With no heavenly reunions ahead, how we grieve and remember in the here and now becomes crucial. This is how I've chosen to do it.

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I’m afraid of forgetting. Terrified, even.

There’s a reason for my athazagoraphobia. With the unspoken rule of silence surrounding my mother’s death when I was 17, I can no longer remember her voice.

The voice of the person who was central to my formative years. That’s tragic.

Now that I’m 53, I’m facing the second great loss of my life, the death of my son Josh by suicide last September. I will do everything in my power to remember his voice until I die. His gravelly, heartfelt “thanks,” when I dropped him off at his job for the last time on September 10th. His high-pitched “Martha,” when doting on his black cat. His angry “Lizzie!” when peeved with his sister in elementary school. His screechy laugh as a toddler.

As a secularist, I don’t have the faux comfort of a heavenly reunion to fall back upon. As a realist, I accept that everybody, save the very famous, is forgotten within two generations. (Got a deep reservoir of great-grandparent anecdotes? I didn’t think so.) As a human with a squishy 3-pound collection of gray and white matter in his cranium, my powers of recall are leaky.

Within these parameters of fallible secular realist, I embrace remembrance as an act of love and a discipline. For me, this involves remembering Josh in ways that honor him and are authentic to who he was.

This began with his memorial ceremony. Despite the protestations of his evangelical mother, I was insistent upon its secular nature. Josh was an atheist who refused to attend church from junior high onwards. Why mourn his passing in a building he wanted no part of in life, in the language of a religion he rejected? If I ever plan a funeral for a believer, I will absolutely do so in their preferred religious idioms. Should it be any different for the nonreligious?

If you think a memorial for someone who suicided will furnish closure, please reconsider. The guilt and “what ifs” are orders of magnitude more intense with traumatic loss. I’m unconvinced closure is a reality, but I’m certain peace of mind over Josh’s suicide is years away, if it ever arrives.

Nonetheless, a memorial is an important waystation for mourning. Before we began ours on a rainy October morning, my wife Jessica prepared bacon and waffles, Josh’s breakfast cuisine of choice. The ceremony was then bookended by two of his favorite songs. I cried through my eulogy, offering up cherished memories of my boy and consolation I’d found in my most beloved book (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince). Afterwards, everyone present shared their own recollections of Josh. I took notes, to help make their memories their own.

I embrace remembrance as an act of love and a discipline. For me, this involves remembering Josh in ways that honor him and are authentic to who he was.

During the time Josh’s siblings Liz and Paul were on the west coast for his memorial, we were tattooed in his honor. We all knew of Josh’s desire to be tattooed with the JoJo Star, the birthmark on the shoulder of his favorite manga protagonist. We did this in his place, with ink specially created from his cremation ashes. It moves me beyond words that his brother and sister came up with this idea together. Now we’ll carry a part of Josh with us quite literally until we die.

My wife and I have since obtained more tattoos in his memory, using this same ink. The one I prize most is a modified image from The Little Prince’s cover. Instead of the original character’s wheat-yellow hair, mine has Josh’s jet-black hair. Like most of these means of remembrance, gazing upon this tattoo taps into bottomless reservoirs of affection and sadness.

Mourning and remembrance without an afterlife safety net | My Little Prince tattoo
My tattoo, on my left upper arm

In addition, Jessica and I have created a secular shrine to Josh in our dining room (my writing space, so it’s always in view as I type these columns). His shrine began with the urn containing his ashes—in the Raku ceramic style, for my Japanophile son—along with the framed photo that inaugurated my first column.

In the months following, his shrine has accumulated more items: a selection of his manga, more photographs, a sacrilegious votive candle in keeping with his humor, a pair of his stuffed animals, a set of his pajamas (his preferred daywear, too), his D&D dice, and more. Keeping him company, his urn is flanked by the ashes of Bandit and Bonnie, family dogs he adored.

I also feel connected to Josh by wrapping myself in clothes he once wore. For my birthday, Jessica gave me a quilt crafted from Josh’s t-shirts. (Boy, did I cry over that one.) And despite my middle-aged pudge, a pair of his sweatshirts miraculously fit me and have become everyday wear: one from our California trip together in 2017; another that, true to his character, has “INDOORSY” emblazoned across its chest.

Beyond these material reminders—did I mention my laptop slideshow of 250 pictures and the photographic memory boards in our living room?—I still talk to Josh. As Madelon Sprengnether wrote in her soul-baring grief memoir, Crying at the Movies: “The dead are not static…and the conversation is ongoing. We don’t stop talking to someone in our heads, just because they have left the room.”

I’ve also begun journaling more earnestly. Seldom are my entries longer than two or three paragraphs, and I’ve developed a structure that aids the memory-jogging. I free-associate one paragraph for “I remember,” and another for “I wish.” Sometimes the recollections are detailed events. At other times, they’re just a turn of phrase, a tone of voice.

The wish paragraph is more varied. I wish he was flying to Memphis with us next month for his sister’s marriage. I would’ve loved to hear his take on the manga I read, and to watch the latest season of Stranger Things with him. I wish I could hear his chipper “sure!” on inviting him for an afternoon in Bellingham. I would’ve basked in his proud glow over his cat’s increasing boldness around our dogs and neighborhood cats.

Most importantly, I talk of Josh with those who knew him best. I’m so grateful my wife and Josh’s siblings are not repeating the conspiracy of silence that surrounded my mother’s death. Every day, Jessica and I recall a mannerism (hands on hips in mock sternness towards a dog’s misbehavior) or something funny he said (taunting our vegetarianism by extolling the benefits of eating food that screams). We shed tears over how much we miss him or mention something from the day’s events that Josh would’ve appreciated.

Yesterday, Liz and I compared our final interactions with Josh. When I visit Paul next weekend, I know we’ll reminisce about his little brother.

For someone who hasn’t lost a family member to violence—self-inflicted or otherwise—these methods of remembrance may seem desperate, obsessive, even pathetic. I get that, and I might have been similarly judgmental before September 12th. Perhaps, too, I’m overcompensating in reaction to the repressed grief after my mom’s death.

Don’t get me wrong, either. I’m not practicing each of these all day, every day. I mix them up, so it doesn’t become rote drudgery. Having left the church, I don’t want to create a new empty liturgy of stand-sit-kneel-repeat. And as I wrote in an earlier column, healthy grieving is a grab bag of loss-oriented and restoration-oriented behavior: looking back, looking ahead; wrenching sadness and willful distraction; missing my life with Josh, creating a new one.

But I make no apology for my mourning rituals. Because after a person dies, the rest of the world moves on very quickly. No more sympathy cards, few mentions of the deceased, back to the “how are you doing?” that doesn’t really want to know. This is normal, not malevolent, though it sometimes feels that way. But for the intimates left behind, remembrance strategies like this are essential. They are the needle and thread sewing together past and present.

Mourning and remembrance without an afterlife safety net | Josh smiling on a hillside, me far below
I love pictures with a story. On our 2017 family vacation, we drove Highway 1 to Santa Cruz. On the way, the family wanted to scale a hill to gaze on the ocean below. When they learned of my fear of heights, they all pretended to be perilously close to the edge. This is Josh smirking at me, as I fended off a panic attack. Jerks.

This column is Part 18 of the Secular Suicide Survivor series. Here’s how it began.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to someone you trust, establish care with a therapist, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), or go to your nearest emergency room. Please stick around. We need you. 

Lincoln Andrews

Lincoln Andrews

Life seemed as good as it gets in early 2021, with a happy family, a job I loved, and a long-desired move out of the Bible Belt to the Pacific Northwest. My world split open on September 12th, when...