Someone once asked me to tell them something positive about myself. It didn’t take me long to respond. “I know I’m a great mom!” I devoted all of my heart, time and energies into raising my 3 children and enjoying life with them. That positive trait I knew about myself vanished into thin air when my only son completed suicide with no warning at all. A bright, sunny, normal day went dark, cold and tragic in the blink of an eye. I woke up on a Monday morning with 3 happy and healthy children, and when I closed my swollen eyes that Monday night, I only had 2 I could see and hold. Since that tragic Monday night, I’ve worked hard at finding the balance between mourning and living, despair and joy, grief and gratitude and trying to rebuild my confidence in being a ‘great mom.’ I share my journey through unrelenting grief, how I’m rebuilding my life and reinventing my purpose after the devastating death of my only son. After his death, I realized quickly that I need a place to put my grief and use my pain for a purpose. I started writing and sharing my story on my website, A Journey For Caleb. I founded a nonprofit, The Caleb Cares Project, to carry on Caleb’s legacy of love in our community.
2020 was the first calendar year I lived without my firstborn child and only son, Caleb, who died unexpectedly on August 12, 2019. He didn’t get to graduate with the class of 2020, he didn’t get to vote for the first time and we didn’t get to drop him off at college. As a mom, I never imagined I would have to outlive one of my children .. something that once seemed impossible but has proven to be possible. I looked back over the year at what I’ve learned about myself and what I’ve been able to accomplish in the midst of unrelenting grief.
10. Seeking an answer or explanation to why my son died by suicide is an exercise in futility.
How could a mother say that?! Bottom line, because it won’t change anything. Unless someone knocks on my door and tells me that they know why Caleb took his own life, I will never know why he did what he did that fateful Monday evening, and even if I do find out, it won’t change anything. The pain of my loss and the hole in my heart will be there until I am reunited with him. I’m learning how to focus more on his beautiful life rather than his unexplainable death. This is definitely not easy, and there are days when I’m deep in the rabbit hole of trying to make sense of his death, but the time I spend there is getting less and less.
9. I can have faith and doubt at the same time.
Countless times since losing Caleb I have questioned God … “How could you let this happen?” “Why didn’t you stop him?” “Where were you when he needed you to protect him the most?” For nearly half of my life I have been a Christian, learning what it means to be Christian and how to live out my faith. When Caleb died, the person, wife and mother I was died with him. I had had to re-learn how to live, how to love and how to figure out what my faith really means. My despair fostered my dependence on God, and I have realized that without him, I could not survive the death of my child. He has proved himself trustworthy of his promises time and time again over the past 524 days. I’m closer to him now more than ever, but that does not take pain away. God is bigger than my pain and circumstances, and I’ve learned that He can handle my doubt, anger and impossible questions all the while giving me a peace that surpasses understanding in my heart that I know could only come from Him.
8. There’s so much I don’t understand about so many things, but I choose to trust God anyway.
Before August 12, 2019, I had this ideology that I was immune from such tragedies as suicide finding its way into my life. What I’ve learned is that no one is immune from tragedies and suicide does not discriminate. Losing someone to a suicide does not mean there were preceding indicators … it can happen in the blink of an eye with no warning at all. I don’t understand why Caleb took those fateful steps toward ending his life, and I will never understand why he listened to the lies in his head that made him believe he was doing the right thing so because I will never understand this, my only option for healing is to trust God and lean on what I know is true about my son. He loved the Lord, his family and his life. He did not want to die, he didn’t mean to hurt us and he would take it back if he could. He will not be defined by his death or a choice, but by how he lived his life! His death is and will always be incomprehensible, so I rest in what I know is true about God and Caleb.
Below is a picture of an assignment that he did at school on Friday, August 9, 2019, three days before he died. I KNOW that he meant every word he wrote and that he intended on seeing these goals through. He did not want to die, and this is proof. This is the truth of my son that I work really hard to rest in …
7. To heal from the pain, I have to move through it.
What does that even mean or look like? I’m still figuring it out. Who wants to focus on pain? Not me. Who wants to feel grief? Not me. It is absolutely excruciating to sit in the pain of my grief and fumble my way through it. I have said many times since losing Caleb, “I wish I could go to sleep and never wake up.” Before your alarm bells start going off, this is a normal thought for a mother who has buried her child. It does not mean I want to die; it means I don’t want to live without him. It means that waking up is knowing that I have to feel the unbearable sadness and live another day without him. I’ve learned that moving through the pain SUCKS, and it hurts more than words could explain! I made a promise to Caleb that I would honor him by healing and in order to do that, I have to find my way through grief and process the pain. My husband, daughters, family and friends are worth it, and I will continue to move through the pain with hope for a less heavy tomorrow.
