Friday, May 8, 2020

How to cope with the loss of a loved one


It’s present day and I’m shocked to walk into my front room and see a baby hooked to life support. The machines whir and thump with such force I wonder how the ventilator doesn't hurt the baby. The infant looks just like Zeke, my son who died in 2003, and suddenly it's hard for me to breathe...too. I’m about to step closer when the doorbell rings.

“Yes?” I say to the striking young woman at the door. I’m still craning my neck to get a closer look at the baby.

“You’re a professional writer,” she says, it’s not a question. “You write obituaries.”

“Well, yes. I do.”

She walks in and begins telling me about someone. I’m frantically taking notes thinking this woman is a muted cymbal, capable of so much more if she’d let herself “resound.” After all, no one should let pressure steal their purpose.

Then she hands me the picture that should accompany the obit and I’m stunned.

“But...this is you! Do you have an identical twin or something?”

“No,” she says. “And write the date of death as next Saturday. Don’t forget the ‘y’ in my name. Susan S-M-Y-T-H.”

I want to help this woman because I’ve lost people down the road she's traveling.  And the whole time, the baby's ventilator is getting louder and louder and I can hardly concentrate!

“Once there was a woman who wanted to be a water nymph.” I practically stumble over the words--trying to think of something, anything.
“She thought about leaving her other life, and assured herself everyone would be better off without her. So, she prayed to the gods, begging them to turn her into a nymph and let her live in the Haratha Pond. After all, it was always warm when she went to that bank, full of beauty and life."

I pause, glad she seems engaged in the story. "So, the gods granted her wish, but the woman changed and became stuck in the pond. Without the brightness of her human spirit to warm the place, the weather turned cold and the pond froze over with ice so thick she could not escape. Trapped, she perceived faint shadows and heard distant voices of those she loved searching for her above the ice. This went on for years, but she couldn't reach them or call out to them. And so it was that she realized her transformation had been much worse on everyone than she had ever expected. And unable to speak to—or see—those she loved, the beautiful nymph spent her days in an all encompassing loneliness unlike any she had known before.”

Susan hugged me as if resolved and stood to the rhythm of the life support at the edge of the room. “I think we should call and get you some help.”

The machine tha-whumped in the corner again. “Excuse me for just a moment,” I say. And when I go to see whose baby rests there, I’m dumbfounded; it’s actually Zeke!

“You can hold him now,” Susan steps forward.

“What? You’re a nurse or something?”

“Yes. You can hold him now.”

But her words are slippery with motive and I worry over the honey in her tone.


After she disconnects the tubing, I’m holding my baby in the front room, and I’m not even asking why he’s back after 17 years.

“It’s you! It’s really you!” I nuzzle him...his fuzzy hair, his soft baby-smelling skin.

But then something goes terribly wrong and he’s puffing up like a distended balloon about to pop. His silent cries are so big I worry the sides of his mouth will split like the Joker. And my baby is gasping for the kind of air I can’t give because I don’t know how to hook up the damn machine!!!

I’m screaming then, begging anyone—the nurses, God, my family—anyone to fix my baby. But the damn nurse is gone and I don’t have the stamina or skills to fix my kid. And soon the crying stops, and he turns into this stiff doll in my arms. I’m bawling because he won’t wake up and no matter how hard I try to warm him, he’s cold....freezing inside and trapped in that lifeless, broken body. And now he and I are the muted cymbals, never wanting to make music again as I hold him for days.

A funeral director shows up later with a hawk nose and beady eyes. “We have to put him in a bag now and then place him in this box.”

“No! He’s my baby.”

“We'll get pictures first! Don't worry.  Don't you want to remember this!"

But I don't want to remember anything, especially the death in my arms.  I just want my baby back... breathing and recognizable..not this swollen doll that reminds me of his last painful moments on earth.

"You’ve held onto him long enough. Now let go! He’s gone.”

So I nod, but I’m crying so hard there’s snot running onto my chin and tears have made my cheeks sticky.

“What happened,” hawk-nose asks.

“He’s died in front of me all over again, sir. He’s died again.  I had a second chance and he died again."

The man puts Zeke in a clear bag and sets him in the box before closing the lid. After he leaves, I rush to the box, throw open the lid—and gasp. It’s not Zeke anymore....

Susan’s in the box--she has sightless open eyes and unfeeling hands. I kneel down and cry—these body shaking sounds that could crack mountains. “I couldn’t save him. I couldn’t save her either. Damn it! Damn it!!!!! Why does life have to be so hard.  I'm never good enough damn it!”

I wake up then, sweating and crying. “Mike! Mike! Do I feel warm? I’m having feverish dreams. Maybe I’m sick?”

“You’re fine, Elisa. But you’re shaking. Sweetheart!” He completely woke up at two in the morning.

I tell him everything then, about the suicidal woman, the ice, and Zeke’s reappearance in my dreams.

“It was just a dream,” he says. “I’ve got you. You’re okay. You’re all right.”

“But only part of it was a dream.” I sob. “ I watched Zeke die again. I watched it.... He couldn’t breathe again. And I couldn’t do anything to make him better. I thought God would heal him at the last minute. But God must have needed him more than I did ‘cause He took my little boy.”

Mike held me as I cried and cried. I’d never give up the memories of Zeke from 2002 to 2003 because they also contain him.... But it’s not always easy to remember.  I read a book once about people electing to get a single memory removed.  At least I know what mine wouldn't be--despite the pain.  Those memories also have my angel baby in them.

“Life can be so terribly hard. We’ll always be together?” I asked Mike. “The thought of losing you, the kids or our closest family, well, it's too much.”

“We’ll always be together, Elisa. Of course we will be.”

And so I decided to bring the kids out to do something fun today. I don’t care if we go on the world’s longest hike, fishing, playing in the trees or even skateboarding.... I just want to treasure every minute because life is short and the best things we can do are trust God, treasure the people we love and make sure they know how much we care about them.

I'm still quivering inside from that dream.  I hope today will get better.


  1. May 3, I got very upset at the newspaper rep on the other end of the phone. Another Sunday, no paper delivered. Then I looked at the date and realized it would have been my 40th Anniversary. We had 35 years of Anniversaries together before he died in March, 2016. I was so glad I had a friend who made a meal for me and I did not have to cook. I posted on Facebook and got many responses. I even got to share feelings with a writer friend who had lost her husband. As I have said before, I loved the story about your son. My friend's son would have been 21 this year, I finally saw a photo of him and did not remember seeing one before. I never know when I may start crying again, I usually do not have nightmare, but I know telling the doctors it was ok to take him off life support was a good decision.

    1. You’re so strong! It’s nearly unbearably hard going through things like this, but at least we can rest knowing we did The right thing no matter how hard. God bless you.

  2. I have read the Golden Sky and loved it