“Do I mention him or not? It can be a grenade thrown out,” reflects Eric Hansen, one of many parents who has endured the loss of a child. As a business owner regularly meeting with new clients, he often encounters the dilemma of how to answer the inevitable question, “So, how many kids do you have?”
This past May marked five years since Eric’s only son, Alex, took his life. At 14 years old, Alex loved singing, slalom and downhill skiing, Boy Scouts and school theatre. He was very active in his church and close with his family and friends. Under the surface, Alex also experienced “an annual pattern of school wearing him down. Some days he’d pretty much curl up in a ball and cry.” Many of us did that in middle or high school. Especially those of us who were teased, like Alex. Eric and his wife Lisa learned that as an introvert Alex required time to “work it out,” before talking about his day with them that night or the next morning. “It was a reasonable pattern for coping. Spring was always his toughest time of year, as he didn’t have the fall musical or ski season to carry him through.” But they never thought he was clinically depressed or suicidal.
On the morning of May 22, 2012, Eric and Lisa received the news that their son died after being hit by a train less than half a mile from their house, and that a note had been found with the backpack and bike that he had left behind in the bushes. He had left for school on his bike like so many mornings before. This morning was only different in that he had an early choir practice, for which he usually got a ride to school, yet he had adamantly and unusually refused the car ride that day. While Eric, Lisa, and their daughter, Tori, were shocked, horrified and caught completely unaware by Alex’s death, it was this small detail—along with finally giving Lisa his old iPod Touch the night before—that suggested his act was premeditated.
I didn’t know Eric when his son died, though I had just started attending their church. I introduced myself to Eric and Lisa after realizing that Alex was buried next to my first husband in the church’s cemetery. Over several years, I came to know the Hansens as compassionate, honest, resilient people whose faith and pragmatism astounded me. I was so pleased when Eric agreed to sit down with me for dinner at a local Indian restaurant to discuss coping mechanisms, learned truths, and healing.
After recounting the facts of Alex’s tragedy, we discussed what people did or brought that was actually helpful in the days that followed. “I know it sounds mundane, but food and cases of bottled water. You need the hydration, and it’s a physical thing to hold.” Other helpful, tangible gifts were the cards, prayer amulets, stones or crosses that the Hansens received; the gifts lived in their pockets or on their counters. As I was more spiritual than religious when my husband died, I received dragonflies for their symbol of transformation. Like Eric, finding a figurine in my pocket to hold during vexatious conversations or silent moments carried my connection to my husband and his next place which I could not see.
Eric took nearly three weeks off work after Alex died; he yearned for his family and friends. In the following months, Eric and Lisa found some repose in socializing: “We re-anchored and solidified with new friends, and that led to a host of new activities.” Their first major activity was a family trip in Atlanta; Eric attended an annual conference on wind power, while Lisa and Tori explored the city’s history. Being in a different setting nursed a different mindset. Breaks—whether through travel or with friends—were diversions for sure, but “they never precluded us from processing. They were more like a neat mix of sounding boards and distractions. Our family has always been at our best together when travelling.”
When I asked Eric about his hardest days, he began to talk about church: a place where his entire family was active and filled with people who knew him intimately. Familiar settings like this often create a dichotomy of emotions for bereaved people, as it’s a home of belonging, but also a thunderstorm of memories.
Almost a full year after Alex died, Eric found himself frozen, in a trance, at the end of a Good Friday service. With lights down and the sanctuary empty, tears streamed down his face. “Unlike Easter, which is so upbeat, Good Friday is the focal point for me. The doubts come out … the intentionality of Jesus’s actions and mental process of walking to death paralleled the darkness of depression, anxiety, and the decision to pursue suicide.”
While Eric certainly wonders how he could have missed his son’s suicidal mindset, he returns to his pragmatic roots to unpack truth and move forward. As we dished our second helpings of basmati rice, we spoke for a long time about safety: “One truth that I’ve learned is that you can’t buy or plan or guarantee safety, and the American culture is obsessed with it. [Keeping people safe at all times] is just not something that is achievable, and yet we wrap ourselves in it. Things happen in life.” Many people are too frightened to accept this reality, thus it is how platitudes about God’s plan pop up at every funeral, such as “There must be a reason.”
