Every season comes with challenges of its own, but the end of a school year, and all that it entails, is one of the hardest for me endure. Grief does not ensue solely from losing the person we loved, but grief is the pain from other losses, as a result of the death. Not only was I completely caught off guard by Caleb’s death, but also by the ripple effect and secondary losses that I’m still experiencing from it.
I Lost More Than A Son
When Caleb died an ending occurred and a new beginning was required. I was thrust into a life I didn’t know how to live. Forced to step onto a dark and unknown path. His death itself was my primary loss, but there are many subsequent and secondary losses that will occur over my lifetime. Each loss requires its own grief response in its own way and in its own time.
Loss of Relationship: Caleb and I had a great relationship. I cherished him and he cherished me. I was his safe place, his firm foundation and his unconditional love. We had a fun relationship, and I miss it more than I could ever explain. It’s hard for me to talk about this because I become so disoriented and begin sinking so far into the rabbit hole of trying to make sense of why he took his life. If our relationship was so great, he would have told me he had a thought of ending his life. If he really cherished me, he wouldn’t have made that choice. If I truly was his safe place, he would have called me in his weakest and darkest moment. If, if, if… I could stay here all day long, but I know it’s hurtful to me. I have to remind myself of what I know is true: I knew my son, I know he loved me, I know he’d never knowingly hurt me, I know he was tricked, lied to and stolen from me. I know in that moment he did not realize he was making a permanent, fatal, choice. I know he loved the Lord and I know he is safe in His arms in Heaven. There are many things I see, hear, smell and do every day that make me think of Caleb and our relationship, and while those fond memories will stay safely tucked in my heart forever, it is very painful that we cannot have any more fun together or have any more life-giving conversations.
Loss of Normalcy: Everything changed. My routine, my lifestyle, my familiarity, my ordinary. Picture a town devastated by a tornado, a hurricane, wild fires or a flood and you’ll get a visual of how my everyday life changed. A return to normalcy seemed impossible in the early months but nearly 4 years later, a new normal has set in. Nothing is as it once was but I’m moving forward, making decisions and creating normalcy for myself and my family.
Loss of My Expected Future: This really goes without saying, but the secondary losses will never end when it comes to the future. When my son died, the hopes and dreams I had for him since he was born died with him. I didn’t see him graduate high school or drop him off at college. I’ll never see him start a career, begin a relationship, get married or have children. When his friends, or my friends who have kids the same age, get to experience all of these important milestones, it’s a sad reminder that I don’t. I can be happy for them and sad for me at the same time.
Loss of Confidence: I caught my son with an e-cigarette. We had a conversation, and a small and temporary punishment ensued. I left; he died. To say my confidence as a good mom has taken a hit is an understatement. It has taken years, endless tears and a lot of therapy for me to trust in myself and my parenting again, but I’ll never be the confident mom I once was. I question myself and my parenting decisions on the daily. On Monday, August 12, 2019, I only knew what I knew at the time, which was nothing. Any regret and guilt I feel is only bringing me down and causing a deeper wound, it won’t bring him back or change anything. I choose to lay it down (and down, and down again) at the feet of Jesus and never give up working to become a mom I can trust in again.
Loss of Security: It’s hard to think ahead because my sense of security is forever skewed. I never know what’s going to happen next and I’m afraid of it. I will always wonder what would have been, what could have been and what our life with Caleb would look like now. There’s so much unfinished business and life left undone. The safe and secure net we had just beneath our feet was torn and it will never be the same.
I’m in the midst of a difficult season that is bringing a lot of pain to the surface. Caleb’s little sister is finishing up her Junior year of high school, so all the Senior things are just in front of me and while I’m glad for this, of course, it’s also very hard on my heart. Caleb died on the third day of his Senior year. I should have already been through everything that comes with having a Senior in high school: the college applications, visits and such, but I haven’t, and I’m kind of a mess about it. Secondary losses are brutal. I found an article on Psychology Today that describes it really well:
Imagine you’re on a sailboat that gets caught in a relentless storm. Maybe you were warned that the weather was coming; maybe you were caught off guard. In either case, you’re up all night battling the waves, doing everything you can to keep from capsizing. You’re nauseous and tired and shivering. You worry not only that the boat will fall apart but that you will, too.
The next day, miraculously, the storm is over, and the sun is shining. It will be smooth sailing from here, right?
Not exactly. Your boat is left in shambles, and so are you. You’re no longer fearless. There are holes in your sail. You pulled three muscles. All you want to do is find some sturdy ground.
If the storm is how it feels to lose someone you love, the ripple effects are your secondary losses.
While the impact of the primary loss is something we can anticipate, even as it’s excruciating and devastating and feels unimaginable, the secondary losses often catch us off guard. They come in many forms, each making the hole of the initial loss expand even further.
Here’s what they might look like.
Our relationships change.
It’s a sad fact of grief that on top of losing our person, we often lose other relationships, too. Friends and family might think we’re grieving too long or not grieving long enough. They might be uncomfortable around our sadness and become more distant or resent us for not being able to spend time with them in the ways we used to. Friends who promise to be there fall off at exactly the time we need them most.
Relationships that were anchored by your person inevitably change, too. A double date isn’t the same when you’re single. Parents of your kids’ friends feel impossible to be around after your child dies. Nurses and other professionals who were part of your life because of your person are no longer in the picture.
We question our identity.
This was the most immediate and surprising spillover impact when I experienced my first major loss. I grew up as the youngest of three sisters. When my middle sister died at 30, I didn’t know how to integrate that I was now one of two. I’d defined myself largely in relation to my other two sisters for my whole life, and suddenly that definition didn’t hold.
Years later, when my daughter died, the identity crisis was even more pronounced. Who was I, if not the mother of three children? The mother of a child with a rare disease? The mother of a daughter? All these were core to who I was and who I still am. But how we see ourselves doesn’t always match how the world sees us.
Our livelihood might be at risk.
Maybe the person who died was financially supporting us. Maybe we’re suffering too intensely to perform at work like we used to. Either way, the added pressure compounds the stress and anxiety of grief.
Our dreams or expectations for the future are shattered.
There are losses we anticipate “in the natural order of things.” We expect our grandparents and parents to die before we do. But when those deaths happen outside of older age, they don’t only change the present; they also change the script for our future.