Walter Farnandis is a lawyer, now seventy-two years old. Nine years ago, Walter was playing golf when his son, James, was killed in a motorcycle accident. James was eighteen.
"James was a late-in-life child for me, which was a real pleasure" Walter said. "When James came along, I was forty-six, and if he called my office, everything dropped for me to talk to James. His mother left when he was fourteen, and after that time I was a mother and father both to him. He and I became father-son and buddy-buddy and brother-brother and everything else. We were together every day. He was tops, he was the man. I was single, and if I went out on a date, he wanted to know what time I was coming home. He was very solicitous with me, I think that's the word. A drunken garbage-truck driver made a left-hand turn right in front of me." Walter means not "me" but "him" James; the slip is natural.
"Two-thirty in the afternoon" Walter went on, "while I was on the eleventh hole on Pine Ridge. At first, it was total shock. After that, it was like a sickness inside of me, an inward illness. I saw him in the funeral home. I went in there and talked to him -- I didn't get an answer -- for about an hour, just sat there and talked. Which, since we'd been so close, you know, I felt the need to do and I'm glad I did it"
In the months that followed James's death, Walter said, he made some bad business decisions, including selling a family business at a loss. He also gave up golf, though he didn't necessarily connect this with his playing golf at the time James died. "I sort of lost interest in the game," he said. "I sort of lost interest in everything. I was a basket case."
During those early months, a woman he'd been dating moved in with him. "But of course" he said, "for a year and a half at least, there was no sex. I couldn't have sex when I was sick on the stomach." The relationship didn't last, and Walter went back to living on his own. "There was a tremendous loneliness" he said. "I was used to having James there and his girlfriend, and he always brought his friends home. There was nothing, just an empty house.
"I feel I had an experience in life that no one else has had unless they've lost a child," Walter said. "People lose their spouses, they lose their mother and father. But you realize they may die. The problem with the death I have experienced is, it's so sudden. Bang! It's over, completely, forever. And the difficult realization -- that it's final. That's the difficult realization. I think you find that out in a month or two after he's dead. I don't think you understand anything until a few months go by. Maybe more than a few months."
Realizing James's death was final took Walter more than a few months. "The first year James died, I'd see a blond-haired boy and I'd say, 'Is that James? Is that James?' I don't do that any more. Now if I see a kid, I think, 'He's as good-looking as James was.' Then I think, 'Naw, he's not that good-looking.'"
After about two years, Walter said, "I sat down and I wrote a complete accounting of what happened that day. I mailed it to The Compassionate Friends and they printed it. So I thought, 'OK, I've done all I can do, and I've put the thing to rest.' And that helped me. That helped. At this point, I look back on it, I'm happy I had him while I did. I could have been without him, very easily. At least I had almost eighteen years -- and it was a pleasure."
By now, nine years after James died, Walter said he has come to understand two things. "Number one is that death is final. There's nothing more final in the world than death. There's no second chance. There's no see-him-again. There's no nothing. There's no way of ever bringing him back. It's final. And the other thing is, life does go on. You have to realize there are other things in life. Takes a long time to feel that way."
So Walter did what everyone does, got on with life. He continued his law practice; he has remarried. James had a sister, Walter's daughter, and Walter takes great pleasure in her and her children, his grandchildren. And though he never went back to golf, he now spends a couple of nights a week singing in a karaoke bar. He is an outgoing man who lives with his wife in a carefully kept and decorated house. On the table next to the couch is James's picture.
"Thoughts do come in my mind quite often of the good times," Walter said, "the fun we had, his worrying over me. It's always there, but you don't get into the details of it unless you're not busy and you sit here and look at his picture. And then you may start thinking about it. I think the secret is to keep busy at something you enjoy in life -- keep yourself occupied. Of course, that's the secret in life. I think the feeling of loss lasts forever. I think that all I do is hide the feeling by being involved in these other things. There's always the loss. The way you make out is, you don't think about it. But it's always there."
