The path forward after loss might not be clear-cut
When my husband died back in 2009, amidst the tears, I felt relief and an overwhelming sense of calm—such a swirl of emotions. As we neared the end of 22 years facing the challenges of his chronic illness together, I had been gradually letting go of him, mourning each increment that ticked off his physical-capabilities quotient. I evolved into my widowhood. By the time he took his last breath, I was ready to let him go.
Although, nothing fully prepares one for the silence. The physical absence. It’s something we can’t really train for, that sudden shift into another world, without the one who used to be tangled into our limbs, breathing alongside us. During a kind of unraveling, we discover how and where we gave ourselves over to the sum of the parts that had become “us.” Gathering up the pieces of myself that were left hanging, I was faced with all these half-finished sentences and strange urges. . . .
The first priority was, of course, comforting my then six-year-old son, to whom the loss of his dad came as if in a dream. “Are you sure?” was his response, when I told him Daddy had died. How does a boy make sense of the sudden loss of the comfort and safety of his father’s constant companionship, a presence he has felt since before birth? How does he comprehend the absence of the man who made it his life’s mission to be remembered as his son’s Dad, and not his son’s Sick Dad? The one who tutored him for three hours after school each day (in kindergarten!), the one who had lightsaber duels with him in the front yard, and snuck him Jolly Rancher and Starburst candies when mom wasn’t looking? And how does a mother prevent her heart from rushing in to fill all the empty space left in her son’s life, when his father’s body, worn down by a lifetime struggle with sickle-cell anemia, calls it quits?
This is the tender landscape in which we begin to navigate the time and space between us, mother and son, thrown together into a capsule of grief and joy and rage and wild imagination and fierce determination, inspired by the powerful spirit of the man who left us.
For a long while, my boy is afraid to be in a room by himself, especially at night, in the dark. We begin a long-term bedtime ritual. We start reading the Harry Potter series, one book at a time. I read to him each night in bed, before he falls asleep, at which point I slip out into my own room. We will finish all seven books, and after each book is complete (and only then), will we allow ourselves to watch the movie version together. It takes several years, but we complete the entire series.
Time plods on without mercy or fanfare. My son and I move to a smaller apartment, refocus our attentions toward each other, and proceed to create our own, new version of a family. In some ways we become incredibly close, but there are those moments when one or both of us have murderous thoughts, and angry words are exchanged, doors are slammed, things are broken, and tears are shed. A downsized life only magnifies the intensity and makes it more imperative to engage other members of our chosen family to help dissipate the fire of our relentless one-on-one connection.
Now, it’s been eight years since our last great upheaval, and we’ve launched into another one. After careful consideration following a less-than-optimum time in public middle school, and with tremendous family support (thank you, sisters!), my son and I decided that he should go to boarding school. Truthfully, it hadn’t even been on either of our radar. But once we began to look seriously at the options, we discovered the perfect high school for him to attend—a small, intentional, and creative community dedicated to his well-being and all-around development, appreciative of his unique needs and unconventional rhythms. And then I realized that sending him away would also relieve me of bearing the sole weight of navigating his daily challenges and reframe me out of the unpleasant role of annoying, nagging mother.
In our new world, my son’s time and space are shaped by resources that I could never provide on my own. As I write this, I am enjoying the initial stretch of the academic calendar, knowing that he is in a place that I consider a dream school—a kind of holistic Hogwarts—that makes me long to be a student again. A place that inspires me to want to overhaul our entire educational system so that all children can experience this kind of thoughtful and caring learning environment. I am aware of how incredibly fortunate we both are, and I begin to imagine how I’ll take steps to share this good fortune.
The gift of time and space is now mine, and it’s the first time in 30 years that I am living alone, unencumbered by the demands of daily caregiving. But while my son now has the assistance of an experienced team to guide him through his days, I’ve been left to my own devices. And although in some ways this is tremendously liberating, even intoxicating, the silent and empty rooms left in the wake of this latest upheaval sometimes feel rather loud and vast.
I wish I could tie this all up nice and neat for you, and tell you that this current change is a happy one, nothing like the sad one of eight years ago. But the funny thing about losing loved ones is that you experience a complex layering of grief and joy and a whole lot more, and it continues to reveal itself to you. The liberation I feel, to be able to re-engage my deepest desires on my own terms, jump back into the waters of romantic exploration, push myself to the next levels of professional and creative achievement, and spend my days according to my own, quirky rhythms—this sense of freedom is at once ecstatic and terrifying.
I’ve learned to ride unexpected waves of emotion. On a given day (and depending on how much sleep I’ve had), I’m as likely to burst into tears as I am into laughter—sometimes both at the same time. Am I finally beginning to enjoy the fruits of my labor? Have I started to earn some wisdom points from all my suffering? I hope so . . . because as much as I’m enjoying having my time and space to myself, there’s a part of me that feels the phantom echo of telling my son to clean up his room, alongside the gentle weight of my husband’s arm resting across my shoulders, and the rush of love I have felt preparing their meals or rocking one of them through a particularly painful moment. And it’s a bittersweet echo, not quite silent, as it resides inside me, expressing itself through the new normal of my days.
Deborah Oster Pannell is a freelance writer and editor who collaborates with other writers, artists, and creative entrepreneurs to develop and promote their projects. She is currently working on a collection of stories and poems about grief, parenting, and sexuality, which, as it turns out, are not always mutually exclusive.
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