I first met Adam not long after his son Eric died, when he was in a grief group I co-facilitated. Adam and I later became board members at WinterSpring, and continue to see each other fairly often at meetings and events. When he agreed to be interviewed for this series, I figured I already knew most of the story and would just be filling in a few details. Wrong! Even with a lot of contact over the years, there was so much I didn’t know about Adam’s story and about his family and about how his process has evolved over time, and I sat rapt for the hour we spent together. I left feeling quite humbled by that, and also deeply touched, like I knew not only Adam better but Eric, too, and the sweetness and depth of their connection. It was a precious experience, and it only took an hour. Please, if you know someone who has been through a great loss, even if you think you know the whole story, ask the person to coffee or lunch and give them a chance to tell their story. Bring these questions along if you need prompts. It’ll be a gift for you, and for them. You won’t regret it!
What is the name of your child who died?
His name is Eric Jozef Marx.
How did he die and how old was he when he died?
Eric was eighteen, just short of his nineteenth birthday. He died in a car accident. He wasn’t driving, but the car he was in was going too fast, lost control, and rolled into a telephone pole. Eric died at the scene. There were three other kids in the car; two had scrapes and bruises, one had more serious injuries – all of them survived.
How did you hear the news?
I got a call from my ex-wife, Eric’s mother, the morning after the accident.
I remember saying, “What?” “What?” I was sure that I was mishearing her. She said something like, “Eric had an accident last night.” And I said, “Okay…” And she said, “He didn’t make it.” And I said, “What?” And I kept saying that.
What was your initial reaction to getting the news?
Disbelief. This can’t be happening. I remember saying, “What?” “What?” I was sure that I was mishearing her. She said something like, “Eric had an accident last night.” And I said, “Okay…” And she said, “He didn’t make it.” And I said, “What?” And I kept saying that. I remember I had to sit down. My legs wouldn’t hold me up. And again I said, “What?” And she explained a little more about the accident. I was just numb. It seemed so strange, so surreal.
The numbness was there for days, on and off. I would come into focus, and then I’d go back to being numb. I had to focus because we had to get back to Worcester, Massachusetts, where he lived. So we caught a flight back the next morning, Sunday morning, for the funeral and all that.
It was also a weird and unfortunate thing that the day he died happened to be my younger son’s birthday, his second birthday. Which continues to be challenging every year.
Did anything help prepare you for this experience?
Yes, my brother’s death. I was twenty three, Jonathan was twenty one when he died. I was with him when he died, it was in a skiing accident, and I remember having to call our father and tell him his son had died, thinking, I can’t imagine what he’s going through. And in the aftermath of Jonathan’s death, I got to experience all the things that don’t work, which were: throwing myself into work, trying not to feel, staying busy, doing any behavior that would distract me from the feelings of grief and sadness and anger. And finally, after a year, giving up. Realizing I couldn’t push these feelings away anymore. Having it all crash down on me. Getting into therapy for the first time. Taking personal development workshops for the first time. All this stuff. I call it post-traumatic growth. Terrible stuff happens, and you actually grow from it. And I did. The biggest thing that helped from my brother’s death is that I knew I could survive Eric’s death, too. When Jonathan died, I thought, if I start crying I’m never going to stop. And then I cried and I stopped. And over the next twenty-five or thirty years, I had a really good life. So I just knew from that experience that when Eric died, this was really, really bad…and I’ll survive.
Is there anything that might have helped prepare you better?
I can’t think of anything that might have helped me prepare better. How can you prepare for the death of your child? I can say that what made it harder was that we had already gone through so many transitions. We had just moved to a new place across the country eight months before. Leslie (my wife) had just started her new job. We had a 2 year old, and had just learned three months before that he had Duchenne muscular dystrophy. So we were just starting to deal with that. And I had just restarted my counseling practice. Eric’s death was a huge thing on top of a bunch of other significant changes. It probably would also have made it easier if we’d been in a community we’d been in for a bunch of years. It was really hard not being where people knew Eric.
Seeing Eric’s body was helpful. When my brother died, the last I ever saw of him was of the rescue crew doing CPR on him. That was the last image. By the time they got him home his body was in pretty bad shape so we didn’t have a viewing. I had dreams for years that he didn’t really die, that he was out there somewhere. So I wanted to see Eric’s body, for closure.