Walter's path, seen in broad outlines, is typical. Like everyone else, he doesn't want to spend much time remembering the first months, and when asked, describes it in a few sentences: it was a "total shock," then an "inward illness." After two years, he wrote an article that he considered a turning point, that is, the point at which he could turn away from the problems of grieving back to the problems of living. Walter now lives what anyone would call a normal life. But if "recover" means getting back the life and self he had before James's death, Walter didn't recover. The loss, he says, is "always there" and "the way you make out is, you don't think about it."
What most people feel those first months are shock and, alternately, unbelievable pain. Shock is an emergency shut-down of all your abilities except those that get you out of bed, bathed, dressed, fed, talking, working, and back into bed again. People say that they're on automatic, that they keep going because they don't know what else to do. Shock is probably the body's kindness, the time to realize the facts slowly, to ease into the pain.
Ten years ago, Chris Reed's nineteen-year-old daughter, Mary, combined an overdose of antidepressants with alcohol and killed herself. "I can't put a time frame on it" he said, "but for weeks or months after Mary died, I was still in somewhat of a daze. I remember for a few days after she died, I kept thinking this was all a bad dream. I think this is the body's way of not hitting us full force all at one time, which you probably wouldn't be able to cope with. And so maybe that's why I was in a daze, because reality was gradually, gradually setting in."
With reality comes pain, and the pain, when it comes, is stunning. The pain is actually physical, mostly in your stomach and chest. Your chest feels crushed and you can't seem to catch your breath. I remember feeling pinned like a butterfly, or somehow eviscerated. One woman drew an arc that started at her head and ended at her knees and said, "His death was cut out of here." The pain comes in waves -- moves in, backs off, then in again. People try describing it with superlatives or metaphors, then give up the attempt. And no one wants to try too hard anyway; they'd much rather talk about how, with time, the waves of pain gradually became less frequent. "Now when I think of him," one woman said, "I don't get that wrenching, I don't know the word to use, that wrenching feeling"
Sally Lambert's twenty-year-old daughter, Lisa, hanged herself on New Year's Eve. For a long time afterward, Sally said, "I can remember, just to get out of bed in the morning was so difficult. It was just so painful to get up. I can remember, within days, being in a shower and I thought, 'My God, this pain is all over my body, from my head to my toes.' You just couldn't understand, it was something you just couldn't understand. Your whole body is in pain. Not just here in your heart."
Along with the pain goes an odd mental confusion. People feel that they've just been dumped on another planet, that a new world has started but that they're the only ones who know this. One woman, en route from Florida to Maryland where her son had died, said, "I remember being in the airport. It was like six in the morning and I was looking at everybody with suitcases, and I'm thinking, 'Where are these people going? Don't they know my son just died?'"
At the same time, however, the old world is still around and going on as usual, so people aren't sure which world they're in. They are no longer sure how to behave, and are dislocated. Maybe this dislocation is a natural successor to shock. Maybe shock makes people act as though nothing new had happened, and as the shock wears off, they begin to understand how different the new world is. Meanwhile, they feel they are living in two worlds at once, one old and familiar and the other altogether foreign. The result feels like a minor, transient insanity.
Chris Reed, like a lot of people, went right back to work. "Mary died on Monday, we buried her on Friday, the following Monday I went back to work" Chris said, "because I felt like I didn't want to sit home all day in the depth of my grief. But it was difficult with my normal routine functions of life. I had strange feelings after Mary died. I remember for several weeks after she died, whenever I went out in public, I felt like I didn't belong there. I felt like maybe I had come from another world or something. It's difficult to put into words. It's not like I felt I was something peculiar, because on the outside I looked like all these other people. But I just felt that I was out of place among people. I felt almost like I was floating. Does that make sense?"
In fact, nothing in this new world makes sense at all; the minor insanity isn't in the parents, it's in this world. In such insanity, you are dumbstruck and stupid. The first thing you're aware of is that you're either numb or in pain. The next thing is that the child seems gone and doesn't seem to be coming back, and this doesn't seem possible. The death of a child can't be final, the child just can't be so gone.
Five years ago, Octavia Pompey's son, Erin, was a basketball player just graduating from high school. He was playing in a summer league championship game when a player from the opposing team picked a fight with him. The game was stopped, the opposing player went home, got a gun, came back to the gym, and shot Erin. Erin was taken to the hospital, where he died.
