ICU: Things I’ve Never Shared About Losing Our Son

It’s taken eight years, two books, several live interviews, and multiple public addresses on the topic. I think I’m finally ready.

For February, our son Parker’s would-be 27th birthday, I’m going to share some heavies. It’s like doing daily isometrics. That means  that  grief’s vortex tends to pick up in pitch and suction near his birthday, making me long to sink into deep, silent retreat. But I’m not giving in. I’m resisting. Instead of going limp and lifeless, I’m sharing myself every day in person and in print.

One channel of sharing is the hands-on refugee work I’m blessed to be able to be involved in here in central Europe. (If you want more descriptions about that, you can dip into my Facebook, or my MDBglobalmom Instagram and Twitter accounts.)

The other channel of sharing is what I’ll now do here on the blog. Over eight years I’ve written steadily on major loss (journals, early book drafts, study notes, correspondence with wise friends, etc.) Now I want to share some of the more personal – and therefore powerful–pieces with you.

A few of these I’ve been posting on my @OnLossandLivingOnward Facebook page. (Click on that title.) But because some of those texts are long or of a delicate intimate / spiritual nature, I’ve been thinking Facebook just isn’t the right place for them.

So to the blog. Note: I’m not necessarily following any linear progression over the next few posts. I’m pulling what grabs my heart and what I feel might be of most value to my readers. I know some of you want a community of solidarity in your own grief, and I know others want to understand the contours and texture of major loss so that  you can help others in acute need. Your needs are a primary reason I share so openly.

The following piece I wrote within the first month after Parker took his last breath in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) to which he’d been life-flighted and was being kept “alive” on a ventilator. I had driven alone and through the night to find him there, comatose.

IMG_4792Pocatello, Idaho: 3:30 a.m., Friday, July 20, 2007

There, in one of the first rooms, under greenish lights, poised impossibly flat and facedown on a gurney was my big boy. More silent and still than if he had been asleep, and propped with a neck brace was this, my oldest child, tubes snaking in and out of his nose and mouth making gurgling sounds, a stiff white sheet covering the length of his long, firm athlete’s body from waist to ankles.  I longed to wrap my self around him, but hardly dared approach his form. I dropped the black overnight bag I’d packed in a frenzy when I’d gotten the policeman’s phone call , and stepped to where I could lean very close to his profile, close enough, even, so that I could feel my own breath coming back to me off his left cheekbone. For an instant I was fooled: Is he breathing? But there was this big white laminate and stainless steel ventilator mocking that hope.

The upper edge of the cotton sheet – I could see it had a Portneuf Regional Medical Center stamp in fine gray font – was crisp, barely outlining Parker’s form beneath. His shoulders I traced with my eyes. I’d known this one mole from birth, these four tiny freckles since that sunburn from the Jersey Shore, I’d bandaged that small purplish scar when he was six. But these fresh gashes like an animal’s claws, where were they from? Parker’s newly-stilled shoulders kept expanding, lifting and dropping evenly, mechanically. I studied that hulking, uninvited machine standing on the other side of the gurney, I surveyed the other strange machines at his side and the stark fluorescent lights and the odd blue woven blankets and my unfamiliar blue fingernails, blue feet. It was a bluewhite coldness I’d never known, a cold that had lethal contours like the iceberg that took down the Titanic.

I reached for his shoulder. It was warm. His forehead and brow were badly gashed. I bent down within inches of the left side of his face and examined the metal scalp staples. His eyes were blackened, bruised, swollen and were slowly oozing a delicate trickle of blood. I froze. His mouth, oh that sweet mouth with its full bottom lip. I traced his hand. My body folded like damp origami.

“I Am Here, I Am With You”

I took his left hand in one of mine and steadied myself in a chair I had pulled as close as I could next to the gurney. Then I found and unzipped my black leather-bound set of scriptures, the first thing I’d thrown into my bag. I opened and began reading in half a voice into his left ear: “For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, And my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and profit of my children.” Parker knew these were my favorite verses from the Book of Mormon, so I chose them instinctively for our comfort. From somewhere within the room – or was it in the room of my soul? – I heard Parker’s familiar low voice, “It’s all right. It’ll all be all right. Thank you, Mom.”

