When you lose a child the way we did, you come to understand that ghosts are real—they’re just not what you thought.
You aren’t haunted by your dead child’s spirit, like in the movies. There are no voices in the night, floating white phantasms or morse code rappings. But you are haunted by his memory. Driving past his school and seeing his friends playing outside at recess, you remember his tales of recesses past. Turning off the lights in what used to be his bedroom, you see the glow-in-the-dark stars he saw every night. Cleaning the house, you still find abandoned LEGOs and scraps of drawings. Kissing his beloved Beary Bear (who now lives by your bed), you catch the faintest hint of little boy smell.
Everywhere you look or go, there are memories and reminders of the son you loved. Sometimes, it’s comforting. Sometimes, it’s torture. Often, it is both.
But the true haunting is “what if.”
What if we had gone to different doctors? What if it hadn’t taken a year just to get wait-listed for the crucial pediatric psychiatric evaluation? What if we had changed his meds? What if we had pulled him out school? What if we had been stricter about his internet access? What if we had listened more, focused more, loved more?
I could list a thousand “what ifs.” Sometimes I torture myself with them. Losing a child this way is a fundamental failure as a parent. Parents are supposed to keep their children safe. With this particular child, our job was to keep him safe until his more-immature-than-most brain and impulse control matured and caught up—while still helping him grow and feel competent.
It was a balancing act that crashed. I failed at the only thing that ever truly mattered.
They say hindsight is 20/20, but not in a situation like ours. No matter how we look back, we can’t gain “understanding of a situation or event only after it has happened or developed,” like the dictionary promises. Because all of the “what ifs” don’t help.
In my rational moments, I know that we made the absolute best choices we could with the information we had. I know how much we loved him, supported him, fought for him, listened to him. I know that what happened was almost surely the result of an impulse his brain was too immature to understand or manage.
Yet, hindsight haunts me, wrapping me in heavy chains. I walk through this world haunted by the thought of “what if.”