I’m just back from an incredible cruise tour all around the United Kingdom. Traveling with several close family members, my partner and I relished the time to hold days-long conversations with them while sharing new vistas; and then, we stayed an extra week with our surviving son, Zachary. It all seemed like a dream … until I woke up and realized that Jacob had missed it all.
How can the center of our family be forever gone?
The Life He Might Have Had
When my son Jacob died by drowning himself in the Pacific Ocean at age 21, he had only one semester left in college. His depression had worsened, and he talked about extending his time at CU Boulder by adding a double major. I didn’t see how this would enhance his future career or graduate studies, but when he turned to me and said, “Mom, I’m just not ready to face the ‘real’ world,” I could not say no. I would find the funds for his tuition if that would keep him safe and stable.
Home in California with me on medical leave, Jacob took solace in strong coffee, indie rock music, the wooded trails near our home, and the deep burrow of his bed. He was sober, eating well, reading books, and getting outside for walks every day. (Some of our best talks happened while I scrambled to keep up with his long legs.)
That’s how I knew he dreamed of graduating college and then taking two adventures–to camp alone in the wilderness for an extended time as a sort of vision quest, and to spend a summer or a year living and traveling with his brother Zach, all around Europe. They had become best friends, just recently, as their competitive squabbling gave way to insider jokes and, as Zach has said, almost an entire secret language of their shared history of unpredictable abuse, silly pranks, and desperate bonding.
Next, Jacob would apply to his clear first-choice Ph.D. program in California. He would study neurobiology and continue the research he’d begun during a summer internship: breeding bacteria to carry medicines to target points within the body to quickly and efficiently defeat all sorts of diseases. He would be a healer, on a global scale.
Jacob had such a huge and tender heart, it was easy to imagine him partnered or married. He dreamed of having children one day, and I teased him that he would end up with all girls who would drive him crazy with their hormones and emotions. I had such a clear future image of him with a smart woman, a large dog, and a couple of tiny princesses …
And none of it came true.
The Life We Have Without Him
Like possibly everyone who has lost a loved one to the brutality, immediacy, and finality of suicide, I wanted to follow Jacob into death. It’s not logical, especially if you don’t believe in an afterlife; but it may be during this precise moment when we come closest to understanding their state of mind–you are in so much searing pain you cannot see a way to go on.
Two people held me back from my own cliff: Jacob’s brother Zach, who, always far wiser than his years (then 23) and the strongest person I know, turned to me and said, “Mom, you and I need to make a pact that no matter how hard it gets, we will stay alive. We will not leave each other.”
My partner also literally kept me alive. I was lucky this time: I had experienced cruel bullying, narcissism, beating, and belittling for nearly two decades before leaving my sons’ father, but now life had blessed me with a man physically strong enough to lean on, with a heart more pure and loyal and gentle than I could fathom–years later, he still amazes me. He took time off work to help us search for Jacob. whose death was not verified for almost six weeks. He took my constantly ringing mobile phone and made me close my eyes for twenty minutes, made sure I showered and ate, and held me while I didn’t sleep.
In the six years since Jacob’s death, his friends have graduated college. Some have married or gone on to graduate school; many have chosen brave, noble jobs serving imprisoned women, developmentally delayed, and severely mentally ill. His cousins have matriculated from school into adulthood … well into their twenties and thirties now, they’re building careers in healthcare and museum management, engineering and coding, building families with adorable babies and puppies of their own.
We have gone on, and Jacob would be proud of us. My nonprofit work fills a need to be needed, and my stepchildren root deeper into my heart with each passing year. I walk alongside the Pacific, far from where Jacob took his life, and I have forgiven the ocean for taking him. I sit quietly for hours now, crying, or not crying, listening for a whisper of meaning, and it does not come.
The passage of time quietly undermines me, leaving me gray and sagging, wondering how a mother who loves so intensely could have allowed her children to be hurt beyond repair, even to death in Jacob’s case. Six years have taught me nothing about how to go on without him, and nothing about any meaning one could wrest from the loss of him.
I’ve Become Just a Hollow Shadow, Too
I am not the same person I was when my son lived. My hopes for the future are hollow, now; partly because I don’t have any faith, and partly because Jacob will never be part of anything terrible or joyful or mundane, now and forevermore.
The contrast between the external beauty and serenity, safety and love, that surround me now, in the life that I have built since his death, and the internal emptiness within my being, I cannot reconcile. Perhaps it will always feel this way. Hollow. As if my own life has become nothing but a shadow.
Cover image courtesy of rene-bohmer-6SFfFpHmVjI-unsplash.