6. A bad day doesn’t mean it’s a setback.
Being a grieving mother does not get easier with time, but I do see now that I’ve gotten better at managing it. Like anyone going through a difficult time, some days are more manageable than others. It is really hard work to not be consumed or controlled by my grief and emotions, but letting them control me would not be healthy for me or our family, and it would not be honoring my son. When I’ve had a really bad day where I’m stuck in the past and overwhelmed by the future it can feel as if I’m starting all over, but I’ve learned that giving my grief the time and attention it deserves does not mean I’ve taken a step backwards; it means I’ve taken a step forward towards hope and healing.
5. My raw honesty is helping people.
Three weeks after Caleb died, I shared about his death on my Facebook page with the most raw and honest words I’ve ever spoken.Until I started this website and blog, I shared openly on Facebook about my journey through grief and learning to live without Caleb.With every post I’ve shared, every blog post I have written and the podcast I have spoken on, I receive emails and messages from strangers and people I’ve known for many years that my story is giving them hope. Hope that they can endure their struggles, hope that God is near, that he is comforting, that he sees them and that nothing is impossible with him.They tell me, “If you can do ‘that’ then I can do ‘this.’ Being real, raw, transparent and broken before people is how we make connections and learn from one another. The human experience can be very hard, and life is not always fair so if sharing my story brings someone hope, I’ve learned that it is part of the beauty God is creating from my brokenness.
4. My child is dead, but I can still be a mom to him.
This became real to me when I had a party for Caleb’s 18th birthday. No, he was not there to blow out the candles or take part in a party with his friends, but we did it anyway. The anticipation of the first birthday without him was definitely worse than the day itself (which is true of other milestone days as well), and I was at a loss at how to make a plan for the day so I Googled, ‘how to have a birthday party for a child who’s died.’ I quickly learned that I’m not the only mother who wants to celebrate her dead child’s birthday. I graciously recycled ideas from other moms and made a plan for the day. We had a balloon release at the cemetery and an evening pool party with his friends. The day was sad, but it was also a great day of celebrating and honoring him. It was incredibly heartbreaking that he wasn’t physically there, but he was still the center of attention, and we did see a little bit of him in each person throughout the day.
3. I can’t lose what I have to what I have lost.
If there was ever anything I could do to honor Caleb, it would be to live my life for him, instead of without him. He would be devastated if I let his death destroy me. When I’m having a particularly difficult day or moment, asking myself, ‘what would Caleb want me to do,’ helps me step into the next right thing. He would want me to live a life of joy, fun and laughter making new memories with his dad and sisters. Caleb was always happy and enjoyed living life, so every day I strive to do the same. Some days I fall flat on my face for even trying; others I’m successful at living and not just existing. I’ve learned that it’s okay if all I can do is get out of bed and sit on the couch all day, and that it’s also okay if I find myself enjoying a moment or a day.
2. I am stronger than I thought.
I have faced many hardships and adversity in my life, but they pale in comparison to losing my child. When people say, “You are so strong,” I usually brush it off while thinking to myself, “No, I’m not! If you could see me when I’m curled up in a ball on my couch, sobbing, surrounded by piles of tissues and my son’s dirty clothes (that I can’t bring myself to wash), then you’d probably think I was going crazy and that I’m not really strong at all.” I’ve learned the opposite is true. Somehow, the strong woman makes her presence known as she peels herself up from the couch, gathers up the tissues, puts the dirty clothes back in the bin and makes her way down the hall to tuck her little girl into bed with tickles, giggles, hugs, kisses and prayers. In the midst of my grief I have created a website, started a blog and a nonprofit and honored Caleb by giving in his memory. These realities show me that, I am stronger than I thought.
1. I’m still a great Mom.
This is a hard one. Like, the hardest one! Before losing Caleb, I knew I was a great mom. I did all the fun things, we went all the fun places and I was teaching them all they needed to know about being a good human, a good citizen and how to benefit the community by serving and showing love to others. Then, I became the mom who walked away from her son and never saw him alive again. Everything I believed about myself as a mother was gone. I believed that Caleb’s death was my fault. I was the last one to see him and talk to him. I punished him and then he completed suicide. I have come to believe that Satan took my words, twisted them, used them to lie to Caleb and trick him into an action he couldn’t take back. My heart now knows that I did not cause Caleb’s death, but my mind is on a wheel of its own trying to convince me otherwise. I have to remember that I don’t know why Caleb did what he did, but I do know he would not want me to blame myself for a choice he made (knowingly or not). This struggle is real. And hard. And gut-wrenching. And (insert expletives), but I have learned that I am still a great mom. I am still able to love, provide for and experience things with my daughters. I have taken them on a few trips where we had fun and made new memories. I take care of myself, so I can take care of them. As I laid in Caleb’s bed sobbing one day I heard him say to me, “Mommy, get up and go take care of my sisters,” so that’s exactly what I did. I honor him by being a great mom to his sisters, and still to him. Finding that balance is hard but I’m figuring it out, one day at at a time.