Shell Shocked or Shelled? What Happened in the Face of Death

I continue my February posts where I draw from files (my early book drafts never published, correspondence, study notes, my journals).

Why would I do this? Because it’s February, and our Parker, gone at 18, would be 27 next week. I’m paddling, (most days with the muscle of deliberate joy and the oars of gratitude), against a familiar downward suction.

As much as for Parker,  I’m here because I’m not done sharing with you what I’ve learned. And I would never want you to leave any interaction with me (in my books, my interviews, my public addresses, my social media presence, even chatting on the street) misled to believe that major loss is either a dead end – you’re captive in this killer swirl forever – or a hurdle you can spring over. Like bungee jumping over the valley of the shadow of death.

No way.

Grief gets its way in my writings. It’s an Orc. Raging, violent, terrifying, devastating. Ugly.


But grief, as I’ve experienced it, is mostly something else. It can be this:


What I’ve learned is that it does no good to share the first image without some promise of the second. You’d discount me as hyperbolic, melodramatic, dark-spirited.

And it does no good to share the second image without some acknowledgement of the first. You’d incorrectly believe that the entirety of grief has fluid lines and feathered shoulders. Knowing grief yourself, you’d maybe discount me as a prettifier. Or not knowing grief, you might, from my writings, be poorly informed when you face others’ grief. “Uh….It wasn’t supposed to be this messy,” you’d think when your grieving friend acts like he’s stalked by Azog the Defiler.

So I give you both. Here, I continue in the ICU, where our son lay in a deep coma:

Pocatello, Idaho, Portneuf Regional Medical Center: 11:30 a.m., Friday, July 20

By late Friday morning our other three children arrived, brought by loving family and friends. The waiting room was overflowing. I didn’t go out there, though, but once, I think.

Claire I kept close to me while Kristiina [Sorensen] and Sharon [Leigh] sheltered Dalton and Luc in a waiting room far down the hall, away from things that hung in suspended animation. I cannot write about Claire. It’s beyond painful. She and Parker were soul mates, our inseparable two from Norway’s barnepark, the team that then confronted French together, shared the same friends, understood one another on a level I’m sure we parents never even approached. We’d sent Parker a care package two days earlier–candy bars, funny dollar gifts, love notes, laughing and joking, imagining his reactions – and now we huddled, whispered, stared at the side of his gurney. Slumped into one another’s arms, we half-reclined in a vinyl recliner, arms wrapped around our shared human furnace of horror.

Pocatello, Idaho, Portneuf Regional Medical Center: 7:30 p.m., Friday, July 20

Randall landed at the Pocatello airport and his brother brought him straight to Portneuf. Pallid and panting, he burst through the doors. I first embraced him, then braced him, and then he cried out softly, “Parker. Oh, sweet, sweet son. . .”

My relief was immediate. My sorrow compounded. My heart, having raced to this instant, now skidded to a standstill. This father, squeezing his eyes closed, carefully placed his hands on his son’s exposed ankle then slowly walked those hands up the sheet over the calf and thigh. I zeroed in on those hands, wide and thick, like his son’s, hands which now rested delicately, tentatively, on the son’s lower back. He spread his fingers on that sheet then took his son’s limp hand with its half-opened fist and slipped his own fingers in between Parker’s. His shoulders drew up as if to hold the horror weighing down his head. His face seemed over a hundred years old. And he then turned that face, eyes now closed, upward. Then those eyes, mirrors of devastation, opened to meet mine.

Some things are simply too cruel.

I’ve heard people describe “shell shock.” The traumatized are obliterated, rendered incapable of reason and normal function, stunned into catatonic silence. They fold in on themselves like inexpensive, soaked pocket umbrellas, or go rigid and blank, chalk-like. They splutter and mumble and rock violently back and forth. They heave an armchair or themselves through a window.

“Shell shock” was part of what we felt. No question. We were shocked. Scorched. Thunderstruck. In the weeks and even a couple of months that followed, in fact, we would bear medically diagnosable signs of being mildly concussed, of having had our nerve-endings singed, their pathways rerouted. We routinely asked what year we were living in. What month. What world.

