This is the season of gift giving and receiving. And right about now I’m usually thinking about what to get, how much to spend, and how will I ever get it there on time. For a procrastinator who doesn’t like to shop, my season of gifts can be daunting.
However, it is also a time to think about the gifts I’ve received as a result of the greatest tragedy of my life, the suicide death of my son Paul. Though Paul’s death has been a horrendous loss, he has left me many wonderful gifts.
Paul left us with his music. The first of Paul’s things we discovered after he died was a little black suitcase filled with the music he composed, played, and recorded. Soon after his funeral one of Paul’s friends transferred it all from cassette tapes to CDs enabling me to listen to it on my iPod with just a click. I also have it posted on my blog, and it plays in the background of my book trailer. Listening to Paul’s music is like having him playing here at home. And even though it still makes me well up, it provides an inspiration for my writing work.
I became a much stronger and fitter me. I became stronger because I had to. I had to show my husband Bob and surviving son Ben that I was okay – even at times when I wasn’t. I didn’t want them to worry about me.
It was as if I accomplished getting stronger through brute force. I met and interacted with people who had been through similar experiences; I took writing classes and workshops; I went back to work outside my home with my usual verve to compete on the job and to excel in my work, and I received my company’s Women of Achievement award for my accomplishments as a result. I was obsessively persistent in dealing with my grief and becoming a productive person again.
I also became physically stronger. At first exercise was one of the things that kept me sane. Now it keeps me healthy both physically and mentally. And the payoffs have been terrific. My body is trim, I have an athlete’s heart rate, I have a lot of energy, and I don’t have a lot of aches and pains. The only thing exercise hasn’t done for me is make me taller.
My marriage survived. We’ll be celebrating forty-second anniversary in May. Another gift is that our marriage survived, probably by a combination of my drive to deal with the pain, suffering, and loss, and Bob’s willingness to wait until I got better. We realized early on that our grieving processes were different, so we were patient, we gave each other a lot of space, and we respected each other. A big plus is we don’t get into arguments about the small stuff anymore. A loss as great as ours definitely put what’s important into perspective.
Another big factor in the survival of our marriage was that we decided to stay in our house. We moved into it in 1979. It is where our boys grew up. Even though the house was where Paul died, we have always found a lot of comfort in it. Our relatives and friends come and go as if it were their own. They call it The Family House. Plus, I couldn’t find a better place to live. We’re six blocks from the beach. How could we leave that?
Most important, we are still very much in love and best friends. I can see that love in Bob’s face. His eyes and whole face soften when he looks at me. He just exudes love from every pore. This love has been the glue that has kept us together – a glue stronger than the trauma of Paul’s death. We’re together in it for the long haul – richer, poorer, sickness, health, and a son’s death.
I created a wonderful relationship with our surviving son and his wife. I now have a terrific bond with Ben. Once Ben settled in the Los Angeles area and found happiness with a woman in his life, our relationship began to thrive. I no longer had Paul to worry about.
Now, I can be completely devoted to Ben, and I love it. We spend time together. We support each other’s work – I’m even helping him with his scriptwriting. And that he and Marissa wanted to have their wedding in our family home meant so much to me. That created a very special bond between us and provided a very happy memory to replace the bad memories of the past years.
I discovered poetry writing. In a writing workshop just four months after Paul died I found that poems just came spontaneously out of my pen. Since then I’ve honed my skills by participating in workshops and poetry groups, resulting in many of my poems being published. Though I write prose more than poetry, poetry is my love. I always say, “Now there’s a poem.” I feel that anyone, any situation, any place is possible poem material. Writing poetry never leaves me lonely. My poetry writing has become my companion and my savior – something I can turn to any time, any place.
I moved on to a career I’ve always wanted to have. Paul’s death has given me the gift of a new career and mission in life. I created a book with the goal of helping others who have experienced a loss like mine, I have a new writing career as a web journalist, I’m busy writing a novel, and I discovered my mission for the rest of my life: to work to erase the stigma of mental illness and prevent suicide. If my writing helps attain that mission, it will all be worth it.
Of course none of these gifts can replace what my family and I have lost – our beloved son Paul. However, discovering the gifts that followed such a tragedy has enabled me to move on and still keep Paul’s memory alive in my heart.
Madeline Sharples has worked most of her life as a technical writer and editor, grant writer, and proposal manager. She fell in love with poetry and creative writing in grade school and decided to fulfill her dreams of being a professional writer later in her life. Madeline is the author of Leaving the Hall Light On, a memoir about how she and her family survived her older son’s suicide, which resulted from his long struggle with bipolar disorder. She and her husband of 40 years live in Manhattan Beach, CA. Click Here to read more about Madeline Sharples