Since my son Daniel died on February 28, 2014, the month of February has been rife with memories, his ghost popping up seemingly at whim.  His presence and absence coalesce, disorienting me.

His winter jacket still hangs in our basement laundry room.  It never made its way to Goodwill. Sometimes, as I’m doing the wash, it jumps out at me, causing me to momentarily think, “He must be okay if his jacket is still there. Why would a dead person own a jacket”?

It’s the same with his eyeglasses. We never disposed of them even though the Prada frames could be valuable to someone. When I see his glasses I think, “He may need them at some point,” despite the fact we donated his corneas to a stranger who presumably needed Daniel’s corneas more than his Prada frames.

His Belongings

When I come across his belongings, my heart lifts for a nanosecond, “It’s all right, he must be okay since his things are here” I think. With the next beat my heart falls and breaks all over again.

Recently our hot water heater exploded, flooding the basement and causing us to have to sift through 25 years of family stuff.  The basement has become our personal archeological site with boxes and random objects strewn about. Some things we quickly label and store while the rediscovery of other things freezes us in our tracks.

The other day we discovered a denim gym clothes duffel bag, circa 1997, that Dan sewed as an assignment for  his 7th grade home economics class. Dan had presented it to me as a Mother’s Day gift and I proudly toted it back and forth to the gym for a couple of years. It seemed perfect despite the fact that one of the plastic straps was twisted.


I recall the 7th grade school conferences in which Dan’s home economics teacher raved about him: his cardboard washer/dryer was the best in the class, his sewed straight, and he loved to cook. At the time he was  even temporarily enthusiastic about making dinners for the family – including  ground meat with vegetables in the wok with lots of soy sauce.

Another discovery was two cheap, blue, polyester snugglies (blankets with armholes), something he picked up at Five and Below for each member of the family.  He loved it when we lined up on the sofa and watched TV together. Although he probably wouldn’t admit it, he loved to snuggle.

Dan was always a thoughtful gift giver. One of my fondest memories was his purchasing my favorite movie, To Kill A Mockingbird, from a video store when was about 12 years old. I was stunned he’d paid so close attention to my movie tastes. Even though our VHS player is long gone and VHS tapes are obsolete, I’ll never part with that tape.

Different Reactions

My husband and I have different reactions to discovering these various treasures. He tears up when we discover Dan’s artwork and I cry when I read letters. Mundane exchanges like a letter from me asking, “Hi Dan, has Color War broken out yet?” and his response about how cool it was cause me to sob and long for the simplicity of those years.

There are a series of letters in which he is asking us to mail him a nail clipper and proceeds to draw stick figures of himself with his nails getting longer every week.

The last week of February I compiled letters and other written documents from his life.  I have a file starting with his birth records, all the way up through love letters sent to him, and diary entries he wrote while in ecstasy or pain over girls. There are letters of apology for disappointing grades and bad behavior, like excessive partying.

I told my husband that, when I am cremated, I would like to have this file with me. My relationship with my son will end only when my life does.  I look forward to us being together again.




Fran Gerstein

Fran Gerstein, MSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and grief specialist. Grief from the Inside Out is an intimate portrait of the first two years of her family’s grief journey, including her children’s art work, her husband’s family photographs, and her poetry and prose. Since the loss of her son, Daniel, in 2014 she has focused on helping family members survive the loss of a loved one to substance abuse or suicide and runs a support group for parents called Life After Loss in Rosemont, PA. Fran has published personal and professional articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer, clinical social work journals, and for a book called Psychotherapist Revealed. She has served as an adjunct faculty for the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr School of Social Work and Jefferson University. She is a frequent lecturer on topics including family therapy, couple’s work, eating disorders, and grief.

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