Looking Through the Fog
By NANCY PATRICK
A few weeks ago, I mentioned a list of possible topics for future papers. Needless to say, the recent deluge of social tragedies has fogged my mind’s ability to focus on any of my proposed topics.
Among those overwhelming events—the unprovoked war in Ukraine, uncontrollable fires that wipe out forests and neighborhoods, contagious mass shootings throughout the country, continued attempts by politicians to prescribe what Americans may and may not do, aggressive attempts to influence our personal and moral choices—I faced a dismal abyss of possible subjects.
Realizing those topics would pull me too far into their abysses to delve into them objectively, I opted to write about something I have observed in several of my friends. They possess a strength I do not have—they have survived deaths of adult children. Every time an adult child of one of my friends dies my soul quakes as my stomach roils and bile rises in my throat.
Every parent has said or heard it said that the worst thing that could happen to a parent is to outlive a child. Although losing a baby through miscarriage, illness, or accident, devastates families, that grief differs from the grief of losing an adult child.
The difference lies in the fact that the love parents feel for their children does not stop when the children walk across the graduation stage. One great tragedy I wept through with many parents over the years as their children graduated from high school related to the child’s newfound sense of freedom.
As a high school teacher, I often helped with graduation practices for our seniors. All the assisting adults cautioned the students that more dangers awaited them after graduation than before or during the ceremony.
Because of parties and alcohol, many of these eighteen-year-olds found themselves injured, legally responsible for the injuries or deaths of others, and burdened with medical and or legal bills for the rest of their lives.
My heart broke time and time again as I saw young lives extinguished and parents’ hopes and dreams dashed. These parents had loved and cherished their children for eighteen years, investing immeasurable time and money into their futures.
These parents lost not only their children and their futures but also the parents’ futures for themselves as they planned to watch their children become adults with careers and families including beloved grandchildren.
As tragic as the deaths of these young people are, perhaps just as tragic are the deaths of older children who die from completely unforeseen events. My observations of my friends’ reactions to their losses have caused me to probe my own soul as I contemplate how I would survive the loss of my son.
I have always believed that if my son died before me that I would not be able to continue living. I realize that sounds overly dramatic, but I have felt that kind of obsessive love since my son’s birth.
Over the years, several of my friends experienced the deaths of their adult children. The causes of these deaths varied—illnesses, accidents, and suicides. As a speechless observer, I have watched as grief has knocked the very breath from these friends, yet somehow, they found the strength to live through funerals and resume a semblance of their lives.
Several of these friends whose children committed suicide shared similar struggles with their children as they grew up—primarily alcohol and chemical dependency. The families in many of these situations had reached points when their children were middle-aged. In many cases, they had struggled with relationships and jobs throughout their young adult years.
Although these middle-aged children may have shielded their parents from their struggles, parents who have dealt with addictions never forget the omnipresent temptation and struggle an addict faces.
When their children decided to take their own lives during midlife, their parents, though not totally surprised, still experienced as sharp a pain as if the children had died in another manner. Many of these parents struggle with unending guilt as they evaluate every decision they ever made.
I have known at least two families whose adult children died of illnesses during their thirties and forties. One missionary couple lost both their forty-five-year-old son and their fifty-year-old son to different diseases within months of each other. The parents lived into their eighties and continued living productive lives dedicated to God.
Another couple who has influenced me spiritually has just lost their sixty-one-year-old son in a bizarre incident. An avid outdoorsman and runner, he went out for a run while visiting a daughter in Hawaii.
He never returned from that run. After several weeks of searching, authorities called off the search, assuming the runner had fallen or had another type of accident. His parents, though grief-stricken, continued living their lives.
One particular family with whom I was close lost three of their four children—all in different circumstances. They lost their youngest son in a canoeing accident when he was twenty. Years later, one daughter died of an illness, followed shortly by the death of her brother.
When I asked the surviving daughter how she and her parents were coping with such loss, she said that though the grief had knocked them to their knees, her parents continued strong in their faith.
The grief of my friends has taught me something of God’s musical composition of our lives. John Ruskin, nineteenth century English philosopher, wrote that “not without design does God write the music of our lives . . . The making of music is often a slow and painful process in this life. How patiently God works to teach us! How long he waits for us to learn the lesson.”
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing