I learned this past weekend that the adult son of a friend had died. This young man had been diagnosed with schizo -affective disorder and had been ill since childhood.
It is always difficult to know what to say to parents who have lost a son or daughter. My own parents lost my sister in a car accident when I was fourteen. That accident happened more than fifty years ago. Still, not a day goes by when they don’t think of her.
It might be an old custom but I went to my friend’s house as soon as I heard about his son’s death. I’d met this friend at our local National Alliance on Mental Illness meetings and when I saw him, I asked if he would show me photographs of his son since I’d never met him.
The childhood snapshots spread out on their dining room table showed a smiling, carefree boy poising with his sister and their loving parents. More recent pictures showed a more somber, handsome man, who’d gained weight because of his medications. His mother said the first indication that their son had a mental problem surfaced in elementary school when he was initially diagnosed as having ADHD. But as he grew older, the symptoms worsened and by his teenage years, he had been twice hospitalized. The situation became even more desperate when this young man entered high school. It was there that he’d had to deal with the growing mental storm in his mind and also stigma from administrators, teachers and classmates who neither understood nor cared about his illness.
That battle eventually had become too much for him. He’d retreated home. But his parents had refused to give up. With treatment, their son was able to move into an apartment. But like so many of our loved ones, life soon seemed to pass him by. There was no college, no career, no marriage.
His parents told me how much they had loved their son, what a wonderful blessing he had been in their lives, and how badly their hearts were breaking now because he was gone.
What his mother hated the most about his mental illness was how it had ‘stolen’ her son from her. There had been times when the young man standing in front of her had been completely unrecognizable – a stranger who’d taken over her son’s body and mind. As he’d grown sicker, there were fewer and fewer times when her “real” son would emerge.
“We would have him,” she said, “maybe an hour or even longer. He would be his old self.”
Their last conversation had been a good one. He’d told his parents how much he loved them and that they had been wonderful parents. It was her old son who had said those words. Spontaneously.
And now that young man is gone. I left my friend’s house, as I always do in these situations, feeling sad, frustrated and angry.
Sad because of his death and his parent’s loss and suffering. The death of a child is especially difficult.
Frustrated because of regardless what you say, your words sound hollow. I’ve found that only time can ease such painful losses.
And angry for so, so many reasons.
*Angry because we now realize that persons with severe mental illness die about twenty five years earlier than the rest of us. The average life span is 51 years old versus 76 for most Americans. The primary cause is cardiovascular disease, but obesity caused by medications, plus self medication (smoking, alcoholism and drug use) also cut years off our loved ones’ lives. Why are we not doing more to change this?
*Angry that stigma in schools and workplaces is still common place even though it destroys the spirit. We need to do a better job educating our children and adults who still think Burger King commercials that feature little men in white suits chasing after a crazed King are hilarious.
*Angry that there are those in our society who continue to deny that mental illnesses are real — when those of us with loved ones who are sick see evidence of these brain disorders every day.
*Angry because what we need is a cure – not more costly medications that simply “manage” an illness with less side effects while bankrupting families.
Being angry doesn’t solve problems. But sometimes it’s a useful emotion if it makes you more determined to advocate for change.
What did I say to my friend? I told him that I was sorry for his loss. I was glad that he had his son for as long as he did. And that I was grateful for the work that he was doing in NAMI where he routinely took leadership roles and participated in Crisis Intervention Training classes as a NAMI parent. Without knowing it, his advocacy in NAMI might have helped a family from going through what he now was experiencing.
I told him that he was a good father. He didn’t have to take my word for it. His son had told him so.