“Unresolved loss is cumulative and cumulatively negative.” I was recently struck by these words (from The Grief Recovery Handbook by John James and Russell Friedman).
Right smack in the middle of my current manic phase of retirement, as I was busy throwing myself into the pursuit of new and exciting opportunities for my upcoming retirement years, I experienced a profound and wholly unexpected episode of grieving for past losses.
It started a week ago on Friday, which was my stepson David’s birthday. He would have been 43 years old, but he was killed in a snowboarding accident in 2002. I typically don’t make any public mention of him or the circumstances each year on his birthday; rather, my husband, son and I quietly and prayerfully remember him.
This year, my niece Tamra (David’s cousin), posted a photo on Facebook of David (when he was around 7 or 8) with Tamra and Megan (Tamra’s sister), at their grandparents’ house celebrating his birthday. Along with the photo was a touching sentiment about David’s birthday and how much he is missed in our family. This simple act prompted an organic electronic outpouring of remembrances on Facebook, with Megan, Tamra and Kim (David’s girlfriend at the time of his death) my son and I all participating (each of us from a different city) with postings of more photos and memories. It was a remarkable, deeply comforting and completely unanticipated community experience.
The next day I was scheduled to travel to San Diego by myself for the weekend to visit friends from high school. I was looking forward to a fun ‘girls’ weekend, but I was still feeling raw from Friday and the long drive gave me time to reflect. I thought about David and all he meant to me. I was young (27) when I met my husband, who at the time was a single dad with custody of 14-year-old David (who played adorable match-maker during our courtship). My subsequent marriage was therefore a package deal, and I became full-time stepmom (at 29) to a headstrong and spirited teenage son. My relationship with David was one of the most challenging, but ultimately most rewarding, in my life. With him, I learned to be a mom. I learned about friendship and love. He could be a harsh critic, but also my most loyal steadfast supporter. As he grew older, he became a cherished confidante. When my son was born, I wasn’t sure how David would react to a half-brother, but David loved him immediately and fervently. David couldn’t get enough of him and had great plans for the two of them. They would’ve gotten into such wonderful trouble together!
When David died at age 31, he was just coming into his own. I was looking forward with great anticipation to seeing him settle down, get married, have kids (grandkids!!!!!!!!). People, trying to be helpful, said things like, “Feel better, he’s in a better place” or “Time heals all wounds” and there’s partial truth in those statements. My Christian faith reassures me of his eternal life. But the dead don’t grieve; rather, grief belongs to the ones left behind. And David’s death still hurts. My loss is a future without him. My son, who is now 20, was 8 when David died. I’m sad that my son grew up without his big brother – a big brother that would have been his biggest fan and so proud of his accomplishments. For years after David died, I still looked for him to show up at my son’s sporting events, and when I saw someone that looked like David, my heart would jump and then plummet at the realization that it wasn’t him. When the phone rang or the front door opened, I had a similar reaction. At my son’s Induction Day at the Naval Academy, in the midst of intense pride, I felt intense sadness that neither David nor my parents were there. I’m sad that I don’t have grandkids to help David raise. He would’ve made an awesome dad.
The closer I got to San Diego, I also became melancholy about my parents. I was starting to get annoyed at myself for all the drama, but it was rather involuntary and there wasn’t much I could do. San Diego holds many memories, as it was there I spent my teenage years and where my parents remained until shortly before they both passed away. For most of my adult life, my parents’ house (later condo) in San Diego was my safe haven – where I would return to visit, to rest, to drop off my son for babysitting. My parents always gave me the space I needed, no questions asked. If I showed up and spent four days sleeping upstairs, that was fine with them. If I asked them to take us to Sea World, the Zoo and the Wild Animal Park (all in the same weekend), they happily complied. When they both died, I lost my safe haven.
Fortunately, in the midst of my gloom, my visit to San Diego was exactly what I needed. I am blessed to have close enduring friendships from my high school days that provide me with space to be vulnerable. First I had brunch with my friend Kelly, whom I met in sixth grade, and who is one of the kindest, most compassionate people I know. The rest of the weekend I spent with my friend Celeste, who has overcome great personal challenges with a grace and aplomb that I have long admired. She is completely nonjudgmental and I’ve always felt comfortable talking to her about anything. She opened up her house to me and gave me that safe haven I was missing. Being with friends who literally and figuratively embraced me for the weekend, who gave me room to talk and rest, who know me well enough to both challenge and support me, was life sustaining.
As I left San Diego for the drive home, I reflected again on loss. I thought about how, as we get older, the losses begin to accumulate. Throughout our lives we experience broken relationships, job loss, divorce, death, empty nest, and, most recently for me, retirement, which signals the end of a career. I thought about how important it is to pause to recognize losses, to honor them and the attendant grief. One of the benefits to me of this blog is that writing helps me to identify and process. More important is the experience of being truly heard by others. I realized how important the past three days had been, and how God placed key people and events in my path to help guide and comfort me through some unexpected but necessary grief.
I will never be completely “over” grieving my past losses and I will have new wounds to face. As I head into retirement, I need to be aware of any grief over leaving my career and that phase of my life. But as last weekend reminded me, when I was slapped in the face with unforeseen and powerful grief, I have less to fear from sorrow and loss when I take the time to honor and recognize it, surrounded with people who know me and care for me. Sometimes in my quest to charge forward, I need to stop and look backward. And rest for a spell. Time does NOT heal all wounds.