An Absent Connection: Eight Years After a Child-Loss

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This October it will be 8 years since my 10-year-old son David was tripped up during a football practice, and suffered an acute subdural hematoma which took him forever from our lives. He is always in my thoughts. Every day his smile and love runs through my day. Every benchmark of growing up his little sister Abby, now 15, takes reminds me he is not here. I don’t cry about it most days, I have long since come to terms with the incredible sadness and integrated it into who I am now, but he is always right there, peeking through, reminding me that he should be here. Life is good these days. There is lots of love, and lots of laughter, and good things have happened for me since his death.

But the fact he was robbed of a long life is always present. And it never fails to surprise me the new things I am still learning about my grief journey. After 8 years, people who have not been through such an unnatural loss might not understand that grief is a journey that you will be on for the rest of your life. And new doors open all the time, in the most seemingly unrelated events.

I was standing in one of my favorite pizza joints the other day. The restaurant was busy, and there were families all around. In the corner of the eatery was a small bank of dispensing machines where a kid can put in a coin and get either some candy, or toy, or temporary tattoo in a plastic ball. As I watched a few young boys between the ages of 5 and 10 run back and forth to the machines, I giggled at their antics and interplay. Eventually they all ran off through the dining room to join their families. It made me smile. I always enjoy seeing kids being kids.

Then suddenly, one of the young boys, maybe 9 or 10, returned to the machines with a coin. He had blond hair, like David had. But even more so, he had a quiet focus and determination in what he was doing that struck me hard. He was methodical and deliberate in his quest to gain a treasure from the dispenser. With great care, he placed the coin into its slot and turned the handle with meticulous resolve. The gears turned and the sound of a small plastic egg dropped behind the dispenser’s door. He lifted the little silver flap and retrieved his prize. There was a laser like focus on his face as he examined the mystery item he had received. With intense attention, he cracked the sphere open and scrutinized his new reward. I was flooded with thoughts of David. Suddenly it was David standing in front of me, looking at his new-found booty. David was a gentle soul, thoughtful and intelligent. He was the kind of young man who observed before jumping in. He was never one to draw attention to himself. But he was intense in his focus to the world around him and his curiosity was palpable with anything he cared about. And then it struck me, as the thoughts of David swept over me; I had not spent time observing a young man do this kind of discovery since David had died. I understood this little boy who was so intently obsessed with this toy in a very personal way. I too had that kind of laser like fascination with the world when I was young. It was one of the things I understood so very well about my son. I was always more of a show-off, a ham who was more outgoing than David, but we shared a hunger to understand the world around us, and a thirst for knowledge and understanding. And now here it was in front of me, reminding me of myself, but more importantly reminding me of an intense personal connection I had with my departed son which I had shied away from for the last 8 years since David had died. The youthful intensity of a hungry mind devouring the world’s possibilities.

I have young nephews, and have seen them a lot in the intervening years, but never have I taken the time to “see” this in them. Of course, I have seen a similar quality in my daughter, but it does not strike me the same way because I have always seen it in her and she has her own unique focus and interest. No, it was something particular about the way this young man held his fortune, consuming what he was seeing and discovering his new joy that threw me for a loop. In that moment, I missed David more acutely than I had in quite some time. There was a connection with this small stranger that brought my boy’s laughter and wonder home in a way I had not allowed myself to feel in a very long time. It was a feeling of connection I had not felt for anyone else in 8 years. It was a father son thing. It was a me and David thing. It was intensely personal, and reminded me just how much I had missed him in an entirely new way.

Satisfied with his new swag, the young man walked back into the dining room. My number was called from the counter right away, and I gathered my pizza. As I walked to the car David was walking with me. Memories of him playing with his video games, building a model together, working on school projects, or simply discovering a new skill, went with me to the car. He rode home with me, in the backseat where he used to sit. David was with me. I could hear him playing with the unknown toy he had just gotten. It was visceral and primitive.

It’s been eight years. There are parts of who we were that have been lost forever. And there are things so intimate that passed between us I have not let myself see them since he died. I am thankful that I have dealt with my grief so that moments like this do not undo me or thrust me into a torrent of tears as they once might have, but they still are surprising and off-putting. Moments like this are as horrible as they are wonderful. They keep David and the love I have for him alive, but they also keep the grief alive. It’s true, grief never totally heals, but more importantly, love never dies.

I miss you pal.

Peace, Light, and Laughter to all who are traveling a grief journey. You are not alone.

 

Bart Sumner

More Articles Written by Bart

Bart Sumner is an actor, screenwriter, and improvisational comedy teacher and performer currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his wife Leslie, daughter Abby, and two dogs. Originally from Union County New Jersey, he is a graduate of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey with a BA in Theatre Arts. He spent over 20 years chasing the Hollywood dream in Southern California. He is a proud member of The Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and has performed in films, television, musical theatre and some of the most prestigious comedy clubs in America. He is also a produced screenwriter and television writer. His son, David, died in 2009 from a severe brain injury suffered while playing football. He is the founder and CEO of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit HEALING IMPROV, which provides no-cost Comedy Improv Grief Workshops to people struggling with finding the road forward after loss. Since beginning his work to help others find a path forward through grief, he has spoken and presented nationally on the subject of grief with The Compassionate Friends USA and the Bereaved Parents of the USA. He authored the book HEALING IMPROV: A JOURNEY THROUGH GRIEF TO LAUGHTER, which shares his own grief journey and details how Healing Improv Workshops work while sharing some of the improv exercises used in the workshops. He has been a contributing writer for www.TheGriefToolbox.com and www.HelloGrief.com as well as writing the blog "My Stories From The Grief Journey" at the Healing Improv website. He enjoys pizza and making people laugh.

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  • Laraine says:

    Dear Bart,
    Thank you for that lovely article you shared with Helping Parents Heal. It truly resonated with me. It will be 9 years in October since my son, David, passed. Although he was also blond, like your David, he was older when he passed. He was 34 and had received his MBA just months before his passing. I love it when I experience an incident such as you described and David is momentarily brought back to life in my mind.
    Blessings,
    Laraine

  • Catherine McNulty says:

    I love that you say that the memories are as horrible as they are wonderful. The dichotomy of grief is fascinating to me and its the smallest of moments that can propel us back to the moments we shared. It’s comforting to know that no matter how far removed we can be in time from their death, that they will always be with us.