I am just back from a few days in Algonquin Park, in Ontario, a place which my son Josh loved. I went with my dad, who in the past took my boys and me, and once our entire family, and eventually just the two boys, canoeing in the backcountry up there, several days at a time. We weren't so ambitious this year ~ we stayed in a lodge where the food was prepared for us and the beds were comfortable, and took day trips across the lake and down the rivers in the canoe ~ the canoe supplied with our cabin and its plumbing and hot water.
I had a lot of time to think about my Josh, about his 24 years, and about the last seven. And I realized, as I have over the past few months, that the terrible weight of his death has indeed lessened. No more an enormous slab of iron crushing the breath out of my chest, it has become something more like a sheer, gossamer web that envelops me, tangling me up sometimes, but mostly surrounding me in a memory of grace and horror: delicate, shimmering, hopeful and anguished.
In the first couple of years after Josh died, I used to fall asleep crying and wake up crying. I'm not sure that I ever stopped crying, except when I had to go out in public. Two, three, fours years later, I would still sometimes look at a full day's schedule lying before me, say "Nope," and curl up in a blanket to wait out the wave of sorrow that threatened to engulf everything in its path.
I once read that it takes somewhere between four to seven years for the grief that follows the death of a child to abate. It seems that I am right on schedule -- from a detached, clinical point-of-view, I would guess that the suicidal death of a child would push a mother right up against and right on past that seven year edge. Of course, nothing about grief can be genuinely measured or assessed in clinical terms.
What helps? Love and work, I guess Freud would say. Prayer and work, St. Benedict would have offered, centuries earlier.
I'm grateful, so grateful, for the work I plowed through ~ the seminary years I barely remember, the suicide prevention advocacy which brought out my latent lawyer, the ministry I have been, oddly, able to share with others. I'm grateful for the people who really hung in there with me ~ those amazing Jesuit priests and the spiritual director colleagues who kept on listening and then did it some more, the readers of all these blogs of mine, a couple of fearless professors and a couple of even more fearless friends, and all the people who allowed me to enter their lives as pastor and confidant, preacher and teacher, liturgist and floor scrubber, even as I was crumbling inside. I'm grateful that I learned how to pray, and not pray, into the cavernous darkness of unfathomable loss.
Yes, I look at the world differently now. I have seen and read and heard and pondered things so distressing and heartbreaking that I cannot help but see the most ordinary facets of life in a slanted light. I used to think that that light had transformed me into a much worse person than I could ever have imagined being: angry, self-absorbed, brittle ~ suicidal, myself. And maybe it did, at least for awhile. Now I think: it provides an angle into a depth of darkness seldom acknowledged, but always there, here, as a persistent backdrop to our lives. It's a penetrating source of illumination, a kind of darkroom light, the light from a sort of space in which Josh and I used to work intently together.
Maybe we still do.
Image: Lake Between Two Rivers, Algonquin Park