Friday, March 28, 2014

Wrestling with My Guilt And Losing

When you lose someone to suicide or drugs, when they push the self-destruct button on their lives, it's much like a blundering suicide bomber has invaded a family gathering.

While they are the only ones who die, what's left are the walking wounded. We shuffle around one another trying not to step on someone's feelings and all suffering from the same emotional trauma. For the most part, we don't talk about our pain, or in this kind of death our guilt, because we know everyone else is hurting, and so what has already wrecked us becomes a wedge in our family.

We're all mourning the death of someone else -- a son, a grandson, a brother, a nephew, a stepson -- and at the same time each and every one of us thinks 1) that we should have been able to do something to save them or 2) someone else in the family should have done something differently. It tears us apart in a hundred different ways that go beyond the fairly simple fact of a death.

This morning I realized that often times by putting my thoughts into words I've been better able to deal with them, even if I wind up being repetitious, so I'm taking a stab at guilt -- beyond anger to remorse and a black tide that wants to swallow me whole.

Rationally, Ethan was an adult, free-minded individual who made his own choices. Telling myself that simple fact over and over does not change how I feel.

There are times when I'm drowning in regrets over things that, even had I done them differently, come with no guarantee of a different place today. Hindsight is not, as they say, 20/20.

So to get them off my chest, to perhaps find a measure of freedom from them, here's what I regret today, the questions that plague me:

Why did I let his father off the hook? No child support and no visits. Why didn't I force him into one and nag him into the other? Two weekends when Ethan was big enough to care hardly count as being a father. They lived only a few miles apart the last couple of years, yet... no, this is where I want to blame someone else and this is my guilt I'm wallowing in.

Why didn't I realize he was different in ways that needed help? Why didn't I recognize that the hesitancy and reluctance to enter a lot of situations meant there was something going on in his head that could have been corrected? Why didn't I force him to take some of the Duke TIP programs that would have stretched his mind beyond local friends and the boundaries of his school and home? Why didn't I insist on the AP classes when he started high school, so that he might have found more excitement in learning? Why didn't I do more to broaden his horizons beyond the two close friends who later traveled the path of addiction with him? (And now I remember encouraging him to go home with other kids after school and during the summer, I remember the arguments over AP classes, I remember how quickly he fled from the TIP brochure, how he sat silent during counseling sessions. I remember his joy in excelling at skateboarding with his friends, wild sleepovers when they were as normal as boys could be with dirt and sweat and random mischief.)

Why didn't I realize when he called me at work and I was on deadline and what he wanted to talk endlessly about wasn't even important to him, that there was probably something on the autism spectrum going on in his head? Why didn't I see that neediness for me and his general asocial behavior as a symptom of something more than just a teen uncertain about his direction and unwilling to follow the herd? Why didn't the counselors he did spend time with see through his brilliant bullshit and help me find the real problem?

Why didn't I realize that his friend wasn't experimenting with drugs alone? Why didn't I keep his room clean so I would have quickly found the evidence of what he was doing? Why couldn't I find the time to spend more time with him, even if it meant forcing him out of his world and into mine more often? Why didn't I learn to play the video games he liked once he cast aside the ones I could handle? (And I remember the fights, trying to clean his room and learn the games I couldn't understand, the frustration of watching who he was becoming.)

Why didn't I find a way to make him come home and do what he should have been doing at 16? Taking driver's ed, going to class, getting a job? (I tend to forget how hard I tried when I'm on my guilt trip.)

Why didn't I make him go to rehab? Never mind that I know it doesn't work until the person going wants it to work, and he claimed he never wanted to stop and never asked for help. At least I'd have the bills to assuage my guilt.

Why did I make him move out after graduating and finally getting his license? Why did I think making him take responsibility for himself would help? Why was I afraid I'd wind up like some of the murders I covered with a grieving son crying because he was drunk or high and shot his mother? Why do my most vivid memories often include his rage and my fear, and my uncertainty still over what might have happened?

Why couldn't I make him see what a wonderful, beautiful, delightful person he was when he was drug free? Why wasn't that enough to make him want to become that person all the time?

Why didn't I see him every chance I had? When he was in jail? When he lived only 10-15 minutes away? When I could have seen him or held him, why didn't I go out of my way to make it happen?

Why didn't I drive and get him more and take him to do things? Even if it meant a 30-minute drive and him deciding he didn't want to at the last minute, or not even coming to the door, so that I could just turn around, at least I'd know I tried.

Why didn't I say yes, I'd buy him anything he wanted for Christmas, even though he was virtually homeless and needed to be worrying about something other than a PS4, the last time we talked? He still wouldn't have gotten it, but that last conversation would have held a different place in my memory.

Why didn't I say do a welfare check or have it done myself when my mom was worried about him nearly a week before he was found dead? He was probably already dead, but at least I could have seen him to say goodbye.

Why couldn't love save him? Why couldn't I? Why weren't my prayers enough for God to heal him? Was I so bad that what I sought couldn't be given? Did I do something that punished my child in his life and me with his death?

There it is, my guilty questions that I pull out regularly for self flagellation. When I look at them rationally, there was really very little I could do differently. The boy/man I was dealing with wasn't some malleable person to be easily pushed and pulled in the direction I wanted him to go. I wanted him to think for himself, to be an individual, to make his own choices so they would be his to celebrate or regret. I did not know that although he proclaimed himself a loner, he was in fact a part of a very small, unhealthy herd and craved their support and companionship even more than being true to himself. I often think now that the failure to be true to himself was what killed him, what drove him to escape himself and travel a dark and ultimately lonely path to destruction.

When I look back at these things I have to remind myself that they didn't happen in vacuum where only he and I existed. When he was young, I had a tough demanding job that meant long hours but also kept a roof over our heads and food on the table. Then I was struggling with losing my career and trying to build a business to help pay the bills I'd always had money to pay. For years now I've worked 7 days a week and had no vacation. I've become a grandmother and been responsible for the workday care of three small children. I have a home, a husband, a yard, and in good years a garden.

I didn't know the hourglass of his life was going to run out before I had time to get through the other stress in my life. I always thought he'd get tired of the way he was living, instead of deciding that was the way he was going to live until he died.

I never thought he'd be gone at 23 and that all the love and life and laughter that he brought to every family gathering, that he could muster up for special occasions, would be gone.

I don't want to admit my powerlessness over life and death, and so instead I choose to wrestle with my guilt occasionally. I hope one day to put more of it away, but there will always be a bit left because I am his mother, and a mother takes care of her children, somehow, beyond rhyme or reason or even rationality.

That's the legacy of his death that I'll carry to my grave.

1 comment:

  1. I wrestled with the same feelings for years after the loss of my wife Angela. I had to come to terms with the fact that I was just as powerless over her disease, as I am over everything else in life. It was a process, but it did happen for me. I still lament the waste of such a beautiful life at times, but I have been given the opportunity to turn it into purpose helping those who are similarly afflicted, and that today is an immeasurable gift. I'm so sorry for your loss, thank you for writing.