Name: Leyla Nickerson
Tell me about the person who died:
Devon is my son, but more importantly he was my teacher. He was a beautiful burst of energy that flashed through 26 years. He was an adventurer, cyclist, farmer, singer/songwriter, poet, horseman, lover of life. It is impossible to illustrate the essence of Devon in just a few words. He moved through life with an urgency to experience as many different kinds of things and people as possible, but despite the speed at which he moved, he always took the time to make genuine connections and create lasting friendships. This was what gave his life true meaning and would be his most cherished accomplishment.
The lessons I have learned from Devon's life are profound. He understood that we are given a life to live fully, not to waste. He lived with the realization that control is an illusion and that we need to make every day count by following our passions and dreams and staying true to ourselves.
He accidentally fell from a building on May 2, 2010–the darkest day of my life. Sharing a life with Devon has been my greatest joy and my deepest sorrow but the love we share is eternal.
What has your experience of grief been like since your loss? How did it change over time?
The loss of my son has been the most devastating experience of my life. I previously experienced many losses—both my parents, my sister and brother—but nothing could have prepared me for the depth of sorrow and suffering of losing my child. Physically I felt as if someone had cut out my heart with a very dull knife. Many times I literally could not breathe. I felt shattered into thousands of pieces and had no thoughts of putting them back together. I truly wished only to die and be with my son; I could think of nothing else. Every day was filled with visions of him and each moment was more painful than the last.
At some point, after several weeks or months maybe, I came to realize that I needed to make a decision about whether I wanted to live or die. It came to me that by giving up I would be dishonoring my son and everything he believed in. About a year after his death, I met other mothers who had lost children. By meeting these women who knew the depth of my grief but were actually living, I started to see some hope that perhaps I could find a path to a new life. The courage and compassion of these women became my lifeline. Today, six years after losing my son, I host and facilitate grief groups with another mom, and we continually support mothers by companioning them through their journey of grief. I have also become a yoga instructor and conduct workshops for healing grief. This has been my path to my own healing. Devon's life and death have taught me to cherish and live my life fully, even though my heart aches every single day for my son.
If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape, what would it look like and feel like at different points since your loss?
It felt like I was plunged into a dark, bottomless pool of cold water. Dark blue or black. Tidal waves crashing over my head and feeling myself being pulled down, down, down. The landscape would be rubble—as if a bomb had exploded and everything was dead—but then, the sun starts to creep up over the horizon and I see one small seedling coming up out of the devastation. Each day something new might sprout and I start to see more green, and then the day comes when I notice that the sky isn't black anymore, it’s a beautiful blue. The bees are singing and buzzing, flying from one yellow sunflower to the next.
Tell me about an object that that reminds you of the person who died, and why?
Devon cared nothing for material items except for his beloved bicycles. He loved cycling and rode his bike across the country with his two friends. I have many pictures of him on different bikes. He also really wanted to be a hobo and make his way across country by jumping trains—this is something he never got to.
How have the people in your life supported you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
The support of other mothers who have lost a child has been the most powerful support I have received. I am also blessed to have the most wonderful man in my life—my husband, Jeff. We came together about a year before I lost Devon. Even though we were both in our fifties, this was the first time either of us had experienced true love. He supported me with loving kindness and compassion; we had help from a counselor too. I don't think I would have made it without him.
In spite of this support, at times I have felt a great deal of isolation. We live in a society that has no understanding of how to handle grief or offer support, especially when you lose a child. No one wants to even imagine that it could happen to them, so some people avoided me. I was pretty angry about it at first, but have come to understand that they just didn't know what to do. Like talking about my son—I love to talk about him! It's so strange that some people think it will make me more sad. Do they really think that I don't have him on my mind every day—just like they do when their children are alive? I have become more tolerant of people's behavior but sometimes it really does hurt when family members or close friends forget his "angel date" or other significant times.
How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice?
Devon's brother, Nathan, tried his best to support me but it was very difficult for me to understand why he was grieving so differently. His perspective was, "I cannot let my emotions overtake me; I have to put it in a box and stuff it under the bed.” Over time I came to realize that he has suffered deeply too, but his path was different. He seemed able to let only a little grief in at a time; he needed to keep his equilibrium because he had a family with small children to support. We do talk about Devon more now after six years. I want his children to know who Devon was. I want to keep his memory alive and I think that Nathan is on board with that now.
Has anything surprised you about your experience with grief?
I am surprised that I have been able to survive this devastation. I remember in the past when someone lost a child I used to think: that would be it, I couldn't live through that. I guess I am surprised about the courage that I have been able to find in myself. I knew that Devon would be really pissed off at me if I gave up.
Was there anything about your cultural or religious background that affected the grieving process for you?
I come from a New England, Anglo-Saxon background where, as my mother used to put it, "We don't wear our heart on our coat sleeve." Personally, I think I have evolved from that upbringing and I do not feel uncomfortable expressing my grief. Religiously, I have a Buddhist practice which helped me cope with my grief in a big way. While my religion did not exactly allow me to make sense of this tragedy, it did give me the understanding that suffering is part of living and I do not have to let it defeat me.
Were there any personal or public rituals or structures that helped you in your grief?
I have an altar with pictures of my son and other family members who have passed away. I have opened my mind and heart to the possibility of signs from my son and have experienced many moments of knowing he is always with me. My Buddhist practice, which includes chanting, has been an integral part of my healing. Each year on the anniversary of Devon's death, my family gathers at the place where his ashes were put into the water and we walk and share stories of Devon. In the beginning, I walked almost every day at the beach where his ashes are. Also, my friend and I host a candle-lighting ceremony each December; it is a lovely way to remember and commemorate our children. I believe rituals are a very important part of remembering and honoring the people we lose.
How has your loss and your experience of grief changed you?
My grief experience has changed me profoundly. I no longer fear the future. I try my best to appreciate every aspect of my life, whether positive or negative, and realize that life, although extremely challenging, is also very beautiful. My son had a tattoo on his wrist, which I now have on my own: "Life is life.” He learned this from a homeless man many years ago. To me this simply means that life is not something we can control and that as long as we are alive, we will experience both joy and suffering. Accepting both is the best way to live.
This post is part of Grief Landscapes, an evolving art project documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief. Participants share an experience with bereavement, and I photograph an object that evokes the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the story.