Stephen Devereux Vernon
May 20, 1980 - August 15, 2010
Every day for the past three years, I have awakened with clenched hands. They are so tight it is almost painful. I wake up and often I am dreaming of my son who died three years ago this August 15. Frequently, I am sleeping in a fetal position. I unclench my hands, feel the pain from the intensity of the tightness. There is pain throughout my whole body, some pain preexisted my son's death but now it continues more intensely. I gently open and flex my hands and concentrate on relaxing my body. I wonder how this clenching of my hands continues to happen without my consent. Maybe I am symbolically, like a child, saying "No, you cannot take this from me. No, I will not let him go." It doesn't matter that intellectually, I know I have no choice in this matter. I can hardly say if the dreams are sad ones or happy ones, they just are dreams of him, my boy, my Steve. Sometimes they are comforting dreams and sometimes they are disturbing dreams. They come and they go. I can't even remember them as the morning goes on and I live them, I don't write them down. My boy, my beloved boy, how can this be that you are gone from me, from us?
The signs that you are nearby are often but they are little consolation when I can't kiss your thick head of hair or hear voice and your wonderful deep laugh, or ask you questions about your life and work. The aching and the longing for you are more painful than I could ever have imagined and I am inconsolable when those feelings rise up in me. I just endure these feelings until they subside into a lower grade pain that is constantly with me. Simultaneously, I never stop appreciating the things that have gone right in my life, the blessings, beyond anything I ever thought I deserved...those are not consolation or replacement though. When the longing for you and the loss of you sweep over me like a tidal wave and mow me down body and soul, I still feel inconsolable. I don't expect that will ever change.
Sometimes I can barely keep up with my grief, it is so consuming. It takes over my thoughts, not in a conscious way always, but in a way like white noise that dominates my energy, my feelings, and my strength. I can see why grief sometimes overtakes people. It has taken much support to stay on some track, to find my footing, to find any footing, and I have generously and graciously been given that by my family and friends. I feel knocked off course by little things but I am fortunate to be with my husband of forty years, a patient and loving man, who shares and understands the depth of my grief. I pray for mothers who don't have this comfort. I pray for parents who have lost a child.
My son's friends, his great gift to us in death, have rallied around us in the most loving and supportive circle. They are and have been a treasure to us. They are wise and fun like he was. Watching their lives progress and go forward with getting married, their having children, is a source of joy for us. We thank God that this is happening, life unfolding as it should. Steve's friends are an unexpected gift he left us. I could never have imagined this turn of events. There is no time that I/we feel Steve's presence more than when we are with his friends. It is during those times that it is as if he is in the next room and though I can't talk to him or see him, I can imagine him enjoying himself. When we are with Steve's friends and when we are with our extended family, these are the two most comforting times for us.
When I get caught up in my grief, I try to remind myself that there are other things going on in the world that I care about and that there are other things that need and deserve my attention. I try to remember that other people have problems and need support, problems they might be bearing without talking about or asking for help, and I try to pay more attention. So often, though, this loss of my son revisits me. The gift of my other son and my daughter help to maintain my gratitude for the gifts I have been given but the mantle of grief is a constant companion for them as well as for my husband and our extended family. Grief is a thief! It takes time. The thing I hate about grief the most is that it makes one so turned in on oneself. Sometimes I feel ashamed for how self-absorbed grief has made me at times. And yet, would I have done without Steve in my life? He was seven years in the making, coming into this world after seven years of infertility and the necessity of surgery for me. Would I go back in time and accept the infertility to avoid this loss and pain? Of course not! I would not change a thing except for the fact that he has died. With the joy of his being born has come the pain of separation at his death. So, we attempt to make peace with our grief. As our Dominican friend, Brother Joe Kilikevic said to us "As time goes on, may grief become a more gentle companion." And so it is. It is with us always now, grief requires attention, respect and time, but it has and does become less brutal, thank God.
