Autumn Highlights Endings, Beginnings

By Kerry J. Bickford, VOICES Editor

September has arrived and families everywhere are preparing for a new year as schools scramble to respond to create hybrid models necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

It’s always bittersweet to say goodbye to the pleasures of summer and turn our focus to a new academic year, return to work, and seasonal changes ahead. But for some of us, it’s more than that.

For families grieving the death of a loved one, back to school images remind us of something we have lost. Bright yellow buses and children eagerly waving goodbye, or students heading off to college and moving a step closer to a life of independence trigger memories of a time when we felt exuberance and hope about our own child’s future. Once nostalgic moments and memories become agonizing reminders of a tragically unfinished life.

I painfully recall one September when I visited my beloved college-bound son in a detox facility instead of a dorm. He was in for the fight of his life, and so were we. I remember the long trips we took to visit him, and too many lost phones and backpacks filled with clothing, and toothbrushes, and hope. Birthdays away were marked with messages of love and encouragement while, unbeknownst to us, he was slowly dying. He slipped further and further away, and we grieved his absence from our lives before he was finally gone forever.

We are reminded of a time when we never once believed we couldn’t slay the monster that lurked in their closets or hid under our children’s beds. In those days, there was little we could or would not do to right the wrong, and keep our children safe from harm. We naively believed our love for them made them invincible.

I study other families as they send their kids off to school, and struggle to recall our own last words, hug or wave goodbye. Every memory is worn with repetition, and I would have paid closer attention if I had known they would need to last a lifetime. I find myself playing his messages to me — just to hear his voice again. I remember that face on the school bus as it rolled slowly away into forever, and I mourn for the child in it — and for all the children who are gone from our lives.

This season of promise renews our sense of loss, because we remember the thrill we felt with every step they took into their futures. Those closest to us recollect how we were there, in our pj’s on the coldest of mornings waving goodbye to the school bus, and at 5 o’clock on Saturday morning for ice hockey practice, and everywhere in between. We were invested, committed.

It is no surprise these beaming images of families are haunting to those of us who have lost a child to overdose. They remind us that somewhere along the way, something went terribly wrong. Our loved one made choices we could no longer influence; no one could — not the teachers and coaches, whose influence and role modeling seemed invincible or the prevention programs that urged abstinence from substances and provided all the scientific data.

We look at the annual classroom photos from grades K-12 and study the progress report notes and awards, to make sense of the outcome. We ask ourselves questions and search for the answers. When did it happen? Why didn’t I see it? How could I have prevented it?

We read their first written words and journals and treasure their tiny lost teeth as if they were gold. We preserve every holiday school project and press our fingers to their names. We reminisce about years gone by and become their imaginary defense attorneys — highlighting their glory days into an indisputable pile of evidence. All of this becomes a lifeline of sorts — the only thing that remains in the wake of their departure.

This story does not have a happy ending like the ones we read to them before they drifted off to sleep or the book reports we worked on during those long, hot summer months. Our loved one has died. We did everything to prevent that from happening. We recall the years, months — even hours that led to that final moment — when the insidious force of addiction swallowed them whole. 

We dream about them only to awaken and find them gone. 

So here comes September with its bright promise of hope for new beginnings. Another generation of children and parents will stay the course, and work together toward a happier ending. We will cheer them on and do what we can to prevent another heart from breaking. This keeps a light shining brightly in the darkness of our grief, and our hopefulness for others is a true consolation.

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