The word “anniversary” doesn’t convey the right amount of heartbreak when observing the “anniversary of a death.” We couldn’t find the word to mark this particular occasion, so we made up our own: “deathaversary.”
Somehow the word “deathaversary” carries a better balance of the gravity and levity of the day. The passing of another year after the death of a loved one is not a celebration, and yet… when we acknowledge how very far we have come in the process, when we think about how proud our loved one would be, when we notice that we can still laugh and love and run and find joy, well then, there is reason for celebration. We are grateful for our loved one’s life in our lives, we miss them dreadfully and we cry – or at least I do – because I (not to be confused with the men in my life) am a sissy crybaby. Personally, I believe the fountain of tears has contributed in no small part to my ability to heal, gentlemen, but I digress…
Our hearts break wide open. A little time passes. The heart still beats. More time. The scar begins to heal. Months go by. Hearts beat. A year passes. And love is still. It’s astonishing.
We have, over the years, observed significant deathaversaries in various ways. We have played baseball games and gone away for the weekend. Dinners out work well. Preferably with a glass of something red. Laughter, tears and chocolate – all on the approved list. A visit to a gravesite or favorite park. Occasionally, we have ignored a difficult date, but that strategy usually backfires. I prefer the “grab the bull by the horns” approach. Obviously.
It is true that by doing or saying something to mark the passing of the year, we risk hurting feelings. On the other hand, not saying anything is almost certain to hurt feelings. Personally, I prefer to have my feelings hurt by somebody who is attempting to say something because the fact of the matter is that my heart is already broken. And maybe, just by saying something – even something stupid – the underlying message is that they care enough to notice my pain and try (and maybe fail!) to help.
Our town has a deathaversary coming up. It is more than a little painful. Last year, a senior boy committed suicide on campus at our local high school. The year before, a sophomore took his own life at a neighboring high school. Our Number 2 son found out about both events before any of the rest of us because friends were texting him (in school, of course, but don’t tell the Dean of Discipline).
How do we let these kids know how desperately they are loved? How worthwhile their lives are? I don’t know, but I want to try. At the time, I responded in the way most natural to me. I went for a run. I used my words. I talked to my children, and I wrote an article for the local paper. In the interest of grabbing that deathaversary bull by the horns, I’d like to share that letter again, and I apologize because some of you might have already seen it, but I think it’s still relevant, so here it is…
I am a lecturer of some renown. If I do say so myself, I am passionate, articulate and persuasive. My audience is often glued to their seats in anticipation of my next dispensation of wisdom. That, plus they have their seatbelts firmly in place (clearly as the result of a previously delivered lecture), and they are my hostages. At least until they are 18 and self-sufficient (another plentiful source of lectures). Yes, I deliver countless lectures for the benefit of my captive audience of sons.
And here’s today’s: Every, every, every problem has a solution. And your father and I will always, always, always love you. Period. End of speech.
But I have so much more to say.
I am keenly aware of the impact suicide has on a family. It struck ours in 2007. My heart breaks for the family of the young man who took his life at his high school last week. For the students, teachers and staff at the high school who were witness to his death. For the friends who have lost a loved one. And for the young man himself. Suicide is a confusing, messy death. At the end of it all, mental pain and anguish is as lethal as a sudden heart attack or an undiagnosed cancer. It just looks so much uglier from the outside.
My boys can ask me anything. They know they can count on me for an honest answer, but after today’s speech they continued their normally scheduled programming of Facebook, xBox and homework, not necessarily in that priority. I trust that they will revisit the issue when they want to talk. My sons know that they can count on me for the truth insofar as I know it. And I know that the conversation is not likely to end after a 10 minute dialogue.
The tragedy of suicide is how much suffering the victim endures on his own without help. When my cousin was battling cancer – a fight she ultimately lost – she had casseroles delivered, therapy, childcare and pain medication. When my husband was suffering from depression – a fight he likewise lost – he fought it alone. This provides the theme for many of the speeches that I inflict upon my sons. Life is a team sport. Proceed with friends. We are meant to support each other and live in relationship with each other. Especially when life is hard. Tell me three people you can reach out to if you need help – this is one effective way to inoculate yourself from mental pain.
I do not believe that Life only gives us the challenges we can handle. Life routinely hands out way more than we can handle alone. I am, however, a great believer in the power of Love. It was Love whose face I did not always know, but whose presence I recognized, who delivered countless meals for my sons and me. Love showed up on my doorstep like a drill sergeant rounding up socks, shoes, homework, lunches, backpacks and ushering us up the hill to school on time in the morning. Love mended a favorite blanket that had been shredded in a fit of grief. Love rolled up her sleeves and cleaned out my closet, carefully packing all of Sam’s shoes, suits and belongings, labeling everything and storing it carefully where I could deal with it in my own time. Love got up at 5:30 in the morning to run with me – and to watch my children while we did. Love took my hand, and introduced me to the man I married just over a year ago. (Three years now!)
I pray every day that our sons will find their way through the challenges that life throws their direction. I am devastated that this young man was unable – for whatever reason – to find his way through the pain he was enduring. And I hope that as a community, we will find ways to support each of the broken hearts left in the wake of his death.
Wishing our teenagers light and strength. And extra snacks.