Mary Collins, a 49 year old woman who looks at least 10 tens older, sits across from me, tears streaming down her face, unable to speak. Although I have never seen or spoken to this woman before – her husband made the appointment - I feel the intensity of her pain and find myself similarly at a loss for words. Finally I decide on the most basic of human responses.
“I’m so, so sorry for your loss. I can only imagine the depth of your suffering.”
Mrs. Collins shakes her head again and again, her straight brown hair falling forward over her face. “I can’t …,” she says, continuing to shake her head.
“I can’t stand it. I can’t!” she says more loudly. “I can’t stand the pain. I have nothing left, nothing to live for.” Pause. “I know you’re going to say it will get better. My husband says that all the time. But this? How can this get better?”
“Can you tell me about your son, Mrs. Collins?”
“Mary,” she says, still shaking her head.
“Mary, can you tell me about your son?”
“Billy. He was a good boy. A little wild as a kid, but what boy isn’t? He always wanted to be a policeman. I don’t know why.” A blank, distracted look comes across her face. She repeats, “I don’t know why. I don’t know why. I don’t know why.”
“You don’t know why he shot himself?” I ask.
Wailing she beats her fists into her thighs. “Why? Why? Why?”
Without thinking I get up from my chair, kneel in front of her and take hold of her hands. “Hurting yourself won’t bring your son back,” I say softly.
She stops hitting herself and sobs.
After a few moments I return to my chair.
She hides her head in her hands and continues sobbing.
“He didn’t want a divorce. Til death do us part. That’s what he wanted. That’s what he saw in our family. But she, she didn’t want to be married to a policeman, although she knew that’s what he was when she married him.” Pause. “And maybe it was more the boys for Billy, two little boys. Tore Billy to pieces.”
She pauses. I think about what she said and wonder what her words will trigger for her. I watch the awareness go across her face.
“No! Not both of them! God couldn’t be so cruel. How could he take both my boys? Blown to bits by one of those IEDs. Who cares about that godforsaken place? Why do we keep sending these children to Afghanistan? It’s all so senseless, senseless.”
“I imagine Billy was pretty broken up by his brother’s death.”
“Sure was. And angry. Like me, angry. Ron was his baby brother. Billy kept saying he should have gone first. And now they’re both gone. And I have nothing.”
“Can you say who you’re angry at Mary?”
“Can you be more specific?”
“God. The government. The universe. Sue. I’m definitely mad at Sue. That’s Billy’s wife.”
I suspect she’s also angry with Billy for killing himself, but know it’s way too early to broach that topic. “Are you going to maintain contact with Sue? I imagine you’ll need to in order to see your grandchildren.”
She shrugs. “Who knows what she’ll do.”
“You saw each other at the funeral?”
She nods. “But I didn’t know what was going on that day. I don’t think she brought the boys, although I think I saw them later at the house.” Knitting her brow, she pauses. “I don’t know. What difference does it make anyway? Nothing matters anymore.”
“Do your grandsons matter?”
“I guess.” Pause. “Yes, they matter. They carry part of Billy.” Pause. “They’re the only grandchildren I’ll ever have.”
“Remember,” I say quickly, “Hurting yourself won’t bring your sons back.”
“But it’s easier. The physical is easier, easier than thinking, easier than remembering.”
“I do understand, Mary. But I don’t want you to hurt yourself. And I’m sure your husband doesn’t want you to hurt yourself either. I know the pain often feels intolerable, but you can survive it. As awful as it is, you can survive it.”
“And we can talk about your pain, Mary, your pain and your anger. I know that won’t bring your sons back either, but talking does help. And maybe us talking together will make it easier to bear the pain.”