Jesse’s passing has been an intense spiritual journey for me. All my life I have considered myself to be on a spiritual journey, but the death of my son dramatically deepened and accelerated it. The grief is still always there but sometimes lifts a bit and sometimes crashes down like a ton of bricks.
Yesterday my heart felt sodden with sorrow all day, the floods ever threatening to spill out of my eyes. I was a little confused. Just when I have become more sure than ever that this life is a mere blip in our eternal existence, only a threshold – and as either C.S. Lewis or another guy says, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience – instead of being freed up to feel the joy of this truth, I am once more cast into to hard grip of sucking sadness.
But now the sadness has taken on a different quality than it had in the weeks and months immediately after that horrible day. Rather being focused on the loss of Jesse, it is a more diffused sort of sorrow for the plight of humanity – all the ugliness, coldness, violence, fear, and suffering in a world that God made to be a human paradise. Why is this beautiful world of sea, sky, mountains, and trees not a paradise? The earth is made to provide humans with all we need to live and be happy and yet we choose to fight, kill, grasp at possessions, and do harm to each other.
I believe that “Your will be done, Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven” means pretty much what it says: that one day earth will be restored to its original glory. I believe this fully and deeply and I feel assurance in my spirit that Jesse exists in that other dimension where he is safe from all harm, and a part of my soul is able to rejoice. And yet what I feel most intensely and pervasively is utter sorrow.
I take great comfort from the verse that says I will be comforted: “Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted.” I believe this comfort will be more joy than I can possibly now imagine. It will be a complete healing. It will involve a reunion with Jesse but much more. I take great comfort in the whole fifth chapter of Matthew. Another favorite is “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled.” To me this is Jesse’s verse. Few people knew his heart as much as I did and I know his young heart yearned to make things right in the world, or at least better. I believe he is now working with the Lord to make it happen.
I am sure some people will think these thoughts are the crazy imaginings of a grieving mother. So be it. I believe my thoughts are the feeble stumbling imaginings of a mind that cannot begin to conceive the beauty and joy that await all who seek God and His truth.
I have always loved starting a new year. I love a new beginning, a fresh slate, and was always a resolution maker, even an enthusiastic resolution maker. This new year feels different. I am not so enthusiastic about making resolutions, at least in the old sense. I will try to explain that shortly. This year, 2017, is the first year in 24 years that has not had Jesse in it. He was born December 10th 1992 but was very much present with me the preceding nine months. I had a book called A Child is Born by Lennart Nillson that showed beautiful pictures of how a fetus looks at each stage of development and I studied those pictures, imagining the child within me. I felt enveloped in a bubble of magic throughout my whole pregnancy. Jesse was already there.
Before he was born I spent my whole life with a sense of not really being connected to the world. I felt like a free radical floating around, not clicked in to any culture or system. I got along okay, but felt like an alien trying to pass for a natural inhabitant of the earth. When Jesse was born I lost that sensation for the first time in my life. I was the mother of a child on this earth. I clicked in to the world and worked hard to help my son grow up as a healthy happy member of the human race. I had the underlying fear that he would inherit my alien tendencies and didn’t want him to feel that horrible sense of disconnection and not belonging.
I think maybe he did inherit some of my tendencies, but he was very intelligent and able to find coping mechanisms and was smart about adjusting to his circumstances. When he was young I worked with him on social skills and he was a willing student. I had a sense of what he had to work at and what came naturally to him. What came naturally was sharp intelligence, wonder, the desire to learn and experiment, and a wild urge to build and create. What did not come naturally was complying with arbitrary societal rules and interacting with others just to fit in. But he was willing to work at those things and became quite a friendly helpful person, finding much humor in the human race, and developed a real capacity to care for the wellbeing of others. He was never arrogant. He seemed to have a desire to be pleasing and did not like to stand out in a crowd.