I scooted the chair so my knees were now pushed under the gurney and I could almost rest my chin on Parker’s shoulder and resumed my reading, “Behold, my soul delighteth in the things of the Lord; and my heart pondereth continually upon the things which I have seen and heard.”

There were other people in the room, some I hardly knew, but I didn’t have the energy to ask them to leave. A perceptive nurse ushered them away and for a few minutes, I was allowed to be alone in the room. “Parker,” I asked inwardly, my chin to my chest and my eyes closed from distractions of light and ambient sounds, streaming tears down my face and onto the front of my shirt, “My darling, darling sweetheart, what is this? What has happened? Please, can you hear me? Where are you? I know you hear me.”

“I am here,” came the answer. “I am with you. I am right here, Mom.

I could breathe. I supported the weight of the moment with my elbows on my thighs, the heels of my hands over my eyes, my fingers up over my forehead. My scriptures lay open, flat across my knees.

“You must not leave me, Parker. You must not leave us. Oh, sweetheart, I am so sorry, so sorry for this, so sorry.

“Thank you, Mom. I love you.”portrait

Encompassed About

 Looking up for an instant, I was confused that his voice was so clear yet his body so utterly immobile. His mouth closed. His eyes leaking those perfectly steady drops of blood.

I pulled my scriptures up to my eyes. I continued, “Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works. . .”

Another nurse came to adjust a machine and verify some numbers on a chart. I made eye contact with her, but even that quick glance was an unwelcome distraction for me, as I was trying to care for my son. And we needed to be alone, he and I. I reached up and barely touched his face as I read; “Yes, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about. . .”

Then there was activity gathering all around me, some people were moving in front of or beside or behind me, people were asking me questions, trying to be solicitous, interrupting my concentration, and I wanted to cry out that they needed to go far, far away. I was unable to form the words or use my energy for anything outside of my connection with Parker. Just to carve out a private, protected space, I closed my eyes and recited what I could by heart from my favorite passages: “And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth. . .nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.”

I hungered to stretch out alongside my child on that gurney, lie down and breathe with him. For him. Give him my breath. Life support. Life support? Wasn’t that supposed to be me? Hadn’t that always been me?

Life Support

“My God hath been my support,” I kept reading, rocking lightly, rabbinically, my tone flat while tears plopped freely on my onionskin scripture pages. “He hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness; and he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep.”

During those hours that I pleaded with God and cradled my head in my hands, dampening my scriptures with my tears, I felt the hot friction of fear and faith chafing against each other.  I wept quietly but continuously while I fought to breathe for Parker, whose tubes gurgled with air and fluid. I talked at times with those who kept vigil with me. But I primarily talked within myself to my son and to God.

(To be continued…)


Parker, age 10, at a Parisian amusement park with his Mom.




13 thoughts on “ICU: Things I’ve Never Shared About Losing Our Son

  1. Beautiful and heart wrenching! Thinking of you often now that we are back home. London seems like a dream…gone. Love to you and keep writing!

    Sent from my iPad

    • But of course you will never stop grieving for your parents. You love them. Endlessly. Your grief is your mortal expression of that love. UNtil reunited with them (and you will be), you will feel that burn and stitch and cramp of longing.

      At the same time, your love is the very power that lifts your sorrow into usefulness for others. That usefulness, that compassionate service, is what transforms the burn to energy, the stitch to healing, the cramp to action. IT will transform sorrowful love into joyful love. The two can exist side by side.

      “Grief is an element. It has its own cycle like the carbon cycle, the nitrogen. It never diminishes not ever. It passes in and out of everything.”
      ―Peter Heller, The Dog Stars

  2. You are a strong and amazing woman, Melissa. To share so much of yourself in order to help others, though your evocative writings and through your volunteerism, while working through your own feelings of grief and loss. From your books and from your posts, your Parker sounds like an incredible boy. Thank you for sharing.