But being “shell shocked” was not all we felt. We felt “shelled,” too, encased in holiness. More electrified than obliterated, enclosed in a sanctuary suspended between two vibrating realms – here and there, earth and heaven – in a small ICU space where we were buoyed up by a rare liquid luminosity.

There was, in that protected realm, also a slight opening, a pinpoint in the center of my closed-eye, closed-ear world. It was very still and very light. I concentrated on that spot. It was warm and steady and streamed forth love and safety. When I felt my way there, I sensed how the entire room filled, like with a rising tide, with that love. With that tide came understanding, a brief glimpse into the crystalline, high-resolution Big Picture. Such love and understanding released rays of purposefulness, which rose like basement light through the planks of an old floor, illuminating things from all angles, crowding and cradling the room.

(To be continued…)

9 thoughts on “Shell Shocked or Shelled? What Happened in the Face of Death

  1. Thank you, Melissa, for allowing us to enter into this sacred sanctuary of grief with you. I marvel at your ability to notice and recall such details while you are in the middle of the experience. How do you do that? When I experience such devastating events I can take note of how I felt but seem oblivious to the details. It’s as if you are an onlooker and not just a participant in what is happening. I’d love some thoughts on how this is done.

    • Anne–
      If you lived with me day to day you’d see that I am maybe odd. I am odd in that I am always writing…I carry notebooks and capture things, maybe like a photographer pulls out a camera and grabs shots everywhere she goes. I also have a highly visual memory, so I can recall, for instance, the colors of my clothing in 1st grade, the color of yarn in my braids in 3rd grade, the print on street signs in a village in Poland when I was in my early 20s. I am, my family tells me, maybe odd that way.

      (I cannot, however, remember my own bank code number from month to month, however. You can ask my family about that, too.)

      For me, especially in the most acute, heightened circumstances, I write to pin things down and understand them. To name, define, and give a eternal life to the ephemeral. My husband once joked that if my plane were going down in flames, I’d be writing about it in the moment. He’s not so far from the truth.

      And I have often heard an inner voice saying to me. “Write it down!” That voice told me to write down everything as soon as I could when we were in the throes of fresh grief. (I’ve since gone back and verified some of the details with those present.) The writing itself was meditative for me, that slow drag of hand over paper, the shoosh of lead on fibers, it calmed me. Writing by hand is more languid than what I’m doing now, the attack of the keys, the mechanical snapping out of words. It’s sometimes even too violent for me. (It’s why I cannot write poetry on my lap top. Only by hand and on clean paper scraps.)

      Inside story to this question about memory and writing, Anne: In what ended up being our last year living in Paris, I felt compelled to finish a manuscript detailing our family’s move from the greater NYC region to Norway. It had been such a revelatory experience for me as a woman, a mother. But writing at all — and especially about life on an island in Norway! — while living under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower seemed ludicrous, if not a foolish misuse of time and opportunity.

      Every time I prayed and meditated about my desire to write and publish, however, the voice was clear: “Write it down. Write in NOW.”

      So I did. I wrote in a disciplined manner every day, had peer reviews, even sent some manuscripts to agents.

      And months laters as we moved from Paris to Munich, we lost Parker.

      You see why I always write down the NOW. Had I not captured all those precious years of mothering our son through Norway and into France, and done so before we lost him, I doubt I would have been able to write about him at all, let alone in such a carefree, innocent voice as I did in Global Mom. I needed to have all those journal entires, early drafts, scraps of writing so that I could, years and years later, reconstruct an un-imploded world, the memoir of my son’s life.

      Whew! So I love your question, Anne, and have probably given more than you wanted in response. But there you go!! I do hope it encourages you, too, to write. Write. Write. Write….


      • Wow! Melissa, thank you for such a helpful response! I expected maybe a morsel and you gave me a feast! I think that what you describe is a good way for all of us to live. You describe living mindfully. I see your words as a testament to being fully present in all of our life experiences and writing things down demands that kind of investment, doesn’t it! That third-party kind of observation of our own lives can truly help us see things we might miss if we are only experiencing life in the first person. It sounds like the Holy Ghost truly brought “all things to your remembrance” as you recounted your time in Norway. How wonderful that you followed that prompting allowing the record of that experience serve as a blessing not only to you, but to so many others. Thanks so much for taking the time to respond.