"I just couldn't believe it," Octavia said. "After we left the hospital and got back home, I just expected him to walk in the door. The last thing he said to me -- I remember his last words to me because, out of my three boys, he got so much taller than his brothers. I remember that day, being in the kitchen and he came in behind me and I turned around and then I had to look up, because it seemed like all of a sudden he had shot up. And the last thing he said to me that day was, 'I'm going, Shorty' -- because he got so he called me Shorty. And I said, 'OK, score twenty points.' And he said, 'OK.!' And for the longest time, whenever that front door opened, I expected him to walk through the door."
Researchers call expectations like Octavia's and Walter's ("Is that James? Is that James?") "searching behavior" meaning that people continue to search for someone who's died. Searching behavior includes dreaming about the person still being alive; "seeing" the person in the street; and like Octavia, expecting the person who died to walk in the door, or call on the phone, or be where he or she is supposed to be. Searching behavior is normal for a while for any bereaved person, not just for parents.
But parents seem to have extra reason for searching. All along they expected to die before their children, and this expectation runs deep. Parents dying first is the natural order of the world. A world in which you are alive and your child is not feels unnatural. Your child isn't here so you shouldn't be; and so, like Chris, you feel "out of place." You're still here so the child must be too; and so, like Walter and Octavia, you search.
Researchers say searching behavior stops when the bereaved understands the person who died is not coming back. I suspect it continues, but in a different form. Walter understood that he would never see James again, and said so with eloquence -- "There's no see-him-again. It's final." -- but nine years later, Walter is still reminded of James with every blond boy he sees. For myself, I understand T.C. is not coming back; but eight years later, because he died on his way back to college, I still feel that maybe he reached his college after all. I go there once a year on business, and on the way I always feel excited, as though I'll see him again. When I told this to a man whose son died sixteen years ago, he said, "That's more reasonable for you, the death is more recent. But I still do it. There was one person that worked in the library and I swear to God, he looked just like my son, honest to God. What could you say? You're not going to say anything. I didn't say anything."
Perhaps by "searching behavior" researchers mean only the early confusion about the finality of death, the sense of dislocation in this new, unnatural world. Perhaps the searching that Walter and I and the sixteen-year veteran still do is neither confusion nor dislocation, but longing intense enough to create a mild, temporary hallucination, or at least a vivid reminder.
Octavia stopped expecting Erin to walk through the front door but she still, five years later, takes great pleasure in seeing someone who reminds her of him. "There's still not a day that goes by that I don't think of Erin," she said, sounding so happy she was almost singing. "I can walk down the street or ride down the street, and I see a boy that walks like him or looks like him, or I would go to the shopping malls and see all these young people hanging out. Because in my mind, he's still nineteen, he's not twenty-five, which he would have been, so he would be doing things that nineteen-year-olds should be."
Along with dislocation and pain and searching come the first inklings that the child is going to remain dead. I think this realization of finality -- what Walter called "the difficult realization" -- takes at least a year to sink in and accounts for the common wisdom at Compassionate Friends, that the second year is worse than the first. Walter first said he thought it took a month or two, then he said a few months, then maybe more than a few months. However long it takes, you come to understand that the child is dead and you can't do a thing about it. For the rest of your life, the child will be dead. Through dislocation and pain you can more or less continue functioning, but such finality stops you cold.
Octavia just didn't want to live, she said, didn't want to wake up in the morning: "I felt that for a long time. I wished I could just lay down and go to sleep." Octavia said she didn't have the nerve to do anything about those feelings. But, she said, "These thoughts went through my mind, that I'm just going through the motions. I had this pain in my chest that just wouldn't go away. I had this emptiness."
Like Octavia, other parents occasionally considered suicide, though when they talked about this later, they emphasized the reasons they didn't go through with it. Betty Jones's seventeen-year-old son, Bruce, died when a semitrailer truck hit his car. "The initial feeling is, on the outside you put on a nice front and on the inside you're ground-up hamburger meat. I was suicidal for three months or more, had it all planned, but I didn't carry it out. After that, I just wished I had been killed. I wasn't willing to do it to myself any more, but I would have loved to have been hit by a truck. That went on for a number of years. I can tell you right now that what kept me from committing suicide was the fact that if I had, people would have said I loved my son more than my daughter. And I didn't. And that was the only reason I didn't do it -- I couldn't let her live thinking I loved her brother more."
