It was a cold but sunny day in the beginning of January. A mother (Daniela) and father (Joe) were enjoying a date night at their favorite restaurant. Their daughter (Naomi) was enjoying the last few days of her winter break from school by ice skating at a local rink with some friends. As Daniela and Joe were finishing their meal, they received a phone call about their son, Lucas, a 20 year-old college student. He had been taken to the hospital and was in critical condition. By the time the family arrived at the hospital, Lucas’s heart had stopped and he was unable to be revived.
Mother: During the first several months after his death, Daniela was numb. She couldn’t focus on anything other than imagining her precious son’s last moments. She could not find reason or meaning in what had happened.
Soon she began to avoid talking about what happened. She often changed the subject when her friends or coworkers asked her how she was doing. Sometimes, she would imagine that he was still away at school, enjoying his sophomore year of college. At dinner every night, she’d talk about other things to fill the silence – the new restaurant in their neighborhood or an upcoming movie. She wanted everything to be okay, and she was desperate to talk about everything except Lucas’s death.
Father: After Lucas’s death, Joe was stunned. He was filled with guilt. He felt like he should have been able to somehow prevent Lucas’s death. He also felt hopeless because there was nothing he could do that would bring Lucas back. Joe thought about Lucas all the time and spent evenings looking at family albums and Lucas’s old high school yearbooks. He regretted that he had not spent more time with him.
Daughter: Lucas’ 17-year-old sister, Naomi, struggled after his death. Her parents received most of the attention, as neighbors dropped off dinner and friends brought flowers. Naomi felt lonely and ignored.
She missed arguing with her brother over who got to choose the next TV show to watch, and she hated the awkward conversations with her parents at the dinner table, where one chair was now empty. She usually stayed silent while mom talked about meaningless things, except for a few times, when she yelled at her mom to stop acting like everything was normal. Naomi felt like no one else could understand how she was feeling.
A few weeks after Lucas’s death, Naomi went to a party with some of her friends from high school. She decided to have a few drinks to try to forget how miserable things were at home and to have fun. Those few drinks turned into more and more . . . .
Mother: As time passed, Daniela slowly returned to her usual daily life. But when she came across a memory on social media or was reminded of Lucas by finding a guitar pick that had fallen behind the couch, Daniela started feeling very upset about all the things she hadn’t done with Lucas. They’d never get to finally take a family trip to New York City this summer or see him graduate from college. She regretted that she hadn’t talked to him on the phone more often or insisted he come home from school on more breaks. Over time, when these distressing thoughts occurred to her, Daniela began looking for ways to distract herself from them. The easiest distraction was her work, so she began focusing more and more on her job.
One day, Joe tried to talk to Daniela about Naomi’s recent behavior after he’d found an empty bottle in her bedroom. But Daniela just said that Naomi was being a teenager and acting out. She didn’t think they needed to worry about it. Joe wasn’t so sure.
Father: There was one picture that Joe kept looking at. In it, Lucas had a wide smile on his face after he and his bandmates had played at their school’s pep rally. Joe remembered Lucas’s excitement when he came home and told the family all about that day — Lucas’s band had played an amazing show that everyone was talking about after it was over.
Joe had always liked music, but he had never learned how to play an instrument. Looking at that picture of Lucas inspired him to try playing the guitar too. Learning a new instrument helped him take his mind off the daily struggles within the family. It also made him feel closer to Lucas, because he began to understand how important music was to his son. Being able to play through a few songs also showed him how music can be an emotional outlet in times of stress.
Daughter: Soon Naomi started drinking regularly. She even went to school tipsy a few mornings after drinking alone on the way to school. Her grades started to slip, but she managed to hide them from her parents. When her dad noticed the empty bottle of alcohol in her room, he tried to talk to Naomi about it, but she refused to talk to him. Naomi started spending more time alone. She didn’t want to be with her friends from school and her friends didn’t understand why she had changed so much, so they stopped inviting her to things.
Mother: Eventually, Daniela threw herself completely into her work to try to distract herself from Lucas’s death. She volunteered for extra work and helped her coworkers with projects, which meant she worked many overtime hours in the office. She missed dinner with Joe and Naomi, and when she got home late in the evening, Daniela immediately went to bed. At the end of the week, she brought home her laptop and worked from her office all weekend. She even ate her lunch at her desk. With all her extra work, Daniela was promoted to a new position.
