From Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul


My son Garrit died eighteen months ago. We were on safari in Botswana when a spotted hyena took him from his tent just after midnight, dragged him into the bush and killed him. Eleven years old, he died quickly, but his small body was left mutilated and torn apart.

Only hours before his death, he listened to me read to him while he lay burrowed beneath his blankets. When I’d kissed him good night, he thanked me for bringing him to Botswana, then said, “I can’t wait until tomorrow.” Had he not been killed that night, we’d have spent the next day viewing pods of hippos, animals that never failed to bring a smile to Garrit’s lips. Garrit was more precious to me than anyone or anything I’ve ever known. His last words, “I can’t wait until tomorrow,” are etched in my mind just as the smell and feel of my son will always remain a part of me. At the same time, Garrit’s death transformed my world into a no-man’s-land, a place marked by shock and disbelief, a barren landscape stripped bare of life—unrecognizable, incomprehensible. I felt as if I, too, had been torn apart inside.

For we don’t expect our children to die. It doesn’t fit within the natural order of things. Don’t we instinctively protect them from illness and danger from the moment they are born? Aren’t they supposed to outlive us? The death of a small child is virtually unthinkable to a parent. It almost defies logic. When it happens, you continue to exist, though walking the terrain of mere existence can be frightening. A dark abyss looms just ahead. You hesitate, wondering if the waters inside will swallow you up. And yet, again and again, you are drawn to the precipice. For you hear the whisper of some elusive promise of hope rising from the depths.

Questions haunted me day and night: How had it happened? Why had it happened? Who was to blame? Why hadn’t the hyena taken me instead? Did Garrit suffer? Where was he now? Was he all right? Would I ever see him again? The answers lay in Africa, I thought, not at home in the States.

Staying on in Botswana for almost four months, I contacted hyena experts, police and wildlife officials investigating Garrit’s death, the emergency-rescue crew, doctors who had examined the body, local safari operators and others who might be able to answer some of my questions. Though my search for answers was productive, I was vaguely aware that it was also a means to distract myself from looking the enormity of my loss in the eye. Still too raw to allow myself to feel the pain, I could only run from it.

I’d read enough to know that distraction and escape were not the typical prescriptions for healing one’s grief. Nonetheless, I followed my impulses instead. In hindsight, I was still numb with shock. I’d drifted into the trauma survivor’s eerie state of temporary detachment. My instinct for self-preservation impelled me to avoid the potentially overwhelming impact of grief for as long as I needed.

Though keeping busy usually kept the pain at bay, it sometimes seeped out with a life of its own. The sound of children’s laughter and the sight of boys Garrit’s age playing soccer was intolerable. Grocery shopping was an ordeal: My eyes riveted upon the ice creams, puddings and treats I used to buy for Garrit; every aisle contained some food reminding me of his absence. It took stamina to enter shopping malls: Halloween costumes on display, books Garrit had loved and T-shirts just his size confronted me like apparitions of ghosts.

I trained myself to ignore the giraffes, elephants and warthogs drinking from the waterhole in front of the wilderness chalet where I stayed. I hardly noticed the long-legged ostriches chasing one another in circles, flapping their wings like cartoonish characters. The sight of those creatures had delighted Garrit and me. Spellbound, we’d watch them for hours. Now, I turned my back on them.

If it weren’t for the compassion and wisdom of others, I might have ended up a brittle shell of a human being, my sadness clamped tight inside, my capacity for joy a frail memory.

A friend who invited me to spend a week with her in the hinterlands was discerning enough simply to let me be. Grateful, I breathed in the softness of the river and the sound of fish eagles gliding like miniature planes on air, then swooping through thickets of papyrus into the shallows after their prey.

A helicopter pilot accustomed to National Geographic photographers as passengers flew me for a small fee to the site where Garrit was killed. Discreetly, he waited in the distance until I was ready to leave. During our flight back, he told me that several years ago he’d witnessed his fiancée die when her helicopter crashed. The subject of death did not seem to embarrass him. Yet no more words were necessary. He understood that I needed to hold in my hands the earth where my son had taken his final breath.

The young Indian woman who ran one of Botswana’s few Internet cafés and let me stay after-hours had lost her eight-year-old son to an illness doctors had misdiagnosed. She told me that her life had never been the same. “Nine years have passed,” she said, “but I still cry for him. The pain lessens, but you’ll always live with the loss.”

For the most part, people neither shied away from me, nor tried to console me with the empty platitudes considered appropriate expressions of sympathy in Western cultures: Your son is at peace; God is taking care of him; time heals; it’s time to get on with your life.

Even the healers and Bushmen I contacted for answers to the more existential questions preoccupying me were fearlessly direct and humane. Why had such a terrible thing happened? I asked. It was his destiny, they said. When I probed further, their responses varied from the disconcerting to the wondrous. Bushmen elders felt that some antipathy had been unintentionally misdirected at Garrit, bewitching him. A reflexologist thought to be psychic believed that Garrit was one of the “indigo children” who would return to Earth during the next world cataclysm to ensure the survival of traditional cultures and peoples. Though I was skeptical of such concrete explanations, the possibility that Garrit had been destined to die for some purpose opened my mind to the prospect that there might be a meaning to what seemed a senseless death.

