A Place at the Table

After the loss of a son, a dinner invitation opens a door to connection.

This essay discusses suicide and may be triggering for some readers. Please read with care and seek support if you need it. The Vancouver Island Crisis Society can be reached any time at 1‑888‑494‑3888, or visit their website for other ways to connect. Additional resources are listed at the end of this article.

“I don’t know if you’re ready for company,” said Mary. “But you’re welcome to join us.” She called the dinner party she was having a ladies’ night, a throwback to younger times, reframed as something wiser. In the quieter parts of Vancouver Island, a wild night for the ladies is likely to involve better things than a nightclub. Women in these parts get more daring from honest conversation and wickedly good food—two things I’d normally never pass up and yet I hesitated.

A lingering absence had grown around me, a void of biting silence. My presence seemed to make people back away. The startled eyes of a woman I’d volunteered with, the sudden turning of her back, as she escaped down a different aisle in the grocery store. The haunted look on the face of a friend when our paths happened to cross at an art gallery.

We’d recently moved to the area and many of the people who knew us best were a province away. New friends who lived closer offered to stop by with food or join me some day for a walk. As if wanting to do something they could not, they made promises I waited for them to keep, feeling more and more afraid and alone.

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But could I blame them for abandoning me, when it was clear I had abandoned myself? I rarely wore anything other than sweatpants, a fleece top and sheepskin slippers. Many days, I failed to brush my hair. I could not look in the mirror. The woman who appeared in that frame did not seem like me. Her swollen eyes, downturned mouth, and ashen skin left me more alone. 

Mary had been amongst the first to express condolences when our son died. She’d offered a quiet place to sit if I needed to be elsewhere. I’d sensed an awareness and I remembered the kindness. Weeks later, when she offered me a place at her table, I told myself I needed to be there. Other than Mary, I did not know any of the women who would be there. 

The night of the gathering, I put on pink lipstick and I ironed my hair, taking my time in front of the very mirror I had been avoiding. It mattered that others would be looking at me. Being seen made me strong enough to face myself and yet I did not want to show everything. As if believing I could keep to myself what it hurt to share, over my favourite cable-patterned navy sweater, I hung a pendant that is a heart nearly cracked in two held together by a shoelace.

When I arrived at Mary’s, I parked in the dark. My car door swung open and my feet reached for ground. I did not drop into a void, but landed instead on kind earth. The soft night air comforted me. The quiet street seemed to promise all would be okay, the company would do me good.

Mary greeted me at the door to her studio, the white shelves behind her filled with the earthy glazes and pleasing shapes of her functional ware and ceramic art. Her fluffy white Bichon Poodle and black-faced Longhair Dachshund danced in celebration of my arrival. She gave me a strong hug, waited a minute as if reading my anxiety, and offered another. “You get two,” she said.

From above, a splurge of female voices called us closer. Her dust mopping dogs scurried upstairs, leading the way. When we reached her home above the studio, Mary stopped by the oven, opening the door and commenting that things were progressing nicely. The butterflied chicken was pressed under a brick in a cast-iron pan for extra crispness and flavour. I savoured the aroma of slow-roasting chicken, a pleasant hunger stirring.

A long wooden table is neatly set with eight colourful plates of salad
It was the friends who refused to look away who eased the loneliness after the loss of a son, writes Debbie Bateman. Photo provided by Debbie Bateman

The kitchen was unseparated from the dining area and living room. In the open spaces, all that might keep us apart seemed gone. Eight places were set at the table, the plates evenly spaced. On each plate, there was a scattering of green and purple lettuce, and a single yellow pansy—our first course was waiting. 

I coaxed myself past the long pine table, to the nest of women snuggly arranged on a large sectional in the living room. Although the nest looked full, the women gladly shifted and I found myself tucked between two bodies. Since Chris died, I’d carried a chill wherever I went. I’d acquired thick shawls and fingerless gloves to combat the discomfort. In the nest of women, I was warmed as if by a feathery light blanket. There was no need to worry about fitting in because I already had.

