There is a crack in everything.
June 13, 2018
Today is about Zach Misleh; but it is also about all of you.
June 13, 2017: a random day in the middle of a random year by which I now mark time. On June 12, our family was whole, and life was cruising along. Ben: happy in Colorado with good friends a solid job, and the mountains to lure him away in any season. Anna, too: life-giving work, living at home with Susie and I and finished with her first year of graduate school. Zach: home after his first year of college and a service trip to Puerto Rico with his classmates from St. John’s University and getting steady hours lifeguarding at the local swimming pool.
But at about half-past 2:00 pm on June 13, our whole world shifted. That was when we knew Zach was gone. The rest of that week was spent sharing and receiving heart-wrenching sobs, planning for a funeral and a burial, (Are we really doing this?), welcoming other mourners, consoling them as they consoled us. Family and friends arrive from out of town. Neighbors bring food, open homes. Hundreds leave their Father’s Day dinners to wait in line forever just to offer a word of condolence at the wake and say goodbye to Zach. Hundreds more fill St. Ambrose Church beyond its capacity for a funeral and farewell on Monday. We place Zach’s ashes in a niche at Ft. Lincoln Cemetery on June 23 and celebrate his 20th birthday on June 24.
Within a couple of weeks, I am back at work but not really. How does the world continue spinning after such a tragedy? How will life ever be normal when this pain—felt so acutely by so many—weighs me down like a millstone? The rest of the summer was going through the motions, visiting the cemetery, shedding tears often, sighing heavily and saying repeatedly, "Oh dear Zachary, what happened?”
And the losses piled up in the winter and spring: my dear friend, Eric Harder, just a few months older than me is gone from lung cancer; my brother-in-law Brian Shortz, just a few years younger than me, succumbs too quickly to brain cancer; my father-in-law, John Patridge to pancreatic cancer after a two-year battle. Each loss tears at the wound and re-opens it for a time.
Today, one year since Zach took his life, the rawness of the open wound is healing but it will never fully close. Many have described the hole left when someone so beloved leaves so unexpectedly. That’s really what it feels like: a big hole.
But I think the hole, the wound, never heals for a reason. It is a place where I can store memories of happy times. It is an opening like a knothole in a wooden fence where I can still have a conversation with Zach and listen in stillness to his reply from the other side.
In Leonard Cohen’s song, Anthem, part of the refrain says:
“There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s where the light gets in.”
We are all wounded, cracked, broken, battered. Some of us more so than others. We all carry scars and walk through life as cracked and imperfect vessels. Now I see that those imperfections are the places where empathy resides and where kindness can seep through. Sometimes I wonder if kindness and brokenness are not really just kindred spirits. How much kindness and empathy can we really have without heartbreak and deep wounds?
Zachary certainly had his share of cracks. It doesn’t seem fair that someone so young should have so many holes to plug. In the end, I suppose he was just tired of trying to hide them or gave up his search for the right tool to fill them. But maybe his undeserved brokenness was also where he found the strength for 20 years to be so incredibly kind, gentle and empathetic. We’ve learned from some of his friends who shared their own haunting depression that in Zach they found a very sympathetic ear—that he would go out of his way to reach out. Maybe his cracks also let in an abundance of humor and stoked his ability to enter fully into life’s moments. Maybe they were the places where hyperbole found an escape: "Inception (or Star Wars or Interstellar or…) was the best movie I’ve ever seen!" "Kendrick Lamar just put out the best album ever. Period."
Today, I miss my boy so, so much. I miss laughing with him, watching him stifle a smirk at my bad jokes, and having short-burst conversations using only Pink Floyd or Bruce Springsteen lyrics. I miss his deep and thoughtful reflections about current events. I miss watching him grow into a man.
But today is also about you, dear family and friends.
