A neighbor’s tragic loss of his son brings back the author’s own memories of loss, depression, and recovery.
Loss looms large in my life.
I lost my father when I was nine.
I lost 15 years to a dysfunctional marriage.
And I learned in my thirties that I’d lost the ability to father biological children as an infant during a routine hernia operation.
And yet life is full, rich, and wonderful.
As we navigate the black holes of our own losses, or tread softly past the tragedies of those close to us, the wound of our first loss—whatever it was—gets reopened and re-inflamed, and we re-experience the flood of feelings that threatened to sink us before. I learned this at the funeral of my first boss’s infant daughter who died of SIDS. At the sight of the tiny white coffin in the church I began bawling uncontrollably, and while the event deeply distressed me, I knew something much more powerful was at work. Later, a friend explained to me that the funeral stirred up memories of my father’s funeral, and that my outburst of tears had as much to do with reliving that grief as it did with being sad about my boss’s baby.
A few years ago, a man who lives in my town lost his son, a college freshman. I read about it in the paper—how the boy had inexplicably fallen to his death from the window of his dorm. When I saw this man, whom I’d never spoken to, waiting for the train to New York one morning, I experienced a sweep of emotion so deep I nearly sank to my knees. I had managed, by this time, to bring children into the world, and I couldn’t even bear to think about what he was feeling. But I had to explore it, to reconnoiter the once-familiar territory, to revisit a place I desperately didn’t want to go. And then, I wrote about my journey.
I saw him this morning. At the station. On the platform.
A man I don’t know but know of.
Recently, he lost his son, a stellar student, talented musician, and great friend to the community, in a tragic accident during his first week of college.
After the unthinkable happened, the community rallied splendidly around the boy’s family. Many loving tributes were written and published, an exquisite memorial service organized and executed with grace. The type of structured grieving with which we’re all familiar.
But when grieving ends, we’re left with mourning. And mourning is unstructured. We don’t know where to begin with mourning, so it feels endless, like walking in circles, in the dark, without a map.
I wanted to reach out to this man. At the station. On the platform. This brave man, standing tall in his overcoat, gone back to work with a resolute face, trying to lead a normal life when there is no longer any such thing as normal. When normal has been shattered the way a dream breaks into pieces as we wake. I wanted to reach out to him, to hug him actually, and say, “I cannot begin to imagine your loss, cannot fathom it, can only fear it for myself.” And to say, “I would never presume to say I know how you feel.” And then I wanted to tell him that what I do know is how it feels to be lost without direction, to fumble in blackness so deep it renders you unsure of your own existence, to sink deeper into each passing day wondering if there is a bottom, to keep turning when there is nowhere to turn. And to tell him that somehow, miraculously, I drew my own map and found a way. Because hearing that might help restore his faith, if it needs restoring, that the map can be drawn.
Instead I said nothing.
He went on his way, and so did I.
He will never know that we shared a moment on our separate journeys, a moment that I will never forget.
Portions of this article appeared previously on the Tom Aplomb blog.