What has helped you in your grieving process?
After Eric died, there was an outpouring of sharing about him on Facebook, about how much he had touched people’s lives, how much they missed him, and pictures and videos of him, and messages like Eric, I know you’re looking down on us and helping us out, and Eric, I did donuts in the parking lot for you! That went on for a whole year, thousands of messages, and those really fed me in the sense of, wow, he really had an impact on people in the short time he was alive. In the short time he had, he affected a lot of people, and that makes me feel good.
It also helped that Leslie was not his mother. I was – on and off – a basket case, his mother was a basket case. Leslie was only somewhat of a basket case, because she loved him dearly, but she’d only known him for five or six years, she hadn’t grown up with him, so it wasn’t the same. She could be a little more present. You hear about the statistics of couples divorcing after they lose a child, 80-90 percent? Leslie and I never came close to that.
Having a punching bag helped. I bought it after he died and kept it in the garage. I alternated between sadness and anger. Sometimes I just needed to get out there and beat the crap out of something. Half the time I’d start off furiously beating on it and end up holding onto it and crying. The anger would burn out and the sadness would come up.
It helped and hurt that I didn’t have a full-time job. It helped because I had the time to grieve. It hurt because I had too much time.
Another thing that helped was having my younger son around. And it wasn’t in the sense of “oh, I’ve got an extra kid.” It was that being around a child allowed me to be childlike. I had to get out of my grief and be present with my two year old – now my seven year old – son. That really helped.
Seeing Eric’s body was helpful. When my brother died, the last I ever saw of him was of the rescue crew doing CPR on him. That was the last image. By the time they got him home his body was in pretty bad shape so we didn’t have a viewing. I had dreams for years that he didn’t really die, that he was out there somewhere. So I wanted to see Eric’s body, for closure. A lot of people didn’t want to see him that way because they thought it would be the last thing that stuck in their minds, but for me, I’ve got thousands and thousands of images and videos in my head of Eric over 18 years, so that’s just one more out of thousands. So I really wanted to see him. And it was helpful. It helped give me closure and it was good to see his body. It was weird and it was hard and I’m really glad I did it. It was the right decision for me.
One other thing that did help. Are you familiar with the Mankind Project? I had done the New Warrior Training weekend in February 2011. I started meeting with the follow-up weekly men’s group just 2 weeks before Eric died. It was so useful to have that men’s group there. I didn’t even know these men very well. Man, they just stepped up. I would go there every week. Whenever I needed the time, they would have the time. Whenever I needed to cry or yell and scream, they would support me in that.
What has not helped?
Trying to start a business after your son has died is a really bad idea. It was a negative feedback loop. Everything was so hard. You need a lot of energy to get a business going, and I just wasn’t capable. I wouldn’t be getting the results I wanted, and I’d feel really bad, and I was already feeling bad about Eric’s death, and then I’d feel worse about myself. It was so stressful. I wish I’d said, screw it, I’m not going to do this right now. In hindsight, that’s what I would have recommended to my younger self.
Has anything about this experience surprised you?
It surprised me how little of this grieving process is under conscious control. I mean, I’ve done such a boatload of personal development stuff, you know, NLP master practitioner, meditation retreats, and I teach people all of this stuff; thinking, I had gone through therapy, I’d gone through grief before, and you know, none of it means crap in terms of moving through it any faster or any more gracefully. I can slow it down by not acknowledging my grief, trying to stay busy. I found that out when I was 23, with my brother’s death. But I don’t know anything that will speed up the process. You would hope that having done all that work, you would have a little edge, but it’s like your mind, your body, it has its own timetable and it won’t tell you what it is. I haven’t been able affect the process, even with all my tools.
What do you wish people who haven’t been through grieving a child knew?
I wish they knew that I still want to talk about Eric. Some people are afraid to bring it up, tiptoe around it. And I actually really enjoy talking about Eric. It brings him to life each time I talk about him. So, yes, ask me about him.
Have you changed?
After my brother died, I was depressed for a couple of years, and then had what I call a post-traumatic growth experience. I did a training called Lifespring, which a close friend pushed me into, which was known as “the kindler, gentler EST,” and I’m forever grateful. Because it hit me at just the right time and I came out of that so opened up, so open to new experiences and so optimistic about what was possible for me. It was unbelievable, I mean, if you had told me I’d respond to anything like that I would have said you’re kidding me. There’s a quote from the book The Prophet about pain: “Pain is the breaking of the shell of our understanding.” I was just broken open. It changed my life ever since then. I mean, I was a computer scientist and I became a therapist. I wanted to be able to do for people what Lifespring did for me. And that took me through NLP and all this stuff.
