Grief has changed me, and my grief has changed, too. A final column for OnlySky (at least for now).
A traumatic loss like my son’s suicide is a violent rupture. My beautiful boy, so uniquely alive despite his mental illness, is no longer a physical presence. The anticipation of helping him navigate the transition from adolescence into adulthood was suddenly, shockingly a dead dream.
Since Josh’s death in September 2021, I’ve discovered that grief is not a static thing. It evolves and transforms, even as it transforms me. The “pointy on every side” jaggedness of the initial shock has been sanded into something softer.
The days and hours of despair are largely gone. The misplaced guilt that I was somehow an accessory to suicide no longer fills my chest cavity, but is a smaller kernel, more easily dealt with after lots of reflection (and therapy).
In the first year or so, my orientation was heavily tilted toward the past. I was desperate to ensure I wouldn’t forget my son, so present-day relationships and responsibilities took a back seat.
I now know I will never forget. I can still reproduce Josh’s voice and mannerisms in my brain. I talk with him daily. I reminisce over the great memories and the shitty ones. I tell him I miss him, that I’m sorry for the ways I failed him. I talk about things he would’ve enjoyed: visits from his siblings, the latest Junji Ito manga, the Dungeons & Dragons movie.
However, this past orientation feels more integrated with a life in the present. A hopeful sign: one day a couple of weeks ago, I looked around my home and realized the family photos need updating. Since Josh died, both of his older siblings have married. My wife and I need photos of Paul and Liz with their spouses!
Instead of an internal dialogue about reasons I can’t kill myself, I now have many things I look forward to. I have tickets for three concerts in the coming months. The local arthouse cinema is starting a Studio Ghibli retrospective. It’s whale migrating season, and I want to see whales! I can’t wait for the next visits with Paul and Liz, and (fingers crossed) grandkids in the coming years.
Not everything is sweetness and light, however. Part of grief’s evolution has been an awareness that I have PTSD. Identifying your child’s dead body will do that. That awful image replays regularly in my mind’s eye. I suffer intermittently from fragmented sleep and nightmares. TV shows that feature a child’s death elicit tears and sometimes dissociation. Hearing the class of vehicle that killed my son can trigger panic attacks and overwhelming distress.
My concentration and mental stamina are still only 70-80% restored. Some workdays utterly exhaust me. Gone (for now at least) are the film festivals where I could see four films in a day, then pound out excellent reviews of what I’d just seen. Many times, I can’t make it through a single film without drowsiness or flagging attention.
Grief has altered my interests and passions. Even if I can make it through a movie, I have no desire to write reviews, and I don’t trust my critical powers at present.
Fortunately, there are other things that engage me. Music touches me more deeply. Time in nature kindles awe and wonder. I’m honing my photography skills, learning to watch and wait. This has been rewarded with kickass photos of a bald eagle doing battle with a crab, of thousands of murmurating dunlins against a Mount Baker backdrop, and of four gray whales passing my sandy perch on Camano Island.
Josh’s death has tenderized me toward the plight of the homeless populating the streets of the Pacific Northwest. I’ve been reading about the factors responsible for homelessness, and accounts of providing effective healthcare for them. When I have my shit together a bit more, I want to work with local organizations to help them.
Twenty months of grief have taught me to anticipate bumps in the road. I know that holidays, as well as Josh’s birthday and death anniversary, are going to suck. I know I have less patience with toxic people. This awareness allows me to plan, making it less likely I’ll be sucked into a major downward spiral.
After 20 months and 30 articles for OnlySky, I no longer feel driven to write. The early grief compelled me, as the rough drafts practically wrote themselves. I have ideas for future articles—art that reflects and illuminates grief, that damned PTSD—but writing wears me out presently. In the balance, it’s better that I take a break.
As such, OnlySky’s reorganization arrives at a propitious time. As the leadership figures out what a migration from for-profit to nonprofit under the American Atheists umbrella looks like, I wish them nothing but the best. For as long as I have breath, I’ll be grateful they offered me a platform to write about secular grief. It’s been therapeutic for me, and I hope it’s been a help to readers.
Depending on what OnlySky’s new mission looks like, and how I’m feeling later this year, maybe I’ll be back to writing for them again, but maybe not. And I’m OK with that.
If anyone wants to stay in touch, I’m keeping my Twitter handle active. Thanks for reading, and thanks for the empathic comments along the way.