I wrote the following letter to a friend whose 30 year old son passed away suddenly early this year. She reached out to me asking for my advice. I thought I would share it with the hope that it may provide some comfort to others as well.
My thoughts have been with you often since I heard the news about your son. My heart breaks for you. I don’t know if anything I can say will ease your pain, but I will try. This may just take time…and there is no way around it, only through it. Through the grief, through the loss of meaning and purpose, through the painful realization that our time here is so short, through the suffering that comes with being alive.
I can’t imagine your suffering. I haven’t experienced the death of a child. But I’ve always imagined it’s the worst pain a parent can experience.
You mentioned you are not inclined to pursue an organized religion. Organized religion is not for everyone. For some, it brings comfort, familiarity, and a sense of community. It gives them an allotted time each day or week to be with their thoughts and to be closer to their god. I have no problem with this. If it helps them in their life, that’s good, but it doesn’t have to be that way for you. Then again, the loss you are going through might bring you to an organized religion. There is no right or wrong, just what’s right or wrong for you. You should pursue what adds to your life. You can be happy and at peace with or without organized religion. For that matter, you don’t need to have a spirituality in your life. I know happy atheists.
You mentioned Buddhism. There is a story about a woman who came to the Buddha grieving about her son’s death. After listening to the woman convey her anguish, the Buddha told her to go to her neighbors in the village and ask for some mustard seeds, but she could only take them from someone who hasn’t lost someone dear to them. As she went door to door, she found that each and every person she spoke with had lost precious loved ones. Her suffering eased knowing that she was not alone, that indeed, everyone suffers.
A thought that may be helpful to you is, “what if the situation was reversed?”. If it was you who died, what would you want for your son and for those you’ve left behind in the world? I think the answer is that you would want them to be happy, to live their lives fully, and to flourish. You would not want them to stop living, to give up on life, to be in anguish for the rest of their days. You would want the best for them. It is no different for you. I am sure your son would want you to be happy and fulfilled. He would want what’s best for you because he loved you.
Now let me say that I don’t KNOW what comes after this life. I don’t think anyone else does either. All we have is what we believe. But our beliefs are powerful. They are the story we tell ourselves about everything. About what it is to be a mother or father. About what is fair or unfair. About what love is. About what our purpose here is. About what a good life looks like. These are all stories that we tell ourselves. They are not objective facts, they are beliefs.
I separate religion from spirituality. I’ve not been religious in my adult life, but I am spiritual. For me, it helps to believe that there is something beyond the visible world, something unseen that supports all that we see. A source where all life comes from and then returns to at its end. My belief is that this is energy. The “god” I imagine is not personal, not a loving father, it’s more an impersonal energy that supports the universe and the life in it. I don’t need a father in heaven, I can parent myself. I don’t need the promise of heaven or the threat of hell to try to be a better person. I want to do that because it feels like the healthiest path for me.
But I can’t prove any of it. It’s all a story, but for me this story works. It gives me a plausible explanation of what we are all doing here and what happens when we leave.
My thinking is that if it’s all a story, you might as well tell yourself a good story, one that makes you happy, one that allows you to flourish, one that feels right for YOU.
As the story of the grieving woman and the Buddha shows, everyone suffers. At the same time, everyone dislikes suffering. We are programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. But here’s the thing, suffering causes us to grow. Suffering causes us to question our assumptions. Suffering causes us to think. Suffering causes us to challenge the stories we are telling ourselves. Suffering can get us out of our complacency. Suffering teaches us humility.
Suffering also teaches us compassion. We can have more compassion for the suffering of others when we have suffered ourselves. The greater our suffering, the greater our compassion can be (unless we harden our hearts, which some people do after they are hurt). The realization that everyone suffers can be helpful in increasing compassion also.
In short, suffering makes us better people. Despite this truth, we usually want a life that is as free from suffering as possible.
This experience will change you. You cannot be the same person you were before. So it seems to me that you will have to give up the life you planned and accept your life as it actually is. Anything else is a form of denial. You will need to work on acceptance of your life as it is.
I suggest that you help others as soon as you feel able, maybe even before you feel ready. Give to others. Do for others. It doesn’t matter what it is. Read at a senior center, visit a prison, volunteer at a food pantry, a hospital, a homeless shelter, an animal shelter. Help lessen the suffering of others and you will reduce your own suffering in the process. You will also be doing good and maybe even finding new purpose in the process.
The alternative is that you can hold onto the past, the pain, the grief. You can be angry, sad, bitter, hard, cold. This doesn’t help you, it doesn’t help your son nor honor his memory, and it doesn’t help anyone else.
Some people get dealt a really difficult hand in this life while others seem to get dealt easier hands. You’ve been dealt a difficult hand. What matters most is not what happens to us, but how we respond to what happens to us.
