What follows is a true story but not an autobiography. It is the story of one part of our family life which has caused me to dig deep into my resources to discover if survival was an option. That sounds dramatic, I know, but after all survival comes in many forms beyond the merely physical.
Bereavement is part of all of our lives in any number of ways, from the obvious one of separation from loved ones by death, to divorce, retirement and loss of health, to name but a few, and many of the feelings of bereavement are universal. While what follows concentrates on physical bereavement, it may be that some of the emotions expressed will be familiar to those who have experienced loss in different ways.
When our son, Jim, died from a heroin overdose at the age of 21, Graeme and I were thrust into a new and deeply confusing world in which we could find few signposts to guide us on our way. The world we thought we knew became altogether darker and more dangerous.
Perhaps I can liken the experience as suddenly moving from sunshine to thick, swirling fog, or discovering that the ground you thought you could trust has suddenly given way beneath your feet to reveal a huge, yawning chasm. Anyone who has experienced sudden, traumatic loss of whatever kind may have an inkling of what I mean, though each person will find their own way to describe it.
(page xiii 'Introduction')
'In his last letter to us, written a few weeks before he died, Jim concluded, 'See you soon (relatively)'. These few words, written in the expectation that we would soon go to visit him in Hong Kong where he was then living, became very poignant as we grappled with despair and tried to find hope for a meaningful future.'
(page xv 'Introduction')
I will never forget the last time we took him to Manchester Piccadilly station to catch the train south. This was once again an immensely painful separation for us; once again it was bereavement. It was as if he wanted or needed to blank us out - maybe the anguish, whatever caused it, was just too much for him. We had driven away from his childhood home, at one time so much loved by him, and he never even turned for a last look. When we got to the station I tried to hug him and he barely received it. Graeme and I watched him walk away from us to the station entrance. He never once turned round to wave to us. We struggled to hold in our tears long enough to watch him disappear and that was the last time we ever saw him alive - a thin, dejected young man with his back resolutely turned towards us.
Many before us have walked the road of sudden traumatic bereavement and many have walked it since, and I'm sure anyone who has been there knows that it is almost impossible to put into words how it feels when you get news like that in the middle of the night - or any other time of day, I suppose. Is there even any value in trying to put into words something so terrible, so visceral? I am not sure really, but maybe the unbearable has to be borne in words as well as in real life, so that others who want to support friends or family members may understand as far as possible why it is that it takes for ever for life to be normal again and why those so affected may truly believe for a while that they will never smile again. There are, of course, many metaphors to describe the indescribable, and all metaphors only go so far. Having said this, the best I can come up with is having a limb ripped off or an organ ripped out. 'Amputation' is too tidy, a word that carries images of clinical operating theatres and anaesthesia, and there was nothing clinical about this.
It was during these demanding months that I coined the phrase 'walking with a limp' to describe for myself how I thought the rest of my life would work out. As far as I was concerned, I was going to be permanently marked by losing Jim and would bear the wound of deep grief in my soul for ever. The question I asked myself was, did this have to be seen as a negative response to the loss, or were there ways in which it could be seen as positive? To me, the limp was a metaphor, expressing my deep woundedness, whether or not that wound was obvious on the outside or only apparent to God and myself. As I began to explore this, I realised I was hardly the first person to think in such terms. Many other people had been there before me and had showed me it was possible to survive terrible tragedies and to carry the wounds with grace. This is something I have learnt from walking through my own personal furnace - when you go through deep trauma of any kind, it is natural for a while to feel as if you are the only one who has been through such pain and no one else can ever understand. After a while you realise that this is not the case and, in fact, there are many who have gone before you and can accompany you on your awful journey.
As I worked my way through this chapter, and then checked and reviewed what I had written, I was struck by the fact that, unplanned, all the subtitles were written using the present participle(once an English teacher, always an English teacher!) - waiting, continuing, dancing, living, weaving. How appropriate this seems to me . . . my life is active and continuing in a variety of positive ways. I believe, by the grace of God, I have been able to weave in losing Jim as part of my life, and though it is the opposite of what I would have chosen, his death has made me stronger. The truth remains that I would choose to have him back today if I could, but I can't, so I needs must make what I can of the life I have until I see him again and understand more fully. So perhaps, finally, I am finding some cosmos, some harmony, some sense of flourishing despite the pain and sorrow, and I thank God for this.