In recent months, what has happened to me is that people who know people who have lost a child ask me what to do. What can they do for the families, for the parents? I have no insights or answers to this from my experience except to be kind and present to people in shock and grief. My younger brother, Martin, showed up at our house the day after our son died. He answered the phone and the door and fielded questions and visitors because I/we retreated and rested often and couldn't have possibly handled all the activity. He didn't say a thing about what he intended to do beforehand, he was just there that day and each day that first week. It was an incredible comfort and service. We have a big family. My cousins, three sisters, came over. The youngest, Marian, was the first to arrive. She cleared off the mess on my dining room table and promised not to throw anything out but to make it neat. She made her offer gently and worked quietly. I was grateful to her for her quiet reassuring presence and her silent work. Her older sister, Elizabeth, showed up the next day and said "I am here to drive you, anywhere you need to go today." And my cousin closest in age to me, Rosemary, showed up just to be with me. Marian lost her daughter, Kathy, three years before Steve died, and she knew better than most people what to do, what helps a family. Our neighbor, Mike Leonard mowed the lawn without saying a word. So, did Martin's twin, my brother Matthew. He drove in five hours from Cincinnati to mow the lawn a couple of weeks later. Dinners and desserts came from people too numerous to mention. These things wow you somewhere deep inside your dumbstruck soul, even in the midst of your numbness.
Food, not to discourage anything like that, but storage can become a problem when you run out of room in the refrigerator. Eating is not a priority... people make you remember to eat, and even remember to breathe. Kind words are very important, but not too many, and not too intense. The house needs to be quiet. The Jewish tradition of sitting shiva is such a good and sensible one. I read more about it because there are so many things about it that make sense like the withdrawal to the sanctuary of one's own home to have the solitude that grief requires because a tie that binds has been broken. In the Christian tradition, the wake and funeral are so intense and social that they allow no time for solitude for several days. Being predominately Irish, this social aspect of a wake and funeral are even more pronounced. My experience was a mix of this because we did not begin the wake and funeral until the fourth day after our son's death. So, the first four days were quiet while we waited for our out-of-town family to rearrange their lives and schedules to travel to be with us.
What I am more certain of than what to do, is what not to do, in the case of a person who has lost a child. Don't expect the parents to want to talk much. They might talk with people they are closest to but those parents are extremely exhausted emotionally, so don't ask much of them.
Don't say things like "At least you have other children". They well know that they have beloved other children, but having other children does not take the place of the one who has died.
Don't try to do too much for the family. Even though this is likely out of love, most people need privacy and time to comprehend what has happened. Just let them know that you are available if they need you. Often, the family might get to that point where they ask for the help you offered. They won't forget who has offered. People who have experienced loss might have a better idea what to do from their own experience.
Don't go to the wake or funeral if you were not on good terms with the child or the parents. That is not the time to try to patch anything up. Send a card and make the sentiment brief if you are in this position and want to do something. People know who is sincere, who really cares. Never feign concern or affection.
Don't talk to the family too long in line at a big wake and so often the wake of a young person is a big wake. It's not the time to catch up on the last fifteen years of separation. The family has to stand for sometimes six to nine hours to receive people. Keep that line moving out of respect for the family! Bring older people to the front of the line. It is numbing to greet so many people, have mercy on the family. Believe me that the family is comforted by the outpouring of love but they are exhausted emotionally before they even begin. The outpouring of love is brings a wonderful loving energy to the family but their feet still can hurt from standing and the whole ordeal is more stressful the older you are.
Don't be afraid to acknowledge the loss later if you did not acknowledge it at the time. It isn't natural to be in touch with everyone who has been involved in your life all the time. I have a friend, a woman I liked very much, Pam, who I had not seen in years. Her son was in preschool with my daughter. She and I were invited to have coffee recently by a mutual friend. Sometimes this is awkward for me. I am a different person from who I was the last time Pam saw me and I cannot pretend that nothing has happened to make me the person I am now. But she handled this with such goodness and grace. Acknowledging my family's loss was almost the first thing she said to me. She told me she was sorry and then told me how, by chance, she was in Canada where she was with another woman, Sue, who knows our family. The other woman got a text from her son, my dead son's classmate and best friend in preschool, and Sue was upset. Upon learning about the contents of the text, news of the death of my son, Pam was also saddened because she, too, knew our family. I didn't hear this story until two and a half years after my son died.. Pam's social skills really amazed me. She knew what to say and how to say it and she addressed the subject straight on when we began talking that morning. We aren't all so poised all the time in every situation. I was grateful that Pam talked to me about my son and expressed her sorrow at my loss. In a way it kind of freed me and made our relationship current to go on with our visit that morning. It renewed the connection that we always both felt we had with one another.
