Day 2,922 of our Journey: The Gift
I looked down at the Book of Remembrance at Church this morning, and it was still there. “April 10, 2009 John Edward Klingert”. It is not that I needed to be reminded that eight years ago today, our 17 year old son John died by suicide, I remember that every day. Sometimes it just helps the soul to see it in writing. On the same page is a quote from Psalms "I will live in the house of the Lord". In my heart I know John is safe and in a great place.
My wife and I, like most parents who have lost a child, have integrated his death into our lives. In the beginning I counted the days, then the weeks, then the months and now the years. Today I went back to calculate that it was 2,922 days. But not a day goes by that I don’t think about him. I guess I could focus on the events we never got to share with him, the proms, graduations, college, etc., things that he sadly never got to experience. In the beginning I tended to drift in that direction. As time has rolled on, I tend to wax nostalgic back on the wonderful moments we did get to share with John.
Healing from the loss of a loved one is so complicated. I truly believe that you heal in two different ways (your thoughts and your heart) separately and at two different times. It took me a while to realize that while the head may come to cope with the grief from their loss; the heart takes much longer to accept the loss. Grief is complicated and it can spring up so easily by just looking at a picture, listening to a shared song or visiting someplace that holds special memories of the person we lost.
Innocent questions from others can often catch you like a deer in the headlights. What is the correct answer to when someone asks me “How many children do you have?” Do I tell them about the son we lost to suicide? Do I just focus on our surviving daughter? Do I deny his existence by not mentioning him? In the early days that question could take my breath away. Now it just leads me to choose to decide if this is a teaching moment or not. Being an extrovert, I tend to overshare but I think it is the correct thing to do. More than 43,000 people die each year in the US by suicide. More people die by suicides than by homicides. But our society tends to hide suicide behind a veil of shame and stigma. The front page of the newspaper rarely talks about suicides unless it was someone famous like Robin Williams.
Right after John’s death I immersed myself in reading all I could about suicide and healing from the grief associated with his loss. I read dozens of books and hundreds of articles. I intellectually understood what I needed to do to move forward, but the emotional part was what I struggled most with.
One of the first books I read was called “My Son, My Son” by Iris Bolton. Iris is a clinical psychologist who lost her son to suicide. Her book was one of the best I had read, but there was one section that I struggled with. It reads:
“There is a gift for you in your son’s death. You may not believe it at this bitter moment, but it is authentic and it can be yours if you are willing to search for it. To other eyes it may remain hidden. The gift is real and precious and you can find it if you choose”
I truly thought the woman was bonkers. How could there be a gift from my son’s death? In the beginning all I felt was alone and isolated, even in a room full of people. My grief was so hard to express, to share with others, but I went through the motions. I went back to work; I tried to go back to my life.
It took me a while before I realized what it was. For me, the gift was compassion and empathy.
When I look back at the early days, it was the supportive call with my college roommate who had lost a child to illness. It was Teri’s college roommate and her husband who were here the first morning after John’s death with hugs, love and tissues. It was Teri’s high school friend who had lost her brother on 9/11 and truly understood a sudden loss. It was the family and friends who were over to help carry us through the first days. It was my closest friend and his family who helped us with the funeral arrangements. It was our pastor who, in the middle of the biggest weekend in the Catholic calendar (John died on Good Friday), managed to be with us and even say a private Easter mass in our living room. It was the hundreds of people who stood with us at John’s wake and funeral mass. It was co-workers who opened up their home to me and shared many dinners with me as I was working through my grief while I was away from home and working in Seattle. There were so many other people, I can't list them all.
I came to understand that among the loss and grief I was feeling, there was an outpouring of love and compassion that I probably did not truly understand and appreciate at the time. I now look back and realize what a gift I was given by so many people. To all of you, thank you. You made my day brighter and my life began to have better focus and meaning. From the shadows of my grief I found new meaning.
Back in the late 80’s I took an outward bound leadership class that involved something they called the high ropes. In one exercise you climbed 40 ft. up a tree, walked across a rope strung to another tree. When you made it to the other tree, you turned around and walked to the middle of the 40 ft. high rope and jumped off. In part I learned to face my fears and climb that tree as it shook in the wind. I pushed away the anxiety of walking across the rope and set myself free as I jumped.
The key to that whole exercise was that there was a team of people on the ground cheering you on. They were also holding the safety belay lines that made sure you could not get hurt. No matter how much personal strength I had, I still needed those holding on to those safety lines when I needed it most. In retrospect, that was so much like how we survived the loss of our son.
In so many ways I have grown since our son’s death and the gift of compassion and empathy that has been given to me, is something I try to share daily. I truly get energy from paying it forward to the community around us. For almost six years now, my wife and I have facilitated a support group for families who have lost loved ones to suicide. We regularly speak with parents who have lost children to illness, accidents, drugs and suicide. We remember how lost we felt in the early days. We appreciate all of those who held on to our safety lines and we are trying to pay it forward.
We have met hundreds of other parents through the years who have lost children, and I have seen so many of them get the gift. One couple we know that lost their young son to suicide are out talking to high school kids about the risks of depression. Another couple who lost their teenaged son to a heart failure are raising funds and awareness about Myocarditis. There are countless other parents who have lost children and have every reason to be upset at what happened to them. These people have chosen to share their gifts to make the world a better place even in their grief.
Healing is not a destination, it is a journey. Along that journey there are many people to help hold our safety lines and many safety lines we can all hold on to for others.
So today, while I mourn the eight anniversary of the loss of our son, I also thank him and all of those who gave us “the gift” so that we can share it with others.