Ten Years On

Every time I hurt, I know the wound is an echo,
so I keep listening for the moment the grief becomes a window,
when I can see what I couldn’t see before.

~ Andrea Gibson

February 16, 2024

Ten years ago today, Jimmy took his last breath.

As I type that sentence, I can hardly believe its stark reality. The staggering unfairness, the out-of-order-ness still makes me wonder how it could have happened. If it really did. The loss, in many ways, is as fresh now as it was when it happened. In other ways, it feels like a lifetime ago.

Until Jimmy died, I never understood how much space grief takes up. In the beginning, it was all feeling, raw and ravaging. Heartache and hopelessness braided with regret, resentment and self-pity. Weeks of not wanting to get out of my bed and days spent counting the hours until I could return to it. Ricocheting from wanting to be invisible to resenting the slightest perceived failure to acknowledge my grief. Desperately craving connection coupled with an inability to respond to a text or phone call.

Jimmy’s absence was all I could think about. I listened for his footfall, waited for him to come downstairs, convinced myself he was just away at school or in his room taking a nap. I played the tape of his final days on repeat, torturing myself with questions about whether I’d done enough to try to save him. I inventoried every parenting mistake I’d ever made, lingering longest on the ones I was most desperate to undo. Remembering his infancy or childhood was like putting my hand on a hot stove. I had to pull away or be burned.

In time, the pain eased off, just as I hoped it would. But the end of the first year of grief marked my entry into the uncharted territory I am still navigating. No one tells you that the second year is so much harder. The way friends and family return more fully to their own lives. The need to face the fantasy I’d been quietly harboring that if I survived the year of firsts, Jimmy would somehow be returned to me. The empty spaces he was no longer there to fill were everywhere – his spot in line at graduation, his place at the dining room table, his seat next to mine on the plane.

The passing of time has upended every myth about grief I unknowingly carried. That it gets easier with the passage of time – it doesn’t; we just get more used to carrying it. That most of us find a way to go on – we do, but the decision to keep living has to be made over and over and over again. That your closest people will do their best to support you – they often do, but there’s so much that they can’t know about how and where and when to show up.

When Jimmy died, I thought grief was all about the absence of him. No more cheerful companion to go on long walks with the dog. No more late afternoon phone calls to share the news of his day. The way our family became unbalanced and uneven without him. I wasn’t prepared for all the secondary losses I never saw coming. The children I assumed he’d have one day. The big, beautiful life I imagined for him that he never got to live. How much more it hurt to have to put our dog Buster down because he and Jimmy had once been alive together.

In the early years, I imagined my sadness over Jimmy’s death declining in a relatively straight line from its painful peak in year one down to a low-grade throb by year ten. Instead, each year has been different. Year three was easier than years one or two but the milestone of five years knocked me sideways. Braced for year seven when Jimmy should have turned 30, I got flattened by year eight. The random early years when I got bitter about other people’s burgeoning families or regretful that we hadn’t had another child. Year nine when I it was all I could think about.

I’ve stopped trying to predict this path or what this tenth year will bring. The weeks leading up to it have been brutal. I’ve been remarkably unproductive, and my brain feels as though someone has poured molasses over it. Stuck at my desk, I lack the energy to go outside and sit in the sun, much less go for a walk. I’m hoping the passage of the anniversary itself will help me find the desire to start moving my body again. It helps me cope. It’s the only consistent thing that has.

I know now that grief will be my lifelong companion. As much as I wish I could lose her on one of my long walks or tell her we’re finished, I could never give her up. Grief is the validation that my wound matters, that Jimmy’s death mattered and so did his life. She reminded me to look up and notice the lone vulture that circled over Buster and me on every walk we took those first months after Jimmy died. She prompted me to notice the Anna’s hummingbird and remain motionless as it flew close enough to my face to deliver the kiss I imagined Jimmy had sent. The pain she causes is proof of how much I still love my boy.


I will never stop missing or remembering you, sweet Jimmy. Your name will be on my lips until the day I leave this world to find you wherever you are. Depression, devastation, rage … I wouldn’t trade any of it if it meant giving up a moment I had with you. You made me a mother. You taught me to pause and pay attention. You led by example, even when it hurt. Although it’s been ten long years since I last held your hand, you still inspire me to be my best self, even on my worst days. Even now, after all this time, if I shut my eyes and sit quietly, I can hear you laughing.

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  • Jan Haag says:

    Oh, Margo… what a brilliant piece on this 10th anniversary of Jimmy’s death. Every word, every paragraph so beautifully true and echoing so many of our journeys we travel with our companion spirits. One of your best lines here (and there a so many): “That [grief] gets easier with the passage of time—it doesn’t; we just get more used to carrying it.” Thanks to you and Jimmy both for your gifts to the world—not least Salt Water, a valuable resource for grievers and writers. May it long continue.

  • Angie Kelly says:

    You have such an beautiful way to describe your unbearable grief and pain. Jimmy was a sweet soul and his loss will never be less heartbreaking.

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