I met Linda in a recent grief group. She’s clearly a helper and a deep thinker. I rarely interview parents whose loss is so recent, but her candid style and commitment to the process made me eager to sit down with her. I’m glad I did!
Christopher Michael Callahan
How did your child die and how old was he or she?
He died eleven months ago, he was thirty six. He was fishing with a friend and the canoe flipped. He actually died of hypothermia. They think he got disoriented because the water was so cold.
How did you hear the news?
A police officer came and told us. At first he went to the wrong house, because we have a rental, so he called and said he’d come right over to tell us something. I asked him what it was about, and he said, ‘Oh, I’ll just tell you when I get there.’ He sounded cheerful, so we assumed he was going to say we had transients living at the rental house, because that’s happened before. When the officer got to our house and walked in the door, he said, ‘I’m sorry to report your son is dead, he drowned.’
I was in total shock because I just assumed the officer was going to tell us we had transients at the house and I was preparing to deal with that. When he told us our son had died, I collapsed in my husband’s arms. Such shock I couldn’t really move.
What was your initial reaction?
I was in total shock because I just assumed the officer was going to tell us we had transients at the house and I was preparing to deal with that. When he told us our son had died, I collapsed in my husband’s arms. Such shock I couldn’t really move. All these emotions ran through me. A big one was fear. I’m pretty much the caregiver for my family, always have been. My mother’s disabled, my husband doesn’t cook. So I kept thinking, who’s going to feed my family? I know this sounds bizarre, but I was already thinking ahead to the holidays, which we’ve always celebrated quite a bit, terrified of how we were going to make it through the holidays without our son.
My husband acted like it was any other day, which is how he responds to everything. That made me feel really isolated. I was so upset with him for not responding, for acting like he couldn’t care less. I felt abandoned by him. So I called some friends who I knew were some real night owls (this was 9:30 at night) and asked if we could come over. And they said, sure, come on over. And they were shocked when we told them. They were kind. When we went back home I stayed up til 2:30 because I was afraid if I went to sleep I’d have nightmares. The next day my husband got the news that they’d been dredging the lake and they found our son’s body, and he started to cry. This is strange to admit, but that helped, I really needed to see my husband cry.
Did anything help prepare you for this experience?
Probably not. My son was very athletic and strong. So it was a total shock. But he was also a drug addict and an alcoholic, not hard core, mostly pot and alcohol. He was a professional and he did work, he had a career. So no, I didn’t expect this. But you know, his health was so poor, he had a bad back from being in a hit and run, he was on his bike and he got thrown over a car and was left for dead. His spine was broken, he was a mess. So in a way we saw it as a blessing. He was a commercial baker, and they carry a lot of heavy trays of food, and we believed eventually he would have been wheelchair bound. And he loved his work, that was his life, so if he couldn’t have done that… I mean, yes, his life was cut off short, and yes, it was devastating, but for him he had a future of suffering.
To go to group and know that no one expected me to talk or lead, knowing that they’re hurting just as much as you are. And they get it. I didn’t expect the isolation, or how devastated I would be. Understanding that we’re all in the same boat without any expectations. I went to counseling but that was a waste of time because my therapist hadn’t lost a child and clearly could not get my pain.
A friend brought over a ton of food right away. Another friend sent us flower bulbs, which was really helpful, because both my husband and I love to be outside, working in the yard, and her gift let me know that yes, he’s gone, but you have to continue your life. I knew she was telling me, I understand, go to your safe place. My friends circling me with actual actions. I learned that just saying ‘Call me if you need anything’ is dumb, and I mean I do it, so I’m pointing fingers at myself. But you’re not going to call for help, at least I’m not, I’m too independent. I’m afraid I’m going to be a burden, or they’re watching TV, maybe they’ve got family…so I could be dying on the ground and I’d never pick up that phone!
A friend of my son’s who was there at the lake was texting me updates, and that really helped. He texted us when they found his body, an hour and a half before the police reported it. That was a relief in a way, because there was some closure. Before that I worried that maybe he was on a bank somewhere, alive and trying to get help, and it was cold, since it was winter. And his friends spontaneously had a gathering for him, they shut down the restaurant my son worked at and all his close friends met to talk and whatever. And it helped me so much to know that they’d honored him that way, that they loved him enough to grieve together right away.
Because my son drowned, I was very terrified he got trapped under a rock and fish were eating him, or that he would be ballooned up like a sponge, or black and blue. So I was absolutely terrified of seeing him. When we went to the funeral home, my husband said that if we had to identify him, he would look at our son. So I was not going to see my son, and my husband did and said he looked really good, and I still wasn’t going to see him. But then I started to leave, and I thought, I can’t leave without seeing my son and saying goodbye (crying)…and I did go see him, and I’m very glad. They did a beautiful job, he looked just like my son, like he was sleeping. They had a Western theme, so they had a handmade quilt over him, he looked so cosy. And I am very glad I saw him because that brought closure. And the mortician was so kind and gentle. On the other hand we have a nice urn, but I haven’t wanted to see it. It’s too painful, so it’s in storage. And that’s okay. Parents should have the right to do what they want, without guilt.
A friend of mine took over the service we did for him, and that was extremely helpful. I had done my father-in-law’s and my mother-in-law’s and my father’s funerals, and this time, I said, I just want to be a grieving mom (crying). So my friend took over, and she did a beautiful job. She didn’t realize how much that blessed me.
It was very helpful going to the grief group with other parents. I’m a talker and typically outgoing, so I’m often the one who is called to lead. To go to group and know that no one expected me to talk or lead, knowing that they’re hurting just as much as you are. And they get it. I didn’t expect the isolation, or how devastated I would be. Understanding that we’re all in the same boat without any expectations. I went to counseling but that was a waste of time because my therapist hadn’t lost a child and clearly could not get my pain.