Meanwhile, her husband, Joe, tried to show her pictures of Lucas and his bandmates, and even brought his guitar into her office to attempt to serenade her with Lucas’ favorite song.
Joe: Hey, I think I finally figured out this song! Do you want to hear it?
Daniela: Joe, I have to finish this really important project for work. I don’t have time. I’m sorry.
Joe: Are you sure? It was Lucas’ favorite, remember? He sang it at the school talent show one year.
Daniela: I’m really busy right now. Maybe later.
Joe: Okay. I’ll practice it a few more times so it’s perfect.
But Daniela always said she was busy and asked him to leave.
One day, Naomi missed school because she was hung over. Daniela wanted to ignore it again, but the seriousness of the situation made her realize that she couldn’t. It hit her how much her family had been struggling while she was focused on her work. She became determined to stop blocking them and everyone else out of her life.
Father: Sometimes Joe drove to hear Lucas’ old band perform. He watched them play from the back of the room. It wasn’t the same as seeing Lucas again, but he liked knowing that he was participating in something Lucas loved. He continued learning to play the guitar, but he also began playing an informal game of basketball with a local group every Thursday night. He’d played basketball often when his kids were younger, but as everyone grew up and schedules became more hectic, he had eventually abandoned it. Getting back into the sport and interacting with friends helped Joe reconnect with other parts of his identity which reminded him that he was not only a bereaved father. While he still missed Lucas and tried to honor him every day, he also got to know himself better.
Daughter: One afternoon, Naomi’s best friend, Olivia, met her for lunch at a local cafe. Olivia mentioned that she noticed Naomi struggling, and asked how she could help.
Olivia: I’ve noticed that you seem to be having a hard time. Do you want to talk about it?
Naomi: I guess so. Ever since Lucas died, I feel like I’m drowning and nobody cares.
Olivia: I remember that happened when my grandma died a few years ago. Everybody wanted to know how my mom was holding up, but no one thought about checking on me. I also was really close to her. She was both like another parent and a friend to me. I was really sad, but no one noticed.
Naomi: That’s exactly it! I feel like my feelings are less important than my mother’s because I’m only his sibling and not his parent.
After their conversation, Olivia began calling Naomi every night to talk, even just for a few minutes.Naomi also agreed to text her when she felt low. Soon Naomi began to rely on her friends more than alcohol. Around this same time, as Naomi grew closer to her friends again, Daniela began to spend more time with Naomi. The two of them started to talk more openly about their feelings.
Mother: On the anniversary of Lucas’ death, Daniela, Joe, and Naomi visited Lucas’ grave. Seeing his final resting place with Joe and Naomi was painful for Daniela, but she finally was able to allow herself to feel the emotions she had tried to put away. She continued to work toward not avoiding the subject of Lucas’ death. Instead, Daniela focused on how to honor him. She still sometimes slipped and wanted to withdraw from her life, but gradually, she began to adjust to life without Lucas.
Father: Over time, Joe was able to adapt to his changed life. He was able to function and continued to participate in new hobbies, though Lucas was never far from his thoughts. He wanted to support other bereaved families, so he joined a local chapter of a group for parents who lost their children. He found that volunteering with this group helped him feel more useful and he hoped he could make a difference in someone else’s life.
Daughter: Naomi realized how much support her friends had given her, so she joined a virtual support group for teens experiencing loss. She made connections to peers who were dealing with similar challenges related to loss and grief.
Naomi still struggled with Lucas’ death and missed him often, but with her friends’ support, she was able to move past using alcohol to cope. She knew it would be worth it in the end because using alcohol had affected her sleep and eating and she just didn’t feel right. By the end of her senior year, she pulled her grades up, was accepted to a university she was excited to attend, and graduated with her friends — and parents — at her side.
Joe, Daniela, and Naomi began meeting every year at Lucas’ grave on the anniversary of his death. Even after Naomi graduated from college and started her first job away from home, they always remembered that day and spent it as a family. On the fifth anniversary of Lucas’ death, each of them wrote letters to Lucas, including updates on their lives, and memories of times they had shared with him. Although life would never be the same without him, the family was able to find ways to both continue their bonds with him and redefine their goals and roles in life after his death.