I had asked Sally Lambert, whose daughter had hanged herself, if she felt differently about her own death. "Oh yes," she said. "Yes. Ten months before Lisa died, I had had surgery for cancer of the colon. So in my mind afterward, I thought there could be a recurrence. And I really didn't care. Or maybe I didn't care that the cancer didn't happen. There were plenty of times when I gladly would have slipped off quietly. But no, now I'm not looking to die like I was years back, when I would have said, 'Hey, good.'"
Grief researchers seem not to have studied suicide in bereaved parents. Several studies have found that suicide rates among adults increase in the first years after the death of a parent. Others found suicide rates particularly high in bereaved spouses. Generalizing from parents and spouses to children seems reasonable, and hearing parents talk about suicide at Compassionate Friends meetings is never surprising. But no one seems to have any data about whether bereaved parents are more likely than ordinary parents to commit suicide, let alone why or why not. Maybe bereaved parents consider suicide to get away from the pain. Many of them say, like Octavia and Sally, that they just wanted to slip away or go to sleep or not wake up.
Or maybe, in their dislocation, they think of suicide as a way of going after their children. Maybe the parents think the child is in some place, "death," to which they can go, and if the child must stay there, then the parents could stay there too. I remember thinking that. In any case, for some people, considering suicide forces, or at least clarifies, a decision. As one woman said, "You have two choices: either kill yourself or just keep going on day to day." One psychologist who had been treating bereaved people in private practice for twelve years noticed this woman's thinking in his patients. Early in their grief, he said, his patients didn't so much choose to live; they just didn't choose to die.
Choosing to live comes later. Twenty-seven years ago, Joan Gresser's three-year-old son Steven died of tonsillitis, and ten years later, her eleven-year-old son Teddy drowned. "Even people who lost children wondered why I didn't kill myself, or my husband didn't -- why we didn't commit suicide. You want to, but you just don't do it. I had pills in my hand and I was convincing myself that all I wanted to do was go to sleep. I didn't want to deal with this any more. I didn't want my mother sitting in the rocking chair downstairs knitting the fucking afghan. That's what she was doing" -- Joan raised her voice in real anger -- "an afghan. What did I need it for? And that moment I said, 'What are you, nuts?' I made a choice -- I wasn't aware of the choice at that time, but I did -- to live. Even though living at that point for me was just getting around."
"I read so many books in those days" Sally said. "And one of them said, 'You have to make a choice whether you're going to continue to live, or just exist.' I know there was one point, I don't know at what year, when I said, 'I want to live' In those books -- boy, I was reading them all -- when it said you need exercise, I got exercise. I guess I meant that I wanted to participate in life. I wanted to enjoy again the good parts of life. Which I wasn't doing."
For Joan, holding her pills in her hand and deciding she wasn't nuts was the same as Sally's saying she wanted to live and Waiter's writing about James's death for The Compassionate Friends newsletter. These are specific acts or occurrences or realizations that mark some sort of refocus, some change in outlook, some point at which people turn from grieving back to living. Some people have discrete turning points, some don't; whether or not they have turning points might just be a function of whether or not they remember having them. I don't remember having any such turning point, but I do remember the feeling of trying hard to stay alive. This feeling was mixed: the hypocrisy of trying to stay alive when T.C. was already dead, against the body's desire for survival and the mind's for sanity and joy.
Sally, after talking about the book advising her that the pain will pass, went on to say, "And it does. There's nothing really you have to do about it. Nature takes care of it. You can't stand that pain for that long. Lisa's birthday was July 14, and that's the same day as my husband's, but it was always hers rather than his when she was living and even after she died. So up until last year, that was bad. But last year was Bob's sixty-fifth birthday, and I gave a big surprise party for him, and it was almost like a turning of the leaf. This was his birthday."
