Very recently I was in Trader Joe’s, mindlessly wandering around there as I am wont to do. I was in the soft drink aisle with my right hand on a four-pack of Jamaican brewed ginger beer when a woman beside me softly said, “Does that taste good?”
“I don’t really know,” I answered. “But I know my son likes it and he’s coming for dinner so I wanted to have some on hand.
She said, “Beer. What kind of beer?”
“It’s not alcoholic. He doesn’t drink alcohol. He’s in recovery.”
“Recovery from what? Drugs? Alcohol?”
“Oh” she said, lowering her voice and choking out the words, “Two weeks ago yesterday my daughter died of a drug overdose. It was heroin.”
Her story rapidly tumbled out.
“This is the first time I’ve gone anywhere.”
“I sometimes think I can’t breathe.”
“I laid next to her for two days while she was in a coma.
“She sold her body on the streets.”
“Sometimes she was homeless.”
“I loved her so much.”
“She was so beautiful.”
“Her fiancé ‘committed suicide’ in jail last year on a drug charge.”
“I plan to write a book. I hope I can write a book. I need to write a book.”
“She was my baby.”
“Where do you live? I live in the northeast.” I told her I live in Hollywood and that I really hope she writes a book.
“I came into Trader Joe’s because my daughter liked this store so much. She always said this is a happy place. This is the first place I’ve been to.”
She told me her name.
I wanted her to know that she was speaking to someone who truly understood, so I said,
“My son, my first child, died by suicide on Christmas of 2015.”
“Oh sweetheart,” she said, “I am so sorry, you are bearing so much.”
“No more than you are.”
“Yesterday I received the box containing her ashes. My tears watered her ashes.”
“Oh,” I said, “I so get that. God, I am so sorry.”
“I’m in a fog. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Two weeks and one day ago, I thought to myself. I remembered how it was for me on January 9, 2016, when Ron was gone two weeks and one day. It was 3 days after his funeral. People were beginning to return to their lives. I couldn’t imagine returning to mine. Two weeks and one day. Ohgodohgodohgod … I thought to myself. Oh, the raw hell you are in. As I post this, it will be 15 months to the day that Ron died. The wound never heals, yet the heart somehow manages to bear it. How can it be that we survive such pain?
Then, she said, “Do you believe in the Resurrection? Are you Christian?”
I immediately realized she was not asking a theological question but an existential one. Her question was. “Where is my daughter? Where are our children? Will we see them again?”
I said, “I have my own interpretation of the Resurrection which may be different from yours. But I do believe this: to have a child on the other side means we never again need to fear death.” I took her hands in mine, looked into her eyes and said, “When we take our final breath and close our eyes for the last time in this life, we will open them to see our child looking into ours with their arms open to receive us.”
“Oh, she said, “Yes. Yes. That must be true. Please, God, let that be true.”
I gave her my contact information in case she would like to reach out to me.
Just about everyone I know is more private than I am. When people say, “May I ask you a personal question?” I usually say, “There’s almost nothing too personal for me to answer. What do you want to know?” So for me to say, “My son is in recovery” involves no sense of shame. Actually, I am grateful that my son is in recovery and has been for 7+ years. Being able to say that gives people hope. Opening my story to her somehow gave her the emotional space to tell me about the loss of her daughter.
It has long been my personal theology that everything that befalls us is intended for the life of the world. At another time in my life, when I was involved in traditional Catholic parish life, I was a writer of the weekly prayers of petition. While praying and meditating on them, I would look at world events, look at the world around me and, finally, look at my own life. My thinking was that, if there was a certain prayer that was required in my life or the life of someone I loved, chances were that someone else in the parish community carried the same pain. The prayers invariably worked.
So if I were to write Prayers of Petition today, these are a few I would write:
For all who grieve the loss of a child that they might be strengthened in the hope of seeing the face of their beloved on the other side of life.
For people caught in the grips of addiction, that they might remember their essential goodness and find their way to recovery.
For families, friends and co-workers of people who suffer from mental health issues, that we might learn to listen closely in order to grasp the pain conveyed through words unspoken and behaviors judged and misunderstood.
For people who wander in and out of our lives with eyes filled with sorrow and hearts heavy with pain, that we might provide a moment of empathy and relief from their pain.