At 5:30 a.m., I opened my eyes and focused on the clock. I felt unsettled. I rose out of my bed, rushed to my 24-year-old son’s room, and opened the door. His empty bed was still neatly made.
I grabbed my phone and looked for a text from him. At 11:02 p.m. he had texted, “Thanks. Love” in response to a text from me telling him he could find dinner in the fridge if he wanted it when he got home.
“Where are you?” I frantically texted. No response. This was totally out of character for my responsible youngest of four, who had just begun a new job.
My kind, compassionate son, who could make anyone he’d just met feel important, had worked very hard for this new position where he could finally earn a real paycheck. His charm and good looks were magnetic, and he was one hell of a rock drummer. My greatest joy was hanging out at one of his gigs, hooting and cheering as he and his band, Jubilo Drive, blew the roof off.
Not coming home when he had a new job to get to? That was not Eric.
I opened the door to my daughter’s room, and woke her with my panicked voice, “Have you heard from Eric?”
Before she could answer, we both heard a loud banging at the front door, three heavy thuds. I instantly felt sick. Call it mother’s intuition. That soul-to-soul connection with one’s child cannot be denied.
Vanessa and I bolted down the stairs. In those seconds, I had no desire to know, and yet I had to know. I grabbed the doorknob and jerked the door open to see a professionally dressed woman, and behind her at the bottom of the steps, an officer.
The woman introduced herself as the coroner and the officer as the sheriff. She asked if Eric Cruz lived here, and I managed to choke out a yes. She went on to say, “I’m sorry, but Eric was involved in an auto accident and has passed away.”
Vanessa and I doubled over in anguish and complete incredulity. The world was spinning out of control. All I could say again and again was, “This was not supposed to happen! This was not supposed to happen!” But it did happen.
After my son’s death, I was in a deep, dark abyss. I felt physical pain in my stomach and chest which remained for many weeks. I could hardly eat. I was numb, except for the moments throughout each day where the despair took over and I wailed uncontrollably until the wave of grief had passed through my body.
All I could focus on was breathing and getting through the next minute. As my distraught husband summoned up the strength to plan Eric’s funeral services along with some amazing friends, I could do almost nothing to help.
How could I possibly live anymore?
Many well-intentioned people told me that he was in a “better place.” They told me it was “his time.” They told me to be grateful that I had other children. They told me to be strong. No. No. Thank you, but no.
The “best place” for him to be is right here with me and his family. He had so much more to do here. Yes, I love my other children as deeply as I love him, but that doesn’t change the depth of the loss. Eric will never be replaced.
And be strong? Really? I think I have the right to fall apart when my child dies. These comments are not helpful at all for someone who is newly bereaved.
What was helpful was very simple. People just came to be with me and my family. People showed up and hugged us and said they were so sorry. People listened to us talk about Eric and shared stories about his antics and awesome personality. I had one friend who came and said almost nothing at all. But she was there, she stayed and she witnessed our pain. That was more helpful than anyone might think.
The club of bereaved parents is a club no one wants to join. The worst possible thing had happened, and I had no idea how I would find a way to heal.
But as I moved through my journey of grief, I also began to search. Search for answers, if there were any. Search for meaning, if there was any. And search for my son. In my soul I knew he still existed; I knew he was still with us. I just couldn’t see him or touch him anymore.
I found an excellent therapist who was also a grief specialist. Here, I was in a safe space where I could cry and talk all I wanted about my son, share pictures of him, and tell stories of his kindness, his compassion, and his amazing talent.
This was vital because in our society most people do not want to talk about death. It’s too uncomfortable, too awkward. And if you talk about your loved one too much, they turn away, or possibly even tell you to get over it.
One friend of mine would regularly tell me about someone he knew who had lost a child and was “grieving too long.” You know, they needed to get over it. I think he wanted to make sure I was not going to do the same thing. People are uncomfortable watching other people in grief, and they would feel much better if the grievers would just be happy again.
My therapist told me that in time I would develop a new relationship with Eric. I was perplexed by this. It sounded pretty crazy. But I would find out she was right.
Within a week of Eric’s passing, I literally Googled “grief” and found grief expert, David Kessler, who had authored many books about grief and also offered classes and online grief groups. From him, I learned about how it was possible to grieve fully as well as live fully, and how I could remember my child with more love than pain. David’s compassion and genuine nature drew me in to look deeply at this thing called grief, how to honor it, and how to learn from it.
I began to read book after book. Not only books about grief, but also about death, the afterlife, and near-death experiences. These books began to not only reshape my understanding of where my son was now (which actually was not far away), but also began to enlighten me with a new perception of who God is ― not an old man in the sky, but the Creator and the Source of all Love.
This kind of profound loss often causes people to lose their faith. I can’t say I lost mine, but it was blown wide open. The neat and tidy box I had God in exploded. To say I was angry and confused was an understatement. But in time, as I searched and pondered and prayed, the pieces fell back together, in a more profound and complete way than I had ever imagined.
And then eight months after Eric’s passing, I was led to an amazing nonprofit for bereaved parents. Helping Parents Heal provides an online platform for parents to come together, share their experiences, and support one another, as well as offering local in-person group meetings.
Here, finally, was a place to express anything I wanted to about my pain and sorrow of the loss of my son and how much I missed him, and dozens of people would comment to tell me how handsome he was or what a beautiful smile he had. Everyone in the organization, including the administrators, had lost a child and was there to listen and share. The feeling of love was overwhelming!
Helping Parents Heal’s philosophy that our children are still right here with us fell right in line with what I had been experiencing. We have very open discussions about the continued connections we can have with our children.
I had never doubted this as I had already felt Eric’s presence, which is something I can’t talk to just anybody about. Most people would tell me it’s just my imagination, or it’s the grief. But here I could share a sign from my son and no one would doubt it. They would share in the joy.
I have heard a miracle described as a shift in perception. If this is true, then the new perspective I have gained on this journey of grief is a miracle. Healing is a miraculous process. And the way I now look at Eric’s transition, as well as all the events that have since unfolded, is truly miraculous.
It has been five years and five months since that horrific day. I still miss my son more than anything and I still have moments where I cry and feel the pain in the missing. But I also have found a sweetness in the love and connection I have with him.
I retired from teaching three years ago. I now spend as much time as I can doing what feeds my soul. I walk at our local arboretum, I do yoga, and I teach tap dance on Saturdays at a local community college.
My greatest priority is my family. In the beginning, we had no way of knowing if this tragedy would destroy us, but my husband, our three other children and I have become closer. We work around our busy schedules to spend as much time together as possible. We text each other daily and often share our dreams of Eric or signs from him. We know he is with us. Why wouldn’t he be? We still love him, and he still loves us.
And in doing all these things, I have found joy again.
There was no way for me to see the possibility of healing on the day the sheriff and coroner pounded on my front door. I had no reason to believe I could ever climb out of the darkness when my husband and three surviving children, and I stood at Eric’s gravesite at the cemetery to bury his ashes.
But this is the miracle. It doesn’t happen a week later, or a month later, or not necessarily even a year later. It is a gradual process, like the rising sun. This kind of healing cannot be learned in a crash course. It cannot be binge-watched. It is meant to drop in like rose petals from heaven, one at a time, day by day, until one day you have a flower, then a bouquet; then a rose bush, then a garden.
We never “get over” the loss of a child or any loved one. We will never finish healing one day and say, “Glad I’m done with that.” Instead, we learn how to grow our lives around grief. We learn to find meaning in our lives by honoring those we lost. And in some strange way, we learn that joy and grief can co-exist.