“There’s only one thing that’s worse than the death of a child: the suicide of a child. ” Heard many years ago when both perspectives were so distant and completely out of my universe of possibilities, the sentence seemed so accurate. It caused a frisson, a slight and very quick anxiety, which was then dismissed by the phrase: “How terrible! I can barely think of something like this.” And how could it be otherwise? Victoria had just been born and was a smiling, happy baby. Her brothers, Bernard, the eldest, thoughtful and serious, and Pablo, the brat, discovered the world with curiosity and joy. With ten and six years they had already traveled a lot, enjoyed different foods, museums, experience, adventures … Children of nomad parents, they started school in Buenos Aires, continued in Paris and followed in Rio de Janeiro. A beautiful family, made for the success and achievement of each and every one.
On Friday, October 3, 2014, Pablo decided that he would not live. He wrote a letter and took in the garage a 40-foot sailboat cable that we sailed together and, with a knot that I taught him, he hanged himself in his room, which also served as his painting studio. Ii was missing a month and three days for him to be 24 years old. I was in my mid 50s; eight years ago I had walked away from the communication executive career to devote myself to philosophy; earning a living as a consultant. I shared my time between Mar del Plata, the hometown I adopted and where we hosted the family, and São Paulo, where I work and take the final part of my doctorate course.
Pablo began his farewell letter with a phrase: “Let goes on without me”. And life goes on – not exactly without him, because he occupies a huge place. Life goes on, but everything has changed. We are not those who we were two years ago, and when I say we I am referring to the small core of the family; my wife Fabiana and my two sons Bernardo and Victoria, but also to my nephews, uncles and grandparents Pablo, his many friends … to all those who will go on in life without him, carrying the pain of absence and stupor of the end.
The couple’s life was shaken; professional life, fractured; academic life, postponed. There were failures and disappointments and the child’s loss amounted to many others, emotional and material. A tsunami devastated my life and nothing that I had was spared: looking around, I saw debris, flooding, destruction and desolation. But I also saw life: just like after a tsunami, the sky was shining, there were standing trees and people leaving some of the few remaining houses, stunned but alive. And I was one of those people: sure I had been hit by an enormous and devastating violence, but no less true of the decision to go on living and to overcome the tragedy.
“We do not overcome the death of a child,” I have heard of people with more years of experience in the subject. And I agree – depending on what to overcome means. We don’t overcome in order to solve or resolve, as a disease, which heals, or an international crisis, where a treaty defines a new status quo and reduces the risk of military conflict. Or as a marital crisis, that if it is really overcome, may leave scars, but it is no longer an issue (if it still disturbs it is because it wasn’t overcome).
The death of a child is a permanent situation, a condition that sets in, something that becomes part of who we are. Just as no one stops being a parent: it is a final condition, even if the language does not give us a word to call it, as widowers and orphans (the death of a child is such a horrible idea that we don’t even want to name it?). The son (and his death) continues to be present, it goes on forever in the parent’s lives. In this sense, it is not overcome.
But there are other senses of the word overcome: it can also mean leaving behind, overtaking, like someone who leaves behind a step of the way. Then, we understand overcome as leaving behind the hardest stage of grief, not holding on to it or allowing it to definitely impose in our lives. We overcome despair, fear, anguish, and loss of self-esteem. We overcome this anger that seeks and finds the recipient in an irresponsible psychiatrist, a friend who does not approach, that person makes an insensitive or clumsy comment. In this sense, overcoming happens when the presence of absence does not define us, it is not a central axis of what we are and our place in the world.
Elevating over something, becoming better to achieve higher levels is also to overcome. We say that the pianist overcame an interpretation; the sportsperson can be taken to overcome (their previous brands, its competitors, all that was done in the course) in a race. And the death of a child calls us to a kind of personal development: we must overcome ourselves in the ability to accept, to understand, to live, even in the most adverse situations. What we know is not enough: we need to overcome if we don’t want to fall behind; if we want to live and not only to survive – “to live” understood as to live fully, with joys and sorrows, with fears and hopes. This is a higher kind of achievement and also the one that requires greater effort. But when achieved, it transforms. “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” It is said, and it is because when we discover that we can, this discovery gives us strength, and this is a virtuous circle that helps in the recovery and causes an increasing strengthening.
