Grief as Prayer

On Faith at, July 29, 2008

About a year ago my husband and I began reluctantly discussing the possibility of sending our autistic teenage son to live at his school. Coming to terms with this painful prospect took a long time, and considerable planning. And yet, it also happened in a split second. I think the real decision was made right during one of Nat’s more frightening outbursts, which I only remember in fragments. What stands out to me is the thought I had then: I can’t do this. I can’t live like this anymore. It had been months of almost daily incidents, where Nat would become frantic, screaming and biting himself and clawing at us, about anything that was not quite right: a porch light left on during the daytime; the bagel bag that fell out of the freezer onto his foot. The everyday things out of whack had sudden and terrible consequences, and were like land mines in our family.

So, after a year of discussion with the school, here we are: in only a matter of days, Nat will be living at his school. But now, I feel like the timing could not be worse. As often happens with these kinds of things, the difficult, explosive phase of last year led to recent wonderful triumphs for Nat: his first job in the community, at a Papa Gino’s, and his solid teamwork at his Special Olympics basketball games.

Lately, because of all this amazing progress, I have become deeply sad that he is leaving. I am torn about it. Even though he is 18, and will probably thrive there, I am tormented that maybe I should try harder to make our home life work for him. Even though experience has taught me that he does better with the school staff than with us at home, my guilt and regrets drown out all reason.

My only relief has been long, hard bike rides. A few days ago, as I pushed up a hill, I was so choked with grief that I almost stopped. “I can’t do this,” I thought, like before, only this time I was envisioning my home without Nat, and it felt like my heart was breaking. I suddenly flashed to a memory of when he was a baby, and it seemed I was constantly asking God for help. But back then, unknowing young mother that I was, my requests were about random, unfounded fears, like these: “Don’t let him get sick,” or, “Don’t let him turn out to be a criminal.”

Now I thought again about God, and asking for help. But I didn’t. I wanted action, not prayer. I wanted some peace, but that seemed out of reach. Sobbing at the top of the hill, I let the wind dry my face as I coasted downward.

My mother called me early the next morning. She was still in bed, but she told me she had thought of me as soon as she woke up. I just talked and talked, while Mom listened, only murmuring from time to time, holding me gently with her soft voice. “I thought I would ask God for help,” I confided. There was a tiny pause. “Oh? And did you?” she asked carefully, probably not wanting to intrude or say the wrong thing. “No, not yet,” I said.

When I hung up, I still felt sad. But I noticed a satisfying emptiness, a regularity to my breathing, as if something inside me had become unstuck. Okay. I was going to try to follow through with my plan for Nat. Let him move out, but carefully evaluate it frequently.

I really don’t know when it’s all going to stop hurting. But after that quiet, soothing little conversation, I was able to get back to my life, and taking care of my son, getting him ready for his big move. So I am not sure when I’m actually going to do my praying. Somehow, I feel like maybe I already did.