The journey through grief
As told by Jennifer Walhout
We belong to a club we didn’t sign up for. We just passed the seven year anniversary of losing our son Matthew and I can’t tell the difference between year one and year seven.
I wish it got better. It gets different, but I don’t think the pain gets any better. At least it’s not for us. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across that Gwen flowers, prose poem that says, “I had my own notions of grief.” It’s quite amazing if you want to find it sometime. It’s a beautiful prose that I often turn to because that was my story, I thought I knew what grief was. We had already been through enough of it. And you think it can’t get any worse, and then it does. It’s so random. It’s life. And you just keep going on.
Matthew was our youngest. He has two older sisters, Erin and Rebecca.
I still have trouble sleeping. I can’t get to sleep. I’m fine once I get there, but the minute I lay my head on a pillow, it starts. Sometimes there’s no sleep, but there’s also a night that it feels like only one eye is open. You’re not getting any quality sleep, obviously. I was taking sleeping pills for a period. I have used over the counter. I’ve used Gravol, I’ve used CBD, and just keep circling around and around. Something will work for a short time, and then it doesn’t work again.
CUTTING OFF COMMUNICATION
We hadn’t seen Matthew for four years he had cut off all communication with us. After the fact we discovered that it was a combination of both punishing us and saving us from him. So there was always a very sharp edge there, that juxtaposition of you know, ‘I don’t want to put you through anything more’ and ‘How dare you.?’ It’s very difficult when they’re mentally ill, and he was not diagnosed and was not on medication.
TRAUMA UPON TRAUMA
In 2019, we were taking a trip to Ireland and I sensed while we were away that something was wrong. And the minute we landed our oldest daughter called and said her husband, the father of our two older grandchildren, had pancreatic cancer. So our my world has fallen apart since then. He lived seven months because he entered chemo, which was just horrific. Oh my God, I mean, most pancreatic patients that I looked after with hospice, you know, three months is the usual outcome. So he bought four months of suffering for himself that was horrific.
We moved. We went out to Calgary and lived with them until two months after he died. And I go back as often as I can. I went out to help get kids started back to school because the older one was going back to a different high school. And the younger one, his school had changed campuses. So both kids were anxious and our daughter is an architect and got the new working for the University of Calgary and it’s a very stable job that she is very happy with and she has eight hour days, five days a week and that’s really you know, a good thing. But to be a widow at 45 with two young kids is just, it’s absolutely heartbreaking.
You know, Matthew’s death was absolutely devastating, but in a different measure it is just as bad or worse. Because there’s three of them, it isn’t just, you know, one person gone. Sometimes during those nights when I lay awake, it’s questioning if I’m just being dramatic.
To try and describe to somebody else how sad I am is difficult.
Matthew suffered with depression. He did his whole life. He had attention deficit disorder. So right from the time he was two years old, we were going to doctors and to psychologists with him when he was a teenager in school and struggling so much. We had him seeing a psychologist but that was not helpful. He refused to go to a psychiatrist. Although it was very apparent that, you know, he was possibly bipolar. Because he would have very manic periods. He would constantly self-sabotage, even as small child. It never seemed to be intentional, but it was.
He was in grade 10 at the high school. We have the Terry Fox Run here in Canada (an annual fundraiser in honor of a cancer survivor who had lost a leg and attempted a fundraising run across Canada only to have to stop when the cancer returned).
Matthew took this on in grade 10 as a project and he went to the scrap yard all on his own. He didn’t want his dad’s help and he got the shell of a car that still had steering in the wheels and he got sponsorships and a bunch of kids to help them and he had the vehicle painted with signs on it in the high school parking lot, and he pushed it into a teacher’s car and caused $3,000 in damage. Everything positive always seemed to have a negative outcome for him no matter how he tried.
PIECING TOGETHER THE MISSING YEARS
We know that while we were estranged from him he had an accident with his hand, and being a mechanic and losing a finger was not a good thing. I was able to track where he was and what he was doing. His first apprenticeship as a mechanic, I think a week in he was helping to put a vehicle on the rack. He was helping with that and apparently jumped the gun and pressed the wrong button. The vehicle fell off the lift and almost killed somebody, and he had just started his apprenticeship.
