I have just started reading two books: Beyond Tears: Living After Losing a Child by Ellen Mitchell and When the Bough Breaks: Forever After the Death of a Son or Daughter by Judith Bernstein.
The book by Mitchell compiles thoughts and quotes from nine women who have lost their children; the youngest was 16 years old and the oldest was 28. Bernstein lost her 26 year old son in 1987 to cancer. She did not find the kind of support books that exist today so she set out to write one - interviewing 55 people who had lost a child at least 3 years old and had been gone at least 5 years at the time of the interview.
It helps me to read these books - like dropping in on a support group at will. If there is a story that does not help, I can skip it. If it is too much, the book is put down for a later date. If something hits home, I can underline, highlight, dog-ear the page and write in my journal until thoughts and feelings are analyzed and exhausted.
It helps but it is not easy. As Bernstein says:
No one ever taught us how to mourn, how to deal with the intense emotions, the isolation, the chaotic thoughts, the dizzying ups and downs. No one gets an instruction book about how to deal emotionally with the death of any loved one, let alone the death of one's child; it's too unthinkable. Mourners are in turbulent, unchartered waters without a guide (5).
And because grief and mourning is very specific to the individual, (i.e. what helps me may not help someone else), you are on your own, even in spite of tremendous support from family, friends, or professional counselors. The grief journey can only be traveled by the individual mourner, one step at a time, one day at a time. There is no proxy. I cannot pay someone to travel in my stead. I could possibly deny or postpone the journey but in time, it will be forced upon me.
After nineteen months, I am, of course, still on this journey. The crushing, heart-breaking and relentless grief experienced in the first months after Josh's death has given way to another grief. Mitchell calls it "shadow grief". A good analogy. Always there, though not always seen.
I wanted to share a quote from her book that I have been thinking about lately.
When your children are here, you tend to take them from granted. When they are gone you think of them twenty-four hours a day.
So true. While I think about my other three children daily, Josh is present 24/7 and his death colors my life like a lens through which all experiences pass. For example, I think about him during my reading, no matter the book, genre or subject matter. A recent example will illustrate.
Through convoluted means, which I don't mean to get into now, but could be another post entitled something like "Grief Journey Creates Reading Journey", I bought and read T.H. White's classic, The Once and Future King and loved it. The book is a wonderful story of the Arthurian legend: the boy who pulls the sword from the stone and becomes King, Merlyn, Lancelot, the Knights of the Round Table, Camelot, Queen Guenever and the Quest of the Holy Grail. But how can anything written in the years between 1938-1941 have anything to do with Josh, you ask?
In another post, I wrote about Josh's special connection with dogs. The following passage made me think of him and what would be his dream job.
In Sir Ector's kennel there was a special boy, called the Dog Boy, who lived with the hounds day and night. He was a sort of head hound, and it was his business to take them out every day for walks, to pull thorns out of their feet, keep cankers out of their ears, bind the smaller bones that got dislocated, dose them for worms, isolate and nurse them in distemper, arbitrate in their quarrels and to sleep curled up among them at night. He would talk to them, not in baby talk like a maiden lady, but correctly in their own growls and barks. They all loved him very much, and revered him for taking thorns out of their toes, and came to him with their troubles at once. He always understood immediately what was wrong, and generally he could put it right. It was nice for the dogs to have their god with them, in visible form.
Another passage, describing Sir Lancelot's view of himself was more sobering.
There was an impediment of his nature. In the secret parts of his peculiar brain, those unhappy and inextricable tangles which he felt at the roots, the boy was disabled by something which we cannot explain. He could not have explained either. He hated himself. The best knight in the world: everybody envied the self-esteem that must surely be his. But Lancelot never believed he was good or nice. Under...there was shame and self-loathing.....
I circled this passage after reading and wrote, "was this Josh?" Maybe not what he felt for most of his life, but what about those last days? What about the last hours? He needed to get rid of a problem. What if he thought the problem was himself? Trying to understand his suicidal mindset is futile, I know, but I still ask.
And so I continue to muddle through my days - reading, thinking and writing - with "shadow grief" attached.