When Jesse died, in a real sense I died too: the “me” who was invested in this earthly life died just as surely as my son died physically. The future I imagined I had in that life was swept away like a sand castle in the surf. How can I say that I am dead to this world, I ask myself, when I have my other beloved son and my husband still living? I know why. It is because Jesse’s death laid bare the truth that we will all die, that this life is a vapor, just as that verse in the Bible says. (“…For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.” James 4:14 (NKJV))
I see now that I was floating in an infinite ocean on a twig, thinking the twig was the whole world and building castles and making complicated plans, all balanced on that twig. Jesse was one of my established anchors around which I built the plans and castles, and then one day that anchor got swept into the vastness of the universe, and my soul followed, looking for him, calling for him, reaching every sinew of mind toward him. Where was he now? What was he now?
Through prayer and meditation messages came to my mind and I experienced the blessing of knowing that God’s angels had taken him safely to his new home. I am still floating on that old twig, but now I see it for what it is. I cannot build castles on it anymore. All that I build from now on must be for that other place where Jesse is and where the rest of us are destined to join him. But I am shaky and uncertain as to how to do go about it. I suppose that whatever I build must still be built on the twig with the materials available on its tiny surface, yet knowing that it must also somehow prepare me for my departure from the twig. It is the puzzle of being in the kingdom of God and yet still operating in this world, perhaps what is meant by “in the world but not of the world.” Actually I cannot find those words in the Bible but I think John 2:15-17 (NKJV) captures the idea:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.
I think this is why I am having so much trouble writing. I believe that writing is what I am called to do – but I have to redirect my purpose and focus. I am feeling my way to working in this new paradigm, this awareness that I am not working for anything in this world but for the promised world where my son has gone ahead of me. So my new year’s resolutions must be different this year. I still might have earthly goals, but they look insignificant in the new perspective of the vast universe I see myself in.
I cannot build my new life around getting my body in shape or publishing a story. Even if I want to publish a story or improve my health, the goal must somehow relate to the bigger picture. How does it bring me closer to God and His truth? How does it serve His purpose for me and those with whom I share my life? How does it glorify God and reflect his love? How does it bring his kingdom to earth as it is in Heaven? So far my only resolution this year is to contemplate how to live and write in such a way. For all I know that may be all I do for the rest of my earthly life, and unless the Spirit directs me to “do” something more, that is good enough for me.
One day this past week I could not stop thinking “I should have known. Something must have been wrong. I should have seen.” Which day was that? It doesn’t matter because I have this same day again and again. I have other kinds of days too. The “Jesse would want me to be happy” kind of day is one of the better ones. But every so often the “I should have known” day rolls around. What should I have known? I don’t know exactly but my mind says, “I should have been quicker or more observant. There must have been signs and I was not quick enough or observant enough to see them.”
Just for the record, it is now two months after the event and we still do not have a cause of death. We have lots of maddening conjectures and theories but we really don’t know anything except that my son went to bed one night and did not wake up. He had some prescription medications. No other drugs were found in his room.
The previous Sunday, July 31st, I experienced a very intense and horrible premonition. I have gone over that day in my mind a hundred times, and I have told the story to several people who, bless their hearts, have listened sympathetically. But I need to write it down. Maybe that way I will begin to get it out of my system. I feel like there is a clue in that day that I am missing. Here’s what happened Sunday July 31st, one week before Jesse died:
He always came over for Sunday dinner because Sunday was his only day off from work. He also was in the habit of sleeping most of the day Sunday, “to catch up.” All his life, literally from birth, Jesse had sleep problems – problems getting to sleep and problems waking up. I talked to his pediatrician about it when he was little. I got lot of advice. One suggestion was when all else fails, there’s always Benadryl. I may have resorted to that once or twice, but did not like to depend of drugs to get him to sleep. As he got older he developed coping mechanisms to deal with his sleep issues, but it was always a struggle, especially school mornings. With 20/20 hindsight I now wish I had thought to have a sleep study done.
That Sunday morning I texted Jesse about dinner plans, as I always did. I didn’t get a response. Later I called, but he didn’t answer the phone. I tried texting and calling periodically throughout the day, becoming increasingly concerned. By the time he was supposed to be at our house for dinner I felt panic rising, an ominous feeling that things were not right. Just before 7 pm, I decided to drive to his apartment at Churchland Square, about 20 minutes from our house, thinking I might even pass him on the way. When I got to the apartment I saw his car in the parking lot. It was pouring rain that night, one of those Biblical deluges we keep getting around here. I banged on his apartment door.
