My husband and I currently have a running joke about our son Ethan’s death. Despite Ethan’s best efforts to put distance between him, a teenager who obviously knows everything, and us, his parents who are old fogies, to the point of choosing a college halfway across the country, he’s now stuck with us. Forever. My husband’s plan is for all of us to share the same urn so that Ethan will literally be stuck with us. My plan is to take his urn with us on our travels so we can take family photos at all the tourist traps. I’m currently researching how to travel internationally with an urn. You would think that there’s not a lot of articles on that, but a quick Google search came up with almost 25 million results. I can just picture it—the three of us at the Tower of London, or maybe at Kings Cross Station at platform 9-3/4. We could even use one of the photos as our Christmas card.
While my husband and I laugh about all the possible scenarios, I know that what we are really doing is our best to survive each day. Our world was forever changed on March 28, 2018, when policemen showed up at our door and told us that Ethan had been found dead in his dorm. As the minute and hours and days passed and we learned more about how he died, the sense of horror and grief became overwhelming. Are still overwhelming. When someone commits suicide, those left behind are left with more questions than answers, and the answers we do receive don’t grant us any peace.
When we sought counseling for our grief, the therapist told us that we should try to remember Ethan’s life with joy, that this would be the only way that we could make it through each day. She knew this as truth: she, too, was the parent of a child who had committed suicide. The wound was too fresh for us, though, and I wondered how long it would take for the joy of Ethan’s life to supersede the immeasurable sadness of his absence. The answer was soon, and never.
When we sent Ethan to college, we saw him off at the airport. It was so early that the brightest stars shone through the pollution of lights that enveloped Charlotte-Douglas airport. I yelled past the crowd of early morning travelers that I loved him, and to be safe, and to make sure to text me as soon as he landed. He waved back at me, pretending not to notice my tears as he shouldered his backpack and headed past security towards his gate. Obsessively, I refreshed the flight tracker to check his progress, posting on Facebook when he landed, when his connecting flight was delayed, the exasperated selfie he sent me after I badgered him to show me where he was. And when he finally reached his dorm room, I texted him, glad he was safe. Later, he texted me a picture of a large yellow bathtub duck.
“Why are you sending me a picture of a duck,” I asked.
“That’s Dave. The Supreme Dave. I’m creating a new religion,” he replied.
“I’m confused,” I said.
“That’s the point,” he replied.
My son’s suicide is the most devastating event of my life. There are moments I can’t breathe because I am choked by the sobs that erupt from my throat. In the first hours and days and weeks after he died, everyone—from family to grief counselors—kept a close watch on me, each dreading and somehow expecting that I would harm myself.
When I was fifteen, I tried to kill myself. It was years before the internet and Google, so I didn’t know that the bottle of Tylenol I swallowed before climbing into bed would be more likely to cause liver damage than death. I woke up in the morning, too overcome by my stomach’s urgent need to empty itself to be surprised that I was alive. My father, ignorant of the source of my illness, took me to the emergency room, where I was diagnosed with the stomach flu and given fluids. I never told him what really happened. I never tried to kill myself again, either, although there were days near the end of my first marriage when I seriously considered it. My children were very young, though, and their smiling faces and sloppy kisses were enough to get me through to the next day. Barely.
The periods of depression would ebb and flow through the years, usually accompanied by overwhelming anger. When these cycles threatened my second marriage, my husband John urged me to seek help. I was diagnosed with cyclothymia, basically a lesser, milder form of bipolar disorder. The meds made me feel like a zombie, but it was a relief to know that what I felt had a name. I researched obsessively. John bought me a cyclothymia workbook to help me track my moods and possible triggers. When I discovered that there might be a genetic component, I worried about my children, but not for long; fear and worry couldn’t be sustained amidst the chaos of trying to raise three children between two sets of parents, determined to ensure that the children would know they were loved. In hindsight, I should have worried more, done more.
While Ethan was in high school, I received a call from his guidance counselor that I needed to come to school right away. I rushed over and found myself in a windowless office, crammed with papers and folders, sitting on a faded red chair while she told me that Ethan had admitted that he was cutting himself. In the office, I was calm and concerned, but when I checked Ethan out of school for the day, I panicked. I took him to the Emergency Psych ER and fretted alone in the waiting room while the doctors and nurses took him for evaluation. How did I not know he was cutting? I had wanted to give him space to figure out who he was without me hovering over him all the time, but had I given him too much? When the doctors released him to me hours later with a prescription for an antidepressant, he was quiet and withdrawn. In my zealousness to protect him, I had fractured his trust in me. When I took away all the knives and sharp objects in the house, the fracture opened a crevice between us.
A parent isn’t supposed to have a favorite child, but Ethan was the child most like me. We shared a love for video games, science fiction and fantasy, even the same sense of humor. Despite what his grades showed, he was brilliant (and graduated high school a year early.) He was capable of great compassion, even as a toddler: when he was about 18-months old, and his brother Dylan was three, they were sitting on the couch, watching what turned out to be a highly emotional episode of SpongeBob Squarepants. Gary the snail ignored SpongeBob to follow Patrick Starfish around and Dylan became distraught, asking through tears why Gary didn’t want to be SpongeBob’s friend anymore. Ethan sat next to him and hugged him and said he would always be his friend.
One afternoon, while Ethan was in high school, he asked if we had extra food to take to his friend who was hungry. We emptied our pantry, then stopped to pick up a pizza on the way to her house. Ethan would never tell me, but his friends were always talking about how he helped them. He pushed them to reach their goals, listened to them, led them to be better people. When running in a charity race, he crossed the finish line and then circled back to run with those who were struggling, offering encouragement and effusive congratulations when they crossed together. Ethan seemed happy, so I let myself believe that he was.
