Denial, anger, depression, acceptance. These are, according to experts on the process of grieving, the stages one goes through after the death of a loved one. I can attest to the fact that they are, in reality, steps on the stairway to feeling whole again.
My "wholeness" disintegrated on my 45th birthday. That was the day my eight-year-old son, Justin, died from injuries sustained in a highway accident. For five roller-coaster days he clung to life while I prayed fervently for him to recover.
The first day I prayed to have my happy, bright, loving little boy back exactly the same; the second, third and fourth days that he would only have minimal damage; the last day I set no conditions. Not for one instant did I think that he would succumb. With his passing my foundations crumbled and I fell into a dimension where everything looked the same but nothing felt right.
Denial set in with a vengeance. I could not accept that Justin was gone, even when the team of doctors said it was over and I should take my distraught family home. I'd never left him on his own anywhere, it was unthinkable that I should do it now. Shortly after I returned home hospital staff phoned with a request regarding the donation of his lungs and, for a moment, I imagined that they were calling to inform me that he had regained consciousness.
For days I looked for him to come running up our walk, looked for him on the swings in the playground at his school and expected him to come out of his room. At the funeral home where I viewed his body I refused to acknowledge that it was him. The body was too small, the hair was combed all wrong and he had had more freckles.
It seems to me now that my denial was a defense mechanism like a huge bandage that muffled my pain and muted my shock. Coming to grips with the enormity of my loss ushered me into the next phase: anger. Overwhelming anger possessed me with an intensity almost beyond description. Furious at everything, I accused friends and co-workers of forgetting Justin when they were only uncomfortable when his name came up in conversation. If they attempted to discuss how I was feeling, I condemned them for being insensitive and intrusive. I would read an article in the newspaper about an abused or neglected child and then with a fist toward Heaven, I would hurl at God's feet the charge of injustice. He took my son, who was loved, and spared this child who was not.
Anger rescued me from the cotton batten world of denial but delivered me to the apathy of depression.
When the irrational heat of anger cooled and I realized that there was no one to blame I felt sorry for myself. If a few horrifying seconds on a highway could irrevocably destroy years of hard work and dedication, what was the use of trying anymore? I was like a piece of debris in a quickly moving river, being carried forward but not under my own steam. It did not matter if the day was clear or cloudy, mild or cool, without Justin it was just another 24 hours to endure.
Depression, like a suffocating blanket, robbed me of all desires, save one. To curl up in a ball and rot. I forgot how to laugh and learned bitterly, that the most insignificant incidents could reduce me to tears. Day after dreary day I visited Justin's grave to just stand there. Over and over again I would read the inscription on his headstone. "Justin Lee Grainger - 1985 to 1994 - We love you - We like you."
Then a curious thing happened. Acceptance crept in. It didn't happen all at once, but in little bits. A day came when I caught myself thinking about other things. Slowly I came to the realization that business deadlines still counted, that home repairs must be performed and that life, however altered, must go on.
Acceptance brought the gift of understanding that time and unforeseen circumstance spares no one. Acceptance has diluted the pain and lifted me out of the wild river of despair and placed me gently back in the boat.
It's up to me to steer.
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anniversary date 09-08-94
date of post 08-15-98