My Kind, Compassionate Son Died Unexpectedly. This Is What I Want You To Know About Grief.

At 5:30 in the morning, I opened my eyes and focused on the clock. I felt restless. I got out of bed, went to my 24 year old son’s room and opened the door. His empty bed was still well made.

I grabbed my phone and looked for a message from him. At 11:02 p.m. she had sent a text: “Thanks. Love” in response to a text from me saying she could find dinner in the fridge if she wanted when she got home.

“Were are you?” I sent a frantic message. No answer This was totally off-putting to my youngest manager of four, who had just started a new job.

My kind and compassionate son, who could make anyone he just met feel important, had worked very hard for this new position where he could finally earn a real salary. His charm and good looks were magnetic, and he was one hell of a rock drummer. My greatest joy was hanging out at one of his concerts, screaming and clapping as he and his band, Jubilo Drive, blew the roof off.

Wouldn’t he come home when he had a new job to find? It wasn’t Eric.

I opened the door to my daughter’s room and woke her up with my panicked voice, “Did you hear Eric?”

Before she could answer, we both heard a loud knock on the front door, three loud knocks. I felt bad instantly. Call it mother’s intuition. There is no denying this soul-to-soul connection with your child.

Vanessa and I went downstairs. In those seconds, I didn’t want to know, and yet I had to know. I grabbed the doorknob and swung the door open to see a professionally dressed woman, and behind her at the bottom of the stairs, an officer.

The woman introduced herself as the coroner and the officer as the sheriff. He asked if Eric Cruz lived here, and I managed to stifle a yes. He went on to say, “I’m sorry, but Eric was in a car accident and he’s dead.”

Vanessa and I both doubled over in anguish and utter disbelief. The world was spinning out of control. All he could say over and over was, “This didn’t have to happen! This didn’t have to happen!” But it did happen.

After the death of my son, I was in a deep, dark abyss. I felt physical pain in my stomach and chest that remained for many weeks. I could barely eat. I was asleep, except for the moments each day when despair took over and I cried uncontrollably until the wave of pain went through my body.

All I could focus on was breathing and getting through the next minute. As my heartbroken husband pulled together to plan Eric’s funeral services along with some amazing friends, there was almost nothing I could do to help.

How could I live longer?

Many well meaning people told me I was in a “better place”. I was told it was “his time”. I was told to be grateful to have other children. They told me to be strong. No. No. Thanks, but no.

The “best place” to be is here with me and his family. He had much more to do here. Yes, I love my other children as deeply as I love him, but that doesn’t change the depth of the loss. Eric will never be replaced.

And be strong? Really? I think I have the right to get rid of it when my son dies. These comments are not helpful to someone who has just suffered.

What was helpful was very simple. People just came to be with me and my family. People came up and hugged us and said they were so sorry. People would hear us talk about Eric and share stories about his antics and awesome personality. I had a friend come over and hardly say anything. But she was there, she stayed and witnessed our pain. This was more helpful than anyone could have imagined.

The grieving parents club is a club no one wants to join. The worst possible thing had happened and I had no idea how I was going to find a way to heal.

But as I progressed through my grief journey, I also began to search. Look for answers, if any. Look for the meaning, if there is one. And look for my son. In my soul I knew it still existed; I knew he was still with us. I just couldn’t see or touch him anymore.

I found an excellent therapist who was also a grief specialist. Here I was in a safe space where I could cry and talk all I wanted about my son, share photos of him and tell stories of his kindness, compassion and incredible talent.

This was vital because in our society most people do not want to talk about death. It’s too uncomfortable, too uncomfortable. And if you talk too much about your loved one, they walk away, or even tell you to get over it.

A friend of mine would regularly tell me about someone he knew who had lost a child and was “grieving too long”. You know, they had to get over it. I think he wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to do the same. People feel uncomfortable watching other people in grief, and they would feel much better if the grieving people were happy again.

My therapist told me that over time I would develop a new relationship with Eric. I was puzzled by this. It sounded pretty crazy. But he would find out he was right.


Photo courtesy of Dolores Cruz

Within a week of Eric’s death, I literally Googled “grief” and found grief expert David Kessler, who had written many books on grief and also offered grief classes and groups in line From him, I learned how it was possible to mourn fully and live fully, and how I could remember my son with more love than pain. David’s compassion and genuine nature drew me to look deeply at this thing called pain, how to honor it, and how to learn from it.

I started reading book after book. Not just books about grief, but also about death, the afterlife, and near-death experiences. Not only did these books begin to reshape my understanding of where my son was now (which was actually not far off), but they also began to enlighten me with a new perception of who God is: not an old man in heaven, but the Creator. and the Source of all Love.

This kind of profound loss often causes people to lose their faith. I can’t say I lost mine, but it was wide open. The neat and tidy box that contained God exploded. To say he was angry and confused was an understatement. But over time, as I searched and pondered and prayed, the pieces fell back together, in a deeper and more complete way than I had ever imagined.

And eight months after Eric died, I was led to an amazing nonprofit for bereaved parents. Help parents heal provides an online platform for parents to meet, share their experiences and support each other, as well as offering local in-person group meetings.

Here, finally, was a place to express anything I wanted about my pain and sorrow over the loss of my son and how much I missed him, and dozens of people were commenting to tell me how handsome he was or what a great smile beautiful it was it had. Everyone in the organization, including the administrators, had lost a child and were there to listen and share. The feeling of love was overwhelming!

Helping Parents Heal’s philosophy that our children are still here with us matched what I had been experiencing. We have very open discussions about the ongoing connections we can have with our children.

I had never doubted it, as I had already felt Eric’s presence, something I can’t talk about with anyone. Most people would tell me it’s just my imagination or it’s the pain. But here I could share a sign from my son and no one would doubt it. They would share the joy.

I have heard a miracle described as a change in perception. If this is true, then the new perspective I have gained on this journey of grief is a miracle. Healing is a miraculous process. And the way I now look at Eric’s transition, as well as all the events that have unfolded since then, is truly miraculous.

Five years and five months have passed since that horrible day. I still miss my son more than anything and I still have moments when I cry and feel the pain in the missing ones. But I have also found a sweetness in the love and connection I have with him.

I retired from teaching three years ago. Now I spend as much time as I can doing what feeds my soul. I walk through our local arboretum, do yoga and teach tap dancing on Saturdays at a local community college.

My top priority is my family. At first, we had no way of knowing if this tragedy would destroy us, but my husband, our three other children, and I have grown closer. We work around our busy schedules to spend as much time together as possible. We text each other every day and often share our dreams with Eric or signs of him. We know he is with us. Why wouldn’t it be? We still love him, and he still loves us.

And in doing all these things, I have found joy again.

There was no way I could see the possibility of healing the day the sheriff and coroner knocked on my front door. I had no reason to believe that I would ever be able to emerge from the darkness when my husband and three surviving children and I stood at Eric’s grave in the cemetery to bury his ashes.

But this is the miracle. It doesn’t happen a week later, or a month later, or necessarily a year later. It is a gradual process, like the rising sun. This type of healing cannot be learned in a crash course. It cannot be seen carefully. It is meant to fall like rose petals from the sky, one by one, day by day, until one day you have a flower, then a bouquet; then a rose garden, then a garden.

We never “get over” the loss of a child or loved one. We’ll never finish healing one day and say, “I’m glad I’m done with that.” Instead, we learn to grow our lives around grief. We learn to find meaning in our lives by honoring those we have lost. And in some strange way, we learn that joy and pain can coexist.

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