The Cruelest Loss

Melody Beattie knows about coping; her 1986 book for people trapped in troubled relationships, Codependent No More, has sold 2.1 million copies in paperback. It helped make “codependency”—self-neglect due to a need to control the behavior of others, particularly those with destructive addictions—apart of everyday language. Three other books—Beyond Codependency: And Getting Better All the Time, The Language of Letting Go and Codependents’ Guide to the Twelve Steps—have further established the 43-year-old Minnesota native as one of the stars of the self-help movement.

Success and self-awareness, though, are no shield against pain. Last February, Beattie suffered the greatest heartbreak a mother can know when her 12-year-old son, Shane, died from injuries sustained in a skiing accident.

Beattie has endured adversity before. Growing up in Minneapolis, she was 3 when her father left home. At age 5, she was sexually molested by a stranger. She recalls blacking out on whiskey as a 13-year-old, and by age 22 she had become so deeply addicted to drugs that she gave up custody of her first son, John, now 20, to her first husband’s parents. As a recovering addict and alcoholic, she married David Beattie, an alcoholism counselor, in 1976 and bore Nichole, now 14, and Shane, but the union, foundering under the weight of David’s drinking, ended in divorce in 1986.

“I don’t think my writing about recovery has made this grieving any easier, “says Beattie, who bases many of her ideas on her own experience. “When you’re going through this, you’re a private person, a mother. The feelings are just raw.” Beattie, who recently moved back to Minneapolis from Stillwater, a charming river town 45 minutes away, spoke about Shane’s death with correspondent Margaret Nelson.

SHANE WAS PART OF MY NEW LIFE, A MIRACLE of God after all the horrible years I’d been through. He made me smile from the moment he was born. Even before they cut the umbilical cord, he squiggled up and started nursing.

On the morning of the accident, Shane woke me up to go to his school basketball game. He had me sit in a special seat, pulled it out a bit from the other parents’, and during the game he’d come by and pat me on the shoulder, so pleased, so proud. It was very sweet. After the game, we stopped at a pancake restaurant. We just talked about regular things; I don’t even remember what. It was just special being together. That’s the last time I talked to him.

When we got home, it was time for Shane to go skiing with Nichole and her girlfriend Joey. The skiing was Nichole’s birthday present to Shane, and he was excited. He liked being with the teenagers. I stayed at home to baby-sit Brandon, John’s son. About 9:30 that night, about the time I was expecting the kids home, the phone rang. It was the Afton ski patrol; they said there had been an accident, but don’t worry, these things happen. Then they called again and said to meet them at Ramsey Medical Center in St. Paul. I got in the car, and all the way over, 40 minutes, I kept thinking, “Be cool. It’s gonna be all right.” But there was a part of me that knew it wasn’t okay.

They took me into a room that looked like a chapel and were real serious: “Wait here. Is there anyone you can call to be with you? What is your religion?” Just like in the movies. Only this was my baby, and I couldn’t handle it. Shane had been going down one of the ski trails, and he’d collided in midair with another skier. Somehow his skull had been badly fractured and his brain injured beyond hope.

When I walked into his room, there was this powerful feeling in the air, like, “No, no, this is too terrible.” He was hooked up to a respirator, his eye was black and blue; he was so pale, so quiet, so unlike my always-on-the-move Shane. A few weeks before, he’d talked me into going sledding on the hill across the street. When I got down to the bottom, there he was, lying real quiet, all sprawled out. I went over, and he jumped up and said, “Psych! Just kidding, Mom!” In the hospital, I kept hoping he’d roll over and say, “Psych! Just kidding, Mom!” But he didn’t.

I called Echo Bodine, my best friend of 19 years, and then other friends kept arriving. Shane’s father, David, had just gotten off a plane from a Mexican vacation when Echo called him. Nichole and Joey, who had seen the ski patrol trying to help Shane, accompanied them to the hospital. As people came, I felt the room filling up with enough love and support—maybe 50, maybe 70, people were there by the next day—for me to accept what was happening.