So, anyway, I was hoping one of the results of Eric’s death would be another profound opening like that. And I can’t say I’ve had that kind of explosive, revolutionary growth experience. So there’s disappointment, like, well, if something this bad is going to happen, at least I want to get something big out of it. Give me something! (Laughs) My feeling is that I’ve grown in more subtle ways. But it’s hard to put that into words. I mean, the fact that I’m making my specialty working with fathers who have lost a child says a lot. Before this, I wouldn’t have worked with grieving people, I would have said, no way, that’s the most depressing thing I can think of! It hasn’t been until the last year or even six months that I’ve realized that I can really help people with my experience, plus all the tools I have.
Has anything changed about your parenting?
Yes. Even though Eric didn’t live with me for most of his teenage years, I’m still looking for ways to feel guilty about it, to take some responsibility for what happened. I’m mean, I’m his dad, I should have been able to do something, even though rationally I know there was nothing I could have done. The one thing that came to me is I feel like I was on the permissive side in terms of parenting. I think I prioritized staying in relationship more than being clear about when I was serious about when things were okay and when they weren’t. So I think that might have had some small effect on his death, because he was out with his friends at two in the morning. He was drinking, his friends were drinking. The driver wasn’t drinking but he may have been stoned. It was actually Eric’s car but Eric wasn’t driving because he had been drinking. Going too fast down the road. I just think, if I’d been stricter with him, would it have turned out differently? So I’m stricter with my younger son, not strict but stricter, and stricter than Leslie is with him, and I’m unapologetic about it. Not mean or anything, just clear. Not yelling, just clear about the consequences.
I want people to remember how alive he was. He had this extraordinary energy to him. I want them to remember what a good friend he was. They used to call him the Ferris Bueller of Millbury (the town he grew up in.) Everybody liked him.
What do you want people to remember about Eric?
I want people to remember how alive he was. He had this extraordinary energy to him. I want them to remember what a good friend he was. They used to call him the Ferris Bueller of Millbury (the town he grew up in.) Everybody liked him. And when he died, even though it wasn’t a big town, over 800 people showed up for the funeral. The school chartered 3 buses to go because so many people were talking about cutting class to be there. So I want people to know how much they can affect other people’s lives just by being. I mean, he was only 18 years old, he didn’t have a chance to do a lot, but he affected so many people with his open-heartedness. He was always ready to give anyone a hug. I never heard him talk badly about anyone. He stood up for people. He’d do anything for his friends. So I want people to take inspiration from him for their own lives.
Do you still feel connected to him and if so, how?
In the days after he died, we have a friend who is a shaman, and she asked us if we wanted to talk to him, so we said sure! So she did this bridge kind of thing, and we we were able to communicate with him, and that was really cool. Over time I’ve kind of felt him moving away from us and toward something else. So I don’t feel his presence as much, but I still feel a connection, of course! I couldn’t be thinking about him if I didn’t have him inside me. The image I have is that he’s gone back to something, I’m not sure what, something like source, maybe.
What do you say when people ask you how many kids you have?
That’s always the hardest question, isn’t it? I almost always say I have two. Unless for some reason I’m feeling in a vulnerable place and don’t want to bring up the possibility of having to talk about Eric’s death, but that’s pretty rare. The vast majority of the time I say two. And if they say, what’s your older son doing now, I say, well, he passed away about five years ago. They can have their reaction, and I can have mine. It feels not-honoring of Eric to say I have one child. And it’s up to me to deal with what to do if someone asks what my older son is doing, it’s on me. And I’m okay with that. I wasn’t always, but now I am.
Anything else you want to add?
I’m really glad you’re doing this and I’m really glad you asked me about this because part of the meaning of his life is his death. What can other people learn from his life, and from my life?
Adam Marx is a coach, therapist, father, and husband. His oldest son, Eric, was killed in a car accident in 2011. Partly as a result of that experience, he focuses his coaching practice on helping other men who are struggling with the death of a child. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can see more about Adam’s background and experience at www.adammarx.com