Making Meaning of the Madness
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