On one side, Shannon with her close-cropped silver hair, told me about her textile art, the embroidered embryos and cloth books she used to explore identity and adoption, and the solo show she was planning. On the other side, Tracy in her black beret, described the work she does in First Nations communities, acting as a midwife to other people’s stories expressed through animation, and the whimsical characters she makes at home, shaped out of clay or painted in watercolour. In the comfort of their presence, I forgot myself. I was part of something larger.

What a relief to escape for a while the merciless ruminating, how I’d struggle to understand each person who seemed to be avoiding me. The niggling thoughts scratched at my heart, telling me there was something wrong with me and I deserved being alone.

But how could anyone else understand what my husband and I felt when the police came to our door? I barely comprehend it myself. When I saw uniforms, my first thought was, they have the wrong house. They mangled my husband’s name, which helped reinforce my initial conviction, except when he corrected them, they did not leave. 

We’d been in our hot tub, enjoying a mid-morning Sunday soak. I felt like an idiot in my fuzzy red bathrobe. Stupefied by ignorance, I was unaware of the importance of the moment, as we stood barefoot at the front door talking to a male and female police team. None of it made sense. It took many months for me to accept that it had really happened and I could never wish it away.

A thick fog settled over my mind, words blurred, objects faded, sounds were delayed. My heart felt as if it would be crushed, my throat wanted to choke me, I could not breathe. They had found our son dead that morning. He had ended his own life. This is what they told us, although it took many minutes for their words to register in my brain. I could not believe he’d surrendered his life without giving us the chance to help. He’d made plans to talk to us the very next day. And now, they said he was gone. Upon hearing the news, his dad said softly, “Poor boy.” I screamed, “No.”

As I was running errands one day, I bumped into a man who didn’t make promises he couldn’t keep. In the eight months since our son died, I hadn’t heard from him once. He said he’d been thinking of me. “Really?” I snorted, my usual reticence lost to grieving alone so long. “Then why’d you disappear?”

He was kind enough to offer an answer. He said he thought it was what I would want. I told him he was wrong. And although I firmly believe he meant no harm, our connection was never rekindled. Such is the hide-and-seek game all of us may play, especially when we are hurting. Fearing to trust but longing for company, turning away when we want to be claimed, only able to disclose our hiding place after a thorough search has been done. What if some of us are never found?

In 2019, the Cowichan Valley Branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association sponsored an interactive art show called “Stigmatized”. They posted bios of diverse individuals, naming their favourite colour, sharing their dreams, and describing the first time they used. At the bottom of a wooden crate, they placed a thin sleeping bag and encouraged visitors to lie down. A cardboard sign read, “Please don’t look away. I’m a person.”

All of it was painful to partake in, but the hardest part was sitting on the spot on the floor marked by a big red X, facing a video projected onto the wall. After a person is dead, there’s no putting them in the hot seat, there’s no demanding they explain themselves. All you can do is imagine what they felt, so I dropped to the floor, letting the cold of the cement sink into my bones, watching the video repeat until I could no longer look up. 

They’d filmed people from the waist down, walking past as if in a subway station. They’d added realistic sound effects and used the best perspective to mimic how it might really feel if I were on the floor in an actual subway station listening to the voices. Their mean comments like “Get a job loser”, “Junkie go away”, “We don’t want you here”—those were ugly enough. But the silence and hurried footsteps were worse.

From the moment we found out how our son died, my husband was firm. We would not hide the truth. We were not ashamed.

When dinner was ready to be served, we sat on benches around the pine table, elbows never far from each other. “Looks delicious.” “The plates are beautiful.” “Oh my, this is good.” We enjoyed the salad from Mary’s garden, as we sipped a fulsome red wine. Then we passed around platters of golden skinned chicken and browned potatoes, roasted carrots and beets. The conversation flowed, each of us taking a turn. Mary talked about her niece and I mentioned my sons. Out of a natural curiosity, the woman across from me asked, “How many children do you have?” Swallowing the lump, I lied and said, “Two.”

