It’s 2 a.m. and I roll over with annoyance. Why can’t I sleep? Why must each night be interrupted two and three times by a restless mind hell bent on clouding my head? These days I find myself in a perpetual state of fatigue, one that ironically enough fights the pull of a peaceful slumber. Tonight, though, I know sleep will be in short supply even with great effort or some sort of pill to aid me.
Falling out of bed, I make my way to the bathroom, closing the door behind me. With a flip of the switch and the inevitable squinting of the eyes, I stare down the man I see before me. He’s not surprising anymore, the man in the mirror. If he didn’t look so worn he would only look defeated. With eyes that see without focus and lips that don’t smile like they used to, I shake my head and grumble a choice few words. Many times, I’m embarrassed by what I see.
There’s nothing in this life that I hate so much as feeling helpless. It grinds on me like sandpaper on dry skin and is as irritating as a rock in my shoe. My son, Timmy, passed away two years ago last September and I remember thinking the day we put him in the ground how much of a failure I felt as his father, how utterly helpless I was in the events that led to his death. I naively thought those feelings of ineptitude would fade the further I got from his death. I was wrong.
Grief does a great many things to people and the sadness and despair that come from loss are only the most obvious. I didn’t realize that grief evolves and perpetuates into every part of your life, sprouting nasty tentacles that take hold of your family, your friends, and your work.
It changes everything. It changes how you interact with those around you. It changes the words you say. It changes how you say them. It changes the level of support you can give someone because comforting anyone in good faith anymore is no more. No longer can I tell my wife, “Everything will be okay” when one of our children is sick—I’ve said that before and now we have to talk of our son in the past tense. No longer can I say, “Everything happens for a reason” because I don’t believe it. No longer can I say, “Time heals all wounds” because I know better. No longer do I feel comfortable saying, “Congratulations” when someone reveals they are pregnant. Instead, I’ve blurted out, “here’s hoping everything goes well.” Who says that, you ask? Me, the scarred realist in the mirror, that’s who.
It extends to friendships, too. I can’t tell my friend his prayers will be answered because mine undoubtedly were not. I can’t even tell him that I am praying for him because who would want my prayers? They certainly don’t have a good track record. But I’m finding that, now, in my friend’s worst hour, I’m paralyzed by what’s happened to me and by what I can’t say. In my mind I’ve simply got nothing to contribute. None of it would be what I would want to hear.
I can’t say “It stinks, I know. I’ve been there” because I know grief is a one person prison cell with no windows and no doors. I haven’t been there. I haven’t been where he is. Nor has he been where I am. We may be in the same prison of grief (each of us having lost a child) but I’ll never be able to find his cell. His son means something different to him than my son does to me. It is not the same situation and never will be. And so I’m stuck in the sand, with my mouth open…and no words. And for that I am, and forever will be, sorry.
I want to help but know I can’t. I want to take my wife’s anxiety away but don’t have any ammunition. I want to ease my friend’s suffering but only have a Band-Aid for his hemorrhaging. I want a lot of things but most of all—I want to help those that I love. I want to FEEL like I can help.
I’ve been robbed of many things with the passing of my son—the years of his life would have undoubtedly brought countless joys to my wife and me—but the more I look at the person I see in the mirror the more I’ve come to realize I’ve lost any hint of innocence. No longer am I naïve enough to think that life will work itself out.
Even so, the gears inside my head will continue to grind and strain with effort to find something other than silence for those I love. But sometimes, there is nothing you can say. Sometimes nothing will make it better. And sometimes, maybe, just maybe, silence is the only thing that makes sense. I hope they don’t mistake my silence for indifference. I hope they know it’s the complete opposite.