This Is Us

Ashes, Ashes Everywhere

On losing, and finding, my son

Ben’s hat, Mt. Garfield Summit

The first days after my son’s suicide were punctuated with question marks. Words uttered in library whispers by well-meaning relatives or friends hinted at the questions that always swirl around suicide. None of them were answerable, except to say that my son was fiercely private about his inner struggles. He didn’t want to burden anyone by sharing his darkness, so he hid it all behind smiles and laughter.

I preferred the questions I could answer, the simpler ones related to the business of death.

Who is writing the obituary?
I am, with input from my family.

Where do you want to publish it?
Online and in our home newspaper.

Burial or cremation?
Cremation, please.

We have a range of options for the body, from an unadorned box to the fanciest of caskets. What do you prefer?
The box suits him; he used to keep his clothes together with duct tape.

Do you want remembrance jewelry?
Jewelry? Oh, with ashes in them?

What kind of container do you want for the ashes? Where do you want to put them?

These last two questions stumped me.

One of Ben’s professors in college deemed him a “force of nature,” a description so apt we used it in the obituary. Ben was elemental, connected to the natural world he loved, and he was impossible to contain in life. His spirit seemed too large for any container to hold him in death.

Ben never stayed anywhere for long. His grandmother called him her will-o’-the-wisp, an element that drifted in and out of her life, dropping by without notice to share an order of crab rangoon or raid her refrigerator for leftovers. A sudden invitation to spend a week at a friend’s slope-side cabin coupled with an impending snowstorm saw him depart a family visit — right after dinner, on Christmas Eve — to drive north. He never could resist the siren’s song of fresh snow.

Unannounced, last-minute adventures were his signature. He existed in so many places to me: How could we confine him to a single location in death?

Any decision seemed impossible. I needed time to think about it, to talk to my husband and our children.

We settled on scattering tubes, which come in several varieties and sizes depending on the purpose. We chose cardboard single-use tubes with outdoor scenes, like a sunset or the mountains, for Ben’s closest friends. There were small, discreet wooden tubes for travel to distant areas. And resealable metal ones in velvet cases for scattering ashes in multiple places.

But the containers we chose didn’t hold all the ashes. I received a box containing the rest the day of the funeral. I knew there were still places he longed to go, and I would take him.

The funeral director’s face paled when I asked him to tell me about the ashes, but he patiently explained that the remains are similar in size and weight to a five-pound sack of flour. Later, when I looked it up, I learned that the composition and color of remains are influenced by their exposure to minerals, metals, and elements stored in the bones. The amount of body fat can affect the color. (More body fat can cause the ashes to be darker in color, for example.)

The first time I held Ben’s remains in my hand was after his funeral, sitting at the Penobscot River in the spot where he meditated. Sunlight warmed my face as I opened the scattering tube. The grief was settling into my soul, weighing on me in inverse proportion to the tiny pile of bone shards and powder — the consistency of sand — I held in my palm.

His ashes contain his every moment, birth to death, reduced to their essence, and they sparkle in the sunlight.

I dropped them into the river along with my heart and watched them swirl and sink slowly to the rocks. In the clear water, they caught the sunlight. Ben was so brilliant it was entirely logical that his ashes would shine, even underwater.

I realized Ben’s ashes are as unique in death as he was in his life. They are not just his bones. Call it energy, call it spirit, call it love in a different form. His ashes contain his every moment, birth to death, reduced to their essence, and they sparkle in the sunlight.

Friends and family took ashes to honor our lost adventurer on adventures of their own. It’s become a group project, a tribute to him. Ben’s lifelong best friend chose Mt. Katahdin, Maine’s highest mountain and the site of one of their most epic camping adventures. His three high school buddies tubed down their favorite river and planted sunflowers at the apple orchard they all loved. A close college friend traveled a favorite trail with an overlook in Connecticut. His aunt visited an Arizona desert canyon. A cousin went to cliffs on the Irish coast. One of my dearest friends ventured to the Arctic Circle, and sending me pictures of “beer with Ben” from the trip to get there.

Ben kept many of his relationships separate, private. All of these people were part of his story in life, and they remain part of his story by honoring him in death. I know his friends and family take him to places that symbolize his meaning in their lives or places he would have visited. Words, thoughts, the manner of scattering, whether tears were shed — I have no wish to know the details. It’s enough to know they loved my son.

I resolved to take Ben on adventures as a way to remember him and try to make peace with his loss. I’ve taken him to a music festival, ridden on a float in a Mardi Gras parade, and gone whitewater rafting down the Penobscot. I’ve gone backpacking and camped out solo. I’ve been on open mountaintops, deep woods, waterfalls, rivers, oceans. Brilliant sunshine, blowing snow, dense fog, drenching rain. Sunrise, sunset, and every hour in between.

There have been days my travels felt effortless, and days it was hard and heavy. Days the ashes felt weightless and ethereal, and days the metal tube weighed my entire body down.

But I find my son. I see him standing on peaks, wading through streams, feeling the spray of waterfalls, or watching ocean waves. He always said he felt most himself when he was outside drinking in the wonder of the world.

When the timing suits me and I feel him, I sprinkle a tiny handful of his ashes and take a picture of his hat, which has a suicide remembrance ribbon made by his auntie pinned to it, and my remembrance necklace: a green malachite pendant for the color of his eyes, and a small, ash-filled, silver bead.

Some images will stay with me. The double rainbow on Garfield at the end of a two-day trek is etched in my brain. If I close my eyes, I am back in Yellowstone, on my snowshoes in the brilliant sun, listening to wolf-song wash over me. It was a mile away, but it echoed up the valley so loud that I felt it on my skin.

I look up and imagine the sweep of the eagle in the Cascades as it flew, eye-level, across a mountain peak. I see the bighorn ram standing mere feet away, posing and peaceful, on the Continental Divide in Glacier. I feel the peace of watching the sunset from West Bond in the White Mountains of New Hampshire or the majesty of Knife Edge on Mt. Katahdin, the rooftop of Baxter State Park and Ben’s favorite hike.

I think Ben sends me these moments, and I store them away in my heart. Maybe if I gather enough of these moments, they will start to fill the emptiness of loss—or at least begin to make the space less jarring. But these moments have to be earned. They come at the end of long, arduous treks, after overcoming some obstacle or taking a step forward and learning a lesson.

Life is fragile and messy. We can lose ground, and love can so quickly be reduced to ashes. But as I’ve scattered my son’s remains from one coast to the other, a tiny handful at a time, my connection with him has remained unbroken.

Whether scattering their ashes a tiny bit at a time or all at once, doing so can help honor and remember loved ones. There are moments of peace and grace to be found in the act of sending their essence into the air or water or earth.

When I scatter Ben’s remains, I gain understanding. I catch glimpses of my son, and his life, and our love, in the sparkle of his ashes everywhere.

A mother, a wife, a high school English teacher, and a suicide loss survivor on a quest for understanding and healing.

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