by Armen Bacon
When I close my eyes, I see Alex as a toddler in his Superman cape, twirling in the sunlight, giggling, laughing, befriending lizards, iguanas, spiders, stray dogs. I see him in his wetsuit, boogey boarding, jumping waves 10 times his size. He loved our family summers at the beach. He also knew the entire Michael Jackson Thriller choreography by heart – and delighted in being scared. He adored his sister, Danielle, his girlfriend, Jessica, video games, and our cats Cozette, Shanghai and Punjetta. He had a sweet tooth for miniature marshmallows, raw cookie dough, tapioca pudding – anything made from a batter. He was my sous-chef, my Cool Whip kid. Not too long ago, someone suggested perhaps sugar was his first addiction. You know, during those last few months before we lost him, I knew he was treading water in the deep end, drowning, and I felt as if I were watching him – only my feet were planted in cement and I couldn’t reach him. A mother knows.
Anyone who knows me knows of my passion for traveling. It started in college when I spent a year studying in France. A gypsy at heart, I’m at my best when flying at 35,000 feet or traipsing along foreign soil. I always considered that first trip abroad my ‘journey of a lifetime,’ but nothing could have prepared me for the journey awaiting me three decades later. I arrived in Griefland on July 17, 2004, and can only equate it to the feeling of being hijacked in mid-air, crash landing in some unknown country without a passport, no luggage, no language, only a dialect of silence. I was suddenly lost and in no-man’s land. Someone on the other end of the phone was telling me that my son was dead from a drug overdose.
Although I had many dear friends by my side, no one had ever lost a child, and no one really knew of the internal chaos. I felt numb, cracked wide open, like I was bleeding to death. My mind was constantly on a foggy-day schedule, there was this huge presence of his absence, and each day without my child – was excruciating. Looking back – I don’t think anyone really knew what to do with me. It was like I wearing a sign that said “go away, leave me alone, I’m contagious, keep your distance.”
Grief feels like a monster sitting on your shoulders and scaring everyone away.
My new normal made me feel like an alien, a stranger in my own skin, like a puzzle missing her corners. I couldn’t sit in a bar or restaurant, go to the mall or a play or movie. No one was saying his name. There were days when I wondered if I was going insane. Was his name Alex or is his name Alex? To this day, I still stumble when someone asks me how many children I have.
Four years passed. One day, I received a call from a friend at the local university, explaining that a colleague had lost her daughter on Christmas Day. Might I meet with her, help her navigate the grief? I sent her a simple e-mail:
Nancy, my name is Armen. We have a friend, Anne, in common. She e-mailed me about the death of your daughter, Rachel. I’m wondering if we might meet somewhere. I feel an urge to wrap my arms around you. We can talk about anything you want or sit in silence. I promise we will just be two women coming together in this moment of darkness, a place I’ve come to call Griefland. I’ve been living here for four years, so I’ll show you around; we can take a quiet walk. Just the two of us….
In an unforgettable moment of fierce eye contact inside a tiny coffee shop – we met and decided to chronicle the journey, word for word, lift the veil of darkness, both of us hopeful that by shaking hands with the grief monster, we might emerge more human, better stewards of mankind, maybe even more alive.
We spent one entire year exchanging e-mails that became the genesis of our book, Griefland: An Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss, and Unlikely Friendship. Together, we explored the acute moment-to-moment experience of grief while discovering the power of female friendship, trust, intimacy and love. It was our hope that in sharing this tandem journey, we might offer readers an intimate portrait of what tragedy does to the human soul, how it changes lives, and most important, how it can be survived.
We began writing for our lives, accumulating more than 1,500 pages of emails describing in minute detail what life had become after our children’s death. We decided to record the journey after an exhaustive search for literature, looking for anything that might have offered us answers or a balm to ease our pain. When we found nothing on the book shelves, we decided to write our own book, create a language for loss, and provide a sanctuary to others, who, like us, had endured the pain of loss.
Ultimately – Nancy and I decided not to be victims. We chose, instead – to reinvent ourselves, by writing our book, by forming a community where it’s OK to be honest, real, human. And here’s the kicker: by going to the darkest places, deep inside our arteries, doing the things we fear most – we are becoming liberated from the paralysis, from the endlessness, from the craziness. It’s been said that losing a child trumps all. They’re right. It’s unthinkable. Unimaginable. But survivable. For us, experiencing the pain has become the catalyst for transformation. And what we are realizing is that no dark moment lasts forever.
We garner daily – lessons and gifts from Griefland.
1. You don’t have to walk in the dark by yourself. Go ahead, grab someone’s hand. 2. There’s power in the word, “NO.” “No thank you,” “Not now,” “Not today.” Maybe never. Grief deserves time, space, and permission to just be. You deserve unstructured, uncluttered time—as much as you may need. 3. The human spirit rocks with resiliency. Even on the worst days where grief knocks us to the ground, we know there will be another day around the corner where we can begin all over again. 4. Grief comes in a myriad of sizes and shapes. Sometimes it cries, sometimes it laughs, sometimes it stands perfectly still, and sometimes it follows you everywhere. It can be a monster or your best friend. Grieving has no statute of limitations and can last weeks, months, years – a lifetime. 5. As women, we are the glue, the center of gravity for everyone around us. This can be exhausting – leaving us feeling splintered, raw. Listen to your body, and before it collapses, put yourself in protective custody. Then – decide your own fate. One hour, one day at a time. 6. Whether you’ve lost a child, a brother, a boyfriend, a mom or dad, or a breast, keep standing with both feet on the ground, even when you think you can’t. The world wants and needs more of you.
The bottom line is this: We’re living in an era of loss. People are losing aging parents, spouses, friends, jobs, homes, hope – and some, like us, will lose children.
The truth is, life includes loss, and navigating the journey can be perilous at times. But this we know for sure – having a friend by your side, someone to guide the way, to lean on, someone to hold your hand, can make all the difference in the world.
Nancy and I know we will always walk through life with a crack running down the middle of us, but we have also been transformed by the journey, one we decided to travel together. We knew that walking through the fire would either melt us, or recreate us.
Words were – and still are – our oxygen. Our writing journey continues, and we have begun a sequel, this time, to share the survival stories of others.
About the Author: Armen Bacon is a wife, mother, grandmother, professional woman and author. For two decades, she has served as Administrator of Communications & Public Relations for the Fresno County Office of Education. She is a regular contributor to The Fresno Bee and, since 2006, has written/voiced a daily KJWL feature titled: Live, Laugh, Love. She is a four-year artisan alum of CSU Summer Arts where she studied memoir, poetic prose, narrative non-fiction and flash fiction. She resides in Fresno, California with her husband, Dan, and is working on her next book with co-author Nancy Miller. Write Armen at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Griefland Web site.