The Day My Life Changed Forever

Thursday, October 17, 2013 was an ordinary day; so ordinary I barely remember it.  I remember taking the train into Boston for work and walking from South Station to State Street.  I do not recall the weather or much else about this day.   My memory begins at 4 AM Friday, October 18 being awoken by several knocks on our front door.  Bryan, my husband, leaps out of bed to look out the window and see whom it could be.  “Police officers,” he said.  I immediately knew it was about Ethan and any news delivered via police officers would not be good. 

Jumping out of bed, I ran downstairs and opened the door to find 3 police officers on my front stairs.  One of the officers told us our son Ethan had been hit by a vehicle and pronounced dead at 12:30 AM.  Bryan fell to the floor screaming NO and I became frozen.  I was in shock, numb and did not understand how to process the most horrifying words just spoken.  We turned from the police leaving them at the door; and sat on the couch knowing our life was demolished.

Ethan’s senior prom.

Bryan, Ethan and me for senior prom.

Ethan was 19 years old and our only child, away at college for six weeks and enjoying his sophomore year after a bumpy start as a freshman. On the evening of Ethan’s demise, he attended a sorority event off campus at a function hall.  Buses were mandatory to attend from campus to the hall and back. Ethan took the bus to the event and instead of returning by bus, he and two others decided to walk. They crossed a busy street with a 55 MPH speed limit, no street lights or crosswalk. While crossing the street, Ethan is struck by a vehicle and killed immediately. We were desperate to see him but he was 6 hours away. After much coordination between states, family and friends drove us to see Ethan 22 hours after he had died.

Indescribable Life after child loss

You hear all these metaphors of what life is like after a child dies and yet it’s inexplicable. You feel stripped of everything.   Only those who have experienced the death of a child understand.  Let’s see if I can come up with some adjectives: eviscerated, desecrated, violated, horrifying.  Those words do not come close to describing the loss; in actuality it’s much worse.  I had no idea who I was or what I believed.  The world went dark and our innocence stripped.   I could barely breathe and each breath hurt.  Each step felt heavy as if cement blocks were attached to my feet.  Everything took an extreme amount of effort; even simple tasks like brushing my teeth.  Food was tasteless and my appetite gone.  I became confused doing everyday tasks.  Life utterly made no sense.

We had no idea how to go on living without Ethan.  Each night at bedtime, we hoped not to wake and face the next day.  Certainly we felt dead, why not die?  Our mantra for years spoken at the end of each day was, “One day closer to Ethan.”    

Typing these words nearly 6 years later, I feel transported back in time and tears easily stream down my face.  There was a visceral sense during the early days and months after loss.  As if you were both sitting there in despair and flying above it all watching it happen in slow motion.  We cried and cried and cried and then did some more crying.

Integrating Child Loss

Over time we created rituals and small acts of grace.  We took private yoga classes, we meditated and we attended a child loss group support. We attended retreats and conferences for bereaved parents where we connected with others on this same path.  And each time we made connections and added new rituals, we created space and strength in learning how to integrate our loss into our lives. 

In those first few weeks we began with small rituals.  For us it was intuitive and came naturally.  I wrote daily to Ethan in a journal and I continue writing to him.  Each night Bryan would talk to Ethan’s picture.  We read many books on death, afterlife, grief and other people’s experiences of loss trying to make sense of our maddening world.  We began walking in the woods with our dog for solitude and it became our sanctuary of comfort, peace and beauty.

Child loss 6 years later

I rarely have a death wish after 6 years. There are days I ask myself, “What’s the point?” and “Will I find purpose and meaning again?” Life is not easier and yet we’ve found ways to courageously face it.  We will always wish things turned out differently with our child.   My heart holds all of it…sorrow, love, compassion, anger, patience, gratitude, fear, contentment and even small amounts of joy.  Each time I fall, I will continue to rise again allowing my heart to feel it all.

Supporting your heart

If you sense your heart is closed and constricted, know that your body is protecting itself from suffering more.  You are exactly where you need to be. There is no rush and each of us has our own pace and we all grieve differently.  We face grief with one step, one breath and one moment at a time. Being aware of your feelings and having self-compassion for your heart as you endure this unbearable loss, may just very well be what allows you to take the next breath.

If you are new to loss and are seeking ways to connect and find support, I can provide resources. There are free resources available, including group support, online group support and mentors through the Miss Foundation. Books on grief and loss can be located at the library. Discover what gives your heart some space to be and feel.  There are scholarships available for some workshops and retreats.  Please contact me for assistance.

Tell me about your loss and grief.

The Missing Details

Here’s the part of Ethan’s death that I often leave out.  But if I am going to be open and vulnerable I’m going to lay it all out there.

Searching

The night Ethan died, he was drinking and he was underage.  Yup, there I said it but there’s more to this.  After both the local and college services were done, and the people gone from our home; we began to search for the reason Ethan died.  We wanted answers to why he died.  Here’s what we found out.

Before Ethan attended the sorority event held at a function hall off campus, he participated in pre-gaming.  For those of you who don’t know what pre-gaming is; it’s when you drink before the event.   Thankfully everyone had to take a bus to the function hall. However, it does allude to them knowing there would be drinking involved.  To be fair some of the guests would be of drinking age. Because Ethan looked older than his age, he was somehow able to acquire a bracelet that allowed him to purchase alcohol and drink more.  The anger is bubbling in my belly when I think of this situation.

We continued to track his whereabouts for the days prior to his death.  Finding out that two nights prior to the event, Ethan barely slept.  He was pledging for a fraternity and from what I can tell it wasn’t hazing, it was circumstances that led to two nights of no sleep and then a third night with a few hours of sleep Ethan went to the sorority event. 

Guilt

Here’s the thing, when our kids die, parents end up with guilt and shame around there children’s death.  And that goes for me too.  My guilt is surrounding the lack of conversation specifically about drinking with very little sleep.  And about the fact that the hundred times we did talk about drinking, I neglected to tell him he was a lightweight at around 140 pounds and he shouldn’t drink the same amount as some of his friends who weighed more.  Look, I know I was a good mom.  A damn good mom but you cannot talk me out of my guilt.  I’m the only one who can do that and I have with lots of self-compassion.

Shame

On top of feeling guilty, I have shame that Ethan died from being intoxicated.  I do believe if Ethan weren’t drinking, he would have seen the vehicle or would not have crossed the busy highway.  But I’ll never know for sure.   The shame stems around when other kids died because of drinking; I thought I would be safe because MY SON wouldn’t do that.  Tragically I was wrong and I apologize to every parent that I judged whose child died in that manner.  Because now I know that anyone can die from just about anything at anytime.  That’s the reality.

If you bring forth what is within you, it will save you: if you do not bring forth what is within you, it will destroy you.

by Gnostic Gospel of Thomas

I have sat and worked on my shame and guilt. Those feelings still occasionally appear but I’ll continue having self-compassion around them.  Here’s what I do know.  Ethan was good, he was loved and he mattered to many others and most importantly to us. This is true for every person who dies in this manner whether it is alcohol or drugs. They all have someone who loved them and they are all inherently good.  Ethan should be here living his life and helping others as he desired. There were others that were intoxicated that night, he just happened to be the unlucky one. 

Are you looking to learn more about self-compassion around guilt and shame? Attend one of my workshops or contact me.