Tuesday, October 29, 2013

#27: My Grief Journey

My Grief Journey
Judy C. Googins, M.D.
A Speech Delivered at the Annual Day of Remembrance at the Children’s Park of Tyler, Texas
October 26, 2013

          Normally, when I speak to a group, I say, “I am happy to be here”, but I find it difficult to say that, because my reason for being here is not just because I am a Psychiatrist and familiar with mental health issues and the grief process, but because I am also a member of this group that is here assembled, this group to which none of us would have willingly chosen to belong. For, we are the unwilling members of a temporary foster family made up of those left behind, those left to grieve, and those left to pick up the pieces and go on when a child dies. It’s as if we have been taken from our true, happy, and whole families and thrust into this one, wherein none of us is complete, each missing a part, and that absent part has left a hole in our hearts.
           We are gathered here today to remember and to celebrate those children who passed on, to acknowledge to each other that we understand, to support one another in our grieving and healing process, acknowledging that the loss of a child is something uniquely painful and devastating—in a way described once by a couple further along in their grief journey than I:
“You never get OVER it. You just learn to LIVE WITH it.”
          My particular grief journey began when I received a page while at work during a group therapy session where I was co-therapist, saying that there was an emergency at home. When I called my house, a neighbor handed the phone off to a policeman who told me that my son had been shot. I, in my shock, asked “which one?”,  clueless that my first-born son was depressed and had decided to end his life.  The officer informed me that the paramedics were working on my son Joshua and that he would be transported by helicopter to a hospital in Dallas.
          When I arrived at the hospital, I was met by a chaplain who took me to a private room. There, I was joined by a physician who told me that they had tried to revive my son, but that he had died. Knowing that I, as a physician, would want to know the details, he carefully explained how my son had been found and the various resuscitation efforts the team had tried. I then went to a trauma room where my boy, one month shy of his sixteenth birthday, lay , still warm, on a gurney—with his hands wrapped in plastic and a small bullet hole in his temple.
          I touched his face, stroked his hair, and tried with some fiber of my soul to say goodbye to my boy already in a man’s body, stretched out lifeless in that empty, sterile room.
          My pastor and his wife joined me there, and they prayed with me. I felt a peace that still astounds me, that “peace that passes understanding”, and, as I left the trauma room, the halls were lined with people who had driven from our church in Terrell to Dallas—people who loved our family and were praying.
          Some of those in the church family cleaned our home that evening and specifically the room where my son had shot himself. They even took his blood-stained clothes home  and washed them and steam-cleaned my carpets to get the blood out. Another family took my other two children home with them, and that is where I told Tommy and Jenny that their brother had not made it, and there we wept and held each other through the night.
          We grieved differently. I have found this to be true in the many people that I see who are grieving a terrible loss. Tommy, who found his brother bleeding on the bathroom floor and called 911, kept seeing the event replayed in his mind like an unbidden video recording and was numb. He kept asking if there was anything else he could have done—he at 13 years old feeling he had failed at being his brother’s keeper. Jenny, at only five years old, but having seen her brother bleeding and carried out on a stretcher and put on a helicopter, took the hand of each visitor who came to the house and explained what had happened, where the two of them  had stood, where Joshua was lying, what he looked like, how her brother Tommy had called the ambulance and tried to cover her eyes and protect her. She talked her feelings through over and over. Tommy kept it inside and later developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
          My ex-husband blamed me and responded to my phone call by saying “How could you let this happen?” He delayed coming to be with our other children and wanted to refuse them the right to see their brother at the funeral home after his body was prepared.
          And I—I felt that I was walking around in a war zone after witnessing a blast, where the massive explosion had dulled my hearing so that I couldn’t quite make out what anyone else was saying, and I wondered aimlessly among the bodies, the destruction, and the rubble. Still, I had to tend to the needs of my children and my patients, to continue working so that I could complete my residency that year. Yet, I felt like I was walking around with shrapnel in my heart—like I had an open wound with jagged metal sticking out of it and blood pouring down, and I could literally feel it! Yet, no one else seemed to see it or know that I was in such physical pain that I could hardly breathe. And, that pain was like a burning—burning away the things that no longer mattered and bringing into focus what really did.

