About “Dear Andrew” and About Me
It seems perfectly natural, doesn’t it? If you have a question, go look it up in a book. I’ve been doing it all my life. I was taught how to do research in school, and now it’s my first instinct. If I need a fact, I find a book with the answer. If I don’t have the right book, I go to the library or the bookstore. Well, some time ago, I found myself browsing aimlessly in a bookstore when it suddenly occurred to me that, indeed, I was looking for answers, but answers to what? I could not find answers until I knew what my questions were, and there were no books in the store that could help with that. Where could I look, then?
That was when the idea seriously crossed my mind that I had to finish my letters to my son, Andrew, letters that I had been writing for years, in part to help me discover my own questions and perhaps answers as well.
You see, on May 19, 1988, I watched helplessly as Andrew was hit by a truck and killed. He was eight years and eight months old, almost to the hour. And so I wrote. I wrote to him because I had to find a way to stay close, to continue to relate to him, and to find myself again. And I wrote to share my letters, so as not to feel so alone after what I have learned has been the most isolating experience of my life. I would not, for the world, wish that anyone live where I live, and have lived, but I do accept and cherish visitors.
Grief and loss are inextricably bound up with fundamental life questions, so no grief is simple. There are many issues that can arise, from guilt to anger, from blame to fundamental questioning of the whole fabric of being. Ultimately, what is the hardest about any grief is the sense of pure loss.
I have learned, both from my own experience and from that of others, that grief is not well understood, nor well tolerated, in our society. Grief is an inherently isolating state. The sense of loss and dislocation contribute to a general lack of connection with oneself, and with the universe as a whole. Certainly, it does not help anyone for us to compare losses, with the possible conclusion that one loss is “worse” than another. All losses require a difficult grief process. All deaths are untimely. All deaths are too soon. Ultimately, all losses prompt the same fundamental and unanswerable questions, especially, "why?"
Loss is not something we get over. We are changed forever by the loved ones in our lives and equally by their passing. No wonder that grief work is the hardest work we will ever do. It is not, as our society would like us to believe, over in two weeks so that we can "move on".
For me, the pure shock of my son’s death lasted about a year, after which I began to experience the intense pain of the reality of our loss, both mine and Andrew’s. In dreams, I experienced myself as separated from him by a low, unscalable wall, a wall that extended indefinitely in all directions, a wall that left me to mourn alone on a sun-drenched, shadowless plain. Why was he in the street at that time? Why didn’t the driver see him and stop? These were imponderables, yes, but often all-consuming, sometimes to the point of obsession.
Then, in time, the pain went too deep for words and even for tears. There was a core of loss and grief that seemed to concentrate in the center of my being, where the “self” is located, and every thought, every idea, every perception passed it by en route to my consciousness. In the process, then, a piece of the sadness, like a weight, was added onto the traveler and all that I saw, all that I knew and all that I felt were a part of the pain, and, in turn, partook of the pain. And so there was a heaviness that was a companion to all I was and all I did.
At this time, I learned to minimize the distance between my inner world and my outer world by sharing with accepting friends and family. However, when that was impossible, I found that, if I mirrored my inner feelings by creating an outward symbol, even a small and anonymous one like a candle, then I could succeed in building a bridge that overcame my emotional isolation.
Sometimes, though, the most important thing to do is the hardest. Someone we have loved has died and we are in pain. We are vulnerable. And now, we need to be open to new love, not as a replacement, but to continue to allow our hearts to grow. That is the choice of life. How soon? Immediately? No, not necessarily, but soon. We must commit to life not just because it honors our loved ones, but because it leads to the questions and answers that we need to continue to heal, and because anything less is just survival, a kind of emotional stasis.
Finally, we must commit to life because never to love feels empty, much as to love and lose feels empty. But the former is the emptiness of a dry, unused glass, overlaid with the dust of discarded dreams. The latter is the emptiness of a drained mug of thick, sweet nectar, its sides still moist with poignant memories, at once the most fragile and the most durable of our possessions. I do understand. Knowing does not make doing less frightening.
I know that it sounds strange to say, “Choose life”, as if I were saying, “Wear sunscreen”. It sounds silly or, worse, trivial, but it is neither.
Can we simply decide one day that we will commit to life and that’s it, from now on we are on the “right” path? Probably not. Sometimes, during the darkest nights, we must decide again, and again… Decide as often as you have to, but choose life. Since 1988, I have welcomed new love twice, first for my wonderful wife, Linda, and then for our lovely daughter, Hannah. I have many cherished new friends and family. All have enriched my life immeasurably.
How long will this take? The answer is that there is no timetable for grief. It ebbs and flows and seems to replay its basic themes from different perspectives in the gradual unfolding of our lives. Grief has its own energy and its own drives, and each new loss tends to recall previous losses. Sometimes, grief will not be denied.
My own mourning turned a corner on the 10th anniversary of Andrew’s death, when I experienced a flood of memories of his life that, for the first time, transcended the overwhelming memory of his death. My major task, it now seems, has been to learn how I would continue to be Andrew’s father after his death. Even though death ends a life, it does not end a relationship.
Twenty eight years after Andrew’s death, grief is not over, but I have integrated it into my core being and I tolerate its less and less frequent demands. I know my questions now and maybe even some of the answers.
Thank you for paying me this visit today. Remember, build those bridges between your worlds, outer and inner, and, by all means, choose life.