Imagine a young son who has struggled his whole life with pain and illness. His parents have cared for his physical needs and felt responsible for his emotional well-being. Now, imagine they are witnessing their twenty-five-year-old son die from a bullet by his own hand.
That profound moment began our yearlong of firsts. I know my husband had his own list of firsts, but mine began with disbelief the morning before Saint Patrick’s Day.
Each reminder of Joshua not being there was gut wrenching throughout that first year, but there was grace, too, which I never expected.
Until Easter, my twenty-four hour days included: crying and eating, and three hours of sleep. When Easter Sunday arrived, the last thing I wanted was to attend a family gathering. But I joined my relatives, even though I cried non-stop while the women gathered around to comfort me.
As the weeks dragged on, I became a recluse. I wanted to stay home where my son closed his eyes for eternal sleep, and I felt his final heartbroken goodbye. Sometimes I wandered through the house with my Bible against my chest, for it seemed my very skin would crawl from me and I would surely die.
My husband noticed that I needed a reprieve, and he took me out to dinner every night that first year. To ease the pain we both felt, we went on motorcycle rides through the countryside. We watched movies on our home screen to make us laugh.
As the Fourth of July approached, my terror grew until I felt I would suffocate. Loud popping sounds already made me jumpy and feel I would faint. How would I ever stand the noise of fireworks? We went to a retreat-like setting for the night of the Fourth. The place had no TVs or radios, and best of all, no fireworks. We relaxed and slept better than we had in months.
That first year, any mention of birthdays made us cry. Our whole family suffered from the void of no Joshua. For Joshua’s own birthday, our granddaughters wanted to remember their Uncle Joshy in some special way. My husband made a wooden candleholder, and we placed a candle inside and kept it lit in celebration of Joshua’s life. When our daughter and family arrived, we ate Joshua’s favorite cake: New Orleans chocolate. It was a quiet and respectful time to remember his birth.
Within that first year, I found out about Compassionate Friends International. I began taking their newsletter, and I called the chapter leader and we made plans to meet at a park. We greeted each other with a hug and sat on the lawn to talk. Half an hour into our visit, I knew I could trust her with my greatest fear. I said, “Susan, I feel like I’m going insane.”
She gave me a knowing look. “I felt the same way at first, but it will pass.”
That day began a new normal for me, because of Susan’s honesty for what I was going through.
Still, with the winter holidays looming, I wanted to sleep and not wake until spring. Joshua loved that time of year more than any other and now we’d go through the motions. To complicate matters, I caught one virus after another and my brain stayed fuzzy and confused. To my surprise, though, I gained comfort during the holidays by being with family.
At our Thanksgiving Day table, my husband suggested that everyone say why they were thankful. When it came my turn, I said, “I’m glad for us being together.”
To prepare for Christmas, our granddaughters and I created tree decorations and baked Uncle Joshy’s favorite cookies. With my dining room covered in glitter and candy sprinkles, we made happy memories.
On the anniversary of Joshua’s death, a small group of family members met at the cemetery. We placed Joshua’s ashes in their resting place. I grabbed a handful of dirt and let it fall onto the urn. Even though we brought a shovel to cover the hole, I got on my knees and began pushing in the dirt. With every thud made by the dirt falling, I cried harder. Soon, my son-in-law squatted next to me, patting my back with one hand and pushing the dirt with the other.
My sister-in-law joined me on the other side, and whispered, “You are the strongest person I’ve ever known.”
I responded with, “But I feel so weak.”
Never will I forget the kindness those two people showed me on another one of the hardest days of my life.
When I woke the next morning, an odd thing happened. I looked around at the thick dust that covered my furniture and shelves and gasped. I hadn’t noticed dust for a year. As I cleaned my home, a heavy burden lifted. My son’s remains rested in the ground, and a beautiful stone lay at the head of his grave. One of the inscriptions we chose for Joshua’s stone came from a crumpled note we found among his things: LOVE TRUTH.
Through this hard year of firsts, the feeling of horror on the day Joshua died has been replaced with God’s loving presence. It has helped us focus on how grateful we are for the time we had with our son.
Jean Ann Williams is a freelance writer who lives in a small valley of Southern Oregon.