It’s just not supposed to be this way.
When a young child dies, there is always an outpouring of support for the parents, and a lamenting of the lost possibilities of a life that will never be fully realized. But what about the loss of an adult child, whose life has already taken its own direction?
My youngest stepson, Thomas Aylesworth, died at 34, a victim of melanoma. He had received treatment in his 20s for a skin-cancer growth on his shoulder, and successfully came through it to pursue a successful career as a chef. Several years later, he discovered a lump in his chest. Six months after that, he was gone.
The doctor said to think of this virulent type of cancer as if someone scattered seeds in an empty lot, and eventually, some of them took root. It was little comfort for the family, but at least we knew what was coming, and had time to spend with him during his brief and final illness.
Two local women didn’t have the benefit of time.
Diana Fitzgerald of Indio is still living with the pain of losing her only child, Joseph, at “28 years and 55 days,” as she puts it. She candidly explains: “He killed himself.”
Diana remembers that when she put herself through college at the age of 28, her son was then in first-grade. “He said, ‘Isn’t that cool, that we’re both going to be in first-grade together?’”
Joseph was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after experiencing behavior problems in his teens; he also suffered from depression as an adult. “He was originally misdiagnosed and then had side effects from medication,” says Diana. “He finally stopped taking his medication. Without health insurance, he had a revolving door of doctors. He had married, and about a year after his wife suffered a miscarriage, he took his own life. He shot himself.
“I remember when his wife called me at work to tell me what had happened. I didn’t believe her. I slammed the phone down. I just screamed out, ‘It can’t be true!’ I knew he was not doing well, and had told the receptionist at work that if he ever called, I was to be interrupted, no matter what I was doing. The day he died, he did call, but there was someone else on the desk. I was in a meeting and wasn’t told that he was on the phone. About two hours later was when my daughter-in-law called.
“When someone is killed by another, say a drunk driver, we can make it someone else’s fault. But when your child kills himself, who do you blame? I still feel guilt 11 years later.”
Perhaps the worst moment of the ensuing events came when Diana returned to work after the funeral. “A woman who cleaned the offices saw me and said, ‘I heard your son died. What happened?’ I said, ‘He killed himself.’ She looked right at me and said, ‘Well, you know, that means he’s gone straight to hell!’ How insensitive can anyone be?
“I joined a support group for a while, but what stays with me is that I was his mother, and I was supposed to protect him. When people say, ‘I know what you’re feeling,’ they really can’t know. I hate feeling as if people look at me, when they know what happened, and judge me.
“The only advice I can give others is that you have to accept that everyone handles grieving in their own way. We just need to comfort each other, no matter what the circumstances. Joseph was funny, and fun to be around. I miss him each and every day of my life.”
Barbara Marx of Rancho Mirage lost her son, Jim “Jimmy” Autz, in 2006, when he was 47. Jim had alcohol and drug issues, but he lived a productive life, running his own business producing stage shows in Los Angeles. He also loved to collect wine.
“Jimmy had an extensive collection, maybe over 1,000 bottles,” says Barbara. “He clearly enjoyed what was not necessarily the smartest thing for him to pursue, considering his problems with alcohol. He had one called ‘Screaming Eagle’ that he just loved.
“Jimmy had been to the Betty Ford Center and had done pretty well. My husband (Bill Marx, not Jimmy’s father) and I tried to get him into rehab again just two days before he died. He looked terrible. Bill had to literally walk him across the driveway. When Jimmy saw me, he started to cry. But he didn’t stay (in rehab); he signed himself out the next day and drove himself back home.
“I kept calling, and he didn’t answer. A policeman (later) called to tell me he had died. His roommate at the time had found him on the floor. He loved his wine and drank it constantly, so proud of some of the bottles he had accumulated. I think he must have died from cirrhosis, although I’ve never really known for sure.
“When I found out he was dead, I just screamed. Still, today, I have the same reaction. I remember saying to him, the last time we talked: ‘Jimmy, where do I bury you if you keep this up?’ He said, ‘I don’t care to have this conversation.’ That was the last time we really spoke before he died. I still feel awful whenever I think about it.”
Barbara still has the urn with Jimmy’s ashes. “Every now and then, I stop and talk to him,” she says. “I think about him every day. A piece of him is still in my life. I try to focus on the times we laughed together—that’s how I get through it.”
When my stepson Thomas was going through the difficult chemo treatment for his melanoma before he died, my husband, John (who has since passed away), would walk through the house and suddenly say out loud, “It’s just not supposed to be this way.”
After Thomas’ death, John cherished the time he had spent with Thomas in the hospital, laughing out loud about past experiences. That memory of Thomas, his beloved youngest child, laughing out loud and still seeming so alive and hopeful, is what got John through it all.
When you lose an adult child, it feels like no one can possibly understand. Each of us has to find our own way through the pain, especially the inevitable feelings of responsibility and guilt. But help and support is available. Some of your neighbors do know what you’re going through.
It’s just not supposed to be this way.