Later at home, as I prepared for bed, I took off the broken heart pendant, symbol of shutting out pain, all laced up and tight. I went over the conversation we’d had, thinking of the women at the table, and then I remembered how I’d answered that question and I recoiled in horror. The shame made me sick of myself. I wanted to leave my own skin. I wished to call out his name, to tell him I was sorry, to turn back the moment and count him in. My mother taught me to behave better than that. How many times had she said it, usually after a relative died? “If people don’t talk about you when you’re gone, you might as well never have been here.”

The golden-haired four-year-old I’d pushed on a miniature trike, the nine-year-old who’d patiently explained to me the superpowers of Pokémon, the thirteen-year-old fascinated for a while by wrestling and the precision of small movements, the sixteen-year-old who’d rappelled down a mountain cliff, motivated to let himself begin to drop by a fear greater than his fear of heights, which was his dread of the wasp hovering at the back of his neck, and the twelfth-grader who’d fallen in love, this time for real.

And then at twenty-three, long since independent and making his own decisions, he’d told us he was in love again, this time with a woman and her little daughter. I’d asked him was he sure, because it seemed a lot to take on, and he’d looked me in the eye. “I happen to know these things can turn out really well,” he’d said. Because that’s another thing that needs mentioning, he is my son by choice, not birth. I fell in love with his dad, knowing the two sons he had were a gift I would have to earn.

It wasn’t until I’d finished brushing my teeth and rinsing my mouth, that I faced my swollen eyes in the mirror. Firming my jaw, I made a promise. First thing the next morning, I sent out personalized corrections to several women. I said how Chris died, and I included a photo of him in one of his proudest moments, bathing an elephant at a refuge in Laos. Overfilled with life, eager to try everything, he’d loved new experiences. After graduating high school, the first thing he did was save money to travel.

A young man smiles at the camera while hugging an elephant's trunk.
Chris beams while bathing an elephant on a trip to Laos. Photo provided by Debbie Bateman

I’ve had many opportunities since to make good on my promise and I’ve learned what to say—I have three sons. And if the situation is right, which happens most of the time, I’ll also explain how we lost one.

The days immediately after our son’s death remain a nightmare I wish I could forget. I shake my head at the things I did. Hugging each and every person as they arrived for his Celebration of Life, a greeting committee of one, the rest of the family wondering why I thought I had to do such a thing. And after the ceremony, asking my relations to join us for a walk in a quiet corner of Fish Creek Park where Chris liked to go. The small procession of adults and children and babies, strolling through the poplar trees, and me jogging past all of them mindlessly chanting, “I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.”

A month later, I landed hard on the truth. I’d never before needed simple human connection so desperately, but the fact that Chris killed himself scared many people away. The worst part was I could never predict who that might be. The world seemed filled with razor-sharp snares. Everywhere I turned, I tripped over unexpected pain.

Finally, in the middle of yet another sleepless night, I decided to set off the traps all at once. I identified my social groups, elected a spokesperson from each, and asked them to spread the news. I said I could not keep repeating the story. Each time it crossed my lips, I was re-traumatized. There was both truth and dishonesty in my behaviour. If there were people who were going to desert me, I wanted to know who they were so I would not rely on them.

But from the start, there were those who refused to look away. Old friends from another province who’d phone only to listen to me sobbing time and time again, or who’d make a trip over the mountains to see me because they knew I needed to not be alone. Some of these people had serious depression or anxiety, struggles of their own, and I’d assumed talking about suicide would be too hard on them. I was wrong. Those people were often the strongest.

And new friends, who included me in their social plans, offering an invitation, accepting if I was not ready and offering again. My place at Mary’s table, the passing of food, the talking and the laughter, eased the loneliness and started friendships. Tracy and I had only begun to find out all we have in common, but I’d enjoyed sitting next to her on the sectional, talking about her mentoring and art. Not long after the ladies’ night, she invited me for a walk. It was easier to say yes, now that I’d shared what was hardest to say.