He lived on the second floor and the outer door opened to a staircase leading to the inner door, so I don’t know how he would ever hear anyone knocking on that door. No one knocks anymore anyway. You just text that you are at the door. But I had already done that and called too and had gotten no answer. All my texts and phones calls seemed to be getting swallowed by black hole of silence. Then I sat in my car for 30 minutes in tears. “Dear Lord,” I prayed, “I just want to know that he’s okay. Just let me see that he’s okay. That’s all I ask.” I had never felt such a sense of fear before and had never prayed so hard and so directly in my life. Tom called and said I should just come home. Dinner was getting cold and anyway Jesse’s roommate would be home soon and he said he would check on him and call us.
A few minutes later Jesse’s roommate Kyle called Aaron, who was on a camping trip, and Aaron called Tom to tell him Kyle said Jesse was sleeping. It seemed a long chain to go through to get information, and I still didn’t feel sure all was well. Around 8:00 Jesse finally called. He said he was sorry, he just overslept. He would be over shortly. I collapsed into a chair in utter relief. “Thank you God!” I said. Everything was fine. I was just crazy. Thank God it was just me being crazy.
A little while later Jesse came over and when I saw him standing in the doorway I felt that same gush of grateful desperate relief I had been feeling all year every time I saw him, except this time more so. I told him I had been worried but didn’t tell him how worried. After all, my worry, I thought, was an unreasonable overreaction. Jesse was a healthy young adult after all. He had just had a thorough checkup in July.
“Jesse,” I said, “Did you take any substance that might have made you sleep extra hard?” “All I took was half a five-milligram melatonin,” he said. “I always sleep hard and I turn my phone off when I’m sleeping.” I felt relieved all over again and let myself be reassured. Then he sat down and we had a long pleasant conversation about this and that – work, his plans for taking online classes, his new campaign for Portsmouth mayor (a little shocking), and things going on in downtown Portsmouth. He showed us the mayor website his friend at work had just created. He seemed happy and enjoying his life.
Before he left he asked to borrow $100. Since moving out on his own a little more than a year ago, he had never asked to borrow money before and seemed a little uncomfortable about it. His rent, he said, was higher than usual for some reason, maybe because they had gone on a month-to-month lease recently. I gave him $150 and he said he’d pay it back on payday. I said we always help each other when we can and suggested he consider moving back home for a few months to save some money, especially if he was going back to school. He got a strange look in his eye – surprised and, I think, kind of pleased. “I’ll think about that,” he said. Tom said if he ever got short on money not to skimp on food because he could always come to us for help if he needed it. “You’re looking a little thin,” he said.
I spent that week doing the usual things, feeling good about life. A couple times I drove by Shiny Computers on my home from work and saw his car in the parking lot. All was well. Thursday, August 4th, I texted him that we were planning a trip to see his aunt and uncle in the mountains the weekend of the 26th if he wanted to come. He texted back that he’d see if he could get off work that weekend. That was the last time I heard from my son on this earth.
Sunday morning, August 7th, I texted him about dinner plans and did not get a reply. I texted and called several times throughout the day. “We’re having a repeat of last week,” I thought. But every time I started to feel the panic rising I would take a breath and calm myself, remembering how last week I had gotten myself all in a tizzy for nothing.
Tom grilled burgers and he, Aaron, and I sat down for dinner. Jesse didn’t show up. “Should I go over there?” I thought. “No,” I decided. He is an adult. He overslept again. But by the next morning I had not heard from him, and I knew in my heart something was wrong. Later that morning, while I was at work, I called Shiny Computers. The guy who answered said, “Jesse’s around here somewhere. I’ll have him call ya.” Then I “heard” the words – the silent but clear voice that seemed to come from my chest. “Carol,” said the voice. “It was time for him to go home.” The tone was compassionate but firm. My body reacted by melting into a quivering gelatinous mess. My mind went numb to the words.
