If I move away from the grave where we buried the ashes of my son Jacob–who died by suicide after a long battle with depression–does that mean I no longer care about him?
Abandoning My Son’s Grave
My partner had the chance at a job transfer, and we jumped. Four hundred miles away from where we had buried the ashes of my son Jacob just a few years prior, we gave notice to our landlord and packed up the moving van. Our new home would be geographically closer to our surviving children and extended family members … But as we drove away, I had a visceral sense of abandoning Jacob.
Can You Literally Move Away from Grief?
We’d already moved an hour’s drive away, one year after Jacob’s death; and frankly, that space allowed me to breathe. Rather than choking up every time I passed the 7-Eleven, Chinese restaurant, and liquor store in whose windows we’d posted fliers in our desperate search for Jacob (who likely died within an hour of leaving our house–but his body was not recovered until more than five weeks later); rather than facing awkward stares from neighbors and acquaintances at the grocery store, gym, walking path–everywhere, actually; I had the chance to live in a new town.
I didn’t wear the story of my son’s suicide like a placard around my neck. I could grapple with my pain in privacy or share my story in time with those I chose to trust.
However, I still returned often to visit the spot on the hill where we’d buried Jacob’s ashes. It was a pilgrimage of pain to reach that hilltop, where, in the distance, one could view the cliff from which we believe Jacob dove to his death. I forced myself to visit, because it felt like loyalty; it felt like love.
Now, with so many more miles between us, I can’t say when I will return to his gravesite. Does that alleviate my grief at all? Does it make me a bad mother? Or does it even matter whether I continue to bear witness to a spot on the ground where his ashes have long since mingled with the surrounding soil?
The Trend Toward Far-Flung Remains
Just a generation or two ago, people stayed put on their farms and in their towns and cities. You could visit your local graveyard and find the tombstones of all your predecessors.
Not so anymore.
You may live hundreds or thousands of miles away from your deceased loved ones, and they may be in several different locations as well: divorce and estrangement, family blending and partnering, and the diaspora of the nuclear family, fling us all to far corners of our nation and our world. Touring our loved ones’ gravesites may require significant vacation time and travel funds.
How People Cope When They Live Far Away
Did you know that you can physically move a coffin? For a cost of anywhere from $2,000 to $15,000, you can have your loved one’s remains transferred to your current location. Alternatively, you can hire a person in their location to clean or visit your loved one’s grave for you.
If you long to visit the graves of more distant family members, and you don’t even know where to find them, you might try a new tool called Family Search to locate their resting places.
Does It Even Matter If We Visit?
If nothing exists anymore of my son, what does it matter if I visit his grave, anyway? I struggle to know how best to honor him in death, and my lack of faith in the “beyond,” combined with a natural biological urge to move forward, propel me to a new place and new chapter in my life.
What would Jacob want, for the legacy of his memory, and for the lives of his family who are forced to go on without him?
Bereaved parent Caila Smith writes about how, when her daughter first died, she visited her gravesite several times per day, allowing herself to lie down and wail if others were not present. But over time, her belief shifted from imagining that her daughter knew she was there and cared, to believing she had no awareness in the finality of death. Caila consciously chose to visit less often, be more present for her living children, and in “the good works I do to honor her memory.”
I hope that my move away from my son’s grave will free up time and energy for me to do the same.
Cover image courtesy of john-thomas-H7DqDfrn5CM-unsplash.jpeg.