For all purposes, I think his brain waves stopped Saturday night, but the doctors said they’d do more tests Sunday. Sometime Sunday they told me there was no brain activity; there was nothing they could do. I said, Give me some time with this. I can’t handle this now.”

About 11:30 Sunday night, the doctors said they wanted to turn the respirator off. I started screaming. I felt this horrible rage. I kicked the door. I screamed, “Goddamn it, he’s my son.” At midnight Echo and I both fell apart. We sat on the floor and cried and cried. Then, somehow, we came up with a plan. We wanted to give all the people there time to say goodbye to Shane, time to make their peace with his death. He was one of those kids who got to people, so it was important for people to have some time with him.

At 2:30 Monday morning Echo and I went in. It was so hard, so painful, I can’t describe the pain, the sorrow. But I knew he was gone. I cut off a lock of his hair and held him. The moment they turned off the respirator, it wasn’t like he took a last breath, it was more of a sigh. I felt defeated. There was nothing I could do in that last moment but love him.

We decided to have the funeral on Friday. I didn’t sleep much that week. Echo and I held hands and kind of walked through it together. My wonderful daughter had her support system too, her friends, and we were in constant contact: “Are you okay, are you getting what you need?” But we couldn’t give much to each other. We were in too much pain.

Once, two days before the funeral, the pain was more than I could bear. I thought, “I can’t go through this another minute. I need some relief.” I wanted drugs. There was a message on my answering machine from someone from long, long ago who I knew could get me drugs. He came over and said, “Are you sure?” And I said, “Yes. I don’t want to become an addict, but I want some relief, just a few hours of not feeling this pain.” We drove around, but I couldn’t think of what drug would be good. Finally I had him drive me home. I think I just needed the freedom to make the choice.

I wanted the funeral to be a celebration of Shane’s life. So we brought some things from his room, and we played the music from Ghost, a movie I’d seen three times before he died—and maybe 80 times since. One thing I couldn’t do: I couldn’t face putting my son in the ground. So we got space in a mausoleum. I go over there now—it’s just a mile or so from my new home—and sit on the floor and touch the marble. It gives me some peace.

Mornings are the hardest. I open my eyes, and it smacks me right in the face. Saturday nights are hard too. That’s when it happened. But it is getting easier. More and more the moments of joy, the wonderful memories are crowding out the pain. I look back and realize that somehow I have moved into the future. The disciplines I learned in my recovery have been important. I set a goal of accomplishing two things every day. Sometimes one goal was just to get up and get dressed. Physical exercise is another thing that really helps me deal with the emotional stress. I take care of myself, and I surround myself with people who care.

And remembering the love between Shane and me has helped. I received a very moving letter from one of Shane’s classmates. He recalled that I’d chaperoned a school field trip in December and that on the way home Shane and I had led the kids in carols, joking around like we always did. The boy said, “You and Shane had a real special relationship. I remember wishing my mother and I could have that.”

Nichole and I are learning to think of ourselves as a family, just the two of us. And we’ve moved. After living in Stillwater for several years, I decided to move back to Minneapolis, to a neighborhood I’d always considered home. Our old house had too many triggers, too many hurtful reminders that he was gone. I don’t want to stay stuck in this grief.

I feel afraid. This is all uncharted territory for me. Shane’s death has shaken my belief system like nothing ever could. People say it was an accident, that Shane’s life was ended prematurely. But was it? Is life so random, so hurtful? Or was this the way Shane’s life was meant to be? Maybe he was meant to live 12 years; maybe this was his full life.

I’ve become the student, not the teacher. But in the weeks since his death, I’ve set aside some fears. Death doesn’t scare me anymore; if Shane can do it, I know I can. More important, life doesn’t scare me. I used to be afraid of pain, didn’t take a lot of risks, especially in love. I’m not as afraid anymore. I’m more spontaneous, more likely to say what I think. What do I have to lose? Nothing except losing another child could hurt this bad.

I have to find the meaning in Shane’s death. Maybe someday I’ll write a book about this, because that’s what I am: a writer and a mom.

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