It’s difficult believing how many years have passed since my husband’s sudden death. My son was 11. He is now 30. I’m remarried. I live in a different city with a different husband, a different career, and a changed life.
Sometimes I speak about that time with friends and family, especially as an anniversary date approaches or an event that he would particularly enjoy or take pride in. As I do, I feel a distant, tugging connection to the sorrow while also insulated by the years. Sometimes I remind myself it’s my story. Not one I read or heard about from someone else.
The first wholesale transformation of our lives occurred when my son’s father ended his. It was swift. Excruciating. Irrevocable.
After that life changed ever so slightly with each passing moment, almost imperceptibly in the beginning. Others would say they could see us slowly getting stronger. But we couldn’t see it. We could only feel grief and guilt without abatement.
As the coroner pulled away with my husband’s body still lying on the patio cushion he’d chosen for his deathbed, my son looked up at me and asked, “We can’t be normal anymore, can we?”
I stood in the driveway with stocking feet on a drizzling, black, January night, numbed, horrified, panicked. We watched as the ambulance and fire trucks drove down the street, no more red lights or wailing sirens.
“We’re not a real family now. Without Dad.”
I slowed. Cautiously chose my words. “We’re still real. And we don’t have Dad.”
He cycled back to this word many times after this first. “But we’re not normal.”
No. This wasn’t normal. If you can’t trust your parents to hang around and raise you, to fulfill that fundamental promise, then what do you trust?
I remember thinking I owed him directness. 11-year-old style, but direct all the same. It was the place to begin. I spoke carefully. “We’re not normal if normal is only the way we were. But we can build new normal.”
I had no idea where or when new normal would appear. But on that night where seemed less problematic than how. My desperate fear was we were ruined. That what had happened was so vast, life was unrecoverable. What if my son knew my thoughts and was pleading for a different answer?
Only later did I have sufficient clarity to realize his next words shifted everything, became our point of origin. Maybe saved my life.
“Life will never be as good again, will it?”
An 11-year-old with a life expectancy of about 80 years believed that normal, family, and good had all disappeared with the discovery of a body in our garage. The best was done. All downhill from that moment. He was pondering and piecing together his beliefs about life and his world.
“We will always think of tonight with unspeakable sadness. And you will have an incredible life. I promise. I promise.”
I said it. I was responsible for making it real. With no plan but for words I spoke and sealed as we held each other.
So beginning now I open my journals of long ago and add some of the lessons I learned on the way to building new normal. I offer the coming weeks and months of journal entries and reflections to anyone who might currently be doing the same grueling work we did.
I hope my experience will act as a flashlight down a path. Not because I can make the journey better or easier but with the idea that on occasion I might echo another’s anguished thoughts and render at least one step less solitary. Less lonely. Less desolate.
“How will we do it, Mommy?”
“The same way you eat an elephant, baby. One bite at a time.”
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