After traumatic loss, the default mode is to focus on how our loved one died. But recalling the whole person in life is essential.
This entire column, not just this entry, contains a content warning. I will be writing about suicide, depression, post-traumatic stress, and other serious topics. 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.
Back when my kids were little, I sometimes took Josh’s big brother Paul to see movies that weren’t exactly age-appropriate. We’re not talking graphic sex or violence, but subtitled fare like this light-hearted film about child marriage. When the house lights came up, I’d ask what he liked about the film we’d just watched. Inevitably, he’d chirp, “Everything!” And thus ended our foray into grade school film criticism.
I thought of this anecdote, because if someone asked me today what I miss about Paul’s younger brother, I’d answer (less chirpily), “Everything!” But when I’m drowning in the deep end of grief, I find it helpful to step back onto solid ground and particularize the things I miss.
My primary focus in these columns is on suicide loss and other forms of traumatic grief, but I’m betting this applies to less horrific means of dying. I think of those who bear witness to slow personality erosion from Alzheimer’s or a long withering away from cancer. After your loved one dies, it’s our default mode to ruminate on how the person died, not who they were in life.
Personally, after seven months, I’m still in shock that Josh’s will to die outweighed his desire to live. The violent way he snuffed his existence is so out of character with the gentle young man he was in life. It’s easy to stay in frequent rewind on his final hours and the immediate aftermath of his suicide.
But before those nearly unbearable 24 hours, there were 20 years. Josh was infinitely more than his secretive suicidal ideation. He was exasperating in his work avoidance, claiming he’d completed chores he obviously hadn’t. He was inimitable in his wordplay. He was unambiguously loving, even though he lacked the emotional knowhow to verbalize it. He was uniquely, gloriously Josh.
When I talk with Josh on my solo walks—yes, I know he isn’t actually there—I generally don’t mention the big stuff. Sure, across the span of decades, I would’ve loved to find out if he returned to college or ended up on disability. I would’ve exulted in meeting the first boyfriend or girlfriend he brought home to meet my wife Jessica and me.
But when I ponder the things I miss, it’s more granular. To name just a few:
- I loved sitting next to him in a movie theater and hearing his reactions when a film engaged him. How I delighted when he laughed out loud at the absurdity of Anchorman 2, or the bonkers chase scene at the climax of Grand Budapest Hotel. Still better were his repeated gasps of wonderment when Captain America picked up Thor’s hammer during the battle royale in Avengers: Endgame.
- Ours is not a family that stands on humorless respect. I laugh along when the kids tease me for my embarrassing dad moves. For the minor ones, Josh would exclaim, “Seriously, Dad, seriously?!” For the biggies—an unforgivable malaprop or flubbing a detail everyone should know—I was rewarded with “Dad!…Dad!” Josh’s usual bass rumble would crack on the higher octave of the second “Dad!”
- I miss his handsome profile: his jutting chin, the bump on his nose, his tousled jet-black hair. I miss his bashful smile. And God, I’d deplete my bank account for one more whiff of musty unwashed adolescent.
- On our dog walks, I’d sometimes inquire into his latest manga discovery. He’d inhale a gulp of air before launching into enthusiastic deep background on Demon Slayer or Spy x Family.
- On trips to nearby Bellingham, I’d ask what he’d been listening to lately, and he’d gladly pull up his newest musical obsession on Spotify. The last one he offered me, he described as jazz. As he played it, I realized it was basically a Japanese version of Barry Manilow. When I tentatively theorized that the music might be more accurately described as pop, he adorably doubled down, emphasizing, “No, it’s jazz.” Further debate was not an option.
- My wife Jessica has a habit of speaking to our dogs in high-pitched babytalk. Josh could mimic this, with perfect cadence.
- Josh relished the chance to embarrass people with sex talk. If he was enjoying a dessert, he would utter a breathy, orgasmic “oh, yes!” which would mortify Jessica. Whenever the number 69 was mentioned—in the price at a checkout line, the number of gold pieces in a Dungeons & Dragons haul—he was guaranteed to say, “Nice!” (This did not amuse Paul’s very Catholic girlfriend, which made it even funnier for the rest of us.) When watching Jeopardy! together, Josh and I would invent sexually-themed responses to the clues. If we said them in unison, so much the better.
I could rattle on and on, but you get the idea. If you’re in the same awful club as me, I’m certain you’ll find this practice useful. Our too-soon-gone loved ones contained multitudes. Let’s celebrate that.