Zechariah 13: 9 says

“And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’” 

          Joshua’s absence left a greater hole than the sum of the three of us occupied that were left behind. There was no cutting up and roughhousing with his brother in the den, no predictable sound of his feet hitting the floor every morning at 6:30 followed by the shower being turned on on the floor above me, no drumming on the counter tops and anything else with a surface, no more kidding me and pointing to a spot on my shirt then tweaking my nose, no more Hawaiian blizzards at the Dairy Queen or strawberry jam at breakfast, no more watching his sweet face in the youth choir at church.
          I struggled with what I could have done, what I should have known, what I ought to have seen--as a psychiatrist, of all things! I felt punished for past deeds of disobeying God, yet I know that we do not have a God Who is punitive and bullying.
          I believed that I was the terrible mother that my ex-husband thought  me to be. After all, I was unable to prevent my own son’s suicide.
          And, I questioned God. Why didn’t He in His all powerful state stop my son from pulling that trigger? Yet, I knew that my God would not strip anyone of his right to free-will for even a moment because He created us free to choose. He is not a bullying, arm-twisting God. We live in a fallen world where we suffer the consequences of sin and of our own and others’ choices. However, one day, He, the God of the universe, will redeem it, and I await that day.
Romans 8:21-23
…"the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
          I demanded to understand, indeed prayed and looked for understanding in every little piece of paper, in between the lines of Josh’s suicide note, in every face of the friends that came to the funeral or dropped by our house.  But God showed me that I didn’t have to have understanding as long as I have HIM.
Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us
 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him,  and He will direct your path.”
          I remember saying aloud to God and writing in my journal that I would never be happy again, could never imagine myself ever being happy again—but I underestimated my God and the power of His resurrection. For, He has promised beauty for ashes, a spring in the desert, and he understands our sorrows.
Isaiah 53:3 “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;”
          So, I kept going. Some of my friends and colleagues were not helpful, saying such things as, “At least this loss will make you a better psychiatrist.” Others asked on the sly, with hushed voices and hands shielding their mouths, “What was it? Drugs? Alcohol? Did he get a girl pregnant, or have some sort of breakup?” The audacity. The lack of compassion. Others would say, “Oh, at least you have other children”, assuming that one child can take the place of the other, thereby denying the uniqueness of each one and the depth of my pain.
          My journey included drawing ever closer to my church family, appreciating every chance I have to be with those I love, knowing each visit might be the last one, reading my Bible and writing down scripture promises on post-it notes, then putting those notes on my headboard, on my bathroom mirror, in my car, on my clipboard at work and making them part of my innermost being, reading books about the death of a child-- some of which were not helpful--, and going to counseling and to meetings of Compassionate Friends.
          My first Compassionate Friends meeting was in Houston, months after my son’s death. I could work, see patients who were hurting and suicidal or even hospitalized, and even speak to parents and teens who were considering suicide. Then, at the monthly Compassionate Friends meeting, I would go and cry the whole time. It was as if I was storing up all the sadness and pain and would let it out in that safe place where others understood how I felt and could bear me up. We, in our mutual grief, were not just victims but survivors, and we each dealt differently with our grief. I still see these coping mechanisms in the people I work with in my practice. Some suppress their feelings, like the co leader who could not bear to look at his daughter’s photographs. Some feel they cannot talk about their loss for fear that the grief floodgates, once opened, will allow such a torrent of tears and emotion that the flood will annihilate them, not knowing that the tears will not kill them but will make them more able to handle the next wave of memories and regrets..
          Some talk their feelings through, and some blame others, wanting to be absolved of any guilt or responsibility on their own parts. And, some are just angry—blaming God, the doctors, the other parent. They use the death of a child as an excuse to reject God, Who in reality is the only Being that will never reject or forsake them in their entire lives.
Deuteronomy 31:8
It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”

          Yes, God surprised me. He showed me that He could take my anger and still love me. He could tolerate my constant questioning of why and gently point me to Proverbs 3:5-6 as His answer. He brought those Christian friends around, and they allowed Jesus to minister through them to me and my family. God brought into my life another man, a—Godly, delightful, loving man of integrity from my youth that I knew and trusted, who loves the Lord and my children, who delights in making me happy and bringing me joy—including an unexpected surprise—a daughter born to us when we were forty who has been a delight and refreshment to our souls.

Psalm 127:3 New Living Translation (NLT) 

 Children are a gift from the Lord; they are a reward from Him." 

     Now, years later, I am happy. I have joy again. I have never gotten over the loss of my son, but I have learned to live with it. I miss the graduations, the friendships, the marriage, and the grandchildren that will never be. I am sorry that our nineteen-year-old will never know the older brother until she gets to heaven. And, I still visit the cemetery and have talks with the wind, sing to the Lord, pull the weeds, and pray to my God Who has never failed me yet.

Isaiah 53:4
“Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.”