Distancing from Darkness

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received several hand-written notes. These were all personalized acknowledgements of what Mary and I have been going through since Mark was killed on January 21. Often, they touched on the difficult time that this person had in reaching out and the struggle for words that adequately addressed what they thought we are going through.

When people that know you don’t respond, it only compounds the grief and loss that you are feeling. That’s been my experience anyways in not hearing from people that I assume know that we lost our only son—and that we are walking through a valley and have been for more than two months.

As Linda Andrews writes in her lovely and pertinent book about grief and loss, Please Bring Soup To Comfort Me While I Grieve,

When it comes to the topic of grief, many people are uncomfortable and unprepared to know what to say or do. Some people try to say the right thing and others just avoid the whole situation. The effect on the person who is grieving is devastating; feelings of pain, hurt, anger and disappointment prevail. People who are grieving are not in a position to understand this flaw in the human spirit.

 It feels like a sense of betrayal. How can anyone who at one time indicated that they were a friend, or were a co-worker, or worse—family members—not step up and act human during the darkest days, weeks, and months in anyone’s life? And losing an adult child is one of the most devastating events anyone will ever experience in their lifetime.

I went back to my part-time job six weeks ago. I’ve been working three and four days each week. I knew that co-workers were avoiding me, or tip-toeing around me in the lunch room, afraid to say anything real. I’m sorry, but grief isn’t contagious! Finally, I began to talk to them honestly, about how I feel and that it was okay to mention Mark to me and talk about it—his death really happened—and not talking about it wasn’t going to make the loss and pain go away.

Tuesday, I came in and found an envelope on my desk. Inside was a beautiful card with some of the most honest and heartfelt sentiments about our loss that anyone’s shared with me thus far. There were several apologies for not mentioning Mark’s death and recognizing that it was hurtful. I was fine with these and in fact, embraced it and appreciated their willingness to admit that they should have spoken to me sooner and expressed what they were feeling and thinking. Even better, I was able to thank them for their notes and as a result, we’ve had some of the best exchanges and they’ve been asking questions and we’ve been having real, honest conversations.

That very same day, a card arrived at our home in the mail. I saw the name on the envelope and I started to cry. Someone I’d been connected to back in my workforce development days—someone that was a wonderful partner and who we shared many details of our lives (including stories about Mark) had reached out to me. The person wrote that they had been “troubled over what to say for weeks since I heard.” What was the most important thing, however, is that they did write and again, it’s okay to say that you don’t know what to say. Saying you are sorry for a delayed response is also fine. There are no magic scripts in the realm that Mary and I currently occupy.

We live in a culture that runs from pain. Avoiding being uncomfortable could qualify as a national pastime. Certainly, steering a course as far from dissonance as possible is something that we have been socialized to do from a very early age. But at what cost?

What if our positive thinking and optimism is really detrimental to our overall well-being? Apparently, researchers found that maintaining a sunny disposition at all costs doesn’t benefit anyone. And of course, not facing reality and acknowledging that things might not always be “ducky” for everyone circumvents honesty and being real.

If you’ve read Mark’s last book, I am a Road, it becomes clear that walking across the U.S. requires physical discipline and perseverance. Equally as important is a mental toughness and a willingness to face pain and even embrace it. Mark had those qualities in spades.

Losing Mark is akin to Mary and me losing a piece of us. That’s how our grief counselor put it, explaining the changes we’re experiencing. Our bodies, brains, and perhaps spirits, are trying to adapt to what’s missing and that’s why we feel fatigue, confused, and forget things. It’s also normal to feel anger and deep emotional pain.

How to make sense of this all? I’m not really sure how. I’d like to think if the tables were turned and one of us—either Mary or perhaps me were the one who had been senselessly killed by an inattentive driver—we’d have wanted Mark to carry on with his life. Deal with the devastating loss and grief, but find a way forward.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.


Print copies of I am a Road are still available. You can order a copy, here.