A few years back, my life fell apart. After losing my beloved firstborn child to a beating and a drug overdose, and in the years following, I completely lost my bearings.
It’s not that unusual for someone who loses her child to also entirely lose her sense of direction. After all, once you become a mother, your children really do become your North Star. It’s by looking at them and seeing that they are growing up healthy and happy and successful that you determine whether you yourself are healthy, happy and successful. So when one of your children dies, particularly when one of your children dies of a cause that many, many people – perhaps even secretly you yourself – believe is the result of something you could have, should have prevented – you lose sight of your North Star.
As a bereaved parent, you are cast adrift, your previous anchors no longer holding you in a place of stability. When your child dies, you are left wondering whether anything you ever did in your whole life actually mattered, and whether anything you ever believed to be real actually was. You find yourself questioning whether you have any worth as a human being when you’ve failed at the most fundamental of human undertakings: keeping your own offspring alive.
Or at least, this has been what the aftermath of losing a child has been like for me, and for many other bereaved parents with whom I’ve spoken and heard from in the years since Henry died. For me, losing a child left me unable to make decisions, unable to focus, and unable to see the path forward. If my life wasn’t any longer what it had always been – a life defined primarily by my role as the mother to each of my children – then what was my life? What was I capable of doing any longer and how could I trust myself not to fail at whatever I tried when I already felt like such a failure? If I hadn’t realized it before Henry died, I certainly came to understand it in the years that followed; while I have achieved many goals and successes in other areas of my life, NONE of that mattered except in relation to my ability to mother my children.
And so I drifted. And drifting isn’t a very productive way to perform in one’s career. What I found in the aftermath of Henry’s death was that no matter how hard I tried, my own sense of failure and incompetence, feelings about myself that developed from losing my son, carried over into my life’s work. I had been lucky enough to enjoy a career since graduation from college that allowed me to do what I loved best: work with words and technology to tell people’s stories, to connect people, and to illustrate and illuminate the world around us. I loved what I did and I think that I was pretty good at it. I even knew that I was good at what I did for a living, and this confidence both enhanced and supported my ability to perform at a relatively high level.
Or at least, I was able to perform at this level until the unthinkable happened.
Feeling incompetent, worthless and insecure in your own abilities isn’t exactly a recipe for professional success. And so I found that since Henry died, my painful loss of self and my newly gained inability to see where I needed to go and what I needed to do next eroded my ability to do the work I had always done. I found that the only thing I could truly focus on was my children and their wellbeing. I began to question whether my previous, intense efforts related to my paid employment had in some way diminished my ability to prevent something awful from happening to one of my babies. Maybe if I hadn’t worked so hard or stayed late so many election nights or taken so many business trips away from them, maybe then I could have saved Henry. I didn’t know the answers to these questions but I sure knew that they kept me up at night, and I also knew that until I felt like I had shored up our family’s leaking ship, a ship shot full of holes from every direction, I could not yet turn my attention outward again.
Over the last several years of laser focus on my own and my family’s inner life, my previous career marched on without me. This is as it should be. A world of information and innovation in my previous area of work isn’t going to just sit around and wait for some grieving mother to pull herself back together enough to jump right back into the game exactly where she left off. Additionally, at the same time that I have been hunkered down in recovery mode, my profession has experienced tremendous loss itself. The jobs in journalism and communications that existed when I first started my career have continued to shrink in number as technology has radically reshaped how people find and consume words and images. In recent years, many, many of my friends with whom I worked over the years have found themselves involuntarily forced out of jobs they loved, and out of careers that they thought that they would be able to depend on for the rest of their lives. These friends of mine now find themselves adrift in their own ways, wondering what’s next for them.
In the past year, as I’ve finally begun to come up for air ever so slowly, I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to what the next chapter of my professional life will look like. I have also very slowly begun to take on some small roles beyond simply caring for my family. I have launched and now lead a grief group for individuals who have lost a loved one to substance use disorder, I have lobbied for and seen successful passage of state legislation named after my son – legislation that will help to address the supply side of the overdose epidemic that took my teenager from me. And I continue to assist my sister Betsy, who serves as Executive Director of Henry’s Fund, the non-profit that we launched in Henry’s memory.