  2. Je vous remercie infiniment. J’écris en français aujourd’hui, car je sais que vous le parliez aussi et j’ai honte de mes paroles qui sont tellement banal. Mais je tiens a ce que vous sachiez combien vos paroles, vos histoires votre conte redu des moments les plus difficiles de votre vie me touchent. C’est un sentiment que je vous répète après presque chaque essaie – merci, merci, merci. Ecris comme ca, sans contexte, sans intimité, sans meme se connaitre ce merci me parai un peu ridicule- un merci pour un petit service, un coup de main, un verre d’eau. Et en plus, je suis certaine que tout le monde qui lit vos essaies ressent exactement le meme sentiment de gratitude. Donc, a quoi bon mon merci, écris en publique comme ca? Mon coeur m’oblige. Merci. SVP, ne vous sentez pas obligé de me répondre. (Je regrette toutes les fautes d’ortho et grammaire.)

    • Et je pense que ce message (écrit si élégamment) est beaucoup plus riche et nourrissant que mon petit verre d’eau. C’était toujours mon simple objectif de m’ouvrir sans peur, sans autodéfense, et partager les choses les plus durables, même éternelles. Si j’arrive à faire ceci, alors je suis comblée. Merci encore pour ces beaux mots d’encouragement!

  3. I have followed your blog for a few years. But at first had no idea about the loss of your son. I am from St. Anthony and the local boy who was there is one of my husband’s former seminary students. We drive out and visit Parker’s memorial sometimes, I hope that is okay.. It feels like a sacred place. As I was reading the last entries I was sitting in a hospital room in Portneuf Medical Center, the room overlooked the helipad actually and I saw life flight take off and return a few times. Thank you for your eloquent words and posts over the years.

    • Hello, Shannon. I’m grateful you’ve thought to write here. Your message this morning collapses space and time for me. I live geographically so far away from all of the events that surrounded our son’s accident, passing and burial, which is simply how life is for us. I can visit his grave, for instance, only once a year if I’m so lucky. We’ve been back to the site only twice; once for the first year memorial to erect the markers there, and once since.

      And it’s been eight years (coming on 9 years) since that fateful summer, so I assume most people who heard those sirens that night and were part of the local community in July 2007 have long since forgotten the terrible story. It’s why we had the canal restructured and also erected those memorial stones there, because we hoped that if nothing else, others would be saved from the suction under the bridge and with the markers they would be warned, taught and maybe a bit inspired by what happened.

      The room in the Portneuf ICU was a holy place for us. We had experiences there that shifted our perspective permanently and burned themselves into our spirits in a way that we can never deny. So in spite of the horror and terrible, devastating loss, we come back to gratitude. We are thankful.

      Thank you for caring and stopping by here (my written memorial) and by the stone memorial in St. Anthony.

  4. Dear Melissa — this post reminded me of a beautiful, heart-rending sketch by Käthe Kollwitz — “Abschied,” 1910. Perhaps it is familiar to you. (Here’s one on-line source — with apologies that I don’t know how to make it a live link):

    The moment Kollwitz portrays here is so intimate that the silence, the breathholding, is almost palpable; the fluidity of her lines, where arms could be wings and all feels suspended, suggest what you say — that in this moment of goodbye, when grief nearly overwhelms, heaven and earth meld.

    Kollwitz’s work has moved, grounded and inspired me countless times, including her many pieces on motherhood. Your writing continues to do the same for me.

    Thank you for the profound generosity of all of your writing but in particular of this current series where you are reaching out and outward at such a deeply sensitive time. I feel grateful and reverent as I read each word.

    • Kirsten,

      Kollwitz. Yes, yes, Kollwitz. Who lost her youngest brother, then her youngest son in WWI, and her grandson in WWII. Most of her works center on human relationships, esp. mother/child, and seep into the abominations of war (she lived through two). Had I been a painter in those early years of grief, I would have spoken my anguish in a style similar to Kollwitz. She speaks to me.

      (I can’t include a picture here of her sculpture “The Grieving Parents” or her “Woman With Dead Child’, but they are so worth searching out, they stop your breath.)

      Thank you for drawing her into this thread. I can’t imagine my writing stirs you as her works stir me, but I’m grateful they speak to you at all, Kirsten.

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