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How I Kept Going After Losing Both My Children

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This piece is by Jamie Simmer, 56.

My name is Jamie Simmer and I am 56-years-old. I was raised in a chaotic, unpredictable family environment between Michigan, Virginia, and Florida. I lived most of my adult life in the Southwest in Arizona and New Mexico. After finding myself single with two little boys and financially struggling I decided I needed to go to college. I was 27 when I started. By the time I was 36 I had gained a Master's Degree in Social Work (MSW) from Arizona State University.

It's funny, because of my crazy childhood, growing up, my only desire in life was to be a wife and a mom. I was a young mom, 20, when Mikal was born and Christian came along three and a half years later. I remember when I brought Mikal home for the first time. He was so tiny and I was so scared. By the time Christian was born, I was a little older and more confident. I loved them so much. And I tried so hard to be a good mom, sometimes not really knowing what I was doing.

By the time I decided to go to college the boys were old enough to understand my college and career endeavors, and how important it was for me to provide a higher quality of life for us. They were so proud of me when I graduated. My son Mikal knew before he was a teen he was going to go to college. He used to tell me "don't worry mom, I'm going to make enough money and when you get old I will take care of you." At that time he thought he would be an architect and had promised to build a house for me. Christian was never a college-bound kid, but he was in agreement with Mikal that they would never put me in a nursing home. That used to make me laugh, they were so cute.

Fast forward by a few years. It came to light that Mikal, at age 19 or so, had a drug problem. I was living in California and he was living in Virginia with his grandparents. One day or evening, I don't remember which now, I received a call from his father telling me Mikal had a near fatal heroin overdose. It was shocking news. He went through treatment, jail time, probation etc.. Around 18 months later he had gone back to school and was majoring in journalism and photography and was doing very well.

On Labor Day, September 4, 2000 I received a call from Mikal's grandfather who told me "Mikal overdosed on heroin last night and he's gone now." I was in a state of disbelief not really knowing what to do or say. I went through all the stages of grief and sadness with the love and support of my family and friends; and my very special Boxer, Winston. At some point during the process my family asked me to go into therapy because I was just so agitated all of the time.

Eventually, with a lot of resistance I agreed to go and with the awesome help and support of an awesome therapist, I began to heal. She had me watch the movie "Our Town," which is a movie about life and death and how loved ones heal from their losses. She also had me read "Bad Things Happen to Good People" by Harold Kushner. I really struggled with blaming myself for Mikal's death and that book helped give me a more realistic perspective.

About six months after Mikal's death it was discovered my mother's breast cancer had come back and had spread. She had about six weeks left. My brother and I cared for her with hospice in his home until her last moments. At times I did not think I could handle any more emotional distress ... it was just too much!! My son, and now my mom?!

My younger son Christian was a hot shot, a wildland firefighter. After so much loss I struggled with not being overprotective and instead remaining supportive of what he loved doing so much. By then I had learned to manage my grief and created a new life adjusting to life without Mikal and my mom.

Almost exactly four years later, on August 14, 2004, I received a call from Johnny, one of Christian's firefighter buddies. He was crying and he said "Christian is gone, I tried to get him and I couldn't." His voice trailed off and he hung up. Christian and his friends were boating and he slipped on the boat, cracked his head, and sank in the water. He was discovered by a sonar at 150 feet deep. It took the rescue team five weeks to come up with equipment and a special dive team to recover him on September 19. It was as if I was told he died again. I had fantasized that maybe he was wandering around with amnesia.

I don't really understand how I have survived and gone on with this life that is so diabolically opposing to the life I dreamt about as a child; so often I would like to just stay in bed under the covers but, the sun comes up every day, and I continue to put one foot in front of the other. I have found that humor in my life has been critical; but I lost the ability to laugh for a long time. If I did laugh or experience joy I felt guilty: how could I laugh or be happy with two dead children?

I relied heavily on friends and family to carry me through the roughest of times and still do. Sometimes I think my grief may be a burden to those who care about me, because I will forever have this grief and profound bouts of sadness, but I have learned that these people love me and I am allowed to feel whatever I need to feel.

Today I am a therapist working with members of the military. It's my way of giving back.

Last but not least, a healing element for me has been warm tropical waters. When I am in those waters I experience a cathartic release of grief each time. Planning my next adventure always gives me something to look forward to and I always imagine how much my boys would also enjoy themselves. Hmm, where will I go next?

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