November and December holidays are top of mind for most people. It’s the time of year when families and friends get together to give thanks and celebrate the new year. But for those trying to cope with mental illness, it’s a different story. So many are suffering from depression, anxiety, PTSD, and more. These people may be your friends, family members, or neighbors. Many times, we are not aware of their pain. Then there are those who are on the cusp of suicide. Those who die by suicide show no sign of being in that much pain that they feel it is their only solution. Somehow, they can hide it. People in their lives do not treat the moodiness, depression, or sadness of their friend or loved one as anything serious. Sometimes we need to reach out and ask, “are you okay?”
In my case, this is a time of year when my son who died by suicide in 2012 will show his heart. Yes, I’m talking about the spirit world. It makes me happy when I receive a sign that reassures me that he is okay. Signs help me to accept the difficult times we went through, and to forgive myself for my ignorance of how he was feeling upon his return from the Navy.
Nick joined the Navy right after high school. He attended the Navy’s two-year nuclear power school and then for the next four years served on a submarine. In 2004, he came home after his discharge from the Navy. Things were different. Life was different. I can only speak for myself because I didn’t ask Nick how he was feeling, I found myself crying a lot with no idea why. Now I know that I was sad that my son came home to the unknown. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life, but he was sure that he did not want to work in the field of nuclear power.
I was blaming myself for not being able to help him. Did I talk to anyone about it? Of course not. I did not realize until after Nick’s death that being on a submarine with his mates was like being part of a family. He had always been a homebody, so I was surprised when he said he was joining the Navy. That was a huge step for him. I remember back when he was about seven years old. He was on a baseball team with his kids he knew, but his body language projected “I am so uncomfortable.” After his first practice he cried. I mean he really cried. He told me he didn’t like baseball. What didn’t he like about it? Everything. He was truly distraught. I didn’t make him go back. But we did have a talk about being part of a team and what that means. I was surprised the following year when he said, “I want to play baseball this year.” I signed him up and he stuck with it. He never looked like he was having a good time. It seemed like it was a requirement that he be a member of a team. He was always a deep thinker, even as a young boy. He must have thought about his first experience in baseball and our talk about being part of a team, and because he wanted to please me and take a step out of his comfort zone, he was going to give it another try. I don’t know if this is what he was thinking, but knowing Nick, I really believe this was his thought process.
I can only imagine what he was thinking as high school graduation was approaching. We talked about colleges, visited a couple, and he seemed interested, but then one afternoon he called me at work and said, “I think I joined the Navy.” So, his next step was a complete surprise to me and the rest of the family. To move on in life, I believe he decided that he would leave his family and his hometown to prove to himself he could do it.
Leaving the Navy was an even bigger step, because he had to face more intense emotions of leaving his Navy family. None of us understood what he was going through and I’m sure if we asked, he would not have been able to or wished to tell us. I can now appreciate what our servicemen and women go through when they leave their military posts. The transition to civilian life is not easy.
Nick worked for almost a year as a security guard. I’m sure the only reason he took the job is that he felt it was important to be working and making money. In the meantime, he was deciding what he wanted to do with his life. When he made that decision, his mood noticeably improved. He told us one night that he was going to study funeral services. Whoa! Where’d that come from! It was a complete surprise. He didn’t tell many people what he was doing because he didn’t want to listen to the “You’re going to do what?” I had an idea as to why he picked that profession, which was proved when Nick asked me to read his application letter. He had experienced a lot of loss in his life and being the stoic person he was, never really processed the grief. But he remembered people helping him in those times of loss and wanted to give back by choosing this profession.
Christmas may have been Nick’s second favorite holiday. (I believe Halloween was his first.) Christmas represented family gatherings, gift-giving, and fantasy. He believed in Santa for longer than most kids. I will never forget the day he came to me with a telephone number that he had written on a piece of paper. It was a number he could call and talk to Santa. It had been advertised on TV. He was so excited. I told him that I would like to be sitting with him when he made the call (to be sure there wasn’t some lunatic on the phone.) He went to school the next day and told a classmate that he was going to call Santa. His friend questioned him and then said, “Nick, Santa Claus isn’t real.” Oh my. The bubble was burst. When I got home from work that afternoon, he was very upset and angry. So, we had the “Santa” talk. He listened intently, but you could see the disappointment on his face. No tears, but truly hurt. Even as a young boy, he was very stoic. I ended our conversation with a request. “Please don’t tell Papa (his grandfather).” Why? “Because Papa still believes in Santa Claus.” His eyes got big followed by a big smile. He was beside himself with joy. He could continue his Santa fantasy after all. I called my father to let him know what happened. He was happy to go along with my request.
