The Long Reach of Childhood

How early experiences shape you forever

Finding Hope and Renewal in the Face of Tragedy

A Tale of Survival

     

In the spirit of hope – of healing – of renewal – and of embracing those struggling with loss, I would like to share what I wrote of my own struggle to survive the loss of one of my sons in a mass killing a number of years ago.

     I originally posted this blog two years ago, after the killings in Tucson, Arizona. It felt appropriate to share it again now.

     Towards the end of President Obama’s moving tribute to those killed in an earlier massacre, he said: “Our hearts are broken by their sudden passing. Our hearts are broken – and yet, our hearts also have reason for fullness. ………Sudden loss causes us to look backward – but it also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us.”

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     Sometime after my personal tragedy, I was in a writing class where we were asked to respond to the question: “Where do you go when you feel there is a discrepancy between life as it should be and life as it is? My initial response to the question posed by the teacher went to the unbearable pain of loss -- to the sound of a phone ringing -- to a man’s voice saying “we’ve got confirmation that it’s your son” -- to the silence -- to the need to stop time -- to the crushing truth of that phone call -- to my drowning in sorrow and grief. And then my writing shifted to a night of renewal that I actually experienced, a night, like so many others, when I could not sleep -- a night when healing began and The Moon Story took form -- a story based on a real moment that had a profound effect on my life and one I share with you.

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     Steve, the eldest of my three sons, was the one who asked The Questions as a child. When I saw him furrowing his brow, I knew that a Big Question was soon to follow. I had anticipated a question about where babies come from and had done some reading in order to be fully prepared.

     On this particular day Steve came into the kitchen with a Big Question all over his face. I waited, smug in the knowledge that I was capable of dealing with such weighty matters as to how the sperm gets in, what body parts are involved, how the baby gets out and what happens in-between. He paused a moment and then said, “My teacher wasn't in school today. Her husband died. What does it mean when someone dies?" I felt trapped. What do you say to a child to explain death? I hesitated, afraid to frighten him. I had been told as a child that death was like going to sleep and recalled my fear of closing my eyes at night. So I evaded Steve's question by diverting his attention. Of course I knew that he would ask me again.

     And two weeks later he did. "Well," I said, "life and death are like the moon. The moon has a light side, which we can see, and a dark side that is always hidden but that we know to be there. These two parts, the one we can see and the other that we can't, are really part of a whole. One can’t have one side of the moon without the other. If you think of it that way, life and death are like that. Life is the light side, death the dark side and both are also part of a whole. And after a long, full life, death is like the dark side of the moon." My answer seemed to satisfy his curiosity.

     Years later, in February of 1973, I answered a call from the sheriff's department in Santa Cruz, California. They informed me that my second son, David, then 18 years old, who had been camping with friends in the local mountains, was a victim of a mass killing. "I'm sorry to tell you ma'm," the officer had said, "those four boys in the tent hadn't a chance against a loaded rifle."

     In all thirteen people were shot by a young man recently released from a psychiatric hospital. There are no adequate words to describe my feelings; David was dead and I too was dying.

     One night, several months after that deadly phone call and unable again to sleep, I prowled around my house looking for something, anything, to ease my agitation. Through the window, my eye was caught by the brilliance of a full moon. I stood there staring at the moon and began to feel a stirring of an elusive memory. Of course! I remembered Steve's question about what it means to die. What was it I answered, so long ago? That life and death were like the light and dark sides of the moon. I knew then that I was on the dark side of the moon. The death of my son was also the death of a part of me. My first response to remembering was one of anger and disgust. How could I have given such a superficial, meaningless answer as an explanation for life's greatest trauma. But as I stood looking at the moon, I felt somewhere deep inside my being, a slow stirring like the whisper of leaves in a gentle wind. What am I trying to grab like a golden ring on a merry-go-round? Slowly the meaning of my answer to Steve’s question took on a new healing urgency. If death and life are part of a whole and I am now on the dark side of the moon, then somewhere there must exist a light side – a life side.

     The face of the moon became the face of my lost son, hung on invisible strings in a tranquil sky. I spoke to the moon, as if it were my lost son. "I will always mourn your death, David, but to celebrate your life, I must not waste my life. There's been far too much waste already."

     A tiny, vital flame had been re-lit in me and, for the first time since that phone call I knew that I would survive. I stood at that window through the night watching the moon make its way across the sky and began my long journey to the light side of the moon.

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     It is no accident that families who experience the sudden, violent loss of a loved one make a powerful commitment to fight the waste of life. Once one has touched the dark side of the moon, the power and vibrancy of life takes on a new meaning -- it is not just having a life, it is being truly alive.

     This blog will continue to expand on The Long Reach Of Childhood: How Early Experiences Shape You Forever with the hope of being effective in the fight against the waste of life and of potential.  Hope you’ll continue to join me on this journey.

 

Ditta M. Oliker, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and the author of The Light Side of the Moon: Reclaiming Your Lost Potential.

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