Updated: May 17, 2021
In May, I celebrate my birthday and Mother’s Day. On lucky years they are the exact same date. My fondest memories are the handmade cards from the kids, planting annuals in the yard while my husband happily carted around the pots and potting soil, and bonfires with close friends and family.
As unfortunate luck would have it, May is also the month my oldest son Sean took his own life. Some years, his death date and Mother’s Day are the same– which is like the double whammy of terribleness. Sean got in trouble for drinking alcohol at the high school prom, and with fear of losing all the accolades he had worked so far to achieve, he made the most drastic choice possible to end his moment of suffering. That suffering then transferred to family and friends who sit with the profound grief brought by the sudden and violent death of an amazing human being.
Springtime leading up to May continues to be the most challenging time of the year for me. I keep thinking that it will get better, though it has not seemed to yet. I find myself feeling empty and unsettled as the seasons start to change. Getting outside for me has been extremely healing, as has watching and experiencing Sean’s younger siblings thrive and grow into amazing adults, and sharing my life with a very devoted spouse that loves me unconditionally. Educating others is also a way to help my healing, which is why I agreed to share my experience with the readers of the MHAB blog.
Healing & Rebuilding
In the years since the initial shock and trauma, we have experienced moments of sheer joy and found deeper meaning in the adventures we share together. We have laughed, cried, screamed, and sat quietly with each other. Each of these experiences is healing in its own way. Though for the most part, we just keep showing up, figuring out how we can stay connected, and sharing moments that keep us close to each other.
When I say “we,” what I mean is the broader “we.” And what exactly does it mean to keep "showing up" for each other? This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, and I want to share with you a few examples of how much it has meant to me for people to continue to "show up." I think this "we" really has saved me and given me the strength to continue to live my life and feel valuable.
Sean’s wake and funeral were attended by well over 1,000 amazing people. The line at the funeral home extended down the street. Standing room was only at the church, so there were people that stood outside. I used to think that funerals were hard to attend and that if we didn’t know the deceased I didn’t understand why we would go. How naïve I was.
So many people showed up for us and were willing to share our grief– showing us how much they loved Sean and us. In that moment of truth, I realized why we go to funerals and why we are willing to feel profoundly sad. It is incredibly difficult, gut-wrenching and I always cry. We show up because when others are at their very worst, our presence can carry some of the burden. We feel loved and cared for– I felt loved and cared for, and that is a memory that I will always hold close to my heart.
Taking Leaps of Faith
Family adventures can take on new meaning when I am in charge of the planning (which is pretty much always) and this means that the family is always a bit skeptical about what I am cooking up. A year ago on Thanksgiving, we were fortunate to travel to South America, and through a work connection, I was introduced to a local guide. "Highly recommended" is all I knew.
On that fateful Thursday morning, with the wind pounding and rain settling in, the family had other ideas as our small boat made its way to the dock. There was not a lot of dialogue, probably because of the sheer fear at the moment, though when I got in the boat the rest of the family had to decide: are they in the boat or not in the boat? They all got in the boat. We pounded for a while, but the skies cleared and we were greeted by the most beautiful snorkeling experience, including swimming with nurse sharks and lunch on a remote island. We still talk about it to this day– how very fortunate we were to trust each other enough to take the leap of faith, stay together and just get in the damn boat.
Staying in Touch
In the past 16 years, we have been blessed to attend many weddings of Sean’s friends. Some in far-away places and others close to home. We say "yes" every time! Some of the very best memories with this group of close-knit friends have been at these joyous gatherings. And I cry at every wedding I attend. I cannot help thinking about what could have been and what we have lost– all mashed up with how much we have gained by being a part of Sean's friends' lives.
I imagine they feel the same, wondering if they should even ask us to come, knowing that this is so very hard for them too. Sean was their best friend and they loved him like a brother. Now they are even closer to each other as friends because of the loss they all endured at such a young age. It has been such an honor to continue to be part of these special guys' lives, including the visits to see us when they are in town, continuing to show up, and bringing along the new baby or spouse. So very special.
Being Vulnerable & Sharing the Story
John Bernardi is a dear friend of mine and I love him like a brother. A few years ago, John asked if I would speak at the United Way kick-off breakfast. I knew it would be difficult. Being vulnerable is something I do because that is who I am. Being vulnerable in front of 350 people, some of whom didn’t know my story and were business acquaintances, would raise the risk to a new level. When I think back now to that opportunity to tell my story, to share the pain, and to suggest to others that the best we can do for each other is to keep showing up, my heart warms with gladness.
There are not enough mental health counselors in the region for all of us. As friends and family, we can do what we can to check in on the people we care about and let them know that they are loved. Several of my staff attended the breakfast that day, including my dad, who had to endure my truth once again being told to a very large crowd. Yet he showed up. Everyone stood up at the end, and I had to gulp down a sob because I was so relieved that I got through without crying and because living with my reality is just so very hard.
Mike Carpenter was one of the folks that joked with me after breakfast that he had received a standing ovation the year before too, and now we were both poster children for our suffering (even if we didn’t want to be that person.) Mike and I have learned that recovering from our traumas, while different, shares the same theme. We need others in our lives to help us and reach out. We need to ask for the help we need too. Having a sense of community is extremely important. I admire how Mike has developed the MHAB community with recovery coaches and peer advocates who host support groups and are trained to help people through all types of recovery, including trauma. If you are reading this and considering a support group, the All Ways to Recovery Community Center on MHAB Life Skills Campus hosts them online. The weekend recovery check-in is a great place to start.
I believe we can all be that person in someone's life to show up and be present. Try it. You just might find that it is the most rewarding gift you can give to another human.