What I Do

Years and years ago, suffering the rage, hurt and frustration of the inexplicable dissolution of what I saw as a promising relationship (in other words, the jerk dumped me), I called my friend Gerard, who told me to get into bed, get under the covers and tuck myself into a fetal position.

Next morning, I called him to say that it didn’t help, didn’t change anything, didn’t make me feel better.

“It wasn’t supposed to make you feel better,” he answered. “It was supposed to make you feel safe while you suffered.”

And so dawned an ugly truth – I couldn’t make myself stop hurting; the best I could do was make myself comfortable while it lasted. Something to this day I haven’t learned. The making-myself-comfortable part, that is. As if life isn’t difficult enough in what it asks of us – and I mean, think about it. We’re the only creatures on the planet who walk around knowing we’re going to die. No wonder all animals are Buddhists. It’s pretty easy to live in the moment when you can’t conceive that it might be your last.

Or your kid’s.

I have a particular penchant for exacerbating whatever life throws at me by treating it as a deliberate and deserved punishment for my personal version of Original Sin. It takes a certain amount of hubris to believe I’m singled out among others for life’s Divine Retribution. Not that I’ve seen it that way. I’ve called it Humility.

My reaction to Philip’s death was no different, except in magnitude. He and Natalie were what I’d done right in life. I was separated, man-less, unable to live on my own except for Nadiya’s generosity, 53 and still with a job and not a career. Living the cliché of not-knowing- what-I-wanted-to-be-when-I grew-up. I wasn’t particularly focused or directed when it came to work. I didn’t have a degree, didn’t like what I did, couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do, yet I considered work one of the things that most mattered. It’s what you do when you get up in the morning. Sure, I thought I wanted to write a book. But I live in Montclair. Throw a rock and you’ll hit someone who wants to write a book.

My kids, though. They were right. They were great, in fact. Not because they were brilliant and popular and extraordinarily talented. Around here, I seem to be one of the few moms without a singularly gifted, award-winning child. But oh, my kids; my own personal joy-toys. Two human beings who couldn’t help but make the rest of us better for having known them.  I was proud of them for being, not for doing.

I twisted Philip’s death into something I had coming to me. I’d reached a point where I’d finally stopped looking over my shoulder to see what might be coming at me, and BAM!! Life got to sneak up and whack me. The obvious question is, why did life have it in for me? I had no answer other than That’s The Way It Is. The other obvious question is, what about Phil? Philip was his kid, too. What did he do wrong?

Looking at it from that view, the question was absurd. I knew better than that. Life wasn’t out to “get” me. It is unnatural and catastrophic that my child died; but Death is not a punishment – it’s a fact. So what do I do with this? What do I do with the life that’s given me?

What does anyone do about trauma? I’ve talked to enough bereaved parents, enough people who’ve suffered other tragedies. I’ve listened to their stories and asked for the details. Yet I’ve never asked, “What do you do when you feel like this? What do you do when trauma hits? Do you try to take care of yourself? How the hell did you do that?”

I mean, literally; what do you do??

I know what I do. I get mean. Real mean. To myself, that is. I hate. I hate Life, this uncontrollable force with a will of its own. I hate dawn, that first loosening of night’s hold on the sky, the moment I’m reminded of the sun’s relentless presence. And I hate me most of all. I wish myself dead because what I mean is I want to stop feeling. I tell myself I am helpless, worthless. And when I’m told not to be so hard on myself, I actually respond, “What do you mean?” because talking to myself that way is a habit so old it’s more like instinct. I don’t know what taking care of myself means. Take a bath? I always take baths. They’re warm and soothing and I crave them. So, take a bath. Hug myself, do a mental backrub. Sink into the warmth and let my body relax.

I think not.

I couldn’t bear to think those thoughts, never mind to actually do any of that. I couldn’t do anything that might make my body relax. That’s the physicality of grief. Emotion is the body’s response to what the mind is thinking; and thinking, knowing, that Philip was dead caused such violent emotional plummeting that all I could do was tuck myself into the corner of my couch and make myself into a taut little ball. Hold on for the goddamn bloody ride. Pull myself further and further in, like if I made myself small enough there’d be less of me to feel.

Living without Philip is now my work. Not figuring out my job or “career” or being man-less or how much money I make.  Those are the details. There isn’t one answer to how I’m supposed to integrate the loss of my son into my life. It’s not the kind of work that ever gets finished. One year and two months later, I still don’t know what it looks like, and I am still as scared as all fucking hell.

© 2013 Denise Smyth


9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. tersiaburger
    Apr 28, 2013 @ 17:00:40

    Oh Denise – I have no words for you! Hugs xxx


  2. behindthemaskofabuse
    Apr 28, 2013 @ 17:31:01

    The only thing I can say is keep blogging, and reaching out to others. They can’t take away your pain but they can stand alongside you as you live it. I didn’t lose a child in the way you did, but we were told we could never have them except through ICSI (IVF) I had 7 miscarriages through that. Even though I wasn’t pregnant long, they were still my babies. Sending hugs and support your way xo


  3. Denise
    Apr 28, 2013 @ 18:58:20

    Thank you both, thank you for the hugs; there can’t be enough of them. Once you know you’re pregnant, you begin your relationship with your baby. S/he’s there, part of the family. I am so sorry you went through that; that has to be its own hell.


  4. jlkb
    Apr 28, 2013 @ 20:43:53

    Hi Denise, I understand what you’re saying… everyday is a challenge. And it will be that forever. The pain is unbearable. (And by the way, my kids are not gifted either – just my best friends and favorite people – and good citizens.)

    Good luck with the baking.

    ox Judy


  5. Dace
    May 09, 2013 @ 12:47:02

    we go through good and bad from the day we are born. There is no right or wrong, there is no good or bad. However, there is pain and there is happiness. Some days are easier than others but we will lose people, places, jobs, animals, sometimes ourselves. What really matters is that you realize – your life is an amazing journey. And your purpose in this life is to live, feel, and experience whatever comes your way.

    Pain is inevitable but suffering is a choice. Yes, it is hard and ,yes, it is never easy.
    However, remember your son’s stand on life. He told you that he loved life. Learn from that…

    Sit down and think – how would he want to see you live? Do you think he would want you to isolate yourself? Do you think he would want you to sit in the corner, in the dark hating yourself?

    I don’t think so….Honor his death, honor his love for life. Live your life and enjoy it as that’s what he would want you to do. Make him proud…Be happy! Do things that make you smile, do things that you are passionate about, make a difference…

    If he was here, would he be proud of what you do, how you handle yourself, what choices you make?. His life was short…you have to live for him as through you he will enjoy life, he will get to experience things he couldn’t, and then write about it.

    He might not be here physically but he is in your heart, he is in everything around you – friends, family, sun, nature, air, rain…energy. He surrounds you and he will always be here.


    • Denise
      May 09, 2013 @ 13:12:00

      Thank you for your taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment; and he certainly would want me to be happy, yes he would.


  6. Becki Duckworth
    Dec 16, 2013 @ 18:26:32

    All the above is easy to say but reality is , its hard to do to even think of all the tools when your grieving , scream as loud as you can. Beat up the pillows, smash some old dishes you can live without. I have been in therapy for years and if I am really sad and grieving I smash shit.. Surprisingly it helps. Most of the world, will disagree with me.


  7. Denise
    Dec 16, 2013 @ 18:56:15

    You know, I think I’m so angry that I’m dead to it because it’s so huge, I’m terrified. And as you already know, anger turned inward is depression. So it sounds to me like some smashing is called for.


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