Nick always looked forward to decorating the tree together. It was something that took some time and patience. He HNick would examine every ornament, the store-bought, handmade, old family ornaments. Every ornament had a story. The stories of each one changed over the years as we tended to elaborate upon each one. I guess that’s why it took so long. It was like time travel, traveling from one branch to another and from one ornament to the next. Such a variety of colors and textures tell stories of days past. I have since discarded a lot of the ornaments labeling the exercise “downsizing.” Really what I think was going through my head was that I couldn’t bear to look at those ornaments any longer without having Nick around. It was so much fun sharing stories about each one and making fun of others – someone who would laugh about them along with me.
Since his return home from the Navy, Nick had been struggling with depression, which seemed to get worse every year. I cannot clearly remember our last few Christmases with Nick. I was struggling with my own emotions trying to do the right thing, and say the right words, but I will say today that I feel I could have put more effort into it. Nick’s last year was the most difficult. He was having trouble working, his relationships were being tested, and I think his search for a happier life was not in reach. Still, he did not talk about these things. I learned of most of his struggles from his friends and peers after he passed. So, as Christmas comes into our lives once again, Nick is on my mind. What could we have done to make our last Christmases together happier, especially for him? As I look back on these days, I wish I had the wherewithal to pay more attention to everything that was going on, but I realize that it wasn’t possible for me. I was dealing with depression myself, and having an adult child struggling with mental health issues took my attention off the holidays. It also brought back bad memories of struggles with depression that I had when I was his age.
It wasn’t Nick’s last Christmas with us, but maybe the year before, that I remember coming home to a decorated tree. As happened quite often, I think Nick was tired of waiting for me to say, “Let’s decorate the tree today.” I was such a procrastinator. The sadness I felt that night when I saw the decorated tree is to this day crushing. Why did I put it off? I knew Nick was struggling and that spending time with him decorating would have been fun for both of us. I am sharing this story with you because I am imagining the pain Nick was feeling, but not able to talk about. We can’t know how someone is feeling emotionally, but we can ask. We can make sure we acknowledge our feelings in hopes that they will acknowledge theirs. We can practice being in the moment, which is something I was unable to do or was ignorant of back in the day. I recently read about someone feeling inadequate in a similar situation. They said they were lazy, they were procrastinators. Well, there it was. I was a pro and procrastination.
Now, more than ten years later, I am hoping to receive a Christmas message. It will come in the form of a scent, a song, or maybe an item. For those of you reading this today who have lost a loved one, do you receive messages from them during the holidays – or any other significant days? I am going to share a couple of stories of signs I received from Nick at Christmas. I believe in my heart that he sends me signs this time of year to let me know he’s okay and to give me something to laugh about.
December 13, 2013 Journal Entry: Our second Christmas without Nick
Walking through a local Job Lot store today, attempting to do some late Christmas shopping. I was trying to distract myself from the sadness I was feeling. Christmas just wasn’t the same anymore. While walking through the store, an odd scent swept into my nostrils. It was incense. I looked around and there was no incense to be found, and certainly no burning incense. It started to fade, so I stopped in the aisle. The smell disappeared as quickly as it came. Maybe that’s the key- it got my attention. I was physically in the store but not mentally. I wasn’t paying attention to the task at hand, which was to find a gift. Getting frustrated, another odor caught my attention. It had a citrus smell. Again, I stopped and looked around. There were no oranges, no sprays, and nothing nearby that would have given off a citrus odor. So, here I stood in the store wondering where these odors were coming from.
Let’s start with the incense. Nick loved to burn incense. He would always have it burning in his room. I often wondered if he was trying to mask other odors in his room but concluded that he simply enjoyed incense. There’s a message there. It was so easy to buy Nick gifts because of his variety of interests and his enjoyment of simple, practical gifts. I would often purchase incense for him. If I bought it for myself, he would always help himself to my stash to try new scents.