The folks you mentioned at grief counseling who are still grieving years after have been unable or unwilling to get past the terrible things that happened in their life. I feel for them, but it is up to them how they proceed. It is their mindset that keeps them stuck in their misery. I believe it would change if they would let it.
I imagine some of these people may feel guilt about being happy, a form of survivor’s guilt. I understand this. Once again, there should be no guilt in living a full, happy, and fulfilling life. It’s what we all want for our loved ones. Isn’t is obvious that our loved ones want the same for us? Isn’t that what love is…wanting what’s best for the beloved?
I imagine that some of these folks may feel regret for things left unsaid or undone. Regret really is a useless emotion, other than to teach us how we want to be different going forward. We have to move on. There is only one direction in life and that is forward. There is no going back. The past is done. We all do the best we can with what we have. We learn, we grow, we improve our ability to love, we grow in compassion, we become less judgmental, we become less selfish, less needy, we learn to give more of ourselves without expecting things in return.
You loved your son completely and he knew it until the day he died. There is nothing for you to regret.
The fate of those folks who are holding on to their grief after years and years is not necessarily your fate, unless you let it be. You have power over this. Maybe not today. The important thing is to move toward the day when you have power over it. This does not mean you will cease to feel the loss of your son. It just means that despite feeling this loss (and the loss of others who you were close to) that you go on and live fully and completely.
Everyone may have their breaking point, but it’s not where we think it is. We are stronger than we think. If you let this break you, it will. If you continue to fight and work and grow and heal, you can move through this and emerge from the darkness and be in the light once again.
Joseph Campbell said, “Let go or be dragged”. We have to let go of the past or we will be dragged through our lives by it. All we have is today. As you know, there is no promise of tomorrow. We have to create the best life we can…one day at a time.
I’ve been running a lot of races and the best advice I got from an experienced runner is “leave it all out on the course”. The same is true with life. I think we’ve got to put it all out there so nothing is left when we are done.
You will always be his mom and he will always be your son.
Much of your energy went into being his mom. Now you must turn that energy into other things. First healing, then other things…art, volunteering, helping others, travel, hobbies, family, friends, pets, whatever you are passionate about and brings you fulfillment.
I don’t believe that life is just about being happy. Life is also about finding our purpose, about helping others, about growing and learning and becoming the best version of ourselves we can be.
You are here. What are you going to do? Do you see yourself grieving for the 40 years you have left on this earth? Is that what you want? Is that what your son would want? I don’t think so. You have a limited time here on this earth. What are you going to do with it? We should use our time here to the best of our abilities. Wasting it is a sin.
In the end, it is up to you…and only you.
This will take time. You should take as much time to grieve as you need and take one step at a time. Probably just baby steps initially. If you can’t walk, then crawl, then take little steps, then more…do what you can and work on doing more, getting better, healthier, happier, more peaceful. But you can only move forward at your pace and no one else’s.
It is possible that you will come out of this and have a greater appreciation for life than ever before. It is possible the you will not be inclined to waste time on trivial things. It is possible that you will forgive more, love more, care more, give more than ever before. You may overcome fears in your life. You may take more risk. Your priorities may change. You will become a different person as a result of this loss. That’s ok, we are supposed to grow and change. Staying the same is stagnation.
I’ll tell you what I believe. I believe that Einstein was right…that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. And this includes us. When we are alive, we are both matter and energy. When we die, our energy leaves the body but it is not destroyed. It “lives” on forever. This is what I think the afterlife is, this is what the prophets and mystics refer to when they speak of our souls returning to “heaven”. It is not a place, it is every place. It is a release from the physical limitations of the body and a reuniting with the infinite. I believe this release is blissful. No pain, no suffering, no worries, no fears, no anxiety. This is what gives me hope and comfort for the losses I’ve experienced in my life.
I can’t prove this to you, nor would I try. You have to come to your own beliefs. When you believe something, it’s just as powerful as if it is true.
But even if my story about matter and energy is not true, what is true is that the people we loved in our lives are always with us. We never lose them. They are in our hearts. I lost my dear grandmother in 2009 and my dad in 2011 and I still feel them with me today and I’m confident I always will. And your son will always be with you. No one you love leaves you.
I would suggest that, when you can, think about all of the people and things in your life for which you are grateful. Make a list and refer to the list often. Over time, this will raise your energy and spirit. Even under the most difficult circumstances, we can find there are things to be grateful for.
In the meantime, mourn, be sad, curse life, cry, wail, be lost, wish for it to be different, whatever you need. But there will come a time that these things no longer serve you and no longer serve life. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and move forward.
I’m telling you that you will be ok. Give it time.