When he finally got full-time employment and was licensed –– I think he was licensed in June. That was another thing that was so difficult because he apparently would come and sit across the street from us and watch the house. When he got his mechanic’s license, he left a copy of it in our front door for us to find you know. He wanted us and he didn’t want us, too,. So badly and in both directions.
Anyway, this job was just outside of Kingston, Ontario. I think the man who owns the business took a real, you know, fatherly interest and helped Matt and recognized that Matt had mental health issues and, you know, would do his best to keep an eye on him and, and make sure that he didn’t get too down. He did a brake job on a pickup truck that had a welding machine integrated into the back of the bed close to the to the cache. He did the brake job, takes the truck out, and there was a skiff of snow. He slipped and the welding machine, because it was a ton, shifted and he lost control and rolled the vehicle. He quit the job that day. His last paycheck was still in his wallet. He wouldn’t cash it.
So from there, in tracking where he was and what he was doing, thank goodness his best friend’s family took him under their wings. So he had a place for Thanksgiving and for Christmas.
At the point before he died he was a pizza delivery guy. He had a car accident three weeks before with one of two cars that he owned.
The car that he was driving at the time was older and some part of the gear shaft or whatever the mechanism is underneath the car, something broke because it was an older car. And he had the part but he couldn’t get it to fit without the right machinery for it. So he was a pizza delivery guy, and now without the vehicle to do the job.
It was a Saturday and his roommate had to work that day. He’s a land surveyor. So a number of their buddies said, ‘Don’t be so impatient, Matt. You know, when Mike gets home from work, we’ll all come over and we’ll help you and we’ll get this damn thing fixed.’ Well, he died somewhere around 11:30 in the morning. And before he hung himself, he took a sledgehammer to the car. There were neighbors and witnesses that were frightened I guess, but they weren’t frightened enough to call the police because he wasn’t found until three o’clock in the afternoon.
He had already sold all his possessions to make sure he could meet rent with his roommate. So he was desperate. And you know, it just breaks our hearts that, you know if it was a matter of a car, we would have had a car there for him in hours. You know, all he ever had to ask was for some help. We never denied him. When he was moving out there we co-signed on the apartment and paid the first month and paid for the rental. It’s ridiculous that I even say it out loud because sure you’re going to do those things. We never think of those things, you just do it.
STILL RELIVE IT
I actually read the coroner’s report after pulling out the box today, and I could read it without getting upset. But you know, I can’t see an orange extension cord without wanting to throw up. The visual triggers are hard. You’re there, with all your senses. You’re there. And your arms absolutely ache to make it stop. For a long, long time, I would only see it from the back. But I’ve been in the room many times.
At the funeral home, that was first time we had seen him for years. And I’m just so thankful that we at least got to see him. It was really, really important. I mean, the funeral home didn’t even take the grease off his hands. That was the funeral director’s decision. And as someone who had experience with grief facilitation, I’m glad he didn’t. There was no hiding, there was no hiding it. It was better to see the reality of the moment and the circumstances.
I smelled his hat for years until there was no smell anymore. I’d just go to his closet and pick that up when I was missing him.
The other part of it is coming to grips with just how much pain he was in, how desperate he felt and no love in the world was going to keep him here.
I think all of us who struggle always have a plan in our back pocket. When we found out that Matt had died, three weeks before a very dear friend, who was retired firefighter, went up to the train tracks and killed himself and I had been with his kids every day since. Because his wife was a was a really good friend, who died of a heart attack at 42. She loved rabbits and I loved angels, and we were both going to get a tattoo on our back. When we turned 53 we were going hold each other’s hands. So I have an angel on my back. So it was her husband who committed suicide and then our own son does. Just ridiculous, you know, you can’t even write these kinds of stories.
If they only knew how much they were loved and how much help there really was, but when you get that desolate you can’t see it.
(Jennifer Walhout has 20 years experience as a hospice volunteer and grief support facilitator. She and her husband George lost their son Matthew in 2015. He was 33.)
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Thank you for sharing these stories