Brandt Jones is married to Betty, the woman who felt like ground-up hamburger meat but didn't commit suicide so no one would say she loved her son more than her daughter. The accident that killed their son had happened sixteen years before I talked to them. I asked Brandt what he thought it meant to get over his son's death. "I don't know about getting over it," he said. "I don't think you get over it. But I think there comes a point -- and I don't know when it happened, a number of years ago -- where I said, 'There are other things that I want to do, and if I dwell on this grief, I can't do those things.' It wasn't going anywhere, and the only person that could make it go anywhere was me. It's just a conscious decision to spend my energy doing things I wanted to do." Later, after Brandt retired, the number of things he actually did was impressive: he taught scuba diving, officiated at the Masonic Lodge, presided over a square dancing club, and went on speaking assignments for The Compassionate Friends. These things, he said, "take the focus from grieving continuously. You have something now where you can feel completion. I guess that's the thing. With grief there's no 'The End.' And that's what I'm saying. I swung away to put my energies where I could see something accomplished at the end of the day. I think that's the break point."
For a few parents, the break point was a dream.
Joan, whose sons Teddy and Steven both died: "I always had this recurring nightmare. I was walking up a cliff and I was holding Teddy and Teddy was holding a doll -- I'm assuming the doll was Steven. And I was pulling them up the cliff, and this giant black wave would come and the wave would catch the doll, and before the wave would catch Teddy, I would wake up. And I had insomnia so I wouldn't go back to sleep. I remember one night laying in bed. I could hear my husband snoring, and all of a sudden the room became -- have you ever had your hearing tested and you're in a sound-proof room, do you know how deadened that sound is? It's no sound. I don't know if I was asleep. But I looked over at my husband, his mouth was open but there was no sound. And I had this overwhelming feeling of joy, of peace. And I opened my eyes and Teddy was sitting on my bed and he had on his red jacket, and he had this doll. And he said to me, 'Mommy, I'm happy. I have my doll. I'm OK.' That was the end of it. I never had that dream again. And that was the beginning of my getting on with it."
Loretta Marsh's nineteen-year-old son, Mike, was killed by a drunk driver: "One night, I went to bed, I remember I said, 'God help me, you've got to help me.' And I dreamed that I was in this city, and there were thousands and thousands of people. And I was looking for Mike. And I was hollering, 'Mike, I gotta find you, I gotta find you.' I saw him and he was in a solid white suit and he heard me hollering and he said, 'Mom.' And I walked up to him and I said, 'Mike, you look so pretty.' He said, 'Mom, I am. And I'm all right.' And after I had that dream, it took like a burden, like a heaviness in my heart, off of me."
These "break points," or turning points, make the process sound simple: one day you're grieving, boom, next day you're home free. And of course, the process isn't simple or sudden at all. The process is more like living through a high fever. People are isolated, preoccupied with their pain, and for a while they lose the ability to care about their own lives, let alone anyone or anything else. I remember truly not caring. I didn't return phone calls, I missed deadlines, I let the house go, I was interested in nothing and nobody. But in time, as Sally said, nature takes care of it; the waves of pain lose intensity a little and come less frequently. Then friends and relatives say the parents are getting over it, and that time heals all wounds. The parents themselves say that as the pain lessens, they begin to have energy for people and things outside themselves.
I suspect when people talk about a new leaf or a break point, they are saying that some event -- a newsletter article, a birthday party, a dream -- came to symbolize the end of preoccupation and despair, and the beginning, as Joan said, of getting on with it. The process had been going on all along, too gradually to notice, and only with this event did the change become evident. A quantitative change has become qualitative.
Exactly how long after the child's death this change occurs is unclear. Walter wrote his letter two years later; Joan's dream was two years after Teddy's death, twelve years after Steven's; Brandt's son had been dead sixteen years and Brandt made his decision to get on with his life "a number of years ago." Probably the truth is that the change begins after a year or two and becomes obvious a few years after that: Sally was reading those self-help books and deciding "to participate in life" right away, but the "new leaf" of her husband's birthday came five years later. A hospital social worker in pediatric oncology, whose hospital follows up bereaved parents, said she notices a change in these parents after four or five years. I noticed I felt better after about four years. One parent said, "Six, six and half years before I started feeling like myself." A grief researcher found few differences in the general functioning of parents four years or thirteen years after their children's deaths, and concluded that "by four years post-loss, a number of responses to the loss have stabilized." And when I asked another grief researcher, Robert Weiss, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, if I should limit the people I interview to veterans of five-plus years, he said, "That's as good a guess as any."
