Ever since my son Charles died by suicide in June of 2015, I categorize everything as either before his death or after. Tragedy has a way of doing that.

My son’s death literally split my life in two and I am forever changed.

Even now, I still instinctively scan family photos taken after his death looking for him. And when I don’t see him I feel shock and ache that loss all over again.

I have always heard when you lose a limb it takes a while to get used to the fact it’s missing and you feel it’s still attached to the body and moving appropriately with other body parts. They call this a phantom limb.

That’s how I feel sometimes about Charles. Phantom child.  

My family of 4 is now 3 and it feels unnatural and incomplete. Learning to live without the person that was my purpose was the hardest part of my grief journey. I had to learn I could move forward without him. And at times I didn’t want to because it felt like I was leaving him behind.

Charles’ suicide triggered a complete about-face and reassessment of my life

Before his death, I knew what I wanted to do and where I was headed.

Once I lost something precious to me, the reality that I was not exempt from tragedy inspired a fear that it could happen again.

My tragedy, my grief, has often left me feeling untethered, like a kite cut loose, flapping uncontrollably in the wind. Those are the days I feel unsure of myself. That used to be followed by a grief relapse after which I came back fighting. These days it’s more of a moment where my breath catches and I engage in a self-talk strategy and say, “I know you miss him. He knew you loved him.”

Slowly I got back on my feet and started to find myself. I fell backward a lot, had epic relapses, and I learned to respect that I was not always the captain of the journey.

Things that meant a lot to me before, mean nothing now

My family has always been important. That hasn’t changed. But my purpose definitely has. And it changed the moment I heard the words, “Your son Charles killed himself.”

There is actually a sense of peace in that. I was on a weekend retreat recently and noticed that while everyone was looking for a transformational experience, it hit me that I had already had mine. And I experienced growth from it. While the retreat was a great reminder, I recognized how much I had grown, how little I cared about my “image” or how I had learned not to wallow or ruminate but enjoy the moment.

My mission as a mental health advocate is now a passion that I won’t give up until the day I die. There are many days I want to throw in the towel because it’s been riddled with rejection although that’s turned into demand now that mental health is such an important subject.

I can look at a person now and know they are hurting

I can instinctively pick up that someone else has lost a child. I reach out more. I am bolder about exposing my failures, my grief, and my guilt as well as my joy. In short, I’m more vulnerable and emotionally naked.

Some days I feel worthless. On other days my heart is so full I swear it will burst.

When people ask if I have children I tell them my oldest child is living his dream as a filmmaker and that my youngest died by suicide and suffered from addiction and depression. I feel no shame. I honor my son’s struggle. I use the word suicide; I talk openly about my son that died.

I tell my friends I love them. I have wisdom that I didn’t have before. I stand up for people others dismiss. I push the envelope daily.

I tell my own story before audiences without fear or admonishment. I give back to help me fill that hole in my heart. I worry less about what others think. I stop and smell the roses. I hold onto hope despite having suffered the most devastating loss of my life.

I listen to others tell their stories because each and every one of them is important and woven into the tapestry of life. I learn from those stories and they make my life richer.

I am determined what I do after my son’s death so that it will mean something. From the ashes of despair emerged a new person and I strive every day to make a positive change.

No tragedy is too big to overcome

While my son’s death split my life into Part 1 and Part 2, it’s Part 2 that has fostered the most growth and helped me find joy in all the little things. And Part 1 is filled with mostly beautiful memories of my younger son which today is less painful and more fulfilling.

I have moved forward, discovered so many things, surrendered to something over which I had no control, met myself where I was, and accepted who I am now.

If I can survive this, I can do anything. And so can you.