Grief After My Son’s Suicide, I’m Learning to Navigate Emotional Minefields in My Home
Maybe, over time, the ephemera of Jack’s life will become less explosive, like a landmine whose triggering mechanism has eroded, rendering it harmless.
Five weeks after my teenage son Jack killed himself, I visited the Falkland Islands. I had to. My plans had been made months before Jack’s death; I was there to write about the thirtieth anniversary of the war between England and Argentina over ownership of the Falklands. I looked out at one of the vast minefields left by Argentine forces in 1982 near the little city of Stanley, a lethal reminder of a war fought thirty years earlier, and wondered what it would be like to live with the possibility of an explosion always lurking beneath the ground.
The minefields were surrounded by barbed wire fences with skull and crossbones signs nailed to fence posts. There are now two generations of Falkland Islanders who have grown up with the minefields, and to them, they’re part of the landscape. To the older generation, though, they’re a constant reminder of fear and boredom and food shortages and bombings that came with the occupation of their country. Little by little, the Falkland Islanders are locating and clearing away the mines, a painstakingly slow and dangerous process.
When I returned home to Upstate New York, I sobbed when I saw that my husband Tim had taken everything out of Jack’s bedroom and placed it under a blue tarp in the attic, and painted the blood-spattered bedroom walls a bright yellow. To this day, I can’t go into the attic because I might see that blue tarp. The blue tarp and the yellow-painted room have not yet become part of my landscape.
I have wanted to move from our house since Jack shot himself in his bedroom almost seven years ago, but some mysterious formula of Landscape + Sadness + Home = Inertia. I’ve spent those years trying to blot out all memories of that evening, but of course I can’t. The first thing I remember—and will always be thankful for—is that none of Jack’s three sisters happened to be home that night. Then what I sometimes try to remember—and never can—is how I ever managed to walk up the old oak stairs, turn left at the landing, and then walk past Jack’s room and into our bedroom that first night. I think, that’s okay, you managed to do it , but also, you couldn’t possibly have slept in the house where you heard that gunshot, ran up those stairs, and found your son lifeless on his bed just hours earlier.
My memories seem to be embedded in physical space, creating potential minefields within the very rooms of my house. The kitchen—I can never again prepare or eat cheese ravioli or pancakes because that was Jack food. The dining room—his chair at the table. The living room —the couch where he used to sit and stroke the old dog. The front room—an elaborate cut-paper snowflake taped to the front window (the last thing I remember him making). His Christmas stocking at the bottom of the bin holding Christmas ornaments is like a spent nuclear fuel rod. During warm weather, I can sit on our wide wraparound front porch—a place Jack didn’t spend much time—and turn my back on the house, but at some point, I’m driven back inside by mosquitoes or the cold to the house of the explosive objects.
Landmines were invented over 150 years ago, during the American Civil War, by Confederate General Gabriel J. Rains and his brother Brigadier General George Washington Rains. They were known as the “Bomb Brothers” for their creation and use of booby traps, torpedoes, and landmines. The Rains’ design of a mechanically-fused high explosive landmine was refined by the Germans in the run-up to World War One. Since then, landmines have been used on battlefields throughout the world. Up to 110 million mines still lay just beneath the surface of the ground, salting the countryside of at least sixty countries. In 2017, over 7,200 civilians—many of them children—were killed or injured by these mines .
In the Falklands, many mines were planted in peat bogs or in sand, and over the past thirty-five years as the ground has frozen and thawed and frozen and thawed and the dunes have migrated, the mines have shifted. Some have buried themselves deeper or turned on edge or are now sitting upside down. When they decided to begin clearing the mines, the British government hired highly-trained Zimbabwean de-miners to assist them. They’ve been at this task for years, and 70 percent of the mines in 130 minefields have now been cleared. Using metal detectors to locate the mines, de-miners then use scrapers and prodders to carefully excavate them. A metal detector can produce false positives for mines of 1,000 to 1 because anything containing metal will set it off—ring tabs, coins, zipper pulls, and even traces of metal in rocks. A good de-miner may find one mine a week.
Walking through my house means averting my eyes lest they spy the mines—photos of Happy Jack as a four-year-old standing in a playground wearing his favorite 101 Dalmatians tee shirt, as a six-year-old tow-head wearing a maroon soccer jersey and smiling at the camera, as a two-year-old standing with his three-year-old sister at an outdoor water fountain in a park and they’re both in hysterics because water is squirting everywhere. I wander from the front room where I often sit in an overstuffed green chair by the fireplace, through the living room, then the dining room, then into the kitchen. Along the way, I’ve made it my habit not to look directly at any of these photographs because they put me right back to the scene of the flashing lights in the driveway on the night of his death.
I’ve only recently put some of the photographs of Jack and pieces of his artwork into drawers. For years, I thought, mistakenly, that I could desensitize myself to the fact of Jack—could live like the Falkland Islanders and come to the point where I could pass by the skull-and-crossbones signs and not notice them. After seven years of trying, I’ve found it’s not possible, so I’ve been slowly and painstakingly trying to clear my personal minefield.
