A few months before my mom died, I broke up with my first boyfriend (who I’ll call Steve in this post.) Steve was good to me, and we were in love – at least in that way that 19-year-olds without a care in the world can be. But I had dated him since high school, and we both wanted to see who else was out there. I spent the summer that followed our break-up working at an amazing summer camp, Bruin Woods, and I met all sorts of new people. One of those new people I met was James.
James worked as the camp’s fisherman, taking people out on early morning trips and schmoozing with the adults there. He was hilarious, handsome and a ton of fun. One night, he brought me out to the lake and we gazed at the stars together. I was smitten.
Throughout the summer I kept up with my family through weekly phone calls. As the weeks turned into months, my phone conversations with my mom worried me more and more. I have a vivid memory that summer of seeing James after I got off the phone with my mom. It had been a terrible call and I was crying. He comforted me. I felt unsettled, but I felt like James understood me.
My mom died by suicide a few weeks later.
I wasn’t actually with James when I got the news. It was my day off, and I was in a house with new friends. I flew home and didn’t think about James until he called me that night. This was before cell phones, so he called my house line, and I stood in my laundry room leaning against the extra fridge with tears streaming down my face.
How can I remember this specific moment more than 20 years later? It was the worst day of my life at that point, and yet this memory is one of the few that stands out. I think I remember it because what ran through my head was this: “James is trying to comfort me. But he didn’t know my mom.”
Of course he didn’t. We had just met and we were both living hundreds of miles away from my hometown. He was kind and he was thoughtful, and really, for a 20-year-old guy, he was impressively present for me.
But he didn’t know my mom, and my high school boyfriend did. Steve was at my house immediately after I flew home, and he held me as I cried. He came to the funeral, and he cried there too. We grieved together, and even if my pain was greater, he also missed my mom.
I eventually returned to LA and reunited with James. I was broken for the first time in my young life and I wasn’t sure how to perform the daily tasks that got me through the days. James was patient, and asked for little. One night, when the grief was still so raw I couldn’t quite figure out how to do anything, he took me out to a fancy neighborhood and we drove around looking at the houses of movie stars. He played this song that was popular at the time, “Lullaby,” and sang a bit of it too, if I remember right.
Sometimes I play that song now. It’s another one of those songs I haven’t listened to in 20 years, but I guess there’s a part of me that feels like the pain I felt then has a connection to the pain I feel today.
And just before
She hangs her head to cry
I sing to her a lullaby, I sing
Everything’s gonna be all right
Everything’s gonna be all right
James didn’t try to tell me that everything was fine when my mom died. Somehow, he was mature enough to know that he shouldn’t say something like that. But he wanted to comfort me, and these lyrics seemed to fit. Or at least it seemed so to me.
I obviously didn’t marry James. I spent that fall pushing him away and retreating to my former love, Steve, the one who knew my mom. I’m still not quite sure why I did it. Maybe I needed the comfort of home or maybe I was still in love with Steve. What I do know is that I was not good to James, even though he was good to me. It was just too hard to let him into my pain, and so I pushed him away.
Grief changed me that year. I wasn’t able to really tell anyone how it felt to be so alone in this world and I struggled to make real connections. When I think about myself at 19, trying to understand why such a terrible thing would happen to me, I want to wrap my arms around that young version of myself and say, “everything’s gonna be all right.”
Of course, I can’t do that. I had to live through that pain and emerge from the other side. I’m just sorry that I left people in the wreckage.
My wife died one year ago, less than 2 weeks after Shawn, and my children are now 13 (boy), 11 and 10 (girls). The older girl usually has a hard time talking about her feelings but yesterday she told me that she feels alone. I’m confident that the four of us will be able to live through this. You (and your father) are an inspiration for me, thank you for your writing!
I am always so impressed by my children when they can tell me how they really feel. It’s wonderful that your quietest kid was the one who was able to express her emotions. Thanks for sharing.
Yes, At 16 when I lost my mum, it was really hard to understand how such a terrible thing could happen to our family. I had songs too. ‘I wouldn’t want to lose your love’ by April Wine(which had played on the radio as we drove to her funeral) and later ‘Here Comes the Sun’ which might have been a subconscious attempt to raise my spirits as I played it on repeat whenever I drove alone in my car.
Grief was easier to understand the second time around when I lost my father 20 years later. It was almost as though I knew what to expect as I went through the phases. Always hard, but much less foreign. I had my song that I would play. But I accepted the fact that I would not be myself for a while and allowed myself that. I hope that you are finding time for that as well. It will only get easier. Just wondering- do your kids have a go-to song? Might be a comfort for them.
I love that idea. I’m not sure the kids have comfort songs (though they have many songs they like!) but I’d like to try and see if we can find them each one. What a great thought – thank you for sharing it!
I have started writing you a couple of replies in the past and I don’t know if I ever got to post them. I lost my husband Dave to brain cancer 1 year and 5 months ago. We have 2 girls, ages 11 and 15. I was put onto your blog by some friends of your sister-in-law here in the T.O. area. Now I see we share another strong grief experience that shaped us – loss of a parent. I was turning 18 when my dad was murdered. Similar to you – I pushed a lot of people away for those first several years. It took me a long time to really open up to love and when I did, it was to Dave almost a decade later. After losing him, the perspective was very different about love, loss and opening my heart. My heart is already ripped right open and I realized, I don’t want to close it up. The real experiences, the true and beautiful ones are only available to the open heart. So I choose to keep experiencing all the feelings. Ivan’s comment above reminds me to talk to my girls about feeling theirs too and sharing them with me when they can. Crap – this is so hard. ALL. THE.TIME. But as one of my favourites, Glennon Doyle says, “We can do hard things.” Thank you for your insightful and honest writing.
Yes. This is so hard ALL the time. I want to provide some sort of hope – some sort of “it gets better” – but some days that feels really hard. Still, like you, I refuse to shut down. I’m not perfect, and sometimes I will shut down my emotional side just to get through the day. But I’m going to keep living, and for me that means staying emotionally connected to the world. Of course, that’s dangerous. But it’s the only way I can really be, I think.
I am in love with your blogs. I have had dealt with umpteen heartbreaks and a divorce as well, but I can’t even imagine the magnitude of your grief. I am SORRY! My best friend became a widow when she was just 30 and 4-years later, her heart still sinks and she still deals with it and moves on. But, she has definitely gotten much much better. Keep writing, because it’s a healing in itself. I hope that you find your ground sooner than later. ❤️
You know, I have this writer I follow who is a young widow and talks a lot about loss and she makes a good point that people have to rewrite their lives all the time – not just when someone dies. And I think that’s life. We soldier on and do the best we can. Thanks for sharing.