I don’t know if this is good counsel or not but I had read that if you want to get through something you’ve got to feel the pain, so I took no anti-depressants through almost all of it until I got suicidal and then I took anti-depressants for a week. It’s incredibly painful but I think not being on anti-depressants except that one week sort of accelerated it and the worst of it didn’t drag out forever.
What has not helped?
Trivial comments…being told he’s in a better place, he’s looking down from heaven at you. Frankly I want to say eff you (laughs)… I do have faith in god. And people ask me how I can still have faith, and I say, well, you know, life isn’t all cherries. I believe sorrow makes you a better person. It’s not fun, but it teaches you compassion, refines you for a higher place. But I don’t want to be trivialized, I don’t want stupid cliches thrown at me. I don’t want to be made a spectacle. Something that was well-meaning, but horrible, was that our church put me and my husband up front and prayed over us. And it’s a big ole church, we walked clear from the back to the front, and I was so out of it, I could hardly even see, my eyes were so dilated from tears. And there was this mob coming up laying hands on me, and telling me what I need to do, you know, ‘you just need to count your blessings.’ Well you know, count your own blessings, my son died! Just listen to me, I don’t need you to counsel me, or tell me my son’s looking at me from heaven. I mean, how do you know? Were you there? (laughs) I just wish people would ask me what I need, not tell me. I know their intent is good, but don’t take away a parent’s dignity by assuming you know what they need.
Has anything about this experience surprised you?
One of my good friends dropped me. I’m annoyed at her, but not really hurt, because frankly, if you’re going to drop me when my son dies, I don’t need your friendship! It surprised me how mad I got at stupid comments.
What do you wish people knew about grieving a child?
Don’t tell them to count their blessings. Just say, I fricking don’t know how to help you but I’m here. Say, man, you must really be hurting. End of sentence. I mean, what can you say? You can call and say, I’m bringing over a pizza. Do something hands on. I mean, maybe I don’t even eat the pizza, but at least I know you cared to make the trip.
How have you changed?
My personality has really changed into a personality I don’t really like. I used to be very outgoing, and I’ve become very reclusive. I don’t want to be with a lot of people. I’ve always been involved in helping other people, but now I don’t want to be around people that are just going to be taking, people in high need. I have nothing to give. We’ve had a homeless person staying for two weeks, but I had to give notice, because I can’t handle all the talking anymore. It tears me up, but…
I feel very insecure in situations I used to never feel insecure in. I’ve always been the one to get the party started, and in the position of leader, ever since I was a little kid. And now it’s almost like my body is alive but the rest of me has left the building, like a walking mannequin. So I don’t even know who I am any more, and I don’t like it, and I hope it passes. It’s only been 11 months…
Do you have other children and if so, has your parenting changed?
Absolutely. I’m phobic that my daughter may die, so I’m wanting to call her more. But I don’t want her to be put in the role of having to care for me, yet that’s kind of what’s happening. She’s a take charge kind of person, like I used to be. Immediately when my son died she told me she’d fly up and be with me, and she did. She did amazing. But I don’t want to put that pressure on her, that she now has to be my mother. I want her to be able to grieve and move on.
At his memorial people said he would take the shirt off his back for you, and he really would. If my son was your friend, he would have sacrificed his life for you. He saw the world through different glasses than most people, he was a square peg in a round hole, but that’s what made him enduring. He made us laugh. And he was brilliant.
What do you want people to remember about your child?
My son had an extremely difficult childhood. He was adopted, abandoned by his birth parents. He had fetal alcohol syndrome. So I would take him to specialists, and they would say, your son is highly intelligent, but we don’t know how to help him, so keep doing what you’re doing. I didn’t know how to parent him, I was too strict, I didn’t understand the effects of the fetal alcohol syndrome he was dealing with. Yet he was so forgiving of everyone around him. At his memorial people said he would take the shirt off his back for you, and he really would. If my son was your friend, he would have sacrificed his life for you. He saw the world through different glasses than most people, he was a square peg in a round hole, but that’s what made him enduring. He made us laugh. And he was brilliant.
Do you still feel connected to your child and if so, how?
My son would always call me on Mothers’ Day, so I was super dreading it this year, because I knew I’d be waiting for the call that would never come. So I decided to write him a letter, and I apologized, saying I was sorry I didn’t know how to parent him. And I could just hear my son, my son was so forgiving, and he said, “Mom, get over it! You already apologized and I don’t care about all that, I turned out okay!” That happens a lot. My son was very bubbly, very outgoing, super charismatic. And I don’t literally hear him, but I imagine what he would say, and it’s very comforting. He had a troubled childhood, he even tried to kill us when he was fifteen. He apologized, but we had some very rough years. But no matter what, he’d say, don’t worry about it, Mom! We had a unique relationship. I’ve been diagnosed bi-polar, and I have a rare anxiety disorder. He also was bi-polar, so we had a unique closeness, because he could say, Mom I’m in one of those funks, and I’d get it. He knew I got it. We also both suffered migraines. People told me and it was probably true that he was closest to me, we had that closeness of understanding. I was clearly the disciplinarian so he hated me for that and yet he knew I had his back in all situations. I was a bulldog to protect him.
What do you answer when people ask you how many children you have?
I say I have two but one died. Then I change the subject because I don’t really want to go into it. It doesn’t bother me, but I know they don’t really care, they’re just asking to be polite, and they feel bad for asking. And the people that are close to me know, so they don’t ask (laughs).