It was a joyous day in December 1972. I was a happy, chubby boy watching TV in the family room wearing my footie pajamas. The Christmas tree was already up since we always put it up over Thanksgiving weekend. The house was full of Christmas excitement of waiting for Santa to come in a few weeks. I remember the phone rang that night. I stood up from my seat in my bean bag chair and ran across the linoleum floor, sliding two to three feet as if I was on ice. I picked up the phone; it was my Grandfather Shelinski, my mom’s father. He was calling to tell my mom that her younger brother Bill had killed himself.
I don’t remember meeting my mom’s brother Bill, but it was my first taste of sadness and grief. My Grandfather Shelinski was a very sophisticated, stoic man. My grandfather didn’t show his emotions often; nonetheless, he was a man full of love. He was a professor at the University of Scranton. After the funeral, everyone went back to my grandparent’s house. A house that was once a place of happiness and fun was now only a structure of sadness and grief. I remember walking into the kitchen. The old cast iron stove had a small coal fire burning to heat the room. The tea kettle, which sat on top, was whistling, anxious to be poured. My grandfather sat at the table with a blank stare on his face. I was troubled by the look on my grandfather’s face, so I walked towards him. As I got closer, I could see tears running down his cheeks. I didn’t understand. As a child, I had cried out plenty of times, after a fall or some injustice that I felt had occurred, but my grandfather was simply sitting there motionless with tears running down his face. I stood next to him, not quite sure what to say; other people were sitting around the table as well. Then, my grandfather muttered these words: “I have lost my son, and nobody can tell me why.” When we forget the pains from the past, they will surely be relived.
Let’s now move ahead 38 years. It was February 23, 2010. I was a divorced father of two children. A beautiful, loving daughter, who was 25 years old, and a great young man, my son James, who was 15 years old. I remember this night well. It was the night, for me that history would sadly be repeated. It was my turn to receive a call telling me that my son James had killed himself. Right then, my life completely stopped. I experienced an emotional trauma that I never knew existed. My brain was scrambled and nothing made sense. Over the next few hours, days and weeks to come, I had difficulty focusing on simple tasks, like choosing what clothes to wear or even how to dress myself.
At this point in my adult life I had only experienced the loss of an uncle that I didn’t know. I really had not lost anyone I truly loved. I didn’t understand what grief truly was. Six days later, we had the viewing for my son. There are only a few things that I remember about that day. To my amazement, over 75 children showed up from my son’s school to say goodbye. My broken heart was touched by this. I was standing next to James’s casket alongside his mom as people came to say goodbye to James. I was standing there with tears running down my cheeks. I felt someone touch my arm and ask me, “Joe, are you OK?” The words my grandfather muttered 38 years earlier rolled across my lips when I said, “I have lost my son, and nobody can tell me why.”
It was 3 weeks after James killed himself. Hope and any future for me was beginning to fade. It felt like my mind slowly being covered with a wet, heavy, wool blanket. I found myself curled up in my bed bawling my eyes out. This day I remember well. This was the day I realized that hope and my purpose had disappeared. Hope for ever being happy again. Hope that someday, I would once again enjoy doing things that had once brought me joy. Hope that life was worth living. I was no longer a father to my son, which was my main purpose in life when my son died. It was all gone! This is when I said to myself, “I can no longer take this pain.” I too wanted to die. I just want to be with my son, James. I was having a struggle in my mind about living. The darkness of my grief was causing me to think irrationally. I thought maybe I should call my friend Mike. No, no I couldn’t call Mike, I didn’t want him to think badly about me. Maybe I should call my Uncle Bob. No, no I couldn’t call him either. It was also his younger brother Bill, who took his own life 38 years earlier. Then, I thought about how my mom, dad, and my daughter would be if I too killed myself. Something happened. The thought came to me. If this is the kind of unbearable pain, I have from my son killing himself, then I can't give this pain to my mom, dad, or to my daughter if I killed myself.
Right then is when I realized I had to own this pain. This pain was not just the pain of loss, but one that encompassed all of my failures, regrets, and disappointments that made me unhappy in my life. This pain was mine and mine alone to carry! I had a decision to make; Was I going to become a man that was more angry, more bitter, more resentful at the world because my life had become so painful; or was I going to step up? Step up and find the courage to dig deep into my soul and find the source of this pain and fear that has caused my life to become what it currently was. I honestly believe it was only by God's grace that I was given the wisdom to make the right decision that day. Not the easy decision but the right decision.
It has been 10 years since James killed himself. Today, I am a man that I never knew existed. I have experienced days of happiness I never thought possible for me at any time in my life.