Healers invariably told me to face my pain. “Feel your heart break every day,” one advised. “Only then will you begin to heal.” A Bushman, placing his hands over my heart, told me that I hadn’t finished crying. “You are in pain. Your son is worried about you. You must cry now, then stop. That way you can help your son.” A white man who’d grown up in Botswana, who possessed a combination of bush wisdom and Western knowledge, took one look at me and said, “Your heart needs to cry more, to soften and feel the sorrow. Mourn for as long as you need to.”

Intellectually, I understood the message that if I opened my heart up and let myself feel the pain I’d been running from, a healing process would begin, which, in turn, might help Garrit. In retrospect, however, I wasn’t ready to accept the wisdom behind the words. Only months after I’d returned home would I recognize that the seeds for healing lay within me. It would be up to me whether those seeds remained dormant or germinated.

I was ambivalent about returning home to Baltimore because I felt as if Garrit’s spirit lived on in Botswana. Going home meant abandoning my child. It meant facing the myriad fragments of boyhood he’d left behind—his menagerie of cats, dogs, emus and cockatiels; the swings behind the house, soccer balls, basketballs, hockey sticks, old sneakers; Mother’s Day letters he’d written over the years; books about Africa and wildlife we’d collected; the new bedroom I had built for him while we were away and that he’d never sleep in; the radio he hid under his pillow to listen to in secret after we’d said good night.

Despite my trepidation, I had to go home, if only temporarily. I could no longer pretend that the bank accounts I’d depleted during the months following Garrit’s death would rejuvenate on their own. Moreover, recurring flashbacks haunting me day and night needed professional attention unavailable in Botswana.

Now, after having been in the States for fourteen months, I’d like to tell you that some cookie-cutter solution to grief worked like a magic balm. I’d like to say that the abyss of suffering looming before me was only a mirage.

I wish it were so simple. But grieving souls do not heal easily.

Going home turned out to be a rapid descent into hell. The familiarity of my surroundings only sharpened my awareness of Garrit’s absence. Incomplete without him, I’d lost a vital part of my identity. Estranged from Garrit’s father since our divorce years ago, and with little family to count upon for emotional support, I went into virtual isolation. There was only a handful of friends I’d see, and a psychiatrist who specialized in post-traumatic stress disorders. A stranger to myself, I felt as uncomfortable in most people’s presence as I assumed they felt in mine.

I closed the curtains and stayed in bed for over a month, rousing myself twice a week for therapy. Days and nights merged into one another; time became irrelevant. I stopped answering the phone, stopped bathing, and began to swallow more pills and alcohol than food. Alternating between sleeping and crying, my eyes vanished into pockets of swollen flesh. My strength and inner resources shriveled. When I thought my body was shutting down, I no longer cared whether I lived or died.

I waited for destiny to step in and decide. It came in the form of two policemen with paperwork from the psychiatrist stating that I was no longer able to care for myself. Handcuffing me when I resisted, the police hauled me out of bed and drove me to the emergency room of a third-rate hospital. For twenty-four hours, wearing nothing but a scanty hospital gown, I lay motionless on a narrow bed in a windowless closet of a room. I felt like a spectator watching myself fade away, observing my spirit pass through my pores like air slipping quietly from a worn-out balloon.

Then, suddenly, I realized I wasn’t meant to die this way. It wasn’t my time to die. I’d been to hell and survived. I was alive for a reason, a purpose I sensed to be intertwined with Garrit’s death.

When I stepped from the hospital into the world, I finally felt ready to find a way to live with the bundle of pain I carried inside. Shortly afterward, I left Baltimore and moved across the country to start life over in Santa Fe. There, I began to reconstruct the parts of my being most shattered by Garrit’s death and to pare from my life all that seemed superfluous or false. As I came to feel more intact at some core level, a brittleness that had grown around my heart since Garrit’s death seemed gradually to soften, as if preparing to fall away.

The process of reshaping my life will probably take years. At times, it feels like a painful rebirth, yet a rebirth that is necessary if I want to do more than exist. Although I’ve made a conscious decision to live, I have wondered what will prevent me from sinking again. I found that with the will to live came something that makes the unbearable more bearable. Difficult to name, I think of it as a whisper of promise coupled with grace. When the pain threatens to pull me under, that whisper keeps me afloat, lightening the weight of my sorrow, gracing me with a new sense of compassion for myself and others.

My life has irrevocably changed. I will never be the person I was. While I don’t know who I will become or where my path will ultimately lead, the heartbreaking loss of my son will always remain a profound part of me. Yet, at the same time, the capacity to feel joy again is germinating inside; simple pleasures I used to take for granted have taken on new value. This paradoxical mixture of sorrow and promise seems to be the nature of the process of my grief and gradual rebirth.

Now, though winter reigns in Botswana, spring is here, greening the landscape. Children play outside, delighted with themselves. Crocuses and daffodils shout with color. With such abundance of rebirth in the air, it seems cruel that Garrit cannot return to life. There are moments when I want to stamp out the flowers, snap each bud in half and pretend that other people’s children don’t exist.

And yet, just today, I came upon a boy about Garrit’s age and size humming quietly to himself as he drew lines into the soil with a stick. Though I felt the familiar clench of pain in my throat, instead of turning from the sight of that boy, for a second my heart softened. A fleeting smile passed between us, tracing a slender finger of hope across my flesh.

Molly Bruce Jacobs

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