Recover password

Lessons of loss: Parents share advice on how to survive the death of a child

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — That first year was a blur, they say, an unreal realness punctuated by sobs, screams and a sense that even the simplest acts like getting out of bed or smiling or breathing were now beyond their abilities.

Not anymore. Not after losing a child.

“I felt like it was a dream,” said Liz Manning, whose son Phil Sisneros, 22, died of a drug overdose the day before Mother’s Day 2014. “It was like being at a beach and being pounded by strong surf with a riptide just a step away. The waves of grief hit pretty hard early on and the riptide tried sucking me in constantly. It was exhausting. There were days when I actually thought, I can’t do this. And then the next minute passed and the riptide receded a bit.”

And so it goes, the grief receding then cresting, again and again, in a place split between the day before a child’s death and the day after.

Today, for me, is the first “day before” since my son Devin Glenn died of a heroin overdose at age 23.

Devin Glenn

When March 8 came and death forever changed my life, I found comfort in cards and letters, thoughts and prayers, casseroles and hugs. And I found the way forward with the guidance of these gritty, gracious parents who were living their “day after.”

I’ve asked some of them to offer the wisdom they shared with me then and still. In the wise words of Linda and Al Vigil, whose 18-year-old daughter Mia took her life in 1984, grief requires special shoes — old shoes worn by those who have walked the path before you, shoes torn, tumbled, dried and softened by tears.

“You have to walk the walk to understand the walk,” the Vigils say.

It helps to know we do not walk this path alone.

On Memorial Day weekend in 1999, Joan and Wayne Shirley began their journey after their 17-year-old son, Kevin, was gunned down along with two friends, Luis Garcia and Matthew Hunt, as they headed home from a party in the East Mountains. Their homicides made front-page headlines, their grief forced into public view.

The first anniversary of their son’s death was shared in a memorial service at Wilson Stadium with the other two families, the community and a lot of undercover detectives.

The public spotlight has dimmed now, but the grief remains, if differently.

“This is a long journey,” Joan Shirley said. “It doesn’t get better overnight. It takes years. Research that I have read and through working with grieving parents for 16 years I have seen that most parents who have experienced the death of a child can take up to eight years before they are able to come to a positive resolution about the death. They finally realize that their lives will go on, they will experience joy, love and peace again while taking their child with them into the future. It’s a new normal, an OK normal and a healthy thing to go on.”

At times, Georgia Martinez Otero wasn’t sure she could go on after her son Patrick, 18, died in 2009 of toxic leukoencephalopathy, a rare and sometimes fatal brain disease caused by smoking heroin.

“I remember early on making sure the windows were closed and screaming my heart out to relieve some of the pain and anxiety,” she said.

What helped her most was her faith, her family and joining a support group for families who had lost a child through drugs or alcohol where there was no judgment and plenty of shared experiences.

“Sharing my experience with others has been very helpful,” she said. “The hope is to prevent others from going through what we’ve gone through.”

That’s also been healing for Jennifer Weiss-Burke, who founded the Serenity Mesa Youth Recovery Center after her son Cameron, 18, died of a heroin overdose in 2011.

“I recommend surrounding yourself with people who have experienced loss and are dealing or have dealt with grief. Not necessarily a support group but a group of people you can be with, go to dinner with and just talk to who understand what you are going through,” she said. “It’s a comfort to be able to bring up your loved one and know it won’t make them uncomfortable.”

For Terry and Lawrence Vargas, healing from the loss of their son Lawrence Charles, who was 23 when he was murdered in 2008, has meant helping others by channeling their grief into positive outcomes, practicing acts of kindness and compassion and giving back, including through their art and through the Lawrence Charles Vargas Shoes for Kids and Acts of Compassion project.

“Grief is a journey that never ends,” Terry Vargas said. “But so is the love we will always have for our babies. It’s because we loved so hard that it can hurt so bad.”

Marian and Steven Herrera lost their son, Air Force Maj. Marc Herrera, 37, to homicide in 2012.

“Nothing has been or will ever be the same as before,” Marian Herrera said. “I am grateful that I had my son as a part of my life for 37 years and 50 weeks. I have been blessed in more ways than I can count after the most devastating event in my life. And I have survived.”

May we all do the same.

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IN THEIR OWN WORDS

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UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.

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