I appreciate—more than I ever thought possible—all who have shared this year-long odyssey with me and with our family. Today, I realize—thankfully, even if a bit late in life—that big holes and gaping cracks offer us a choice. We could allow them to sink us further into despair as we try in futility to plug and patch them. Or we can leave them open, enter into their rawness and allow them to nurture much greater empathy and understanding. Lucky for me that I’ve had a circle of compassion this past year, a cocoon of love and friendship that left me only one real choice. Because of each of you, I think I’m coming out of this okay. Because of you I have chosen to leave the cracks open and the holes unfilled and let some light in. Thank you.
Who will I be when I no longer exist.......?
A poem by Ann Carrabino
February 11, 2018
Who will I be when I no longer exist…?When I have been gently lifted from my days,FreeWhole(at once)In the arms of this sweet rest…I will be the center of the rose, Catching onto the sunin a place where no one can find me.For I will be no place and no oneBut I will be everywhere and in everything.Hopefully a little bit of this and a big part of that. I’ll go wherever I want'Cuz there'll be no place to go.For I'll already be hereNo longer needing to wait for there. I'll be able to hold me to myself in the warmth of the sunTo cover myself with colors only I can paint,'Cuz I'll be all of them at onceMixed up, shining, sparkling yellowey-green orange golds. I'll see all,Not with my eyes...For I suspect that they'll be resting in some other place. But I'll hold all gathered to me,Bound-up, pressed tenderly, loved ever sogently by He who finally decided toremember His Promise of Old. For you see, I'll be home...For the first time no longer needing to fear thecoming of the dawnWhich always seems to rage (just a little) againstthe passing of this good but gentle night. To wait, to wonder,To ask of each of you in hope:(Which it seems is only faith's memory anyway) Why is it that I've had to make this journey?To enter into this place of where all Is and Isn't,Was and Wasn't and Will BeTo know for the first time That what is found when life encounters lifeIs that which clothes what is born anewWhen Death seizes hold of Life, Wrestles with it,Brings it down to the ground... Only to have it burst free,Yellow-golden,Flower-laden Still Point. And there for the first timeTo know my lifeResurrectedunceasingly...Cradled forever in the love,The tenderness and mercy thatmelted away the last of my winter taking with it all of my pain and my fear... Leaving only my most favorite part: All my love for you and all of your love for me. Life eternal.For Zach Misleh
With much love to Dan and Susie
and their wonderful family,
Christmas and the loss of a son by suicide
Six Lessons After Six Months
December 21, 2017
Dear Friends and Family:
Since June 13, when Zach lost his battle with depression, I've heard that my transparency with my own struggles and grief has been helpful. For some, it is because you know a friend or family member who has lost a loved one to this, or a similar, tragedy. For others it is because, as I so often hear, “There but for the grace of God…”
And I don’t want this message to be a downer as excitement builds for this wonderful holiday time. But I am feeling that a reflection might be a worthy holiday exercise, for me if not for you. I write mostly in the first person as I don’t want to presume how others are feeling. I also know that these insights are not particularly unique or novel. However, maybe they will speak to you, too.
I write this in the time between waiting for Christmas and just having reached the sixth month anniversary of Zach passing to eternal life. In a year, I suppose I’ll have appropriated different lessons, but for now, I offer these reflections and these lessons of loss and love:
1) There cannot be too much community. Within hours, if not minutes, after the news began to spread of our loss, neighbors from across Cheverly and across town appeared at our home to cry with us, hug us, bring us comfort, food, booze, whatever was needed. People who love Zachary and who love us from so many facets of our lives found a way to connect through texts, emails, phone calls, prayers and support in so many ways. Whether they were close by or across the country, all were present.
Pray with me for those without these support networks, for those who suffer through such a loss alone or nearly alone. A week after Zach passed, another young man, a Central American immigrant from our parish, also died by his own hand. His life was marked by abandonment and neglect. Where were his community and his networks?
Lesson: show up, offer words of condolence, and keep doing it, even if only occasionally. Those who mourn rely heavily on your concern. It is like a quiet soothing hymn that plays in the background offering comfort even when we aren’t really listening. I will admit that I didn’t get this until now and apologize to those who I neglected in your sorrow.
