Lessons from the year

Ed Coleman, who writes at The Infinite Fountain, is our guest writer this week for our June series by grieving dads. Ed writes, “I have been many things in my life: Guitar maker, singing waiter, professional cameraman, producer, teacher, but the most fulfilling and important thing I have ever done was to become the father of my son. He gave purpose and meaning to my life as nothing has before or since. On December 28, 2013, our 24-year-old-son Jake died suddenly, unexpectedly, and unnecessarily. I have been blogging since then as a way to process this unspeakable tragedy.”

While Ed did not lose his son as a baby, he writes from the perspective that only a parent who has lost a child can. We find many parallels between his grief and our own grief in the wake of babyloss. We hope you will join us in welcoming Ed as our guest writer today.

December 28, 2014—10:15am

As we mark the one year 'anniversary' of Jake's death, I find myself reflecting on the past twelve months, and what, if anything, I have learned. There have been many lessons, both painful and enlightening. It is difficult to grasp that a year has passed. Each day dragged on so slowly, but now that 365 of them have slipped away, the time seems as only an instant since I heard those dreadful words that bright December afternoon. Time is like that. We try to savor every luminous moment, try to hurry through the dark ones and yet, when all the moments have passed it seems scarcely the length of a single heartbeat.

I learned that the human spirit has an almost unlimited capacity to absorb emotional pain. I say almost because there must be limits, although I can't imagine any greater pain than the loss of a child at any age, under any circumstances.

I have a sense of vast, infinite loss, I haven't gathered together all the details and the realization of their full import is still mercifully wanting. Even a year after the fact, I still am bewildered by the whole thing. Still gropingly gathering the meaning. Still numb. I only have a glimpse at the magnitude of the disaster. And yet, things are different. My wife and I are moving forward. Haltingly, tentatively, but forward. The hourly grief spasms have abated, and strike far less frequently. Raw agony has morphed into a deeper, indelible ache. I have learned, somewhat, how to manage my chronic sorrow.

I learned that people can be unbelievably kind and supportive. We have friends who were there from the very first moment we learned of this unspeakable tragedy, and continue to stand with us to help. It is the simplest yet the most important gift. I learned that complete strangers and the most casual of acquaintances are capable of enormous acts of kindness. These seemingly inconsequential gestures, unlooked-for, have the power to assure us that we are not alone- that even though people haven't experienced the horrific loss we have, they empathize fully and know that we are hurting beyond description.

I also learned that people can be shockingly insensitive. Without realizing it, people have said the most heart-wrenching things as if they were discussing the weather. I learned that the people you think will be supportive disappear, and the most unlikely heroes arise to lift you up.

I learned that sometimes I have to fight to keep Jake's memory alive in my heart and mind. Not that I would ever forget him, or any of the million things I miss about him, but that sometimes it is as if he never really existed. That those 24 years with him were merely a dream, and I have wakened to this grim reality without him. But it wasn't a dream. This new reality seems like the dream. Jake did exist, more accurately he lived. Fully and completely for the time he was here. He touched people in unimaginable ways. He planted seeds throughout his life; some have grown to fruition, some are just sprouting, and some lie dormant waiting for the moment to burst into bloom.

I learned that Jake had a group of fiercely loyal and loving friends. Friends from different stages of his short life. These are people who are still part of our lives, who have insisted on remaining in touch. It is bittersweet seeing these wonderful young people; seeing them grow and mature, watching them make their way through life. They keep him alive in their thoughts and hearts just as we do. All we have left are the stories, memories, and photos that his friends share with us. And they willingly share them. For that, we are deeply grateful.

I learned that I miss so many of the little things he did. Simple things like fixing a light switch, cracking a joke, whipping up a batch of impossibly good gelato, installing a headlight in my wife's car. Things he did with utter confidence and expertise. I miss doing things with with him—the enjoyment we shared in our 'boy's days', the simple pleasures of hitting a little white golf ball, lying on a beach watching the sea roll in, cooking together, building things together, sharing a joke, sharing a meal, sharing a dream—with a primeval longing that will never go away no matter how many years pass. I have learned that time does not heal all wounds. I learned I am scarred for life. I will always miss him.

I learned that we, as a society don't "do" death and grieving very well. It is not a subject people talk about; it makes everyone so uncomfortable. Rarely do I have a conversation beyond, "Oh, I am so sorry for your loss". I guess there is not much really to say. People who know us and knew Jake 'know'. Those who don't will never know. As someone observed, there are two kinds of people in this world—those who have lost a child and those who haven’t.

I have come to the realization that no matter how much society expects men to "be strong", there are times when I am immensely weak and fragile, and that is just how it is. Will probably always be. And that's okay. I have learned through my contact with others on this journey, that people grieve in different fashions.There is no right way to grieve, nor is there a wrong way. There is only grief.

I learned that I can still laugh, still find some enjoyment in life. I learned that whatever enjoyment or pleasure I can eke out now comes with an asterisk. There is a fundamental piece of that joy missing. Every pleasant experience comes tinged with longing and sadness. Happiness and sadness exist simultaneously in nearly everything.

The fog has lifted somewhat and I can see for a short way down the road; I am still not sure what lies ahead, what the destination is. I know Jake will not be with me as we move forward. I won't see him marry, have children of his own; we will never have grandchildren. I know Jake won't be there to hold our hands as we grow old, I won't be able to bequeath anything to him. So much of what I did this past 25 years was for my son. I worked to create something to leave to him. Now, to whom will I leave it?

I learned that I have a long way to go. Life is about the journey, not the destination. I learned there are far too many of us on this voyage of sadness. There is small comfort knowing that we are not alone, very small comfort. On second thought, there is no comfort at all. Why has this happened to us? Why Jake? Why any of our beautiful children? This is something I haven't learned yet, may never learn the answer to. Sadly, even if we could get an answer, there is no reason good enough. I have learned that my lot, like Don Quixote, is to bear the unbearable sorrow.

Mostly what I learned is that I still have a lot to learn.

What have you learned (or relearned or un-learned) in the months/years since your child(ren)'s death?  Which learnings leave you gasping, still shocked at the truth you hadn't seen or understood before?  Which learnings bring comfort or a sliver of enlightenment?  Which learnings are simply too painful, unfair, horrific to integrate into your life?