Making Meaning of the Madness
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.