2) Mourners need to talk. Don’t be afraid to ask: The loss of a child is not the normal course, not the way things are planned. Seeing a person in such pain and grief after losing someone with his or her whole future ahead is really, really uncomfortable and heart-wrenching stuff. If you think that by asking, “How are you doing?” will receive a curt reply or an angry glare, you would generally be wrong. Mourners need to know that people care long after the crisis has gone from a boil to a simmer. I want to talk about my experience of Zach’s life and of his death and to share my joy and my sorrow with you. While it may be uncomfortable for you, it is vital to the healing process for everyone involved. It’s okay to see me cry or stare off into space. I’m having a moment and am grateful to have you beside me absorbing some of that pain.
And remember that Zach’s immediate family are not the only victims of this tragedy nor the only ones needing to talk, to process. He had such an outsized impact on so many that they, too, suffer terribly from the bewilderment of the manner of his death as well as from the sudden loss of his kinship. I think it is a good thing to be a “wounded healer” because only in our common grief can we arrive at a new and brighter place with the love we share with one another as we hobble along life’s uneven road.
Lesson: It’s best to ask, “How are you doing today?” because some days I’m fine, other days I’m awful. I’ll try to be honest about that and will be so grateful that you ask now and then.
3) The mourning process is uneven and unique: Each of us mourns differently both in intensity and in duration. I know some wish that I “get through it.” And they don’t mean that as in, “Still, Dan?” but more like, “I see your pain and I hope it eases for you sooner than later.” I don’t know what the timetable will be. I suppose when I get through this first year, it will be easier. It already is in some ways. But for now, the fact that I’ll never see Zach again in this life is the very first thing I think of when I awaken and my very last thought as I nod off to sleep.
Lesson: be patient with mourners. Don’t be surprised if they seem “normal” nor exasperated when, day-after-day, they bear their sorrow like a badge. Just be patient with me and for those who have suffered this particular loss. Words are nice, but if you can’t think of anything to say, just offer a hug or a hand to hold until the tears slow and balance is regained.
4) Faith has been critical: I can’t say that I “get” heaven. With the exception of some well-documented near-death experiences, no one that I know has actually died and come back with a trip report. But I can say that having a faith to lean on has been invaluable. I understand that not everyone believes in God or that they have found a comfortable home in an organized religion. And no religion is perfect since they are also human institutions. But for me, my Catholic faith, my parish pastor, and other religious leaders have been a lifeline. I truly believe Zach is in a better place and the poems and notes composed for our family by thoughtful, faith-filled friends are fragments that at once trigger fresh rounds of grief but are also lifelines in times of true despair.
Many have described the “thin place” or the “veil” where heaven and earth meet. I’ve experienced this since Zach’s death at unexpected times. In August this past year, Susie and I stopped in the evening at a hotel in Western Pennsylvania as we were heading to Cincinnati. The hotel was atop a mountain and in the west the sky was blue, orange and red with a peculiar looking cloud shaped vertically, not horizontally like one usually sees. We stood there for a moment talking quietly to each other. When it was time to check in to the hotel, I said, “Goodnight, Zach” and at that instant a lightning bolt raced across the sky. Some might say it was a lucky coincidence. I think it was Zach saying, I’m okay and at peace.
There are far fewer Sundays that I don’t cry than those when I do. A song, a reading, a look from a parishioner and suddenly I’m sad, longing for Zach, and feeling sorry for myself, my family, and those who knew and loved Zach. It is cathartic, important and is part of that search for meaning amidst such a tragedy.
Lesson: Humans have forever searched for meaning: a search heightened when someone so loved is lost so suddenly. Religion, its rituals, its theological underpinnings, and its personalities, can bring meaning and provide a path forward. At the heart of my religion, Christianity, is love. The beautiful, bewildering complexity of that simple word should be enough.
5) I have a new identity: which is “that poor guy who lost his son to suicide.” It’s the saddest club in the world. I know that in church, at work, in the neighborhood, and with family and friends people look at me and ask themselves, “I wonder how he is getting along?” It gets easier, but the experience has defined me indelibly. The trick now is to figure out how to reach into my core, take out this new thing, examine it and decide how to respond.
