Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
As I am approaching the second anniversary of my youngest son’s death, I feel as if I will never know exactly who I am for the rest of my life. There are good days and bad days, and today is a bad one. It just cannot ever make sense to me–maybe someday, far away.
It’s just so tough trying to come to terms with the senselessness of it. I was his mom for over 25 years–and now I’m wondering what happens from here? A definite piece of my life puzzle is gone forever.
Your image of the “puzzle” of your life, missing the prominent piece that was your son, is so evocative: it captures the sense of fragmentation of a once coherent picture of your life, like a jigsaw puzzle that has fallen to the floor, its pieces scattered, and at least one seemingly lost for all time. Surely many bereaved people, and bereaved parents especially, must feel this kind of brokenness and senselessness following an irreplaceable loss, and like you, are left wondering what sense life makes, what sense they make, in its aftermath. And despite the cultural adage that time heals all wounds, this is often simply not true when the death is premature, violent, or unexpected; in fact, research indicates that a worsening of many grief related symptoms is a common phenomenon as the second anniversary of the death approaches.
And yet, there may be ways to respond adaptively to a grievous loss, even when one cannot simply banish it or “get over it.” One place to start is by attempting to conserve, rather than relinquish your valued role as a mother, not only in relation to your living children, but also in relation to the son who is with you in spirit. Though it might seem paradoxical, it can be worth asking yourself, “How does my son need me to be a good mother to him now?” Might you play a central role as the loving custodian of his memory, someone who helps keep his stories alive in the world? Would you do so by sharing the proud, loving or funny moments that otherwise might be eclipsed by the dark memory of his death, or fall silent through the awkward avoidance of others? Are there aspects of his legacy you could extend, perhaps in the form of acting on his behalf to support people or causes he cared about? Might caring for yourself, as he might have cared for you as he grew to maturity, become a way of “channeling” his love for you? Might you even consider writing a symbolic AfterTalk letter to him about such questions, and then write back a response from your “inner son” to the letter from a lost and grieving mother?
In any of these ways, you will be turning from the sometimes futile effort to find meaning in his senseless death, and instead give attention to finding renewed meaning in your life now. And a part of this can involve crafting a new puzzle piece to fit in the hole, one that helps you rebuild, rather than relinquish, your identity as a mother to a precious boy who was taken from you far too soon.