    • Grace-
      It can all be to easily misunderstood, this public sharing, and I’ve been keenly aware of the risk involved since before even putting my first words on paper or speaking my first words in public about our experience. But I’ve settled at a place where I know that if we all remained silent about the biggest life lessons we’d learned, if fear of judgement or misunderstanding or exploitation or inadequacy or whatever kept us from opening our storybook for others to read, how would we learn from one another? So I keep sharing. As I do, the vast world of loss is opened up to me. I’ve learned so much from others’ losses, from all the iterations of loss, the ones one can speak and write of, and the ones that remain hidden from view. The grand traumas and the gnawing, corrosive aches. This is life. Loss is the common experience that connects us all, and I’ve found that when we unite along these broken edges we discover solidarity, comfort, and the authentic human experience. I can only be grateful for that.

  3. Your love has touched me so deeply. I am infinitely grateful for your bearing witness to this devastating intersection between the worlds we inhabit. I am terribly sorry you have to endure this separation from your beloved son. The only modicum of solace is the faith that the parting is temporary and temporal. May you feel as close to your son on his 27th birthday as you had on previous ones. Love transcends every boundary.

    • Tasha- The banner under which all humanity should live: Love transcends every boundary.

      Love penetrates our walls of fear, ignorance, difference, ego…It pull back the veil. I’m beginning to understand how love itself not only sharpens and elongates our vision, but gives our inner eyes power to pull back the veil of mortality, allowing us to see things as they really are.

      We otherwise see through a glass darkly. What a murky way to live.

  4. Thank you for sharing these most intimate moments. Mortal experiences are so limited by language but your lifetime of gleaning words and sounds to capture and give meaning here are profound. I am so grateful for your example of how scriptures treasured over time became a balm and connection with Parker in this devastating meeting. Love to your family this February!

    • Tracie, thank you. Treasuring up “the word” has given me a silo or two of wisdom to pull from. Isn’t it fascinating, the sheer brute power of syllables and phrases? And how they can nourish, guide and even sustain us – like oxygen–in the most suffocating moments? When I get that gut feeling that I need to “up” my intact of “the Word,” then I know I’d also better buckle my seatbelt. Something’s coming I can’t see.

      Which “Something” isn’t always a crisis, but a particular private need in my family, other relationships, in my volunteer work in the church or larger community. Every.Single.Time I’ve gotten that internal signal to feast more on the wisest words, I’ve seen how those very words (and the stillness that reading them has given me) have come floating to the top of my consciousness, giving me capacity beyond my natural gifts.

      Love having you here!

  5. From the wells of grief sometimes come the springs of understanding. Your words reflect that so well. You compassion for the plight of the refugees comes from those depths. Thank you for being willing to expose your journey for me and others reading your thoughts. It is not wasted.

    • Thank you for this. I do feel passionately about the refugees and their plight. Someone asked me recently why. I said without a pause, “Because Parker would be doing just this. If he can’t be here, I want to be for him.”

      Maybe that sounds melodramatic, but it’s true, nonetheless. Beyond that, I see in their lives a context into which I can place my tidy, blessed loss. “Blessed” meaning that I had love, peace, comfort, family with me, money, a home, a car, my health….I was very lucky. These families have ALL lost someone. The mothers and fathers have lost children. The children, siblings. The children, parents. And they have been on the run. They have no homes, cars, jobs, civil peace, idea about the future, security, not even the language. Given their sobering reality, I can only feel compassion for them. I feel so much WITH them.

  6. “… the hot friction of fear and faith chafing against each other …”

    I found (and find) that blistering friction among the ever-turning gears of my personal grief engines. The night my husband died, I repeated and took comfort in the words I learned as a youth: “the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” I reminded myself that “perfect love casteth out fear” and that “God hath not given [me] the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” And yet, I feared. And my mind was nowhere near sound in its altered state of grieving.

    I’d like to think my faith has grown in the years since then. It’s the stronghold door which holds me securely day by day. But I now know that fear holds a stolen key forged that night. Sometimes it turns the knob, pushes open the door, and sneaks over the threshold again.

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