contemplating Goddamn poetry.
Aside from one or two brief comments, I have not written about my father or the role he played in all of this. I always felt he got cheated by circumstance. I was so consumed with my son's death there wasn't enough room left to grieve for Dad. It has been only lately, now that time has filtered through some of the emotions and residuals of Jeff's death, that I have been able to reflect on Dad's life and all the good he brought to us.
I was the firstborn of five, therefore the test case. I was the medium through which he learned to be a parent. We had agreements, but from a youth's perspective, there were more disagreements. Neither of us did everything right, but in fairness to him, I don't think he had ever been a teenager. The "Thirties" did that to people. As a result, when he reached to talk to me, he didn't know the language.
As soon as school was over, I headed to the prairie for thirty years to make a life for myself. We had our differences, but I always loved him and I always respected the ideals for which he stood—honesty, integrity, responsibility, love for family, intestinal fortitude. And as much as I wanted my own life, I found as the years passed, often when I opened my mouth, out popped my Dad. While circumstance didn't allow grieving time, I am happy I was with him the night he died. Somehow being there was fitting.
As soon as Dad died I was bothered that the stress of Jeff's suicide had been a factor in Dad's aneurysm. My doctor assured me the ten days my father spent removing an old log cabin and blackberry patch by hand had much more to do with the aneurysm than the shock of losing his grandson. I certainly hope that was the case, because if it was, my father died happy. He loved his "farm", not so much for the land, but for the work it provided. Two of Dad's primary ambitions in life were to keep his family together and to work. With Mom's help, he achieved both.
I wonder at the way life unfolds. I remember the dream down by the river when I saw the two trout. I don't believe in grand design, but I do wonder now about matters that seem coincidence.
When he wasn't working, Dad loved to fish and to play tennis. I hope he is teaching Jeff to use a fly rod. I hope, too, he is fine tuning Jeff's back hand. Diana, Michael and I fish, and we play tennis. I like to think that when the time comes, we'll be doing those things together.
A Bright and Shining Penny
We shared his life for twenty-five years;
it could have been twenty-five weeks.
It could have been twenty-five minutes.
Journal: Mar '97
Depending where you are in the grieving process, the thought of returning happiness may have little meaning, or it may already be welcomed reality. Should you be in the early stages of grief, the "Doubting Thomas" in you may question the plausibility of happiness ever returning. Given time, and given the chance, happiness and purpose will return.
A few days after Jeff died I asked my good friend who had earlier lost his son under similar circumstances whether I would again feel joy when thinking of Jeff. Was I condemned to spend the balance of my life tortured by the vision of his end? Ron's response was that one day I would again see Jeff doing positive things, like helping me coach. The negative visions of his death would fade. During the absolute darkest days I hung onto those words trusting implicitly Ron's wisdom and experience. Understanding his integrity, I never doubted him, though at times I was sorely tested.
At the funeral home Ron stood beside me and I noticed him quietly slip something into the breast pocket of Jeff's shirt. Later when I asked what it was, he said he put a shiny penny in there. They would crop up everywhere. Each new one would remind us of Jeff and provide comforting assurance of his presence.
Ron knew exactly what he was doing; they do appear everywhere. The first two we found, we found side by side on a pathway where we often walk our dog. Despite the rain and surrounding mud, they were as bright as the day they left the mint. Carol put hers in a private place, and I drilled a hole in mine so I could wear it forever around my neck.
There have been many pennies since; the majority we keep in a little basket beside a guardian angel and a vase of flowers Carol seldom leaves untended. In contrast to the little cherub by the flowers, Jeff was no angel, just a wonderful young man whose life provided us a source of light and joy that we are so grateful to have shared for twenty-five years. He had qualities I wanted for myself, and in a very real sense, he inspired much of what I did with my life. When I heard another man say of his son, "He was my hero," I could relate.
A Bright and Shining Penny
On my way into the gym today there lay a penny so I tucked it away.
I needed to spend time with you and shooting hoops seemed the answer.
We could communicate in a fashion well known to both of us—
Some rust had accumulated but it wore off soon enough.
After such a long time it was good to hear the net sing again.
I wonder what took me so long to figure out
The gym is the best place to be those days
When the roller coaster spiral is stuck on down.
Ten months ago Ron told me there would come a day
When I would see you bring the ball up the court before the other sights.
He was right.
Finally I have been graced with that discovery!
During those moments in the gym the ghosts backed off—
You and I were again sharing our passion.
Just in case you missed it…
We didn't play any one on one,
( I guess you were going easy on me )
But we did play a little twenty-one.
On this day, I owned the net.
No apologies, but you got thrashed.
Some would say I had you in my hip pocket,
So to speak.
I see you everywhere,
But sometimes you catch me off guard
Like at the airport the other night.
The build, chin, carriage, incredibly were yours
As a young man strolled through the whistling door.
For one brilliant instant you were there.
I experienced a rush,
A burst of exhilaration as a flash of memories leapt at me.
They are in the letters, albums, videos,
Tucked away, sometimes sneaking out
To join with all the others.
I have written about them—
The good and the not so good.
