One day my life was completely normal. I was making lunch for my brother, Abram, who was visiting me from New Jersey, and my best friend, Bettina, when the doorbell rang. I answered it, with my apron on, to a man from the sheriff’s department. He informed me that another officer needed to speak with me and I should call a number he handed to me.
With the Sheriff’s officer looking over my shoulder, I phoned, and heard someone say “coroner’s office” on the other end. I could barely speak. A voice informed me that my son was dead, that he had been shot four times by his school roommate during an argument about dishes.
My 21-year-old son, Christopher, who at the time was studying heating and air-conditioning at trade school, had brown hair and startling green eyes, and was the kind of person who brought home all the kids no one else would talk to on the first day of school. He is my only son.
I had just seen Christopher a few days earlier. When he came to visit, I had stocked him up with enough food for the coming week. After we did his laundry together, he gave me a huge hug. “I love you, Mom,” he said as he left, his green eyes sparkling.
Now he was dead. Shock set in. My body rocked back and forth, as I repeated, “They killed him.” In those first 15 minutes, I lost every liquid a body can lose. The shock was so much more physical than I’d ever imagined. I felt like I had been run over by a tractor-trailer truck, but without visible bruises or breaks.
What hit me first was that Christopher’s chapter with our family was over. No more photos, no graduation. We wouldn’t watch him get married and I wouldn’t be a grandmother to his children. Our photo albums would not be filled with him.
Then an earthquake of reality struck. I realized I had to share this shocking information. I needed to tell my family and friends and my daughter, Christina. Abram, Bettina and I started making phone calls. There were so many to make -– my brothers, my sisters, father, ex-husband and his family and many friends to be told.
After the calls, we waited together until Christina arrived home from school. I had made a plan that my husband, Gary, would be the one to tell her. School was an hour away and it seemed a safer idea to get her home first. When she arrived, she got out of her car happily, for she was excited about seeing her uncle Abram. But as soon as she saw my face, she knew something was very wrong.
“Christopher has been shot,” Gary told her.
“What hospital is he in?” she asked.
It never occurred to me that she would ask if Christopher was alive. When Gary told her Christopher had died immediately, she collapsed. We had to carry her into the house. Seeing my child in so much pain was the worst of my suffering so far. But I was in so much pain myself that it was hard for me to do anything. And this time, I knew nothing would work, nothing could make her feel better.
As the news spread, people began to reach out to comfort us. A stream of friends and neighbors came pouring in to our home. By evening, all my family members who lived close by had arrived.
My “Mother on Earth,” Beth (my biological mother, Jane, died three days after Christopher was born), offered me the first bit of relief. She told me, “You don’t have to get over this, ever.” That was comforting -- and still is to this day. I was relieved that people did not expect me to “get over” the death of my son. How could I ever “get over” him? He is part of me.
When a friend who is a criminal attorney heard the news, he gave me another important thread of relief. “Don’t let this man take any more from you. He has taken more than he was ever entitled to. ”Don’t move, don’t go on vacation. LIVE.”
The violence of Christopher’s death was most difficult for me to deal with. He was shot with a handgun four times. The first shot put him into deep shock, but was not fatal. I was assured by doctor friends that he never felt the others. I didn’t want my child to have suffered while he was dying.
I am no stranger to grief. I have lost my mother, all four grandparents, two brothers and dear friends. But this was very different. You don’t ever practice for this kind of shock -- losing your child.
Despite the shock, I knew intuitively and immediately that I wanted to live. I have a daughter, a husband and a very close family. So I started looking very quickly for help with this horrible tragedy.
That evening, as I lay in bed, alone, Christopher visited. He came from the corner of the bedroom, like an angel. I could see his face and his body down to his waist. He reached out his hand to me, hovering from above, and said, “I am fine, Mom.” And then he sparkled away like a magic mist.
I wasn’t surprised to see him. When I first learned of Christopher’s death, I had a vision of him falling into my mother’s arms. My mother, Jane, was with her best friend Shirley in the vision (my mother had passed many years ago and Shirley recently). That night, I felt so grateful. Christopher’s visit gave me a feeling of peace, and I was able to sleep.
The next morning, I awoke to the waves of grief brought into my life by Christopher’s murder. They rolled into me, body and soul, and engulfed me. They wouldn’t let me come up for air. My skin was salty from my tears. My reality was so shaken that I felt unconnected, and had to go outside to feel the cold, to sense where my body ended.
This was the first time in my life I was not taking care of everyone else. I was the doer in our family and the glue that bound us together. Now it was someone else’s turn. I felt the need to give the tragedy of Christopher’s murder my full focus and energy. I arranged grounding things for myself, regular massages and short visits with close friends. It was a time I needed to be kind to myself and not feel selfish for doing what I needed to do to get through another day. I learned that the shower and the treadmill were great places to cry. I realized I had permission to cry anywhere at any time for the rest of my life.
I had a difficult time coming to grips with the fact that the rest of the world was turning as usual; people drove to work and shopped for dinner while our world was turned upside down. Would life ever be normal again? Fortunately the answer is a resounding “YES.”
Radha Stern is the author of Griefprints, A Practical Guide for Supporting a Grieving Person