I met Meghan through WinterSpring, she is a wonderful companion to other grieving parents. I am always struck by her vivacity, her stories about Henry are full of warmth and humor. She has clearly let grief do its work.
What is the name of your child who died?
His full name was Andrew Henry Dufala. We called him Henry.
How did he die and how old was he when he died?
Henry died by suicide in November of 2012 when he was just about to turn 32.
I thought he was going to say something like, Henry was in an accident, I really did. Like, he was in a car accident, he’s in the hospital, he’s gonna be okay. I did not expect the words, there is a police detective here who just told me Henry’s dead.
How did you hear the news?
I got a telephone call across the country from his father, they all live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that’s my hometown. It was a shock to see his name on the caller ID because that usually meant one of our kids was in trouble. I thought he was going to say something like, Henry was in an accident, I really did. Like, he was in a car accident, he’s in the hospital, he’s gonna be okay. I did not expect the words, there is a police detective here who just told me Henry’s dead.
How did you react to that news?
It was very early in the morning. I had a cup of coffee in my hands. I dropped it and I just collapsed on the floor. I was wailing, and my husband, Ed, he came in and asked what was wrong. I couldn’t even speak. He knew from my extreme reaction that something had happened to one of my kids, and I was able to say, Henry! Henry! Henry! Henry…he’s dead! The rest of that day is kind of blurry. Ed didn’t go to work, of course. A friend came by. I remember a bunch of phone calls being made silently in the other room, and I think I just sat there in a daze for multiple hours.
Parents whose kids die are terrified they’re going to forget. So for the first few years that’s all we think about. But then we go on. It’s kind of sad but that’s the way it is.
What helped you?
I went to a doctor the next month to see about getting medication, and she said to me, you know, you’re dealing with a profound grief, and you’re going to have to work through this. Instead of medication, she gave me some suggestions about exercise and getting natural light in the eyes and not sleeping during the day so I could sleep at night. And she said I could come back at any time, I didn’t need to make an appointment, she would make time for me, and that was a security blanket. I never did go back and see her but knowing I could really helped. A number of people talked to me about anti-depressants, but my husband is a pharmacist, and he worked in a psychiatric hospital for ten or twelve years, and he said, Meghan, don’t do that yet, what you’re going through is horrible, but it’s normal. If you take anti-depressants, it’s just going to mask a lot of that stuff, and eventually you’re going to have to deal with it. And in the end, for me, that was the right thing to do. I mean, it’s not the right thing for everybody. I did get a little medication help for sleeping, just for a couple of weeks, because I couldn’t function with the grief when I was physically exhausted.
My dearest friend lost her adult son to drugs a few years before Henry died. She and I met when we were 3 and 4 years old, we’ve had a long, long, close friendship. To have that shared experience is so weird but we’ve been really good support for each other. I’m so grateful to have her because she knew him. People out here in Oregon didn’t know him. A couple people met him but they don’t know him from his childhood, and that’s really important to me. To stay in touch with the people who knew him. Two old friends, sisters I was close to in our twenties, reached out to me a couple of years after he died, and that meant the world to me. There’s a friend of Henry’s from pre-school who stays in touch with me. He’s now a father, and he named his son Henry. He tells me about being a dad to “Little Hen” and once in a while throws in a story about “Big Hen.” I’m close to my stepson, who gets in touch around important dates, and wrote me the sweetest card on Mother’s Day. There are other people who remember the date and call or text to say they’re thinking of me and hoping they don’t have any plumbing problems today (laughs)—Henry was a plumber.
I go to the horse sanctuary Equamore, because Henry loved horses. I hang out there and feel his spirit, and it’s calming, and I know that he would be very much involved if he was here. The lady who runs it is really cool and even lets me go there on days it’s closed. I buy them hay every summer in Henry’s name.
I had two dogs and they got me through it. I had to think about them and take care of them, and they got me out of myself.
Rituals help. We do those around the anniversary of his death. We make his favorite dinner for his birthdays.
Parents whose kids die are terrified they’re going to forget. So for the first few years that’s all we think about. But then we go on. It’s kind of sad but that’s the way it is. I have another life now, a good life, and I have another child, and a stepson and his wife, and a wonderful home and marriage and nice friends and terrific memories.