Neither Jack’s sisters nor Tim or I can manage to go into Jack’s bedroom, though it’s been painted a bright and sunny color and all of his things—the bed, his bureau, his bookshelves, his musical instruments—have been removed. My husband did what he could, but Jack remains in his room and the door remains closed. I can’t even touch the door knob with its beautiful tarnished brass face made in a local wire factory over a hundred years ago and worn almost smooth from a thousand turns. For me it would be like touching a long dormant mine, something I instinctively know I mustn’t do, lest I blow up into a million tiny sharp-edged pieces that would rain down upon the hallway floor and land in a pile against the door.
I often think about memory and what it is—and why it is—but I get flummoxed. Why do we have this faculty when there are experiences so horrible and frightening that they should be forgotten? This seems anti-evolutionary. Why is it that seeing a photograph or a drawing or a paper snowflake can trigger the very smell, taste, touch, sound, and feeling of an event that so negatively affected my life? Is it to remind me—as if I needed a reminder!—of the presence of danger and heartache? There are times when I want to reach into my skull and rip out the wiring that creates and stores MEMORIES.
What must it be like to live only in the present , I think. I read an account of a woman who suffered from this disease that goes by the prosaic name “severely deficient autobiographical memory syndrome.” She could recall facts but couldn’t conjure up any episodic memories. She knew she had a wedding but could not place herself back there to remember or relive the emotions of that day. She also can’t speculate on her future. There are times when I yearn for this syndrome. Times when I wish to wipe the memory of that night from wherever it lies in my brain. I would be more comfortable with the fact of Jack’s death than the memory of the night he died.
When I was in the Falkland Islands on the thirtieth anniversary of the war, I was surrounded by people with PTSD: the man who showed me every inch of the site of the war’s bloodiest battle, the Welsh guard who moved to the Falklands after the war to open a guest house for visiting veterans of the war, the school superintendent who told me the story of a bomb hitting his house and killing three of his friends. When I looked into their eyes, I saw myself. I’m sure they would do almost anything to erase their memories.
I’ve wanted to move away from this house—but my husband Tim can’t seem to do it. Maybe he feels like he would come completely unmoored if we moved. Maybe, what is my albatross is his anchor. I will probably never know because we can’t seem to talk about it.
I’ve sent Zillow listings of houses in Maine to Tim, where the soothing sounds of the ocean might wash away the blast of the shotgun that changed our lives. Tim doesn’t acknowledge them, and I don’t bring it up. I can tell, though, that he’s afraid I will just take off one day and not look back, and for good reason. When I was feeling particularly low, I wallowed in this idea of walking away from the sad house and going to a place where no one knew me and my family’s sad story. I thought I kept that desire hidden from Tim, but how can you hide such unhappiness?
If you leave unexploded mines in place, they’re still potentially lethal, but their deadliness can be obscured by what happens around them. Many of the minefields that remain uncleared in the Falklands have turned into beautiful natural areas of dunes and sea cabbage and tussac grass. It’s an enticing, deadly beauty that’s become home to several species of penguin—like the Magellenic and Gentoo penguins—which are too small to trigger explosions.
No human has been killed by a landmine in the Falklands since the end of the war in 1982, although several sheep have wandered astray and met grisly ends. One problem Falkland Islanders now struggle with is that in order to completely clear the last 30 percent of their mines, they have to essentially dig up these sensitive areas, destroying the penguin nesting colonies. I think about this and wonder if I have to destroy my home in order to save myself.
A couple of months ago, Tim proposed a house renovation project that we’d talked about years earlier. I suspect this was an attempt to temper my fury at not moving. Our house is built on the side of a small hill and there is a large second-story enclosed back porch off the kitchen. This porch has banks of louvered windows on three sides. When you are on the back porch, you are surrounded by foliage. You’re eye-to-eye with the woodpeckers that hunt for insects in the huge maple and the red and gray squirrels that fight for territory in the neighbor’s pines. You can watch the crow family as they swoop around the line of spruce trees standing in front of the swamp, and you can almost see the nest of the merlins—once a rare bird in central New York —which, like a miracle, have returned to the same pine for the third year.
The plan is to knock a wide opening between the kitchen and this back porch, and replace all of the windows to make it weather-tight, and then run baseboard heaters around the room. This will become new space within our previously closed-circuit of a house. It is as far away from Jack’s bedroom as a room can be and still be attached to the house. This new room will be spare, housing only a chair or two and a desk. I might put a small single bed in one corner. I will sit in a chair or lie on the bed and watch the birds because this makes me feel better. I will watch the sky lighten as the sun pushes up from the swamp hidden behind the spruce trees. And in the fall the maple leaves will turn blaze orange and fiery red and golden yellow and they will float to the ground. I will keep an eye on dark clouds that knit together forming storms that swoop in from the east. In the winter, as the wind lifts and propels snowflakes into swirling blizzards that wend their way through and around the bare branches of the massive maple, I will be sitting alone in my own snow globe.
I do not remember Jack on this back porch. And in my mind, this will be new, never-occupied-by-Jack space and therefore there will be no mines there. We will have created an ultra-peripheral region and, in effect, will have placed virtual barbed wire around the part of the house where Jack lived. Perhaps, like with the remaining mines in the Falkland Islands, this will isolate and keep contained the reminders of Jack’s life that throw me into a state of melancholia. Perhaps I can then treat the main part of the house like the delicate, sensitive habitat that’s now occupied by penguins in the Falklands. And maybe, over time, the ephemera of Jack’s life will become less explosive, like a landmine whose triggering mechanism has eroded, rendering it harmless.