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Paying tribute to my lost son on Mother’s Day

By Robert Mehnert

We all face life-changing moments—marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, that big promotion. These moments change us in many ways large and small; some we realize and some we don’t. They impact our relationships with family, friends, and work colleagues.

My most challenging moment came almost two years ago: the loss of my special-needs son, Ryan.

Ryan passed away the Sunday before Father’s Day. His death certainly complicated the holiday. My wife had already had him sign a card for me—and to this day, I have not opened that card. I have it tucked away, though I pull it out every now and then. But I can’t bring myself to actually open it. I just don’t want to. I know it won’t change anything.

Kyle and I both focused on doing everything in our power to make the day as special as we could, in a way that worked for her.

Mother’s Day the following year was also a bit of a blur. Our other son, Kyle, made a trip home to spend the weekend with us. The actual day was a bit melancholy—it held a mixture of emotions. My wife didn’t want to go out for breakfast because many restaurants give flowers to mothers, and she didn’t want to be a part of that. So, Kyle and I both focused on doing everything in our power to make the day as special as we could, in a way that worked for her. We made her favorite dinner at home, which was more comfortable than going out.

In my opinion, the build-up to holidays like this is always worse than the holiday itself, and I think that’s an important reminder to others. I always anticipate the grief that I will feel. And I think people get that the first Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and birthday following Ryan’s passing were difficult, but they see those days as single, individual days that were hard. They don’t realize that the time leading up to the actual holiday is when I feel the most unfocused and distracted, and therefore need the most support.

This year, my wife and I will spend Mother’s Day weekend doing a fundraiser for the Special Olympics. Even though Ryan’s not here, my wife and I have remained active with groups that enriched Ryan’s life. We coach, serve on the board, and lead the fundraising efforts for the Special Olympics branch in our city. I hope this acts as a bit of a distraction, something to focus on besides the approach of the actual day itself. And it’s important to us that we support the team and all the athletes. Most of them were Ryan’s friends, and we don’t want to let them down by having a bad fundraiser!

No doubt the loss of Ryan has changed me, just like his life changed me. 

No doubt the loss of Ryan has changed me, just like his life changed me. I have had incredible support along the way, from Kyle and my wife, and especially from my colleagues at work—I can’t overstate just how much knowing that I had the support of my “work family” has helped me navigate this path I am traveling.

I write letters to Ryan. In a way, it is my therapy. I have probably written a hundred letters this year. Most I write, read a day or two later, and delete—an electronic way of letting these thoughts go. I have shared a few just because it felt right to share them. I’m sharing this one I wrote on the first anniversary of his death, as a way of detailing this journey.

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Dear Ryan,

Well, it’s officially now been a year since you left us—physically anyway. One year without being able to hold your hand, hear your giggle, and watch you dance as you listen to your favorite songs. It’s really odd; it feels like this year has flown by, but it’s also been the longest and hardest year of my life. So many long nights where sleep just won’t come—like tonight. So many times I hear a laugh and think it is you, only to catch myself as I turn and look toward that laugh, knowing that it can’t be you. Such a shattering, empty feeling.

Tears still come easily and sometimes out of nowhere. But those moments now pass a little more quickly and are usually followed by smiles. In this year, I’ve learned that there are no words in the English language to explain how deeply I miss you. I can say I yearn for you, but it doesn’t fully capture what I feel. There are plenty of other words I could use—ache, hunger, long, thirst, crave, and, since you were a Texan, hanker. None of them even come close to what I feel. Not sure why I let this lack of a word frustrate me, but it does.

I guess I never really knew just how many people’s lives you touched in your journey.

I don’t want you to think that this past year has only been about sadness and tears. You have been honored in so many wonderful ways by so many great people. Some beautiful and lasting tributes. Folks have shared stories about you, too. Stories of moments they had with you that I had never heard. I guess I never really knew just how many people’s lives you touched in your journey. You were well loved—and not just by me, Mom, Kyle, and Aimee.

We were so lucky to have you in our family! It’s true that, for some reason, God decided to present you with many unique challenges, both physically and intellectually. Those challenges seemed so unfair at times, but you fought through them all like a champ and—I don’t know if this explains what I’m thinking—you simply lived. You worked hard to be happy, to live a complete and full life. To bring smiles and laughter into your world—and you were so good at it!

You taught me what really matters in life—making life better for those you care about and love.

There is no doubt that having you in my life changed me, and for the better. Simply put, you made me a better man. You taught me what really matters in life—making life better for those you care about and love. I’ve tried to keep that in mind this past year. Some days that is easier than others. Sometimes when I am helping others, the only thing on my mind is how much I wish it was you I was helping. I know that sounds selfish, but it is what I feel.

You still come to me in dreams every now and then. The other night, you were sitting at the table with your grandfather, eating chocolate cake for breakfast. You were both so happy, but then your grandmother came in and scolded your grandfather for letting you eat cake for breakfast! You broke out into one of your famous belly laughs because he was in trouble! I was in the room, but none of you saw me—at least, no one responded when I talked. It was a sad and comforting dream at the same time, and I did get to hear that laugh, if only in a dream!

Now we move on to whatever comes next. We’ve survived all the “firsts”—Father’s Day (I still have not opened your card to me from last year), Mother’s Day, Christmas, your birthday (by far the hardest day for me), and a whole host of other days and events with special memories. We know we face more days that will feel incomplete, where missing your presence will dominate the day and where knowing my love for you will never fade. Honestly, that is pretty much how this whole year has been.

Wish you were here . . . 

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