On a Friday night, May 27th, 2011 at about 10:00 pm, I was awakened by my daughter Rachelle informing me that we needed to get the hospital, “Julien has hurt himself…has a broken ankle and a concussion” is what I remember her telling me. “What? Where’s mom?” “She’s already gone to Robert’s house, but we need to get to the hospital” was her response.
Those words are FOREVER seared in my memory and now more than 10 years later, a lump rises in my throat when ever I think about that frozen moment in time.
Family and friends proceeded to spend May 28th and 29th in prayer and by Julien’s bed side wanting desperately for Julien to awake from his head injuries. He did not and at 3:30 in the afternoon of the 29th, Julien was declared “brain dead”. In the early overnight hours of May 30th, our only son, still warm and pink in colour, surrounded by several medical professionals, was rolled out of his ICU room into an awaiting elevator which would transport all of them to an operating room where medical teams from London and Toronto awaited to harvest Julien’s organs. The elevator doors closed, the three of us pivoted on our heels in the other direction and we headed down the hall with nothing but a bag of Julien’s clothing. As I write this last paragraph, the lump in my throat has intensified making it difficult to breath and tears fall at a steady pace from my chin.
It was perhaps 2:00 am on Monday May 30th and there has been little to no sleep since Friday evening. Sleep was not an option and seemed impossible. Our little family had to now deal with planning visitations and a funeral for Julien? How can that be? Well somehow, we did and on Friday June 3rd, we laid Julien to rest in his grave at Heavenly Rest Cemetery.
Come Friday evening, the three of us found ourselves alone in our home. What was some 7 days of being surrounded by well-wishers in family members and friends, that feeling in front of the elevator doors returned and once again we were left on our own to figure this out. I remember thinking that I am letting my family down….as the father I am supposed to be able to fix everything and anything. My pain incapacitated me and there was NO WAY that I could fix Christine and Rachelle’s broken hearts. I could feel their pain which brought me greater pain but there was nothing that I could do to make things better. That difficulty to breathe has returned as have the tears on my cheeks.
Being small business owners, there was a desperate need to tend to our customers and to provide our employees gainful employment once again. So, on Monday June 6th, in what felt like a trance, I made my way to our shop to hit the reset button on the projects as bills needed to be paid and completing projects was the only way that could happen. Any time that I was not focused on a project or preparing quotes, I found myself in tears, in disbelief. I remember thinking and then perhaps voicing as well. ”OK I GET IT…NOT FUNNY… JUST BRING JULIEN BACK!” Who was I saying those words to…? I don’t know….I guess to God! Even though we were NOT a church going family, we certainly believed in God. I remember thinking, if I promise to go to church every day, can we get Julien back…PLEASE?
In the first few weeks and then months, I often found myself in the office alone. Prior to May 27th, Christine and I worked in the office together but since Julien’s death she stayed away. For me, working and keeping busy was one way that I dealt with my grief. To be clear, work was NOT enjoyable but while working, I felt as though I was giving my broken heart and spirit time to get better. One day Christine came to the office and we had lunch together which was something that we typically did together each day and that felt wonderful. Then seemingly out of nowhere Christine shared with me that she felt “anxious” and I remember asking her, “What does that mean?” and frankly I am not sure that she did either but it seemed like an appropriate word even though neither of us had ever used that word. When pressed, every synonym that she could find to describe the way she was feeling brought more and more sorrow in my heart…..I remember being EXTREMELY frustrated not being able to take away or even erase her pain…our pain…all we could do is embrace for what seemed to be 15 minute blocks in time.
It was perhaps during another one of our now periodical lunch dates that Christine mentioned that she had learned about bereavement counseling through the Canadian Mental Health Association. I remember thinking you do whatever you feel you need to do…I will fully support that. After her 3rd or 4th visit, Christine mentioned that there was in fact a support group for bereaved parents like us and that she believed that we could benefit from meeting and being with others like us. Not wanting to disappoint her anymore, I agreed to first meeting with the counselor so that she can assess me and deem me suitable for the support group. As time passed, some 4 months after Julien’s death, Christine and I attended our first group session. Full disclosure…I was not going there for me…I was ONLY going because Christine asked me to. As we fulfilled our “3 meeting obligation/promise” it became quite obvious that we needed these meetings as it provided us a safe location to share our pain and stories as we travelled our respective journeys.
When not at work or doing work related matters, I found myself playing Solitaire on my phone for hours on end. After many months I remember seeing a statistic where I had WON over 9000 times….I could not believe that number. Looking back, that must have been my “much needed self-care time” but I was unaware that this is what I was doing. As time passed, I remember making the decision, setting a goal, that I would keep playing until I had won 10,000 times……several months later, after reaching that milestone, Solitaire was deleted from my phone never to be played again. Looking back, I feel that setting that goal, accomplishing it and then walking away was more than therapeutic, it was encouraging.
For Christine, I could see that she was dealing with her pain in different ways. She was starting to read books…books written by professionals in the bereavement field, books written by mediums and books written by individuals who had also suffered losses. I could see that she also found comfort in immersing herself in anything and everything Julien. Although Julien’s room was left untouched for what turned out to be more than 5 years, I could see that Christine found comfort in developing what some may call a shrine. Christine would feel the need to visit the cemetery often…me not as often although I did find that I felt better once there. And, certainly unfair to Christine, she tended most to Rachelle as well. More unfair to Rachelle, she was not only suffering the loss of her only sibling, she was also suffering from the loss of her parents as she knew them. It was not evident to us that she was hiding her pain from us as a way of protecting her parents. Even though we grew more attentive to Rachelle’s needs, it took years for us to regain that ability as parents. Saying that, if asked, I suspect Rachelle would still say that she keeps her pain filled moments away from us…which I suspect may be universal with all surviving siblings.
As I mentioned, my grief journey is now more than 10 years long and yes the pain is still real but much more manageable. I read a quote recently that read “Just Because Someone Carries it Well, Doesn’t Mean it isn’t Heavy”. In my mind “it” is grief and I can say that the weight of my grief hasn’t gotten any lighter with the passing of both my father and most recently my mother. After 10 years I still have my “Julien moments”. After 9 years I still have my “dad moments” and now just after 9 months, I have my “mom moments” and ALL are welcomed moments and frankly I wouldn’t want it any other way.
The death of a child will never be OK but I am proof that a parent can and will be OK….I promise.