Among the meanings of overcoming it is not erase or delete. What was overcome remains there, it is present. It was not eliminated, and this is the challenge of an authentic overcoming. Overcoming is not to ignore or take the tragic fact out from our history. This is not about taking a pill of forgetfulness and to go on living as before, innocently, as if nothing had happened. That would be the opposite of resilience. It is precisely in the remains that we find the elements for reconstruction, and we need to look ahead to the devastation.
Just like after all tsunamis, the waters will drop and what seemed impossible will happen: the return of “normal”, a new normal. One day, after many, it turns out that we don’t cry; the first thought of the day was not the dead son (it was the second thought, perhaps, and that makes all the difference). Those terrible memories, those atrocious images, they pierce our flesh and force us to get out of bed and start some activity; those fainting, when the forces seem to drain and let us weak; those anxieties that are like a fist clutching our guts from the inside and we learn that it precedes a crying crisis, however, nothing will solve it . It all starts to wane, to be sparser and less dominant. We can be with friends without necessarily hearing us talking about our process, the child that is gone. We may go back to professional activities without fear of conflict, without concern for our overreactions. We will no longer look for cuddling, the special tolerance we believed we deserved for our situation. We will think of others, remembering that others also suffer and that problems that seem minor are also important for those who experience them. We will leave our shelves towards the world and we will find that life, yes… life goes on.
Nothing is the same, but not everything is worse. Everything has changed, and I have too. Maybe today I am wiser, calmer, and more thoughtful. I am certainly stronger and I know more about my strength and my ability to deal with adversity. I believe I learned to value the things I have more than the things I have lost or have not reached yet. I know more and better what I want and what I believe in . I give greater value to the affection of some new people and open possibilities for my life: new sensibilities, new skills, and new doubts. I preserve and reinforce much more what I was and wanted and loved and enjoyed before – I am, in a sense, the same person, only different. I like who I am better than who I was. Trade it all for having my son back? Certainly the answer is yes – but I don’t have the illusion that this is possible.
One of the lessons learned is that there are losses and actual losses are irreversible.
I lost not only Pablo’s hugs, his laughter, the complicity in travelling, just the two of us, the songs shared, humor, we enjoyed a concert together. I also lost illusions and, above all, I lost a certain state of innocence. Maybe late and extemporaneously I still had at the age of 50; some beliefs that made my life easier: I thought everything had solution that nothing bad could actually reach me. I thought I knew my son, he would always have me as a last resort. I thought I could protect my family from the evils of the world. I was wrong. Bad things can happen to us at any time, even those that I cannot even imagine. My children are people and have independent decision-making power, even to return this power against themselves or use it in ways I cannot understand and that hurt me. As with the others, I know a very small part of my children, that they want and can share with me – and the same is true in reverse. I am not omnipotent: there are forces that overcome me and that can hurt those I love. All this I learned: regardless of the reason (which is undeniably sad) that there is a lot of good learning.
I also learned that there is absolute. The pain for the loss of a child is absolute: you should not compare the suffering of the father who lost a baby with a few days with a woman who lost the only two children in the same accident. Each suffering is complete, and there are no more or less in it. So today I don’t believe that a child suicide is the only worse thing than the death of a child. I even think I can better cope with the death of Pablo knowing that it was his decision, accepting and respecting this final gesture, trying to understand it with a positive value despite my suffering.
Pablo was always a bright person, complex, free, fearless. Eager, voracious, curious, excessive without halftones. Seeking the limits; he dived, sailed, did skydiving, climbed. He sought an interpretation of the universe and believed that we are all made of stars, there is a cosmic consciousness, we can leave the confines of our earthly existence and go looking for the ways and experiences to achieve it. He liked music, photographic, cinema, street art, Van Gogh, Escher, tattoo, party, friends, his bike, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Cusco and São Paulo. He has lived eight thousand and a few days, with more intensity than many long-lived people. He was generous and too selfish, affectionate and provocative: he would also test people’s limits. He loved and hated intensely as incendiary as the rest of his passions. More than intense, he was incandescent. He burned himself in his own fire and this light explosion he lit and burned those who were around him. It’s up to me, it’s up to us to keep the light and heal the rest.
Meanwhile, life goes on.