We’d had a lot of snow followed by rain followed by snow. The trails through the Douglas fir forest were treacherous and we held on to each other over the icy patches. My feet were unstable, I was the first to fall, and since we were supporting each other, she went down too. All of us carry painful losses. Tracy shared hers before asking about mine, and when we landed on the slippery trail, she pushed herself up before giving me a hand. 

As I told her about Chris’s life and death, we continued our walk with our elbows linked, undeterred by the possibility of falling again. Tracy was unafraid of unbearable loss, the sorrow that takes you down, the tears that choke you. 

The Journal of Psychosocial Nursing published a study by Amy Evans and Kathleen Abrahamson called “The Influence of Stigma on Suicide Bereavement.” Along with the unbearable weight of a grief brought on by sudden loss, people bereaved by suicide reported feeling shamed, blamed and judged. They felt socially distanced, often from people they once thought close. Sometimes they didn’t believe they could grieve openly, that they needed to hide what happened to avoid negative reactions.

Every year, about 4,000 Canadians die by suicide. After accidents, it’s the second leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 34. That’s a lot of silence. That’s a lot of feeling ashamed. I lead a quiet life, but within my small social circle, I know more people who lost a family member this way than I can count on the fingers of both hands. They came forward after they heard of our loss. Together, we form a private club. I’d known some of these people for years without realizing what they’d been through.

Those who grieve agree seasonal celebrations like Christmas are hardest, filled as they are with moments of closeness, memories of being amongst those we love most. And there we all are, my family of choice, the five of us sprawled around the living room in pajamas and messy hair. The sun comes in through the window, coloured lights sparkle on the tree, and Chris pulls his fleece over his face and roars in the middle of opening presents because we’re that kind of a family. We love a laugh and we aren’t afraid of being silly.

And there’s Chris, age four, lingering in the kitchen whenever I make pies. He stands on a stool and smells the cinnamon and asks why lemon peel tastes stronger than the juices inside. And there we are again, through all those years, two decades and more, making the same types of pies. The two of us, working through the steps with care and focus. Talking and laughing, with flour on our hands and soft shells lining pie dishes, as we spice the pumpkin or use brandy to flambe tart apples. At the dinner table, when he takes his first bite of pie, he looks at me with a subtle nod and smile.

When someone suggested our Chris could have an addiction to cocaine, we decided to approach him as a family. I remember how his eyes glistened, how his mouth seemed uncertain, when he said it was not true. And so, I asked a second time, and his voice grew large with contempt as he went on about the despicable things cocaine addicts do. He called them scum, said they couldn’t keep a job, had no relationships, stole from people, ruined their lives. 

We’d known for a while that he struggled with depression and was taking medication. He didn’t look like a person with a drug problem. I’d never noticed him high. I didn’t want to believe it was possible he was telling us about himself, an addict whose life was unravelling. He’d ended his relationship and lost his job. Why did we not see this?

In the void of biting silence, we are all alone. The last time I spoke to him, I said he did not seem himself, something was wrong, and whatever it was he could share it with us. He said what he often said—that he was not the kind of guy to talk about feelings. In the hide-and-seek game we’d been playing for months, it was time to open the closets and check under the beds. I was afraid of him drifting further out of reach, so I said it was okay if he didn’t want to talk right now, but I would keep asking. He told me it was hard looking for a job, because that was a story he thought I could believe. And then, he hung up the phone.

With enough persistence, the messages of stigma come to live inside the object of blame where they do even greater harm. A hungry stomach bloated with self-loathing may begin to refuse food. A soul may be convinced it must always be apart, that company is meant for others, that we are never truly welcome. Of the gifts we can no longer share with our son, I wish the most to have him at our table, to watch him give way to the empty belly of his soul, to let it fill, to find ease to the pangs of isolation. I would tell him we will always hold a place for him.

Local support groups

Cowichan Hospice and Nanaimo Hospice both offer grief counselling and other support, including groups and resources for people living with suicide loss and other traumatic loss.

The Cowichan Community Action Team is working to end the poisoned drug crisis and the stigma of drug use.

Resources to learn more

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