So sooner or later, most people try actively to get on with the grief process, to find relief from the pain, to understand the child isn't coming back, to become accustomed to living in two worlds, to find some equanimity and peace. "Peace," one woman said, "is the best thing you can wish someone who's lost a child."
And unlike the early part of the process, which time and nature take care of, people now begin taking charge. They go to The Compassionate Friends or to similar self-help groups for the survivors of suicides, and faithfully read those groups' newsletters. "You'd go to Compassionate Friends and talk to people who understood your situation" said Leight Johnson, who still goes fifteen years after Johnny died. "They're the only people in the world that really know how you feel; nobody else does. Other people try but they don't."
They get help from everywhere: they see therapists, go to therapy workshops, talk to their priests or ministers or rabbis, talk to their friends and relatives, read books. "I got a lot of consolation from reading books about survivors of bad things" said one woman. "I like reading those books about how people overcome adversity. I thought, 'How could I be one of those people?'"
They find models, of one sort or another. They see other grieving parents and imitate or criticize them. Emily Miller went to suicide survivors meetings after her twenty-five-year-old daughter, Sue, committed suicide. "We saw a lot of people there who are going to be zombies forever," she said. "There was one couple whose son had committed suicide. For two or three years they came to meetings and never said a word. Another couple, also two or three years later -- there was such fury. I remember the woman saying, 'When my time comes and I go to meet him, I'm going to punch him out.' There was a couple whose son's been gone eight years, I mean, they were in worse shape than I was. There are some people that never get better. I couldn't bear it. I consciously determined I couldn't live the rest of my life with such pain. I did whatever I could to make myself better. I went to therapy. I went back to work. The busier I kept, the better it was for me. I think people make a choice, a conscious choice or an unconscious choice, whether they will survive."
Ruth Banick, whose nineteen-year-old daughter, Leslie, died in a car accident, had a different kind of model. "My brother-in-law, Winston, was a personal hero of mine. He was just the neatest, neatest man. He was a diabetic and so he had had heart problems and eye problems; he had lost both of his legs. I used to think of him getting up in the morning and putting on artificial legs, putting a nitroglycerin patch on his heart, taking twenty-some pills a day, two insulin shots, being legally blind. But he took care of the house, he helped us care for my father when my father was dying, and I used to think, 'If Winston can get up and put his armor on and reach out to other people, then you can too, Ruth.' Now Winston could have made life for everybody around him miserable, but he chose to go another way. And I tried to pick that way too. I could wallow in my self-pity forever, or I could choose to do what I can while I have to live here."
They figure out the management of grief, the thousand tricks for giving grief its due without being overwhelmed, or at least not for long. "It's not that the pain is any less," said Delores Shoda, whose son, Larry, died seven years ago at age twenty-eight of melanoma. "You know it's going to happen again and again. When he first died, they gave me some medicine because all I did was cry. But the medicine put me in a state of just wanting to sit. I said to myself, 'You're not going to get over this if you keep taking medicine. You have to work at it.' After Larry died, it was so easy for me to just stay in the bed and pull the covers over my head and just let the world go on. But I made myself get up every morning when my husband went to work, got dressed, put on my makeup, and went over to a Roy Rogers with the morning paper, had a cup of coffee and did the crossword puzzle. I sat there for an hour, hour and a half. Then I'd think, 'Well, you're up and you're dressed. What are you going to do today?' I made myself do that every day for several years, and I still do it sometimes. I guess it's easier as time goes on, not because it goes away but because you yourself learn to do things to help you get through the bad times."
Ruth Banick, after Leslie died in the accident, got herself through the bad times with what she called a mental exercise. "You always have these horrible memories. Because I did go to the morgue to see Leslie. For the longest time I tortured myself with that -- that's a horrible image for a parent to remember. Every time that image would come to my mind, I would replace it with this one, where a couple of weeks before Leslie died, she went out on this date and they hadn't dated before, and the yo