I cherish them all.
You didn't have to go.
We had many more to make.
Shooting guard and outside linebacker
Saturday night parties and Monday morning replays
As you basked in the attention of classmates
And teachers who went to the game,
Reliving second half baskets
Or the running back you stripped in the flat.
Later, alone in your room
You wonder about frogs that sing in the night.
Shooting Hoops in a Schoolyard
Today I watched two young men shooting hoops in a schoolyard
And was reminded of you.
Neither resembled you
But the actions, the emotions, were the same
As they celebrated their youth, their athleticism
And their friendship.
They moved with the grace of those
Not yet inhibited by age, or the world.
Dribble between the legs and swing after a slam.
An alley oop and another swinging slam on an eight foot rim,
Dreaming they were Michael and the rim was at ten.
Laughter as one trips driving the lane,
A steal from behind and the ball turns over,
Jab step right and take it to the hoop left,
High five's and another celebration—
I had seen it all before.
I could tell they were pleasant kids.
You should have been there with them.
I had to work through a truck load of "stuff" before I could consistently celebrate Jeff's life. Initially there was too much hurt. Eventually, however, I discovered that those who had been through grief before knew what they were talking about. Given a chance, Time, the mighty healer, takes us by the hand and guides us.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
As I reflect on the time since Jeff died, I recall feeling possessed by circumstances. I recall it took time before I could hand control to people there to help, but once I allowed that to happen, my life gradually regained balance. In the interim, my journal, just paper and pencil—nothing planned or elaborate—was salvation. It provided an opportunity to work through problems and to learn. By defacto, the journal became the yardstick by which I could gauge my progress and that of my wife and children. It became a window into our lives. It allowed me to stand back from my grief and to learn from myself.
In retrospect, I often gave myself good advice. Many, many times I returned to the journal for it gave me checks and balances. It reminded me of necessary things and courses of action I wanted to take. By keeping track, by working out some of my deepest feelings, I gained a clearer understanding of what was going on. I had some measure of where I had been and what I had travelled through.
One of the lessons best learned from the journal was the understanding that my healing ultimately had to come from within. Help came from many sources, but until I realized I was the only one actually able to effect change, I spent quite a bit of time in frustration. I learned what a prominent Canadian author meant when he spoke in one of his novels about the need for white mankind to work with nature rather than continue butting heads against it. I learned to work with grief rather than resist. Of course, I have my scars, but scars close the wound. They are agents of healing.
This book is intended to help men understand grief and to let them know they are not alone in their misery. They need to understand that the feelings of insanity they are experiencing are normal. Death does tough things to people.
For that audience I have included much of the raw emotion I experienced, because some men need to deal with the guts of an issue. I certainly needed to. But I didn't find any books that spoke to me, so I wrote my own. In writing, I learned much about Jeff and about myself, some of it surprising. One of the biggest surprises was the degree and quantity of my anger. It grew rather than diminished.
Eventually, however, I found that meaning does come out of the madness. Events such as the one that involved the young woman whose baby set my wife crying in the gift shop are case in point. She has since told the owner what an impact that day had on her life. She said, "I cherish this child more than I could have if I had not met the lady who cried that day. I was never comfortable with my pregnancy. She changed my life. Please thank her and let her know this child is the centre of my universe." Carol helped change the lives of that mother and her child. So did Jeff.
A situation involving a student is very important to me. About two years after Jeff died I learned about a girl experiencing great difficullty. She had made an attempt on her life. I visited her at the hospital on a number of occasions and we shared some very deep emotions. I know my support helped that young person; what she doesn't know is how much her struggle to regain stability helped me. My being able to make a difference brings some meaning to Jeff's death. It doesn't provide a rationale, but it does lighten the load.
Jeff cared about people, especially his friends, and he knew how much my students meant to me. He would be happy to know that through him, I could assist one in a time of crisis.
Enlightenment and new perspective do arrive to bring some peace. Of course I want my son and my old life back, but history is not mutable, so my challenge is to find ways to build a life compatible with my new reality. I have found if we allow them to, rawness and gut-searing pain soften and give way to acceptance, even understanding.
There was no "reason" to what Jeff did. It just happened. I don't believe for a moment he planned to take his life. He was a victim of circumstance, as are we. Jeff acted on impulse, but none of that alters our situation. He is gone. For what seemed a very long time, I stumbled, I ranted and I groped. Gradually, however, I am discovering ways to carry on without him. Thirty or forty years is not really such a long time, especially when life in the meantime is rich with my wife and remaining children.
At Jeff's memorial we included Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" because Jeff particularly enjoyed it. Including it seemed fitting as we said goodbye. One evening some months later I was at a friend's house in the country, and as I admired the sky and its cloud patterns, I asked Jeff where he was. I think I got an answer. I think he's on his road, the one he loved. The one less traveled by.
That turn you made
In the yellow wood—
Choose, Jeff, again
Oh, that you could
I know I will never get over my son’s death, but I know also I am getting a second chance at life. After feeling dreadful for so long, I am in awe of this new state that allows me to function with renewed enthusiasm.
— Dan Lundine