The Awkward Smile of Grief

awkward smile
I haven’t blogged in a few years. One of the main reasons I stopped was so that nothing I said could possibly negatively impact the murder trial surrounding my son’s death. On Thursday April 13, 2017, this changed – Joaquin Rams was finally convicted of the capital murder of my son Prince. Rams will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Just a reminder: This blog is not about Rams. This blog is about community, social justice, and the drive to fix the broken justice system that failed my son.

I wrote the following essay before my son’s murderer was convicted. One of the things I strive to do with my writing is let folks know that they are not alone. I am happy to finally be able to share it with you. It isn’t easy telling people for the first time a story that is possibly one of the worst they have ever heard. Many of us are often caught in public, unable to respond, to invasive questions by complete strangers. This can be something seemingly innocent like:

1. “Do you and your husband want children?”

What if you and your husband can’t have children? Is your fertility really any of that person’s business?

2. “I am so sorry for your loss. This must be so hard. Do you need anything?”

Totally innocent question, but imagine trying to answer it when your current struggle is getting out of bed and putting on clothing.

3. “Is she your only child? Is she your first child?”

I get asked this on nearly a weekly basis. In fact, I was just asked this today while at the eye doctor. My blog post today talks about how I answer this question.

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In the wake of my 15-month old son Prince’s murder, I smiled awkwardly whenever I was forced tell a stranger what happened to him. Though I knew smiling was not an appropriate response, and it certainly didn’t mirror how I felt inside, it was like an instinctive reflex that I couldn’t control.

I dreaded answering the casual question of how many children I had, when asked by a complete stranger. “Two, but only one is still alive,” I should have answered. More often, I either dodged the question, or lied and claimed only my daughter – completely ignoring the existence of my son.

Answering this question honestly forced me to tell the strangers standing across from me a story that was possibly the worst thing they had ever heard, and one that illustrated rock bottom of the human condition. Curiosity peaked, an honest answer was inevitably followed by the even more awkward request for the story behind why one of my children was no longer alive. It was gut wrenching to relive his murder every time, humiliating to cry in front of strangers, and draining to try and respond in a way that others found appropriate.

 

A couple months after my son was killed, one of the first times I got out of bed after the tragedy, I went to a crepe stand that my son and I visited nearly every weekend. Everyone who worked at the stand knew my son by his big smile, deep soulful eyes, and animated curls. This was the first time I went there without him, and his presence had been so big that it was obvious that he was absent.

 

“Where is your son?” It was an innocent question. It mortified me, and I panicked. What was I going to say to this woman? Crying in the middle of the street wasn’t an option. I wasn’t ready to tell her why he wasn’t there and why he would never come back. I fought back the tears that were threatening, and swallowed several times as though doing so would resolve the pain I felt in my chest. I considered pretending that I didn’t know what she was talking about, or pretending I wasn’t who she thought I was. At a loss for reasonable alternatives, I blurted out the truth.

 

As the words escaped my mouth, she burst out into tears. I stood in the middle of the sidewalk, emotionally naked and vulnerable. As she stared at me, painfully and intensely, I folded my arms over my chest. Shielding my fully clothed body, I desperately tried to feel less exposed.

Why had I been so afraid of telling her? And why was I having such a hard time knowing how to react to her sadness? “It’s ok,” I said, though of course it wasn’t at all. Still fighting back my own tears, I began to try desperately to stop hers.

As her breakdown continued, I continued tap dancing – I smiled, giggled, and tried to shift the conversation as though what I had just told her wasn’t a bit deal. “Why aren’t you crying?” She appeared stunned by my reaction. The unexpected judgement that was depicted in her face left me feeling ashamed. My cheeks grew red, and my hands started to shake. The heat welling up on my face so strong that I felt the urge to press my hands up against it. I wanted to stop this reaction, but was completely powerless.

 

‘What did this woman expect me to do’, I wondered. I wanted to vanish, I wanted my son back, and I wondered why I couldn’t have died with him. The truth was, I didn’t know how I was supposed to act after my life had just been shattered. Though it wasn’t my job to make this woman feel better about what had happened to me, I didn’t know this at the time.

