I am no stranger to death. My grandparents and both my parents have passed. Some of my friends’ parents have died, and a very close friend of mine lost her young son. In addition, through the years working with individuals with long histories of living on the streets, I have also experienced the loss of more people than I can count, many of whom, if not for their service providers, would have died alone and unremembered.
For me, someone dying opens doors to emotions that are uncomfortable and hard to hold: deep sadness, loss, emptiness, anger, regret… At times overwhelming and raw. At times numb and flat. And there are also great waves of love and gratitude. Love and gratitude for having spent time and for knowing the deceased, and love and gratitude for the friends and family that gather in mourning and remembrance of the loved one who has passed.
A few weeks ago, a young man I know, Alex, took his own life. The typical emotions came up, but there were also other feelings: guilt, why’s, and what if’s. Deaths brought on by cancer, or heart conditions, or old age, or even tragic accidents, feel out of the scope of my control. And while I intellectually know someone killing themselves is also out of the scope of my control, I do not feel that in my heart. I suppose guilt and questioning myself and our society for not being more or different, is a part of the grief process. But I don’t want it to be just that. I want us to do better as a society.
There is literally an epidemic of people taking their own lives in our country. Every three days in Vermont, someone kills themselves. I do not claim to know all the answers, but I do know some things. Today, however, I am not going to write about society and best practices. Today I am going to write about Alex.
I first met Alex five years ago when he applied to be a support person for my son Joshua who has significant challenges due to his autism diagnosis. Alex loved my son, and I believe my son loved Alex.
Alex was the best combination of intelligence, humor, goofiness, heart, caring for folks that were struggling, and trying to make the world a better place. He also had a “can do” attitude and willingness to try things that were a little unconventional.
It was these qualities that gave my son the opportunity to live independently in the community when he was faced with the possibility of having to live in adult foster care. Alex was part of a team that supported my son, against all conventional wisdom, to live in his own apartment. And for that, I am forever grateful. My son has been successfully living in his own apartment for almost five years. Alex was a big part of making that possibility a reality.
Not long after Alex started working with Josh, Alex reached out to me because he was looking for an internship opportunity to fulfill a requirement as part of his studies at UVM and he was very interested in Pathways Vermont. While Alex started out as an intern on our Housing First team, he quickly became an employee. Alex was deeply committed to the work we do. He had an sweet and sincere ability to connect with, and care for, not only the people we serve, but also his fellow colleagues.
This ache I have in my heart will fuel me to continue to advocate for more programs like the ones at Pathways Vermont that Alex championed. Programs that value love, respect, connection, and creating community. And I know I will continue to see Alex and his spirit everyday. I will see him in the continued successes of my son’s independent living. I will see him in the community of loving support at Pathways Vermont.