There are many tempting ways to cope with this new identity but only one that makes sense. Let me be quick to add that we should not blame those who choose other options. We don’t know how such a death by such a means will impact others. I can only decide how it will ultimately impact me. Here are a few options I’ve not chosen. 1) Get stinking drunk and stay that way to keep the pain at bay. But alas, as my brothers will attest, I’m a poor drunk and usually get sick before I’m too far gone. 2) Be angry: at God, at Zach’s therapists, or at Zach himself for not disclosing sooner how he was feeling and how close he was to the edge of the abyss. Anger seems pretty unproductive for me and requires so much energy. 3) Ignore the pain by diving into work, exercise, or other addictive behaviors so I never really mourn his loss, my loss. But it doesn’t appear that I am physiologically prone to addiction. 4) Curl up in a ball and give up on life myself. But as a father to Ben and Anna, a husband to Susie, an uncle, brother, and friend to many, why would I want to add to the pain they already bear?
The path I’m trying to choose is one that embraces the pain, realizes the beauty and love Zach left to so many, celebrate his brief 20 years on this earth and turn my focus again to those he’s left wounded but inspired by his life.
Lesson: I can choose to live out my new identity in many ways. But the best way for me is to be inspired by and enter deeply into what was and is rather than what might have been. And I’m not there yet, if I’m honest.
6) Suicide is uniquely cruel and mysterious. I’ve said, often just to myself, “If Zach was to die, why couldn’t it have been in some other way?” That he took his own life with almost no warning is a blow almost unbearable. In the weeks immediately after his death, I was looking for answers. One method for coping was to read books about suicide, the suicidal mind, and the experiences of others. I wanted to get to the bottom of this. It’s not that I really blamed anyone, not even Zach. It is that I was disoriented and confused. Americans look for answers, solve problems, don’t rest until we overcome. But there is no control here. No way to fix it. With so little warning and with Zach hiding his depression so well, what could we have done?
The human brain is so very complex and we’ve not scratched the surface of our understanding of not only this organ, but the environmental and social factors that contribute to its functioning. Someday, we will certainly know more. But like cancer, we can only continue to support those doing the research to find a cure as we walk alongside those who suffer.
A dear friend called me as night fell on June 13. He said something that helped me cope with such a bewildering day. “Dan,” he said, “This was a disease and it is not your fault.” Through my shock, he made me hear it again. A week later, my son Ben said, “There are three outcomes to a disease: 1) you get well; 2) you live with it; and 3) it kills you.” This depression, this loneliness, these voices—whatever was going on with Zach in those final moments—it was a disease. It was a disease that stole his will to live, which I now know is different from a desire to die.
In the weeks and months that followed, friends and relatives have joined organized walks to raise money for suicide awareness. I’m sure I’ve never given so much to charity as I have to these wonderful, thoughtful, action-oriented people. They and I want to make sure that medical research continues and social service organizations are there to help the lost, the lonely, the diseased people “Out of the Darkness.”
Lesson: if you want to help lessen the scourge of suicide, become highly attuned to those who seem down, withdrawn and desperate. Ask them how they are doing and listen attentively. Seek help for them. And consider a gift to prevention and research organizations. Do it in memory of or inspired by Zachary.
Thank you for reading through this reflection and for your love and support of me, my family and all those impacted by this tragedy
Truly I wish for you a blessed holiday and a peaceful—please God—New Year.
by Judy Walsh-Mellett, June 14, 2017
I could not pick you, yellow.
Your bright light
was too harsh.
You can stay in the garden
but are not welcome
in the vase
for the house.
Your vibrancy too lively
for such broken hearts
You may stay in the garden
to dazzle other creatures.
Their wings seem to carry them
above all grief,
but do we know this?
There is one called "Mourning Cloak."
For whom does she grieve?
Does she avoid you too?
Does your radiance
We need your beauty,
But cannot carry you in.
Not this day.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Loss
Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute: we must simply hold out and see it through.
That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us.
It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap, he does not fill it but on the contrary, he keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.