Ralph and Kevin described lives not totally tanked in sorrow. For instance, their minds often slip into a “brain-hole” forgetfulness, misplacing keys, letters, credit cards. Each carries at least one cell phone and makes frequent calls, usually to another son or daughter. They can forget the trauma when they’re sleeping and dreaming. (Ralph has been on sleeping pills since his daughter’s death.) Kevin told us of a recent dream. Lying in bed, he saw a baby floating in space, which was slowly swaying down toward him like the free-floating feather in the beginning of the film Forrest Gump. The baby at last landed on his chest. He felt an immensely powerful softness, a balm and a mystery. “What do you make of that?” he asked us. Or else they forget their trial when they see a baby in a stroller, a child running by. On occasion, they trick themselves, imagining that over there, that one, the long-haired buoyant young woman is my daughter, and she’s turning around in her chair, and now she sees me, she’s recognized me and here she comes, look how she’s filled in in the four years since she’s been away and look how mature a woman she’s become, oh, yes, yes, this has all been a nightmare and at last I’m waking from it. The longer the men grieve, the less their children come back and play in the pretend.
Sometimes there’s humor. To women, “we’re ridiculously unavailable and undependable.” Who in the world would ever go out with them? This “joke” quickly turns serious because these single men say their darkness is too much of a burden to wish on any woman and, thus, the only woman possible would be someone who knew, firsthand, the gravity of their loss. Can only grievers love grievers? Druck said he has led sessions for parents of lost children and their new partners, that is, people who have married the bereaved. At one workshop Druck looked at the new spouses in attendance and said, with irony, “What is wrong with you people? Do you have any idea the kind of misery you are marrying?” One day Ralph and Kevin found themselves at the convention center, watching young women assemble for a Jazzercise exhibition. They called Ken and told him, “Hey, you’d be proud of us. We’re doing grief therapy. There’s 500 in-shape women in black leotards walking by us right now.”
Sorrow takes a brief holiday when they dwell on faith. “Twenty years ago, I got spiritual,” Ralph said, “and if not for that I’d be a dead man now.” All three said they believe in life beyond this life because that’s where they hope to reunite with their children. They don’t associate it with a “better place,” with heaven, certainly not with hell. Hell after this life would be a mere continuation. Living on for the sake of dying is a paradox, the one hope in their hopelessness they can point to that softens loss. The possibility of a reunion is the root of their faith. Kevin expressed it like this. “I’m at this train station. And I’m waiting for a train that I know is never coming in. But I’m there and waiting for it as if it is coming in. I think of myself as always standing there and waiting. And when I die, I’ll still be waiting at that station, and then the train will finally come in. And on it will be my son.”
It grew late, and they started swapping titles for this article. Ralph’s was “It Should Not Have Happened,” a phrase, he “repeat[s] all the time.” Kevin said I should call it “How Is It Possible?” Druck offered “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Then Kevin added, without malice, “I bet you’re already trying to come up with some horrifying story you can put up front and really grab the reader’s attention.” He was right. I was. How well he knew, dear reader, our compact!
Do you ever get tired of talking about the pain and the person you’ve lost?
They chorused the word; print can’t render it.
There is no such thing, they say, as their overpossessing grief. It comes at them, wave upon wave, tsunamis under gale-force winds. The onslaught Druck calls “choiceless.” What is “choice-full” is what they choose to revisit and remember. To never grow tired of talking about it is the most choiceless choice they can make. If nothing else, the talking holds them upright, through another day of waking up, surprise! fingers and toes still moving, ready and not ready to face 16 or 20 or 24 incompressible hours through which they can never grow tired of talking about it.
Ken Druck didn’t know he would start a foundation for bereaved parents. Not until four days after Jenna’s burial when, he tells me, he was on his knees, asking her for guidance. He didn’t want to live; he had nothing to live for; he was pleading with her: “What do you want me to do?” He remembers being in an “amazing” state of shock. Clear as Baja skies. All filters fell away; he could “see everything exactly for what it is.” He describes filters as screens that allow us to watch violence on television and in movies with immunity. Such defenses evaporated. “My daughter was on the news every night, on cnn. It wasn’t somebody else.” That day Jenna spoke to him. “ ‘Dad,’ she said, ‘never stop being a dad to the daughters. Too few of the dads stay connected to their daughters. Too few fathers have a hand in their daughters’ lives. It’s so important for a father to mentor his daughter. Dad, you believed in me, and that meant everything to me. On the basis of that belief, your hanging in there with me, your seeing me through the times where I felt I couldn’t go on, all this [meant] I was able to fly. Don’t stop doing that. Stefie’ ” — Druck’s other, younger daughter — “ ‘needs you. And don’t ever stop being a dad to all the girls.’ ”