Eric also reflected on how this loss changed his personality, specifically a transition from extroversion toward introversion. “The lingering effect for me is my strength and emotional reserves are very shallow these days. I notice that I need to re-charge at home. When people talk about school shootings and such, I can’t listen or process that information on the news.” However, after five years, he finds that preparing/handling anniversaries and holidays does get better with time. “As you live and keep running into situations and triggers, it’s like this big snowball or ball of junk. It keeps picking up stuff, getting bigger.” Collecting one more piece of debris doesn’t change your ball that much, as it’s already a large mass and incorporates the new piece into that growing shell.
Eric told me that resiliency is studied a lot in the Hansen house since Alex’s death, especially as Lisa has focused on helping people—particularly children—develop resilience. “At its core, resilience is the duck. The ability to have things roll off your back and continue on, despite water being dumped on you. To get up, keep walking, and intellectually process life events in context. Life happens and you can’t control it: You can’t buy safety, and you can’t predict. You have to adapt and roll with it. Resilience, to me, is about making the most of wherever you are.”
When I asked Eric where he is now in the healing process, he laughed and responded, “The 65th quartile?” He certainly has the ability to function in a wide variety of situations as well as find energy to continue with life. But, there are always conversations, triggers, and nights with tears. It’s hard for him to see Alex’s friends grow up and change so much, especially when everything about Alex is fixed in time. Eric finds himself unpacking the known milestones—like graduation—but then slipping into the “What if?” reality that so many of us understand. “Without those triggers, it would definitely be simpler. But somewhere along the way I learned that grief is a process, not an emotion. It’s a tool that helps us cope with our emotions and understand them.”
Perspectives like this don’t come overnight. If you or a loved one are still in early, raw grief, Eric would tell you to remember that “Doing one thing a day is all you need.” Like getting out of bed. Setting a lot of goals or projecting a recovery path doesn’t work because there’s nothing linear about grief. When you’re ready, be open to serendipity and finding connections to know you’re not alone. Through a very circuitous path, Eric joined a support group of other parents suffering the loss of a child that was intensely useful for him. “There were definitely different stages I saw, and positioning along the [recovery] path was so apparent, it gave me a lot of hope. While the path isn’t straight, there is some predictability. The steps are visible. For example, the couple who dealt with the murder of their son only a month earlier just held raw anger, but those in the more advanced stages could tell stories with a little melancholy and some joy even. Overall, the group gave me a chance to talk—outside the house with different people, in a neutral setting, with the same frame of reference.”
Support groups don’t work for everyone, as their structures and personalities can vary so greatly. I tried several after my husband died, searching for perspectives that were similar to mine. My honest reflection is that each group proffered some nugget of wisdom or important social conduit, but none made me want to remain long-term. As I write about Eric’s journey now and inevitably compare bits to my own, I doubt we would’ve been helpful to each other in our own early stages. For example, when someone told me that I needed to find my “new normal,” I felt repulsed at the idea and forced to move faster. When Eric heard that same phrase, he internalized a sense of acceptance and dose of reality. “It implies that you, as a person, need to conform and work with that. This is it. This is the hand I’m holding. Normal also implies a broader social sense, that this loss is a little normal. It’s not just me.” Indeed, according to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, over 50,000 American children die every year.
I wonder how their parents are doing.
I wonder how others react to and ascribe their “new normal.” Indeed, that is the purpose of this series. As Eric and I left the restaurant that night, I couldn’t stop thinking about his pragmatism and resilience. Partly because it took me years to accept the hand I was dealt; I wanted it to define me for a long time (I don’t anymore). Partly because I wondered why our reactions were so different: Was it our age, gender, type of loss, support networks? Whatever combination, I absolutely love his words and images now and wish I could’ve internalized them far sooner in my journey.
 Lisa is amazing and definitely contributed to the substance Eric shared with me.