This post was co-authored with Lisa-Marie Black.
Being a parent, it is perhaps one of my greatest fears that I should ever out-live my children. Children are a gift and a blessing, and some of us fight extraordinary battles just to bring them into the world. When a child is lost, it leaves a hole that can never be filled.
I have invited a blogger who has experienced such a loss, Lisa-Marie Black, to share how she is struggling to cope with and attempting to understand what happened recently with the loss of her teenage son Michael.
Both Lisa-Marie and I hope that her story below will help readers understand what goes through a parent’s mind and heart in such an unimaginable situation:
There are many theories as to what led to the violent self-inflicted death of our 19-year-old son on April 17, 2013. And honestly, I don’t know what to believe. Right now, all I know is a deeply-rooted pain; it hurts to breathe. All I know is that the last tormenting hours of my son’s life now torment me every minute I am awake and most of the hours that fill my days until I finally fall sleep late into the night. I think of a million things I would go back to if I could and do differently, and then I think of the ways I loved that boy—so far beyond any expression of words on a page.
Michael Ryan Black was born with blond hair and sparkling light blue eyes. He looked like an angel, but he was wild like all little boys should be. A few years after his parents divorced, I became step-mom to Tyler (8), Michael (6) and Caleb, just two years old. I brought to this new marriage great enthusiasm, naiveté—and two little angels of my own, Alexis (8) and Emily (6), from my first marriage that had ended five years prior with the sudden tragic death of my first husband.
About the time Gary Black and I got pregnant with Noah, we were also awarded full custody of Gary’s boys. In the drawn-out custody process, we all lost something. Our family members were also wounded, some more deeply than others, but we had so much love…and so much hope. I wonder—was the trauma of divorce and abandonment what started Michael’s decline as an innocent little boy and ripped his soul apart during his final hours? That is part of it. The mental illness that many say is inherited—like sparkling blue eyes or bad eyesight—is this what overtook him in the end? It’s difficult to say.
Admittedly, our his-hers-and-ours blended family was far from perfect—but we were devoted—to God and to each other. My husband Gary was up with the kids every morning early, praying with them before school and talking to them about life over his coffee and their Honey Nut Cheerios. I was home cleaning, cooking, listening and driving my little ones everywhere. We were present, we were attentive, and we were available to our kids…weren’t we?
We camped, we water skied, we told stories around the campfire. We laughed. We loved. We also got overwhelmed, tired, sick—sick and tired—and we got angry. We stayed up late fighting and trying to figure it all out, but always woke up determined to never give up, to keep fighting—for our marriage and for our family. More wounding? Probably. Could we have done better? Perhaps. I don’t know.
We watched as our older children started turning into young adults, striving to take on the world in their own terms. Teenage years are a normal but often tumultuous part of life. No parent can’t stop the process, and no matter how you try, you can’t control it either. Quite suddenly, everything invested in them—time, wisdom, heart—is all tested. The parts of life you try to shield them from are spinning at them like an out-of-control battering ram from every direction. They are bombarded with images, voices and noises constantly from the minute they wake up until their weary heads drop in their pillows at night.
It begins with music on their headphones, the television blaring in the background. Then their fingers begin texting meaningless messages to people they may never have had a live conversation with. Add to this that they live their lives out loud on the internet—the proverbial open book to the world—constantly posting their unstable emotions and thoughts of the moment. And somehow they seem to struggle with the concept that ONE unfortunate picture taken at a party could affect them in residual ways the rest of their lives.
This generation holds some of the most brilliant and creative minds the world has ever seen. However, these baby geniuses are also more often than not self-involved and narcissistic. With misguided good intentions, we parents have taught them inadvertently that the world revolves around them, and now our children believe us.
We stop having dinner as a family and stop talking to each other. Instead, we keep a calendar booked with constant busyness…and we are proud of this. Many of us even talk about our busy lives to each other as if it were a competition that determines our parental value in the world. Our children don’t know how to be still, to be quiet, and to just be. They are adrenalin junkies, addicted to constant stimulation. Our media is filled with violence flashing before the eyes of little brains that can’t always understand the difference between real and make-believe. Our children are so overstimulated that they are numb—numb to blood, to bizarre behavior, to music that encourages promiscuity and rebellion masked and packaged as “individuality.” Our children, like never before, are being told what to think and shown how to act by watching reality television instead of walking through the realities of life with an older, wiser generation—mentoring them, teaching them, being present with them.