I called Tom but didn’t tell him about the voice. “I’m going over to Shiny Computers right now,” I said. “I have not heard from Jesse and I need to see him.” Tom said he was heading that way anyway so he would go there and call me as soon as he got there. Thirty minutes later he called. “Jesse never showed up for work today,” he said. “I’m heading over to his apartment.” I was shaking. My body already knew what my mind was denying. A few minutes later the phone rang again and I got the news. That was the single most awful moment of my life. It plays over and over in my head. “Carol (ragged breath), Jesse is dead….” How does one take that in? I had heard that voice – “Carol it was time for him to go home” and this was the confirmation.
It is now two months later and I know it is not fair to Aaron to have a miserable mother. Aaron fills my heart with joy, just like Jesse always did, and I am so grateful for him. He is a wonderful, compassionate, resourceful, talented young man. But we are all sad. I feel the loss of Jesse as a crushing weight. I am quite functional, going about my life, working, writing, cooking, cleaning, only with a leaden weight in my chest that frequently swells and sends stabbing pains all over my body. I have read several books and blogs on grieving and losing a child but I can’t read them long. The gist seems to be that people do not recover from this kind of loss. Five, fifteen, twenty years later they are still sad and a lot of times their lives and families are impacted negatively.
These books are depressing. Most of them will say, rather weakly, that there can be some recovery, a “new normal”, a new way to live with some sense of happiness. One book (Beyond Endurance: When a Child Dies by Ronald J. Knapp, PhD) says that the death of a child is much like a diagnosis of terminal illness. Well that’s a cheery thought. Most experts define a “child” as a young person into the early twenties, but I imagine the trauma is the same for parents who outlive a child of any age. I have about decided that these books are just not helpful to me.
On the hopeful side, I have an appointment with a psychotherapist/grief counselor on Monday and will see where that goes. I owe it to Aaron, Tom, and the rest of the world to do anything I can to live a productive life for whatever time I have left. Tom and I met with our wonderful accountant yesterday about setting up a charitable foundation in Jesse’s name and honor. That gives me a tiny glimmer of joy. I’ll have more information about that soon.
I have been through the severest emotional wringer and I know I have not yet emerged from the other side; however something must have loosened up last night because this morning I feel something different from the usual leaden lump of sadness. It is like a wider more philosophical view of life has opened up, a sort of heightened awareness of being part of something more vast than the little life I lived before August 8th 2016, that life as the mother of two sons I expected would both live long happy lives in 21st century middle-class America.
I can see that life now from a bit of a distance and realize how much I identified with that narrative. I don’t say that was wrong. I think we are supposed to live the time and culture we live in. We are supposed to – some of us – get married and raise children and do all the things parents in our culture think we need to do for our children’s welfare.
This is all fine and good, but if God or circumstances happens to rip a jagged hole in that narrative, then we find ourselves forced into new insight – the insight that the life we knew was only a bubble in a universe of possibilities, a beautiful and blessed bubble, but a bubble all the same. God’s plan for each of us goes far beyond our life in a bubble. For those of us who have lost a child, the departure of that soul has seared a gaping hole in the sweet membrane and those of us who remain cannot just stitch up the hole and continue living inside as if nothing devastating had happened. Well maybe we could stitch it up and try to go on living just as before – but what a diminished life that would be, missing one of the stars of the story in a poorly patched bubble.
I need to tear that old bubble down. It is a totaled car, a condemned building. It has undergone a storm from which its flimsy walls cannot recover. I need to build a much bigger bubble that can encompass the massive size of our loss. The loss is so huge that it seems to take up more emotional space than the life of my son occupied in the old bubble. I know that sounds odd. What I mean is that the life of that child has now extended into eternity and my mind must expand to reach him there. The new narrative has to be spacious enough to include a child in Heaven. It must have enough space to accommodate the oceans of love needed to heal the hurt, disappointment, and lost dreams that his loss has left in its vast wake.
