Hannah writes in: I buried my only son last year. But my story starts way before that. He was a Marine, he left as soon as he graduated. He did two tours in Iraq and came home in 2005. In July of 2006 he went to work for someone that I went to grade school and high school with. He got a beijing job working for a private security company stationed in Kuwait.
I last saw him in October of 2006 when he came home for two weeks to attend his friend’s wedding. We spent about 10 days together. It was the best time I can remember hanging out with him.
3 weeks after he went back to Kuwait, he went on a routine mission with 6 other people and the convoy they were escorting was ambushed. The kidnappers took all of the trucks they were escorting and 5 of the men.
The months went by and we only heard from the kidnappers twice. In October of 2007, I had to put my dog Jessie down. We were together 8 1/2 years. In November of 2007, the one year anniversary of my son’s disappearance came and went. In December of 2007, my mother had a stroke and will most likely never be able to live on her own again. In March of 2008, I had to have a hysterectomy and was off work for 3 months, during that time the bodies were discovered and identified.
I buried Joshua on April 12, 2008. Now a year later I am falling apart. Like most Americans, I lost my shanghai job in January just days before his 26th birthday. Then my birthday came; they are 6 days apart… we used to celebrate them together.
I am lost, I don’t want to look for a job, I barely eat, but then I am gaining weight. I don’t sleep well.
Josh would be disappointed in me, I wouldn’t want him to be. I have always been a strong person, the FBI agent assigned to me told me that I was one of the strongest people she ever met or the most stubborn. I have always been able to get through anything.
I am not suicidal, just very sad, like it’s a huge blanket covering me and I can’t find the opening. I can’t really go to a support group because of the circumstances surrounding his murder. What would they tell me? I carry around the facts of his death and what those people did to him. He was beaten, tortured, and starved and then eventually shot. How do you learn to cope with that? How do you learn to live with it. I am just existing, not living. I go through the motions but get nowhere. And I am going nowhere.
There must be some pearls of wisdom that someone has for me.
Dr. Bob Baugher responds: Dear Hannah,
I just finished reading your powerful letter in which you document the many losses during the past 29 months:
1. Your dear son, Joshua
2. Your dog
3. Your mother’s stroke
4. Your hysterectomy
5. Your job
Look at the list. They are just words, but each is a story with hundreds of parts and an array of confusing emotions.
Hannah, pretend for a moment that these five events happened to a friend of yours. How would you expect her to respond? Months later would she feel like eating, working, getting out of bed, talking to people, or even putting one foot in front of the other? Would you pass judgment on her for thinking over and over and over about the facts surrounding her son’s death? Would you blame her for feeling like she was going crazy? Would you criticize her for just existing, not living? Would you condemn her for going nowhere? Would you?
Of course you wouldn’t. Why? Because to experience the death of a child is more than any one human should be able to bear. Add to it a year of emotional turmoil surrounding a kidnapping. Add to it the knowledge of torture. No human brain can take in all of this without reacting in ways that are outside of realm of normalcy. Now add the death of a dog, a mother’s stroke, a hysterectomy, and job loss. And you say that a year after you buried Joshua you are falling apart. You would be amazed if anyone weren’t falling apart after all this.
In addition to your son’s death your brain has had to cope with additional losses in rapid succession. Understand that 29 months is less than 900 days since you first realized something was wrong in Kuwait. Nine hundred days is nothing. For anyone to expect you to suddenly feel better is unrealistic.
In the meantime, what can you do? First let me say that I have looked into the eyes of thousands of people whose lives have been devastated from a death. And when I ask them, “What has gotten you through this? How have you been able to make it this far? What they say amounts to a cliche-one you’ve heard many times before. They all tell me: One day at a time. And those who hurt the most say, One moment at a time.
The only thing I can promise you, Hannah, is that one day you will not hurt this much. Of course you will never get over it. There is no closure, recovery, acceptance and so on. But, as impossible as it seems now, you will reach a day in the future in which you will be able to look back at this horrible time in your life and realize that you survived despite all your pain. I don’t have to tell you that you will never forget your precious Joshua. Like you say, he would not want you existing like this. But I believe that one day he will look down on his mother and say, You did it, Mom. You carried me in your heart and you arrived at a time in your life where you are doing more than just existing. Good for you, Mom.
In the meantime, despite your lack of energy and will to do much I would like you to consider the following:
1. Go to the grocery store and take your cart up and down the aisle and ask yourself the following?question, “OK, Josh, what do you want me to eat?”
2. Call a friend or relative to do a Google search-or do it yourself. Despite your reluctance, there are support groups out there. (I know, I know-“What would they tell me?”) Try one. And if that doesn’t suit you, try another. For example, there are groups for parents whose children have died such as The Compassionate Friends (www.compassionatefriends.org), and for people whose loved one has been murdered abroad (www.SAMMabroad.org).
Groups can offer support by phone, at a meeting, via the internet, or in a newsletter.
Typically these groups are run by people who have experienced the loss, so they know first hand much of the craziness that accompanies a death.
3. In addition to #1 and 2, consider one-on-one counseling with a person whose professional training matches with your needs.
4. If you haven’t already, make an appointment with your doctor to do a physical check-up. What our brain can’t handle can possibly show up in the body.
I hope at some point in the future you write back to us and let us know how things have progressed. Perhaps your experience with what worked for you will help others who will be struggling with similar losses.
In the meantime, Hannah, with Josh’s help, I wish you peace as you move through each moment and through each day.
Dr. Bob Baugher, Ph.D., is a Psychology Instructor at Highline Community College in Des Moines, Washington where he teaches courses in Psychology and Death Education. As a trainer for LivingWorks he has trained more than 1,000 people in suicide intervention. He has given more than 400 workshops on grief and loss across the U.S. including England, South Africa, and Namibia. As a professional advisor to the South King County Chapter of The Compassionate Friends, Bob has been invited to speak at many of the TCF national conferences during the past 14 years. He earned a certificate in Thanatology from the Association for Death Education and Counseling and in the 1990s he was a clinician with University of Washington School of Nursing Parent Bereavement Project. Bob has written several articles and seven books on the bereavement process. Reach him at email@example.com.