The story behind the citrus odor always makes me laugh. Buddy and I picked Nick up for dinner one evening. Nick got into the back seat of our car, said his hellos, and then did one of his little giggles. Why he was giggling, we didn’t know. He wasn’t a big conversationalist, so everything seemed normal, until Buddy and I started noticing a citrus odor. Buddy was the first to ask, “What’s that smell?” Nick laughed. “It’s my new cologne. Do you like it? (pause) I think I put too much on.” We all laughed. It became the car deodorizer for the night.
So, there I was, wandering around the store smelling incense and then citrus. It didn’t occur to me until we were driving home that it was a sign from Nick. He was having some fun with me. Buddy never picked up on any scents, so the signs were directed at me only. I always gave Nick the benefit of the doubt that he was trying to help me with my Christmas spirit. It worked. He made me smile by bringing back happy memories.
December 8, 2014 Journal Entry: A Very Special Gift
Today was a sunny, cold day. I returned to my home office from a meeting around 11:00 a.m. My office assistant Amanda had arrived at the house a couple of hours earlier. I walked into her office to say good morning. She immediately told me that she had been hearing a very odd noise. She was alone in the house. She usually felt safe having our two dogs in the house with her, but she had a look on her face that told me she was a little freaked out. She had been hearing this noise since she arrived. She had already opened the front door to see if she could hear anything outside and then went into the kitchen to listen. Nothing. When she walked back into the office, she heard it again!
“What does it sound like?” I asked. Was it a noise an animal would make? A scratching noise? Was it a squeaky or creaking-type noise? She was having a difficult time trying to describe it. I assured her that I was staying home for the rest of the day and asked her to let me know if she heard it again. Just as I started walking out of her office, I heard “the noise” myself. It was a muffled, electronic-type noise, and it was coming from the corner of the office near the front door where about six boxes of Christmas decorations were stacked.
“Is that the noise you’ve been hearing?” She nodded yes. I said, “Okay – let’s find this noise.” I opened one of the boxes, removed a couple of items, and heard the noise again, but it wasn’t coming from the box I had opened. It was coming from another box. This was starting to feel like a treasure hunt. I moved that first box aside and started opening the box next to it. As I was attempting to open the second box, I heard the noise come from yet another box. We started laughing at this point. “I think it’s this box!” As I started removing articles from the third box, I placed them one by one onto the floor, and then I heard it again. “It’s in here.” It was music. I recognized the tune and when I saw the source, memories came flooding back, almost overwhelmingly. It was an old greeting card from Nick. The front of the card had the Navy insignia along with “Mom” on it. Also on the cover was a picture of a red rose.
“It’s Nick!” I said excitedly. It was a Mother’s Day card in amongst Christmas items. I’m sure I put it there out of laziness, figuring it would be a safe place for it. That could explain why I have a difficult time finding things that I put in a “safe” place. I lifted the card out of the box and opened it. It was one of those musical cards. Elvis was singing “Love Me Tender Love Me Do.” Nick sent that card to me while stationed at Pearl Harbor, so the card had to be at least fourteen years old. Who would expect a musical card – that old – to still play. And it was playing while it was closed! (Are you freaked out yet?) I held the card in my hands, looked at it, looked up at Amanda, and said, “Can you believe this?” I opened the card and it played again. I closed the card and it stopped. I opened it again and listened until the music stopped. That was the last time that card ever played.
Amanda was awestruck. We had had many conversations about Nick, so much so that Amanda felt like she knew him. She admitted that on occasion she had felt Nick’s presence in the office, but she wasn’t sure what she was experiencing that morning. Nick loved buying gifts and cards for people, sometimes agonizing over what to get. He always wanted to get the perfect gift.
This card to this day is a very special gift from Nick. It never played again but that’s okay. Once again, he was giving me a sign at Christmas time.
Another favorite thing Nick liked to do was to scare people, so I wondered if he intended to scare Amanda. It makes perfect sense to me. I know he would have liked her, so she would have been someone he would tease.
So, I now wonder what THIS December will bring!