Three years ago, my wife and I were on a cruise with our children. When I woke up and turned on my phone, on the second to last day of the trip, there was a stream of missed calls and texts from my children’s father’s family. I knew what it was about before I even spoke to any of his family. My kids’ Dad was dead. For years I had watched Bob’s life derail due to addiction and knew in my heart this day would come. While they loved their Dad, the kids had a lot of unresolved feelings regarding his addiction. His passing released a tsunami of emotions for all three kids who were 19, 20 and 22 years old at the time of his death.
Grief is complex. I don’t think anyone on earth can prepare for the rollercoaster of emotions they will experience when someone they love dies. Wikipedia notes that although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, grief also has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, spiritual, and philosophical dimensions. The net/net is that grief will absolutely kick the shit out of you on every level. It sucks.
One of the complexities of grief is that it hits people at different times. My at-the-time, 22-year-old daughter, Julia, and 20-year-old son, Shaun, were clobbered by grief immediately following their Dad’s passing. Shaun who was a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University, took the semester off from school. Bob’s passing was a catalyst for depression for both Julia and Shaun. They both worked exceptionally hard via therapy to overcome their grief and depression and in time, they truly healed and learned to forgive their Dad. They understood that the addiction was bigger than their Dad and that it is as much of a disease as cancer.
My son Patrick was a different story. While he cried and was sad over Bob’s tragic death, it didn’t appear to hit him like it hit his siblings. We all thought maybe because Patrick was the third child, that he just rolled with it like he did with everything in his life. We were all wrong.
In the fall of 2014, two-and-a-half years after Bob died, there was a shift in Patrick and it was palpable. The always happy-go-lucky, loving guy with a hugely compassionate heart suddenly appeared anxious, distant and sad. Patrick was in his fourth year as a nursing student at the University of Delaware. I first noticed the shift when Patrick asked me to attend the father-son BBQ at his fraternity, FIJI. Something just didn’t feel right. When he came home for Thanksgiving, I knew we needed to do something. His grades were suffering and it felt like the Patrick we knew and loved was slipping away. I was physically ill with concern.
I decided to let him get through his final exams and wait until Christmas break to have an epic conversation with him about taking a semester off. That semester would be the spring semester of his senior year. The semester every college student on earth dreams about. When I broached the subject with Patrick, I told him that at the end of the day it would be his decision. His reaction was immediate, he burst into tears and said that while he didn’t want to miss his senior spring semester with his friends, he knew he needed to take the semester off and focus on healing.
From January to May 2015, while his friends enjoyed everything that came with senior spring, Patrick worked exceptionally hard to overcome his grief. He saw a therapist weekly. He chose to get a job at a gym where his shifts started at 5:00 a.m. — an hour where many of his college friends were probably just going to bed after a night of partying. He worked out aggressively to get in shape when he got off his shift and then headed off to a volunteer job in the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He also enrolled in an EMT class at Boston University. Patrick knew what he needed to do.
By May, Patrick was in the best place of his life physically and emotionally. He worked through his grief and emerged the healthiest I have ever seen him. We had a conversation a couple of weeks ago and Patrick told me he made a decision not to go back to UDel. He told me that he knew he could not be successful in an environment where there was heavy drinking and the temptation had the potential to bring him back to that low point in his life. He told me he wanted to be an EMT more than anything else on earth and he had a clear path to realizing that dream. I cried. I didn’t cry because I was disappointed that he wasn’t going to be a nurse. I cried because I was so incredibly proud of everything that he had overcome. I cried because as a 21-year old man, Patrick had achieved a level of self-awareness where he knew that going back to college would not be a healthy choice for him. I cried because I would be as proud to say my son is an EMT as I would be to say my son is a nurse, or even a doctor for that matter. And I cried because I knew his Dad would be proud of him too and wished he were here to see the remarkable man his son has become.
When I bumped into Patricia Stahl, the person at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute who oversaw Patrick as a volunteer, she told me, “Patrick has the magic touch. Because he is so caring and emotionally intelligent, he immediately puts patients and families at ease. I have witnessed faces lighting up when they see him coming.” Those words ignite more pride in me than any college degree.
Having watched my son go to a very dark place, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that we encourage our kids in college to take a break and evaluate their lives if something is causing them to be overwhelmed or unhappy. It doesn’t matter how close they are to graduating, how much money has been invested in their education or what others will think. The only thing that matters is that our children are happy and healthy. If that’s not the case, we as parents/guardians need to open a door for them to step off the path they’re on and encourage them to focus on whatever issue they are dealing with at the time. We need to love them unconditionally and to be an unwavering support resource for them.
The suicide rate for college students is alarming and you always hear that the student who took his/her life was the last person anyone ever expected to do something like that. There are always signs when someone is struggling, although sometimes they are difficult to see. We need to look for those signs with as much attention and passion as we bring to celebrating the highs in our children’s lives. We need to let them know that it’s OK to shift gears and focus on something else. We need to embrace the uncertainty that comes with any change of plans. To everyone’s surprise, that change may end up being the best thing to ever happen to the child we love.