Grieving Alone Together

by Connie Kennemer, mother and suicide survivor

 

Rex and I (Connie) lost our only child seven years ago.  Todd Michael Kennemer battled bipolar disorder and lost the fight on November 17, 2005 when he took his own life.  That began our trek down the unending, unpredictable Grief Road.

 

My friend Marilyn said it in a simple sentence:  “Grieving Todd’s death is now your full-time job.”  And she should know, having lost a daughter in a car accident years before.   I soon discovered that this was an occupation that did not come with a training manual; it was strictly “on the job” training.  While both Rex and I were crushed by the traumatic loss, that is where the similarities ended.  This was surprising and unsettling for us.  We were on our own even as we grieved the same loss.  As parents, we were both devoted to our son; in fact, we were over-the-top wild about him.  So why were we processing the loss so differently?

 

Rex’s journey was profoundly sad and deeply emotional.  Mine was measured and controlled.  I found the contrast humiliating.  I was Todd’s mother and the mother should cry—that would be the expected response.  But my tears were dry and Rex’s flowed freely.  He coped by crying, journaling and staring out the window.  I survived by engaging with the prayer team I led, reading voraciously about grief and suicide, and hiding in the stories of others.  We were alone together.

 

Rex was mad at God, the only force that could have (should have) prevented this.  I was mad at Todd.  His choice left our extended families in shock and emotional peril.  How could he have just left the room?  What was he THINKING?  And that was the issue:  The disease had destroyed his ability to think clearly.  Todd’s mental agony shouted for relief at any cost, and suicide was the solution he chose.

 

My contained, controlled grief exploded several months after losing Todd.  I had anticipated this shift down the road, but it was still alarming.  Curiously, this exchange of roles proved to be healing for us as a couple.  Rex and I discovered that we could be both the comforted and the comforter, depending on what the moment demanded.  It was reassuring to see Rex’s calm strength kick in when I was crumbling.  I was careful to validate him rather than judge him in his times of emotional weakness.

 

I learned to graciously remove myself from the room when Rex’s pain was too intense for me.  He had entered the Grief Room at a deep level from the start.  This is where he lived; I could only visit.   I became skilled in setting safe boundaries to inch my way into the reality of our loss.  Rex had great capacity to fully engage with his emotional pain, unlike his wife.  I often teased, commenting that he stored his sorrow in a Mack truck while I could only handle a teaspoonful at a time.   We discovered that although our coping methods were individual, they were our own and therefore worthy of one another’s respect.

 

These reflections informed the ways we learned to grieve alone but also “side by side”:

—We honored one another’s grief.

—We acknowledged the wide range between our coping styles and refused to judge them.

—We avoided easy answers and explanations.  We knew we were out of our league here and that being survivors of suicide didn’t make us experts.

—We did not question where Todd’s death had taken us as individuals.

—We admitted that being on separate tracks was often lonely and required intentionality on both our parts to stay connected.

 

And finally, we decided that walking together on separate tracks was better than walking solo.  As parents, we affirmed each other for doing the best we could.  Regrets, guilt, shame and shattered dreams are just the everyday litter on the Grief Road.  Rex and I determined early on to collect what we could along the way and keep traveling Alone Together.