 

I started lying to people when asked about my children. I pretended as though I had never had a son, attempting to save myself from reliving the death through the eyes of someone new. I was afraid that speaking of him would cause me to react in a way that was uncomfortable for others. Managing the emotions of strangers was more than I could bear. Denying Prince’s existence allowed temporary solace, but it also tore me apart from the inside out. I felt as though I was disrespecting his memory, and this was killing me.

Everyone had advice on how I should cope. Initially, I listened to everything. I grasped for advice because I was lost in sorrow. This constant, often conflicting, advice began to give me whip lash. Out of options, I had to decide to stop listening to it. I started standing in my truth, and decided that my son’s memory was more important to me than how the reality of his death made others feel.

Smiling, and giggling awkwardly, had been desperate attempts to diffuse the pain I saw in others. I was putting everyone else’s needs before my own. I don’t think I will ever feel safe crying public, but now that I had decided to stand in my truth, I had to also force myself to accept my son’s story as my new normal. This required me to trust that it would get easier over time. It also forced me to allow myself to be vulnerable in the process.

One recent fall morning, I was again faced with the decision to run from the pain or stand in my truth. Me and my daughter were shopping at the local farmer’s market in our neighborhood. “Is she your only child,” a woman asked, as my daughter grabbed apple samples. Just as I felt my cheeks start to get red, and the fear of a panic attack set in, I took a deep breath. “No, she isn’t.” I smiled, grabbed my daughter’s hand, and continued to walk. Though the moment was brief, I had included my son in our family that day. I felt like I had taken back the power required to claim my dead son. Prince was finally holding my other hand.

 

Screaming at the top of my lungs

Today I spent most of my day on a plane traveling.  Looking out at the clouds, my thoughts were a reflection of how my mind is racing in a million directions.  I wondered how my son was doing in heaven, if he was mad at me for not fighting hard enough to protect him, whether Luc would ever have to pay for all the terrible things he has done…

Amongst these thoughts, I also wonder how I will feel once I slow down.  Ever since Prince died, I have been running.  I have been running and “screaming”.  By “screaming” I mean that I have been screaming to everyone who will listen to me through my writing and through my words about what happened to my son.  I haven’t just been screaming since Prince died.  In fact, I started screaming the moment I left Luc’s hellish cave.  The difference now is that it seems as if people are finally listening.  It kills me that it took my son’s death for others to realize what I have known since the moment I walked out of that man’s house and saw what he really was.
Seven weeks ago, I had to take my baby off of life support after learning that his brain was officially dead.  Though I have been trying to run away from the memory of that night, its times like this when those memories creep back into my mind.  I was holding Prince when his heart stopped beating.  I remember wearing a white adidas jacket – he bled all over my sleeve.  I remember feeling completely helpless because no matter what I did – I couldn’t do the only thing I wanted in the world to do.  I couldn’t bring my little boy back.
Last night I was on the phone with a friend.  As I told him about all the plans I had and how I wanted to hold people accountable, he stopped me and said, “You need to grieve.  You can do it now – or later – but you need to grieve.”
He’s right and I know this, but I’m scared.  I’m scared because there is nothing I can do with those thoughts.  I am scared that if I let them in, I won’t get out of bed.  I am scared that I will die right along side my son.
I am also determined not to let Luc have that sort of power over me.  Psychopaths count on scaring their victims into silence.  I will not allow him to do that to me.
So I sit here thinking about how I will “strike a balance” between grief and strength.  I cannot slow down until I am sure my son will not be forgotten.  I think about Prince every day and every minute.  I think about all the things I wish I had done and all the things I wish he had been able to do.  Lately, however, I have also thought about the things that I can do in order to be sure that Prince (through his memory) still has an impact on the living.
Several of my friends and family have expressed the reality in how dangerous it is for me to speak publicly about what Luc has done to me and my family.  I understand that danger better than anyone (because I lived and continue to live in fear).  That being said, I will not stop because even though I was not first – I want to be the last.  I want to be the last woman who is charmed and conned by this man.  I respect my son’s memory and my role as his mother too much to be silent and hide in a corner because I am afraid.
Yesterday I went to the police station.  Before leaving, I said, “If something happens to me, there is only one person who could be responsible.  I have only one person who wishes I were dead and would do anything to silence me.  One person.”  While nobody likes to hear someone say this to them, I am realistic enough to know that my odds of survival are not as good having been involved with this man.
I could be silenced by fear – but that is not who I am.  I guess I wasn’t the perfect target after all.  This particular con ends with me.