When my husband loaded our suitcases into the trunk of his car and we started the long drive from Charlotte, North Carolina to Burlington, Vermont, we were too mired in shock. We made small talk. I checked the weather in Burlington and asked if we should have brought warmer clothing. As the miles blurred past my window in a haze of greens and yellows and browns, I read the road signs out loud as if the words were conversation—Welcome to Virginia, Welcome to Pennsylvania, Welcome to New Jersey. When the drive outpaced our stamina and we had to exit the highway, we were faced with one of many absurdities. As people who don’t normally carry cash—me because I can’t resist the urge to shove those dollars into vending machines that hold hostage tasty sugary treats, my husband because he’s security conscious—we were caught off-guard when we realized that we literally could not exit the highway without paying the toll.
“You mean you don’t even have a dollar,” asked the jaded tollbooth operator with dirty-blonde hair and deep frown lines around her mouth before waving us through after my husband found a crumpled dollar deep within his pants pocket. And after we suffered through an overly cheerful night clerk at the motel and finally found ourselves sitting on the edge of the bed, my husband sighed and said he should probably stop at an ATM on the way out in the morning. I looked over at him and our eyes met. I snorted, and as his lips twitched up at the corners, I began to giggle. Together, we laughed until I began to weep.
We went back when the college invited us to a memorial they held for Ethan. After the service, many of the students he had befriended during his brief time there lined up to speak with us. One group presented us with a tall walking stick which seemed more tree branch than stick. Each member of the group told us stories about Ethan walking through campus, stick in hand, leading the others through the snow drifts that covered the sidewalks on campus. They wanted us to have it, but I couldn’t figure out how we would get it past airport security. Another group showed us video after video of our son, the one child out of three who couldn’t carry a tune (or so I thought,) singing karaoke to Johnny Cash. Each story they told gave us pieces of Ethan’s life that we didn’t even know we were missing. We walked the streets where they pointed out the noodle shop he liked, the tattoo parlor where he got his first tattoo, the shoreline of the lake where they would gather at night to gaze at the stars. And instead of seeing this beautiful town with its clear blue skies and pastel-colored buildings only as the place where he died, we were able to see it as a place where he was happy. Sometimes.
One night, exactly a month after Ethan’s death, my husband and I were awoken by the arrival of several of his friends on our front porch. Since Ethan had graduated high school a year early, many of his school friends were still finishing up when he had left for college. We invited them in to talk. Despite our shared grief, the conversation was stunted at first—we were still adults—known enemies to teenagers all over. I asked them about school, and their college plans. They responded with the usual “fine” and “not sure yet.” We had not yet had a memorial at home as I had not been able to face it, and eventually they asked when it would be. Like the students at the college, they wanted the opportunity to share their stories and say goodbye.
“Ethan told me that he wanted to have OutKast’s ‘Hey Ya’ played in the middle of the funeral music,” one of the girls said.
“Wait, he made a funeral playlist?” I stared at her, my mouth open.
“Yeah, we all did.”
Apparently that’s something that kids do nowadays.
“He wanted ‘Hey Ya’ to start playing, and have people confused, like we were all sad, but now we’re shaking like a Polaroid picture.”
I laughed—a long, loud laugh that scared the cats. And they laughed with me.
But hearing the stories from Ethan’s friends, sharing in their joy despite our loss, made me realize on a visceral level the truth our grief counselor already knew. I could focus on the ways I failed Ethan. That I didn’t give him the support he needed as he battled his own demons. That I didn’t rush up to Burlington, Vermont and bring him home when one of the college’s therapists called me and told me Ethan had started cutting again. That I believed Ethan when he told me that he was okay. Or I could focus on finding the joy that he brought to my life, and to the lives of others.
It’s a cliché that time heals all wounds. The grief counselor told me that grief was like a giant rock. At first, it’s too heavy for us to carry. We can barely move it. Eventually, we can move it farther and farther, and soon the rock is easier to carry. Not because it weighs less, but because we are stronger.
Another expert once explained to me that psychological distance can help us deal with trauma and grief, but I’ve discovered that the opposite is true. When we are closer to these events, we can see the small moments of joy that are overshadowed by the trauma, by the grief, by the distance. These moments led me to think about Ethan’s life: not the signs I might have missed or dismissed—I’d been doing that already—but the moments filled with joy, moments more than the usual milestones of birth and the litany of firsts (words, steps, school).
There are so many moments that I could list, moments that spark joy, but more importantly, these moments provide a more complete picture of who Ethan was as a person. At one of his memorials, his friends regaled us with stories that, had we known at the time, would probably have ended up with him grounded forever. (He was into parkour and somehow, he and his friends ended up on the top of the SuperTarget down the street. At two in the morning.) nstead, we watched his friends tell the story. We watched them smile and laugh at Ethan’s bravery, his audaciousness. And we found joy as well.
I never would have imagined that I would be where I am now, that I would be able to think of Ethan without breaking down in tears. And there are days that I can’t, and the pain is just as fresh as the first time I heard the news, but most of the time, I can think of him with joy. I think about the friends he made, the lives he touched. We crack jokes about all the laundry he left behind, about the sink that was permanently stained the summer he dyed his hair pink. Seeking out and these moments is a microscope that magnifies the effect his life has had on us. Finding these moments in the midst of all the darkness is how we heal, how we recover from the tragedies in life. And Ethan, my wonderfully droll son who once created a religion based around a large plastic yellow bath duck named Dave and who wanted “Hey Ya” played in the middle of his funeral, would probably agree.
Photo Credit: Sebastian Mey from Pixabay