Coping with the Loss of My Son
by Gabi Clayton
Note: I wrote this in February 2000 for the Endangered Youth Campaign - A National Suicide Program to Keep GLBT Youth Alive, which was a program of The National Institute for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Education. Their website is no longer online, so I have the article here now.
Bill came out to us as bisexual at fourteen. At seventeen he was assaulted in a hate crime. The assault was very public because it and the community anti-hate rally held after it were in the news. He committed suicide a month later on May 8, 1995.
Our family and friends loved us through the blur of numbness and decisions to be made. The memorial service was open to the community, with an acknowledgement of the hate Bill faced because of his sexual orientation, and how that had contributed so much to his suicide.
From Bill’s obituary:
Bill died of an overdose of pain in his heart… Had these hateful acts not occurred, Bill with his abundant love and creativity would not have taken his life.
There was so much for me to sort out. Slowly, I was able to begin listening to my heart.
October 30, 1995, journal entry
It is my own personal hell. I am hurting so much. The grief of losing Bill has not eased. It grows. And it affects me physically in ways I am not sure how to handle. Sometimes a dull pain washes over me that I just drift out on – not fighting it. In a very strange way it is pleasant, and I let go and float on it for a few moments, not even caring if I come back... I am so tired.
Family and friends can lash out in anger and hurt each other terribly at the time when they need each other the most. My best friend Catherine gently reminded me of this when she saw us all heading down that path after Bill died. Talking about this oh-so-tender-and-scary loss was something we learned to do with respect for each other’s needs and moods.
My own anger was at everyone and everything that could drive my son to choose death. Some was at myself – guilt. What kind of parent was I? I couldn’t keep my son from killing himself. And some was at Bill. That was the hardest part to admit.
When the trials of the kids who assaulted Bill were over, I knew I needed to melt the protective walls I had built up to get through that. Counseling with a therapist who was GLBT friendly gave me a safe place to do some of the sorting and grieving process.
September 15, 1996, e-mail to the PFLAG-Talk support list
As for being strong, yes, I guess. I survived Bill's suicide and I am doing what I can to help open people's hearts and minds, so that someday somebody else's kid won't have to face what Bill faced and lose hope as he did. But the truth is, if you catch me being too strong you may want to call me on it. I am pretty good at taking care of others and not always good at doing the same for myself.
I had to find a way to channel my grief about Bill’s suicide into something that could have a positive impact for others. That was when I began my website and my activism with wonderful organizations like PFLAG.
January 5, 1997, journal entry
Today I watched some videos of Bill with a friend. She asked me if it was hard to see them and I had to say no. It felt really good. There is tons of sadness – and I miss him terribly – I don’t have to avoid memories, or feel like I can't handle it. It's not too much. It just is.
April 7, 1997, journal entry
Today was the 2nd anniversary of the hate crime assault on Bill. A day I dreaded more this year than last, because last year I was still so numb that I got through it without big feelings.
No such luck this time. As hard as this is, I am grateful that my healing allows me to feel more – even when that which I feel is the loss of my beautiful baby boy. Even when the feelings are so hard. Better that than numb any day.
Special friends were sometimes my lifeline, there to listen and love me through the dark places. Time alone was important, but isolation was not good for me. And I will always be grateful for the moment my friend Steve brought laughter back into my life with something he wrote me in an e-mail. I had forgotten joy!
April 9, 1997, journal entry
I feel Bill’s spirit working on me and others, and I know that while I have lost his body and his mind, that doesn't mean I have lost him completely. Call it memories, love, spirit, whatever... nothing ever being destroyed into nothingness applies to how I feel about his death... some energy or force that is still here and lives on. The impact he had on me and those who knew and loved him. In that sense, he is not gone.
February 15, 1998, e-mail to Steve Schalchlin
How do I feel about Bill right now? I miss him. How can he be dead? He's supposed to be twenty. He will never be twenty – he will always be seventeen.
Survival isn't in the past for me. It's a NOW thing. When I wake up in the morning he isn't here. There is an empty space where Bill was and he lives there in memories – in my heart. I have to survive the empty space.
I don't think about him all the time now. I live my life and do my work and love Alec and Noel and Catherine and you and all the wonderful people in my life... and maybe you all get loved just a little more because I have to have somewhere to pour the love that is Bill's.
October 27, 1998, journal entry
When someone asks, “How did you survive this?” My answer, now, is “What makes you think I survived?”
But I did survive. My path was through the shock and numbness, through guilt and anger to sad empty places and wonderful memories, to regrets and missing him every day, and to the work I am doing now in Bill’s honor.