On September 21, 2009, our son Spencer wrote a suicide note and overdosed on his antidepressants. He soon thought better of this and called his girlfriend who summoned both an ambulance and his parents. We rushed to Spencer's side in the emergency room. He was still alert enough to tell us he was sorry. Hours went by as the overworked emergency room staff researched what to do for the particular antidepressant cocktail Spencer had taken.
We eventually left his bedside that evening feeling gut-punched by Spencer's choice, but certain he would live. We were wrong. On Saturday, September 26th, after spending five days in a medically induced coma, Spencer's temperature soared due to the massive amount of serotonin from his antidepressants. Spencer died that evening. He was 20 years old.
Our daughter, Diana, wrote of her brother: "Spencer was a writer and a poet. Music and reading were his solace and joy. He believed in the power of fiction and the elegance of truth. He loved his family and his friends fiercely, and was loyal to a fault." He was all of this, and he was our beloved son.
When you have a child you have a visceral, nearly cellular urge to keep them from harm's way. You protect them from open stairways, busy streets, head injuries, angry siblings, stray dogs, poison ivy, and sunburn. It is one of the horrible truths of death by suicide that the victim is also the perpetrator. When someone dies young, blame comes into play and we lean into explanations extra hard for solace and closure. When your child dies by their own choice, where do you place the blame?
I felt my heart was shattered, sharp shards of it waiting to bring fresh wounds any time I thought about Spencer. Endless "What ifs?" became my thought companions during a siege of chronic insomnia that still troubles me to this day. I am grateful for a good therapist, great friends, and a life companion who has suffered with me and held onto me when I was in danger of drowning in our shared sorrow.
Grief is a beast. It howls and tears at your equilibrium. When it's not active, you feel its presence next to you and you become afraid to wake it. Will its next active phase unmoor you once again? The answer is always, yes. It will unmoor you and send you flailing after answers and stable ground on which to stake your intentions and hopes.
Grief is a gift, wrapped in the worst possible package. It shows you who you are, and teaches you lessons you would never have learned otherwise. Your compassion for others is magnified. Your understanding of what motivates people sharpens. You are grateful for small wonders and embrace happy moments as never before, because you know—you are absolutely clear about this—that you must celebrate when you can and while you can. Grief has taught you not to take these moments for granted. You become an open invitation for wonder.
Spencer would have turned 29 years old on April 21st. I wonder, as you might expect, what he would be doing if he had lived. He would have loved some of the movies that have come out since 2009. He would have loved many of the books that have been written. I would have loved to read the books he could have written.
A few weeks ago Miles and I took a piece of art to be framed. I told the framer that our son, Spencer, who had died too young, had made this piece. For many years after his death, and through a move from Michigan to Colorado I could not look at this piece without feeling undone. Miles and I are ready to look at it now.
Instead of the searing pain it once caused, I look into the yellow eyes of the wolf and see a fierce desire. Depression robs its victims of so much. In this piece, Spencer created a watchful, knowing creature with a question I'm ready to hear: How will you live your life bravely, authentically, and truthfully?
I begin by picking up the shards of my heart and owning the shattered aspect, the lessons of the fissures that will never go away.