How does a beautiful all-American boy go from getting great grades, becoming king of the school, having every girl want to be with him and every guy want to be like him to such a tragic end? How does an all-round talented guy—an “All State” football player who went on to represent the USA in Rugby Sevens and get a full-ride scholarship—implode emotionally to the point where he chooses to leave this world? How?
My blue-eyed boy who kissed his mother on the forehead every night and thanked her for dinner, this boy who loved his country, his God and his family—how did he end up alone in his dorm room, contemplating his death for hours, before inflicting the worst type of physical pain on himself and then dying terrified, gasping for air?
Let me tell you. It’s a slow seduction. It comes piece by excruciating piece—the voices and images are a perpetual hum, not a fearful crash. Nothing is shocking any more. Marijuana is harmless, they say. Maybe it is at the outset, but does it eventually spur on the quest for craving something a little bit more potent and better feeling? More adrenaline, higher and higher they cllimb, more and more numb to the still, small voice that says, “Hey—slow down. Stop and think about this for a minute. This could be bad.” Those voices are instead drowned out by the louder ones constantly whispering in their ears, in their heads and flashing before their eyes. This is what has the power to seduce our children and ourselves by seemingly insignificant pieces at first, then by larger consuming chunks in the end.
Today we are connected to everyone all the time. We know what Kathy (whom we have not seen since second grade) had for lunch today, when she is going to the mall, and what her cat is doing. Yet I wonder—do we know that much about the people who live under our own roof? We are always connected, and yet this generation feels isolated and alone.
And so I wonder—with all the wounding, the parenting mistakes, all the things we did wrong and all the things we did right—I wonder if my beautiful son heard a dark whisper before he took his own life. I wonder if the whisper said, “It’s not worth the fight. They are better off without you any way. There is no one who really needs you. Just end the pain.”
And what I really wonder is this. Was he shocked by that voice or simply seduced by it, just like all the other little seductions infiltrating and overriding his heart since he was a little boy?
I miss my son. I will never recover from this loss, this void. Our once family of eight, now family of seven, will never be the same—ever.
But we can’t afford to dwell on things we had no control over. We can’t change the choices Michael made that exchanged a beautiful life for a painful death. We can, however, look deep within ourselves, our marriage and our children. We can ask questions about our lives and try at least to determine if our lifestyle is really bringing us any life at all?
The potential cost for not asking these important questions is so high—too high. How many more brilliant, creative geniuses do we parents have to bury before we wake up?
There are so many theories still surrounding Michael’s death. All I know for sure really is that I have five beautiful lives left, and even if I have to shout, I will look into their eyes, tell them the truth, and never stop fighting for what is far too precious to ever lose again to such needless tragedy.
I believe Lisa’s ability to cope with the pain from the loss of Michael is giving hope to her and also to her remaining children. A parent experiencing the death of an “only” child might have a more difficult time handling the dynamics of such a loss. The importance of listening to and understanding your children, ensuring that you do everything in your power to teach them the good things in life and how to try to reach out for the good is critical. You may not be able to control what choices they make once they leave the house, but perhaps it can give you some strength and solace as a parent knowing you did everything you possibly could to help them be the best people they can be. Don’t ever think too highly of your parenting abilities—no one is invincible here, and it’s easy to pass the blame to others. But if you try your hardest and you know you tried your hardest, don’t discount that either. We are all merely human and all in this together—whether we want to admit it or not.
About Lisa-Marie Black:
Lisa-Marie Black became a single parent in her twenties following the sudden loss of her first husband. This tragedy was followed later with a second marriage leading to the joys and trials of a blended family of six children. For the last 20 years she has worked with young mothers teaching them parenting and life skills. The Black family has traveled the world teaching, mentoring and training the next generation, culminating in co-founding “The World Race.” They also lived In Africa for a year building a village for orphans with AIDS. Lisa currently lives with her family in Colorado Springs, Colorado.