In A Life Short and Loud, Kevin Luby shares the joy and pain of raising a son whose remarkable life was cut much too short. Kevin writes openly and honestly about the collateral damage inflicted by a devastating loss — the stress on a marriage, the pain of watching your surviving child suffer, the friends who avoid you, the holidays that are forever changed and the challenge of building a new life in the aftermath.
The morning we got the news, my wife and I immediately jumped in the car and started heading home. We were at the Oregon coast celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary when “The Call” came. It took only moments to grab our luggage and jump in the car but almost two hours to get back home.
During that drive, we spoke with our daughter and called family and friends to share the tragic news. What we didn’t do, with one critical exception, was to really talk to one another. My wife and I were lost in the daze of our individual grief, trying to figure out how to deal with the sudden and overwhelming rush of emotions. My default in these types of situations is to focus on the practical. I needed to talk to the police to find out what really happened. I needed to make funeral arrangements. I needed to contact the insurance company.
My wife, on the other hand, focused on more emotional and immediate issues — how to help our daughter cope with the loss of her only brother and how to handle family and friends who would soon be descending upon us to comfort, console and grieve. The one exception was when she looked at me and said, “We can’t let this destroy our marriage.”
We were both familiar with the adage that most marriages don’t survive the death of a child. At the time, we didn’t know this adage was a myth and that, in fact, only about 16% of such marriages end up in divorce. Nonetheless, we had heard about the effects of a child’s death on marriages, and my wife was sufficiently intuitive to recognize the importance of maintaining our marriage while, both separately and as a family, dealing with our grief.
After that first day, and for the following days and weeks, waking up involved that moment, just as the fog of sleep begins to clear, when life was normal and our son was still alive. Then, like a 2×4 to the forehead, reality would set in.
There was never a question of whether to get out of bed. That is not who I am. More importantly, even if it was, it simply wasn’t an option, especially in those first few weeks and months. With a 16 year old daughter who had just lost her only sibling and a wife who had just lost her only son, it was critical for me to help them navigate the crushing grief. It was my responsibility to be their rock and if that required me to defer my own grief, so be it. Accordingly, each and every morning, I would put on “the mask” — my brave front and help them navigate through life without Conner.
In many ways, the mask came naturally. I’ve never been able to grieve around, or in front of, others. It is one of my many character flaws — this inability to publicly acknowledge my sadness and my vulnerability. I was taught that it is not manly to cry or have uncomfortable displays of emotions around others. I learned that as a child and practiced it as an adult. When times get tough, I put my shoulders back, cap my emotions and project strength and toughness.
After our son’s death, when the facade would sometimes crack, I felt the need to quickly repair and restore it. I couldn’t even openly grieve in front of my wife. On the few occasions when I tried, she would attempt to console me and would start to cry — both at the loss of our son and the pain she saw me experiencing. When my wife cries, I have no choice but to console her. That is who I am and what I do. To console her, I have to stifle my tears, put the mask back on and again defer my grief.
My grief is repeatedly tucked away in a small container in the corner of my mind, well hidden from everyone but me. Again, that is who I am and what I do.
In many ways, our daughter is a lot like me — similar in intellectual curiosity, empathy for others and (occasionally warped) sense of humor. What I didn’t realize was that she took her cue from me after her brother’s death and avoided grieving in public. For far too long, she deferred and hid her grief. In hindsight, this was perhaps my greatest failure. I didn’t recognize that my default behaviors in the days, weeks and months after Conner’s death were becoming hers. The problem was that she didn’t have the same life experience to be able to cope with the deferred grief. Over the years, she reacted with periodic bouts of rage that alienated and drove away many of her friends. She also forgot much of her childhood, even the joyful parts.
What our daughter didn’t understand was that I did (and still do) grieve and I did (and still do) cry. It’s just done far away from her or anyone else. For me, it might be while driving home from work or taking long walks. At those times, I allow myself to open my container of grief and release all of the pent up emotions. Yes, I was the guy in the car beside you with tears streaming down his face.
We had a memorial bench installed at a local park, and I love to go down there at dusk, especially in the fall. Our little corner of the park is usually empty as night begins to set in. This allows me to sit on the bench, in privacy, and wallow in my grief. I can cry unabashedly. I can talk to Conner without people wondering about me. I can release the emotional pressure that deferred grief creates. I can reflect on my loss and how my life has changed.
There is no perfect way to cope with grief; it is far too personal and individual to establish any sort of blueprint. What I’ve learned over the past ten years is how important it is for parents to balance their grief with their obligations to their surviving children. Parents need to do more than just console their children; they need to teach them how to grieve and cope with the loss. Often this lesson has to be taught through actions, even more than words. This, more than anything else, is what I wish I had known in the days and weeks after The Call.