My bubble metaphor is inadequate, but all metaphors are flawed. Metaphors are only tools to help us get some kind of a grasp on the eternal realities that buffet our hearts and lives. Bubbles. How else can I describe those little lives that we protect with the sheer energy of our minds and beliefs? How else do we gain any sense of safety and control? Anyone who reads history or watches the world news knows that, rationally speaking, this life is fragile. Yet we are able to create a sanguine reality for our families. And God protects our bubbles of safety, holding them gently in his hands, knowing they are precious and as real as He allows them to be. He loves our narratives and wants us to live happy life stories.
Yet He does not remove the possibility and eventuality of death. Sure, it does not seem natural when it is a child or young adult who dies. But it happens quite often. I know I will never again read or hear about the death of a young person without thinking of the parents with empathy and saying an earnest prayer for the future that awaits them.
Today I am grateful for the lovely story I got to live from the moment of Jesse’s birth to the day of his death when our story abruptly changed. I am still adjusting to this exquisitely painful change, but I am beginning to accept that it is what it is. I choose to trust that God is in control, that He has Jesse in his capable and loving hand, and also holds the rest of us. I am still here in this body but am more acutely aware of the temporary nature of this earth life. As for what exactly happens after death I trust the details to God. I know we have a glorious ultimate purpose and I’m pretty sure it has to do with learning the true nature of love, but I trust God to show me the way, moment by moment. He knows that’s all I can handle right now.
Kind people often ask me how I am doing. I have settled on a standard answer: “Okay.” It is almost true. I am not doing horribly. I am going about my life and can still find pleasure in a cup of coffee or a conversation with a friend. Though it surprises me to be able to say this, seven weeks after the death of my son, I am still a functioning human unit. But even say, though I will tell people I am “okay” I am forever changed and perhaps my outward life will soon reflect that.
One thing I keep reminding myself it that millions of people die every day, many of them with living parents. Death is a natural part of life, blah blah blah….I knew that before this happened. I try to understand why it is so different when the person who has passed on is my child. But the fact is it is different. Very different. It is like a stab to my own personal heart, worse than my own death, because it is a living death. When your body dies you live again in a new form. When someone who is a part of you dies, you have to keep living with death dragging you down inside. Maybe this is the hardest part of it.
How can you purge yourself of your child’s presence? Also how to incorporate the knowledge that your most sacred charge on earth –to keep him alive — has failed? Rationally I do not know what I could have done to prevent Jesse’s death, but there is that persistent instinct that I have failed in what I thought was my life’s highest purpose and all my sub-purposes are tainted and stripped of light and joy.
And yet I am doing sort of okay. On some level I know I did okay in my job as Jesse’s Mom. I might even get a B+ on my final report card in the subject of Parenthood. It’s just that the Jesse part of the job is over. Jesse finished his purpose in life earlier than I expected, and I have not yet finished mine. Therefore, my purpose or mission is not done. Obviously not, since I have another son who needs me. But I sense that parenthood is not my only reason for being here. I never really thought it was, except that when Jesse died, I realized the extent to which I had identified as his mother. I mean, it’s not that I didn’t realize it was important while he was alive. I poured everything I had into the job. It’s just that, I never realized the extent to which he had become intertwined with my identity.
So what am I to do now? I used to like doing things — like art and writing and had ideas about a direction to go with those things. But now somehow I have little enthusiasm about those ideas. I can barely remember what those ideas were. Sometimes I pray to the Lord to send me a scripture to give me a clue about what I ought to do. This morning Psalm 42 flashed in my head. It is the one that starts “As the deer pants for water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God.” I did see two deer yesterday in a field near my house.
I read the psalm and it did speak to me. It is all about the psalmist’s spirit being cast down and needing to find comfort through hope in God. Well in this time of my life where else can I find hope or comfort? When your child has left the earth there is nowhere else to go except despair or amnesia, and neither of those options appeal to me. Because of that circle of hope shining through the dark shadow of death, I can still find mild pleasure in a cup of coffee or good music or conversation with a friend.
Psalm 42 (NKJV)
1 As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So pants my soul for You, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?[b]
3 My tears have been my food day and night,
While they continually say to me,
“Where is your God?”
