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I Hugged My Son Goodbye And He Began His First Week Of College. Then I Never Saw Him Again.

The author and her son Henry in 2022.
The author and her son Henry in 2022.

The author and her son Henry in 2022.

Most of us live our happiest days unaware — not knowing they’ve vanished until we find ourselves in times of sickness, ill fortune or isolation.

Now, when I deal with life’s smaller struggles — if my kitchen ceiling is leaking, my family argues about politics, or I receive yet another parking ticket — I remind myself that things could be so much worse.

This might be the happiest I’ll ever be.

***

In the summer of 2022, my husband Chuck and I sent Henry, our 18-year-old son, off to college. He’d overcome so many challenges to get there: attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, and difficulty connecting with other kids. As he matured, he gained confidence by participating in cross-country running, drama and debate. He developed a rapport with his peers by listening more and talking less. When he flew to college, he left behind friends from high school, summer jobs and youth groups. He was ready academically and had even earned a merit scholarship.

Henry arrived early to hike with other incoming freshmen. When I met him on campus the following week during his orientation, he introduced me to his new classmates. I joined them for a meal in the dining hall, attended a presentation for parents and helped him get settled.

On Friday, when it was time for me to leave, I placed my hands around Henry’s middle, pressed my right cheek to his chest, closed my eyes and squeezed. At that moment, I was embracing every version of my son: chunky baby, curious toddler, zany seventh grader in braces, hungry teenager, all the rest I knew and had known. After one final hug — Henry’s signature move — I left for the airport.

***

The following Monday night, around midnight, Chuck and I were awakened by two policemen who told us Henry had been killed.

Earlier that evening, on the first day of classes, Henry had hung out with fellow students after dinner. An unstable structure near him collapsed, and it killed him and injured two other students.

Just like that, he’s gone.

The author with Henry, age 9.
The author with Henry, age 9.

The author with Henry, age 9.

***

The middle of my chest starts to ache, the way it does when something terrible might happen. But it already has. I’ll never again feel my arms around my son’s broad shoulders. There is so much. It’s too much.

How is this possible? I helped Henry unpack in his dorm room. We put away his jeans, mountains of socks, shower shoes and toiletries, a book he was excited to read called “The Nordic Theory of Everything,” Kind bars, and cups of Dr. McDougall’s Black Bean & Lime instant soup.

In an instant, every expectation for our family and our future was obliterated.

I can still see his crooked smile and feel the warmth of his goodbye hugs.

In my mind, I’m still planning for parents weekend, Thanksgiving, sending his winter clothes, and on and on and on. I see a future of family dinners with my two sons.

None of this will happen. 

***

All children are incredible — and so was Henry. He was an ineffable combination: quirky and clumsy, brilliant and handsome, honest and kind. As a young boy, he was obsessed with collecting rocks and would quickly fall behind whenever we hiked. Once his pockets were bulging, he’d store them inside his tucked shirt until his belly grew large. We’d stop and start until we agreed on the number he could keep. One summer, he filled an entire duffle bag with stones before returning home from camp.

In elementary school, he constantly misplaced things: his backpack, jacket, lunchbox or violin. We’d find them everywhere except his classroom. Like an absent-minded professor, he wore his shirts inside out or backward or both, and he rarely brushed his hair. He was a vegetarian, and his favorite meal was chana masala followed by dulce de leche ice cream. He always hugged you twice when he said goodbye.

As he grew older, Henry became interested in public affairs. He loved reading about political corruption and arguing the merits of ranked choice voting. He spent hours on Reddit and shared funny memes I never understood. He was happiest in the company of other teenagers and attended youth group meetings and conferences, even when he didn’t know anyone. He had a wonderful open-mouthed smile and connected to many teens who needed a friend. Henry created his own butterfly effect by weaving laughter and light into the lives of others. We’ll never know how many.

Henry on his 18th birthday.
Henry on his 18th birthday.

Henry on his 18th birthday.

***

It’s been about a year since Henry died, and I’ve only started to process the enormity of his death.

Our family has spent these months as a close-knit unit, seeking therapy, attending loss groups, and passing time with loved ones. Acquaintances reveal tragedies from their pasts, and I’m more attuned to the sadness of strangers. I’ve connected with over a dozen grieving parents in my support groups, each with a heart-wrenching story. We understand and accept each other’s losses in a way no one else can.

Before Henry died, I didn’t understand the all-pervading nature of grief. It’s the background noise I hear all day long — a constant hum — reminding me that Henry is dead. Even if I put on a colorful dress, straighten my hair and apply makeup, I’m still brokenhearted. I don’t want to hear that I must be recovering because I look well.

It helps when people acknowledge that his death is a catastrophe, that nothing will ever be the same for those who knew and loved him. My best moments are when people share a loving memory of my son and I know they haven’t forgotten him.

***

I’m still living, but at a lower volume.

Every day, I move forward knowing that Henry will not. I avoid large celebrations, go walking with friends, host small family brunches and summon my best memories.

Mostly, I focus on the well-being of my younger son and only living child. This past year, I made sure he had access to grief therapy, support groups and academic assistance to complete high school from home. He spent time tending our garden, experimenting in the kitchen, and visiting cousins and friends. He wrote and delivered a beautiful speech at Henry’s “celebration of life” event in the spring.

Unbelievably, he’s starting college this fall in Washington, D.C., more than 2,000 miles from where we live — exactly a year after Henry started college.

He’s excited to study, live in the dorms, explore the city — in short, live the life of a college freshman.

There is no excitement for Chuck and me, just dread.

We struggled with his decision. Is he safer at home? Something terrible could happen in D.C., but something terrible could happen anywhere, at any time.

We’re powerless to prevent disaster.

Henry in his dorm room during move-in.
Henry in his dorm room during move-in.

Henry in his dorm room during move-in.

We decided the only way for us to truly get comfortable with his move is to move with him. We gave him the chance to say no. He’s not thrilled by the idea, but he agreed, as long as we keep our distance. He may recognize how important this is for our mental well-being.

We sublet the home of a professor on leave. There’s space for my husband and I to both work remotely. My son and I wrapped up loose ends at home, filled several duffle bags with clothing and dorm room supplies, and flew east. Chuck packed up the car and drove across the country with our dog, Ramona. 

Our son is now settled in the dorms, and we’re easing into our new neighborhood.

It’s not a perfect situation, but it’s a way for our family to move forward.

Maybe there are other ways — dealing with grief is different for everyone — but this is what feels right, at least for now.

I do not know what will happen after this year passes. I don’t know how I will feel or who I will be then. So much has changed in the last year. All I can do is wish for good days ahead and never take anything for granted. 

This might be the happiest I’ll ever be.

Elizabeth Kopple is a creative nonfiction writer who explores life through the lens of a grieving mother. She inspires readers who have endured the loss of a child with her experiences of her late son, Henry. Elizabeth is also a professional B2B marketer, helping fintechs support financial inclusion. She and her husband share their time between Santa Monica, California, and Washington, D.C., where their youngest son attends college.

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