by Janice Hoffman
In 2011, my husband and I lost our thirty-five-year-old son Brian to suicide. People have asked me why I wrote my chapbook of poetry, Azaleas in October, about this loss. That’s a very easy question to answer: I wrote because I had to. Anyone who has lost a child understands all too well the devastation that consumes a parent afterwards. It’s so important to talk to others about that type of loss, but I simply couldn’t do it in those early days. I was too overwhelmed, too wrecked, too overcome by grief. If you have lost a loved one to suicide or a child by any means, I know you relate to what I’m saying.
I am a part-time college English instructor, and I also write poetry, but I did not set out initially to write this small book of poetry about losing my son. The thing just evolved. I wrote because I couldn’t talk, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop thinking about him. I’d lie awake at night, not being able to shut my brain off, so I’d get up and scribble endlessly about how I was feeling and about his last days. Sometimes I would type, but usually I would just scrawl out paragraphs and pages. Over time, I had a small pile of tangible emotions right before me.
Because I prefer poetry over prose, I began editing the things I had composed by putting them into controllable ideas instead of a mother’s ramblings. I set up line breaks and stanzas, and I began to try to put these verses into some type of arrangement. Again, I hadn’t planned on publishing a book yet. Maybe I was just trying to create some type of order out of this heart wrenching chaos. But I had to write to release what was going on within me.
As time passed, though, and as I met and read about others who had suffered similar losses, I longed to reach out to assist them in their journey through their own grief. When we first lost Brian, there weren’t as many support resources as there are today, so I decided that perhaps my experience and my words could help people understand that they were not alone, that other parents and loved ones understood living with complicated grief. I also wanted to draw attention to this type of death to help normalize it, not only to those grieving, but also to people who were totally unaware regarding this kind of loss.
However, I didn’t want my work to reflect just the pain of losing a loved one. I also wanted to stress the importance of going beyond surviving to a type of healing from this sort of emotional trauma. I say “a type” because you never “get over it.” I’ve chosen not to let my son’s death define me, yet I am forever changed by it. The early poems in my collection are rather raw and contain trigger warnings, but the latter ones change in tone because an important thing I long to do with my poetry is to encourage those still in the midst of their pain that, at some point, they can smile again someday. My desire is that my poems give others hope.
In closing, I want to encourage you to consider various ways to seek help during your grieving. Join a local support group like Survivors of Suicide Loss or Compassionate Friends. See a counselor, psychologist, or pastor. Read and contribute to professional blogs. Read others’ stories. Talk to your family and friends. Embrace your faith. Volunteer. Write. Write. Write. Publish a book, scribble poetry like I did, or keep a private journal. However you may choose to do it, writing is extremely therapeutic.
Finally, I’d like to share the poem from which I chose the title of my chapbook. I hope it helps you in your walk through this time in your life.
Janice Hoffman, author of Azaleas in October.
Azaleas in October
When they left, I looked out the window
and saw our azalea bush was again in full bloom,
and this line burned in my mind:
The year our son died,
our azaleas bloomed again in October.
I stared and memorized the irony. I know
our azaleas will blossom again in the spring,
but I will remember October. For the rest
of my life, I will remember October,
and each October, when others celebrate
1492 and discoveries, I will mourn
your precise decision, your violent departure,
that you did it your way.
I must celebrate you like we do all the others
who leave us behind, so I pray for redemption,
to be thankful in the midst of mourning.
Your ashes rest on our Virginia bookshelf,
but your eyes give sight to two strangers,
your bones give healing, your tendons grant
strength, and your skin saves burn victims.
I look to the skies and am thankful
for the color blue, your favorite.
I’m on a pilgrimage to find appreciation:
thankful for your love,
thankful for your last texts,
thankful for azaleas in October.