My husband was worried about me, but I always had hope. I had hope that tomorrow I’m gonna be a little bit better, and the next day might be a bad day, and then I’ll have two better days, and then the weather won’t be so yucky, because it was winter, and then I have a visitor coming, so I have that to look forward to. That never faded. I had shitty days, I did. Days I couldn’t get dressed. I cried in a lot of parking lots, because I would hear a song on the radio. Music was a big provoker of memories.
A friend knows a man who accidently ran over his child. I don’t think there’s any coming back from that. When I heard about that, I thought to myself, my situation was bad, but it’s not as bad as his. We compare, even though there really is no comparing. We do it to protect ourselves. The brain minimizes.
Did anything help prepare you for this experience?
No, nothing ever could. Nothing ever could. I hear other parents say it all the time, like, I just never thought I’d have to deal with this. I mean, who does? And I lost a full-term infant, it was my first child. A stillbirth. And it’s different, it’s really a different kind of a loss. And you never hear about it until it happens to you, and then it’s like, oh yes, that happened to my niece’s daughter, and it goes on and on and on, and you’re like, wow, why doesn’t anybody talk about this? I’m very careful about who I tell about either of those losses, people can’t handle it. So I walk gingerly around it. Even now, when I want to tell a story about my son Henry, he was really funny, they get this look on their face like oh crap, and they say, well okay, if it won’t upset you. And I say, no, it’s a funny story, I might get a tear in my eye, but I want to share this with you. So I have to give them a preview.
What do you want people to know about losing a child?
It takes a long time. You have to be good to yourself. There is no time limit on this. Things will crop up you didn’t think about two years ago. It’s always okay to ask for help.
How has this experience changed you?
I’ve changed forever. I’m much more sympathetic to people and their problems, and I don’t mean just grief. I think more about what someone might be going through, about a troubled child, or a lost child. We help out with the homeless at our church, giving them lunches, and I think, Does your mother know where you are? Does your mother know you’re okay?
I just froze for a millisecond and thought to myself, Henry’s not here, he’s not on this earth. And then I heard him, he was like, well, what did you think when you got a new dog? You have to get up early in the morning, take ‘em out. And I was like, yeah, you’re right. It’s worth it.
Do you still feel connected to Henry, and if so, how?
We just got a rescue dog, and I was up in the wee hours of the morning to take her out to potty, and I was walking back to the house, and I just froze for a millisecond and thought to myself, Henry’s not here, he’s not on this earth. And then I heard him, he was like, well, what did you think when you got a new dog? You have to get up early in the morning, take ‘em out. And I was like, yeah, you’re right. It’s worth it.
Animals, because he loved animals. Plumbing. People ask me plumbing questions, and I say, Henry was the plumber, not me, but I do know you need a professional plumber!
I have memorabilia, letters he wrote to me as an adult, artwork from his childhood. I have a crazy looking ceramic horse he made as a young child, it looks like a cross between a dachshund and a horse, but it means something to me.
Ed and I evacuated after the fire last year, and we stayed at a motel in Roseburg that my stepson was able to book us. The place was filled with other fire evacuees, and we got the very last room, and the toilet wouldn’t work. And I said, It’s the ghost of Henry! We dealt with the toilet, and at one point I got up in the middle of the night, and I heard sniffing outside the door, and I approached it and heard growling. And I thought, Really? My potty doesn’t work and a dog is growling at me at two in the morning?!
What do you want people to remember about your child?
That he was funny and gregarious and had a really good singing voice. He was very kind to people, older people that couldn’t afford to pay for their new hot water tank, he let them pay over time. He loved horses and dogs. He would have been a great father. We always thought he’d be the first one to marry and be a dad.
It took him ten years to become a master plumber, you have to go to school and pass exams and it just took him a really long time, and I asked him, What’s taking so long? And he said, Mom, it isn’t just hot on the left and cold on the right, you have to tell water what to do. Water will do what it wants to unless you tell it what to do. And I said, Henry, that’s extremely Zen, you’re a Zen plumber!
How do you respond when people ask you how many children you have?
I usually say, I have two children, but one of my children died and leave it at that. I do get mixed up sometimes with the tenses, like his name was, or his name is. His name will always be Henry. You know, to be honest, sometimes I lie to strangers and pretend he’s still alive, because I don’t want to go there. Because I won’t see them again, and I figure, I don’t want to go there, and they don’t want to go there. So we just move along. And actually, my son Henry would say that’s a good thing to do. Don’t lay this on them, just pretend I’m still here.