4 When I remember these things,
I pour out my soul within me.
For I used to go with the multitude;
I went with them to the house of God,
With the voice of joy and praise,
With a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him
For the help of His countenance.[c]
6 O my God,[d] my soul is cast down within me;
Therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan,
And from the heights of Hermon,
From the Hill Mizar.
7 Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls;
All Your waves and billows have gone over me.
8 The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime,
And in the night His song shall be with me—
A prayer to the God of my life.
9 I will say to God my Rock,
“Why have You forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”
10 As with a breaking of my bones,
My enemies reproach me,
While they say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
11 Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God;
For I shall yet praise Him,
The help of my countenance and my God.
I have shared lots of thoughts here, all from a mother’s point of view, but of course I am hardly the only one feeling the loss. Jesse’s Dad felt it was time to get his experience down in writing and has let me share his thoughts on this blog….
* * * * * * *
By Tom Apple
I think I can finally commit to writing a few thoughts on the untimely death of my son, Jesse. It’s been five weeks since he died. I’m doing OK for the most part, but there are still very painful pangs of grief that manifest themselves daily. As my wife, Carol, has written, our lives will forever be changed by that event. My perspective has changed in many ways. I try to immerse myself in work and hobbies to distract myself from the pain, but it is only a temporary fix.
We still don’t know the cause, it is hard to keep from speculating on it, scrutinizing moments in the past to see if there were signs we missed that his death was imminent. Signs that could have clued us that there was something needing to be done. He was such a kind-hearted soul, generous to others, and with a strong ethic, the kind of young man I think the world is in desperate need of at this time. I am overwhelmed with regret that I did not avail myself to doing more with him while he was here with us. I feel that I failed to protect my son from whatever mishap befell him. That thought pains me the most. Logically I know this is a normal part of grieving, but logic be damned, it still doesn’t make any sense to me.
The thing that has buoyed me up the most has been the overwhelming outpouring of support from family, friends, and colleagues. That support, I have learned, can be a powerful thing. I can understand how hard it must be to try and console someone who has suffered such a loss, not knowing what can be said to help. The reality of it is anything said does help. Even statements such as “I have no words” or the silly little heart ❤ symbols, it all matters. The simplest acknowledgement that someone empathizes with your pain matters. For all those who reach out with any sort of contact, it helps. It doesn’t have to be flowers or cards or anything extravagant; a simple contact on Facebook, email, whatever, helps. For all who have done this, I am eternally grateful. You don’t know how much I love all for you for doing so. Sometimes these expressions will bring emotions and grief to the surface, but it still helps. I feel so lucky to be blessed by knowing such caring people. Some of them I’ve never met, only had contact on Facebook through common interests, yet they reached out with their concern and unconditional friendship. I know some of them are struggling with grief or critical health issues themselves, yet they took the time to reach out. God bless you all.
One of the hardest things is the drive into work. It’s a time alone at the start of the day before work and other daily things become prominent in my thoughts. It is at that time that reflection takes hold, the impact of the loss takes hold, and it’s all I can do to dry my eyes before driving through the security gate at work. I feel like I need a change of some sort. I’m not sure what exactly, maybe a different job, or living in a different place, something…
Work has me on the road for two weeks with a brief stay at home between trips. At least on this first trip, I find I just don’t want to be here. It’s tedious, irritating, and I have to be careful not let myself get sharp tongued when irritating incidents arise. I haven’t always succeeded in this. I am instructing some Japanese workers in Yokosuka and they see my irritation and unfortunately they probably take it personally, not knowing about my grief. At some point I will need to offer my apologies to them before I leave.
The loss of a child is unlike any other kind of grief. It’s a relationship hardwired into our DNA. One that when broken in such a manner, carves a big @#%ing hole in your heart. I don’t wish that feeling on my worst enemy. It’s just not natural. I don’t know what else to say at this point. The keyboard is probably about to short out from the tears flooding it. Hug your kids ever day. Love them hard. And I swear if I ever see anyone abuse their child, I don’t what I’d do, but it wouldn’t be pretty.