And while since the beginning, I have found writing about our family’s loss cathartic, until only very recently, I could not bring myself to speak publicly about these things. Until quite recently, if I tried to stand up in front of even a few people and tell Henry’s story, or offer my views on the disease that killed my son, I would immediately burst into tears and become a sobbing mess. I don’t think many people realize this. They think that because I have written publicly a great deal since Henry died that I have also spoken publicly a great deal as well. This is not the case. My inability to say even a few words about losing Henry to anyone without tears welling up in my eyes has prevented me from accepting invitations to speak, has prevented me from attending events put on by Henry’s Fund, and even prevented me from attending things like girls’ lunches and holiday parties to which I’ve been invited. My inability to talk about what happened is yet one more reason why I haven’t been able to return to my previous career. I still cry every.single.day about my child’s death, and that’s not something that’s very conducive to working in an environment with a lot of busy people who don’t have the time or inclination to try to work around someone who is weeping in the bathroom. You should have seen me when I testified before the judicial committee of the Tennessee State Legislature about Henry’s Law. Suffice it to say that weeping was involved. Yes, I have given some television and radio interviews about Henry’s death and the overdose epidemic where you didn’t see or hear me crying during the interviews themselves, but what you didn’t see or hear is the condition I was in for the rest of those days.
But over the last year, my ability to speak in public and actually discuss the issues of mental illness and addiction – the issues that ultimately took my son away from our family – has strengthened. I find myself more and more able to actually have both one on one and group conversations about these important topics that matter so very much to me without completely losing my composure. I am even now able to sometimes attend social functions without secretly, unhealthily wondering, “why are all these people laughing and enjoying themselves when MY SON DIED??” Getting to this place, or rather, continuing my progress toward getting to this place tells me that it’s time for me to pull my head out of the sand and consider what my “chapter two” will look like. As I’ve said, it’s not really feasible for me to return to my previous career. The job opportunities there have shrunk so much and continue to shrink so much that being out of the game for even a few years puts me at a significant competitive disadvantage.
Plus, I’ve come to the slow realization that while I will always want to use my words to connect with people, tell stories and shine light on issues and topics that matter to me, the technology that allows me to offer up the writing you’re reading right now provides me with the ongoing opportunity to be my own publisher without publishing having to be the primary focus of my life’s work. And while I’ve loved what I’ve done for a living for my entire adult life, and while I will always be writing somewhere, whether that’s here on my blog or as an occasional freelancer for various publications, I have now been given what I should really see as a gift – a gift that not many people get in their lives, a gift that will allow me – if I let it – to completely redesign my life’s work at midlife. I get the chance to have a Chapter Two focused on issues and actions about which I am really passionate.
It’s for this reason that I’ve decided to apply for an MSSW – a master’s degree in social work – with an emphasis on organizational leadership. After a great deal of thought and via discussions with people smarter than I am, I’ve come to realize that I want my Chapter Two to focus on influencing public policy around health and social issues. I’m lucky that the skills I gained and honed as a communicator will continue to serve me well as I transition into this new chapter of my professional life. Of course, I still have to be accepted into the right master’s program and then make it through the program successfully, something I face with some major trepidation given that I continue to struggle with the same insecurities, fears and emotional health challenges that have plagued me since Henry died. But I believe that in the Chapter Two career I envision mapping out for myself, my personal experiences and yes, even my vulnerabilities will actually help me to succeed rather than impede my success.
This newly defined sense of direction isn’t an endpoint to anything for me. I continue to grieve, deeply and painfully. I have some extremely difficult days when I am unable to accomplish much beyond sitting with my grief. I still can’t sleep enough, and I continue to receive intensive counseling to support my mental well-being. In other words, in no way have I yet seen my North Star come completely back into focus for me. And with these issues with which I continue to struggle, it’s possible that I may not be ready for this challenge; I may fall flat on my face in my attempts to be accepted to and succeed in graduate school. Because I feel like the format will offer me the best shot at success, I am applying to graduate programs with an online MSSW track so that I can pace myself when I’m struggling. Luckily, there are several highly rated, fully accredited MSSW programs in the U.S. that offer online degrees, including the University of Southern California, Indiana University, and the University of Tennessee. (Obviously, even if you’re part of one of these programs’ online cohorts, you still have to do your student practicum in person.)
It’s been a while since I’ve trusted my abilities enough to reach for something challenging. And this stretching for my Chapter Two will indeed be a challenge. But at least I’ve popped my head back up and am looking around a bit at the world. And that feels hopeful. I feel hopeful, just as I know my living children need me to be, and just as I know that Henry would want me to be.