Don't expect people who have suffered a tragedy to be able to participate in normal social functions for quite a while. They just can't do it. Give them time, years possibly. Most people want to recover the ability to interact in life with some normalcy, at least that's my impression. And because they love their family and other children, they do not want to cast a pall over every social situation or be objects of pity. And know that there is, in psychiatry, a difficult recurrence for people who have lost their loved ones. It is called "the anniversary phenomenon" and it is the difficult time of the deceased person's birthday, death, or some other significant day, a holiday, Mother's Day or Father's Day. Those days are very hard for many people. You have no idea when this is happening for people but believe me, I can tell you from personal experience...it is happening that those significant days are often painful and difficult.
Don't ask a lot of questions. A tragedy is a tragedy and it is exhausting recounting everything for each and every curious person. You have to ask yourself whose need are you trying to meet, yours or theirs? Why you are asking...surely it isn't for the good, or out of the need, of the person who has suffered the loss. Let people talk when they want to about their situation. In time they might talk about it but if they don't, that's really OK, too. Today media news is entertainment. Don't reduce your friends and loved ones lives to entertainment, filler or sound bytes.
Don't say to a person "What can I say?" You can say things that are kind and compassionate, simple declarative sentences that express love and concern. "We are so sad to learn of your loss." "We are praying for you and your family." "I am so sorry." "We love you." (when appropriate). But "What can I say?" sounds uncaring. You can find something to say. Words aren't enough, it's true. There are no words, it's true. But love and support are palpable, even at a time when it feels like the world has come to and end for the family.
Don't be too disheartened when someone acts like an ignoramus. This seems to happen universally in these tender and delicate situations. There is always someone ready to step up and fill that role, like the boorish man who felt compelled to go on and on about his sailboat to a principal mourner at our son's wake. Be ready for this kind of behavior, someone so often takes that role, and remember that you have to deal with this ignoramus for the moment but you at least don't have to be that ignoramus. Make haste to distance yourself from people like that. There seems always to be someone behaving boorishly even at a time like this, quickly slink away from that person's company. Let someone close to you know what's going on and they can quietly run interference for you, occupy, and redirect that person's negative energy, that 'vexation to the spirit'.
Encourage a person to go to grief counseling if you are in a position to do it and you see that they need more support than he or she is getting. There is a sequellla to a tragedy and it can involve panic attacks and other dysfunction for the survivors. Someone to listen and watch for those signs is helpful. Support groups that are free are enough to help many people. Do not be a martyr and suffer alone or in silence, there is help. Seek it.
I know other mothers like me who unexpectedly found themselves in this sad demographic of parents who have lost a child. It is not something any of us ever imagined happening to us. You wrack your brain trying to get a handle on what has happened in trying to figure it out. Recently, I saw a video of mother cows being separated from their calves and the unmistakable grief they manifested. Naive as it may sound, I never saw this in such specific detail and it made me think about the primal instinct of protecting and being with offspring. As females, we need to be in solidarity with other females when and where we can and to further mothers lives with their offspring in ways that we can. I cannot find that video now. I can't find videos nearly as graphic and strong as that one that clearly demonstrates the anguish of the beasts that give us the milk meant for their young. I would become an animal activist if I could clone myself. But time and circumstances have left me with this job of writing as my priority. As I watched that video, I could feel the cries of the cows down into the depth of my soul as they mourned the loss of their young. It is a strange thing to say I think...but it was so primal that I understood their anguish completely.
I have been thinking of two quotes lately and one of them right now as I write this. When former First Lady Betty Ford was going through her recovery, like so many people, I was following her experience in the news, she said something like this... "If I talk about this experience only with 'head' language and not 'heart' language, there is a danger I get in trouble." Words to that effect. This was very instructive to me about so many things in life. If you just try to objectify your experience and talk about it intellectually, it will never work, at least never work in a healthy way. It's best to speak about experiences from your heart also.
The other quote was by John Kennedy and it is so powerful given the physical and political challenges he faced. He said " Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stonger men." Today we expect that he would say "stronger men and women." And so it is.