I have an on-line friend who lost her eighteen-year-old son sixteen months ago. I plan to write here, with her permission, a series of Dear Andrea letters, both because I hope it will be helpful to her, in some small way, early as she is in her hideous journey, and because I want to start finally talking about my own long journey through the sudden loss of my eighteen year old son, twenty two years ago.
I know you lost your dear Adam as suddenly as I lost my Shawn. They were both eighteen when they died, gentle, funny, charismatic charmers , cat lovers, who were very musical. There is much weird synchrony in all of this. When you were painting me the three beautiful pictures I have in my living room, five years ago, you said you had a strange sensation, as if Shawn were himself standing beside you, telling you how to portray the details of the house in which he grew up. You said, then, that you were not at all the kind of person who experiences this sort of thing but that somehow, Shawn himself seemed to be present, right at your elbow. That is why the house is shown at night, and in the autumn, with the leaves falling. Shawn died in 1992, Adam in 2013.
Shawn died from delusional suicide-he had become floridly schizophrenic at about age 16, and believed that in sacrificing himself he would “change the matrix of the universe” and thus achieve a higher level of being for the entire population of the world. Adam, with no warning, died almost instantly from an undiagnosed heart condition. He had been “perfectly healthy”.
Two beautiful boys on the very cusp of adulthood, gone in a breath. It is starkly true, what they say about losing a child. It is the worst thing that can happen to a parent.
You have spoken about comparing, in your head, the age he died with the age that other children have died, when you hear of any other deaths of children. I think it is very normal to do this; at least, I certainly have done it, too. You say it seems a particularly hard age -the one at which we lost our boys-and yes it is. Of course, every parent who loses their child probably thinks this, and in truth, we all are correct. There is no such thing as a “better” age to lose your child. Nevertheless, I have come to think that eighteen is, perhaps, ‘not quite as bad’ an age to lose a son, in a tiny way. At eighteen, your son is almost not a child any more. Your time as a hands on Mom is over, really. We got to raise our boys, Andrea. We saw them all the way to the cusp of adulthood. We did not miss the joys and trials of any of those formative years. So, in a way, we are lucky. We had that! Then there is the suddenness factor. Neither of us had any warning. This was terrible, but would an long illness, waiting for an inevitable end point, have been any less terrible? I don’t know. In truth, any way at all is unspeakably dreadful.
Here we are in a sort of club that no one chooses to join-that we all would give anything to resign from. The “lifetime membership” part is the truly unbearable part, at first. Twenty-two years in, I have a bit more perspective than you do. At really bad moments, please remember that you will grow and change and that it will not be as bad ‘in this way’ forever. Not that it will not be ‘this bad’ because in a way it will. But you will change and this will help, I promise you.
This letter is short today, as I am in the midst of a huge, two week, buzzing, busy, crazy visit from my daughter and two grand children from out west. This thought is something for you to hold on to-there will be crazy/busy, happy/stressful family times full of joy, tears (the regular, kid kind!) and everything else that is normal life, in your future too. This I also promise you!
Many hugs to you Andrea,
I will write again soon,
*Dylan Thomas, from Fern Hill