What is it like when those closest to you are not there any longer?
Friday, March 22, 2019; After School
Kevin pulled out a spiral notebook from his backpack then tore out the top sheet and handed it to Dr. Ranse. She took it and started to read.
When she finished reading, she looked up.
“So, it seems to me,” Kevin said, “that the only option that results in a problem is number 1. Do you agree?”
She studied his list for a moment, then said, “In number 2, my suggestion would be to wait until two or three weeks after the tutoring is over before the two of you go out together. That doesn’t mean you can’t visit each other, just don’t go out where someone might think you’re dating. For example, if you go to a movie, the two of you should go with other friends.”
“Okay, that makes sense. Let me write that on your list. I’ll update my copy, too.”
Kevin added an asterisk to number 2 and wrote her comment at the bottom of the page and returned it to her. Then he added it to his copy.
“Thanks for your suggestion about number 2. That’s a good addition.”
“Why would you do number three, four, and five? I don’t see any reason for you to tell either Mr. McBride or Mr. Langer.”
“I guess I was thinking that if we told one of them then they wouldn’t find out about us on their own or because some kid finds out and tells them.”
“I don’t see that as a reasonable option.”
“I don’t either. It’s just there because it’s another option.”
“There is one other thing. What if you were meeting with a… let’s say, straight tutor for chemistry. And you met Alex on campus and mentioned you were being tutored, and he suggested that he could help you. Why couldn’t you two do that?”
“We could. But he wouldn’t be able to come into the chem lab when I’m doing an experiment or taking an exam. In that case, my official tutor would be there and would make Alex leave. There’s no reason I couldn’t get someone else to help me as long as the help wasn’t while I was taking an exam or doing an experiment.
“The tutors are students from Edison, and they get credit for the tutoring they do. It goes on their records, and they include it as a community service activity when they’re filling out their college applications. That’s why it could be a problem for Alex since he is my tutor.”
“Ah, Now I see,” she said. “You want to avoid problems for both you and for Alex.”
“Yes, that’s what I want.”
“Kevin, all of this is hypothetical. I’d say, play it by ear and whatever happens, you’ll have already thought about how to react.
“Alright, let’s move on to another topic. Were there any other things that happened during your first two days back at school you would like to talk about?”
“Yes, there were other things that happened and were good, and I’d like to tell you about them.
“When I got home Wednesday night, my friend Laura had called me. I told you about her. We’re in the same Algebra 2/Pre-Calc class, and she asked if we could get together at her house on Sunday to study for the next exam. That means I’ll be able to get caught up in that class.
“Everyone I met at school yesterday and today was super friendly and said they were glad I was back. No one said ‘Sorry’ about what happened. That, for me, was the very best thing because I didn’t have to respond to it. Also, all my teachers except one talked to me before or after class.”
“Who was the teacher who didn’t talk to you and what’s the class? I’m curious.”
“Mrs. Weston. She teaches my World History class. Not many kids like her; I guess I don’t, either. She’s not… personable. I think that’s the right word to used to describe her personality. Thing is, most kids don’t like the class, but I do. I think it’s interesting. So I just ignore her attitude.
“During lunch today I told Laura and Jeff — they’re my best friends — that I’m an emancipated minor, that I’m okay financially, and that I have people helping me like Connie and Mr. MacIntosh. And, I told them I’m seeing a therapist and why and it’s helping me a lot.”
“Thank you for that feedback, Kevin. Often the teens I counsel don’t provide feedback.”
“What I said is true. You’re helping me a lot. Thank you.
“So, you asked what else happened this week. Well, there were a lot of positive things. But I’m still not…” Kevin paused, trying to pick a word that would fit how he felt. “I’m not ready to get past what happened.”
“Do you think your friends can help you get over it?”
“I’ll never get over it! I’ll get around it because I have to, but it will always be there for as long as I live. It’s such an important part of my past, of my life. And it’s such a huge hole, I’m sure it’ll affect my future. I think that what my friends will do is help me get things together so I can lead as normal a life as possible.
“For example, I got phone calls from both uncles and aunts who live in Massachusetts and a call from my aunt and uncle who live in Florida, and they all left messages. Because of the time difference, I’ll call them back tonight.
“I also got a call from my cousin Don who lives in Vancouver, Canada. I called him back, and my aunt answered. I talked to her for a while, then I talked to my uncle for a while, and, I talked with Don for quite a while. I think that something’s going on with him. He told me he’d send me an email, and the email said he wants to talk to me in person, that my aunt and uncle are going out on Sunday night and he wanted to know if we could talk then. I texted him that it was okay.”
“What do you think it’s about?”
“I think he either has a problem at school and he doesn’t want to talk to his parents about it, or he has a problem with his parents. I like that he reached out wanting my help, no matter what it’s about. That made me feel that he trusts me and values my advice. It made me feel good.
“Anyway, it’s interesting that after seven weeks, I’m finally getting calls from people, both friends and relatives, and it’s all happening at the same time.”
He squinted at Dr. Ranse. “Are you sure you didn’t call them and ask them to call me?” He grinned, showing that he was kidding. “I’m glad it’s happening. You know, it’s giving me a way to get my life back on track, to be involved with other people and sometimes help with their problems.”
“They never called before? None of them?”
“My aunts and uncles called, once each. My cousins never called. Laura and Jeff never called. None of my other friends from school ever called. None of the neighbors ever called or came to the door to say hello or ask if I needed food or anything else. The school never called to find out why I was absent. I think that one’s really weird.”
“Kevin, did you ever reach out?”
“Yes, to Laura and Jeff and some other friends from school. I’d seen them and my aunts and uncles at the funeral. I got the list of everyone who signed the guest book of those who were there, and everyone on the list got a hand-written thank-you card with a personal note from me.”
Kevin thought about her question and his response for a while. Then he replied. “Are you’re saying that no one contacted me because I didn’t reach out enough? Is that something the person who’s grieving has to do? To reach out themselves, several times? Beyond thank-you cards with hand-written notes? If people had reached out to me, I would have talked to them. No one reached out. So what was I supposed to do? I figured that no one reached out to me because I’m just a kid. None of my relatives live anywhere near here, and they came to the funeral, except it was just the adults; my cousins didn’t come. They’re all kids mostly around my age.”
“Kevin, you’ve just listed examples of why people didn’t reach out to you. The adults didn’t know how to talk to you since, as you said, you’re just a kid. The kids you know, both your friends and relatives, don’t know how to talk to any adult or kid, not just you, after something terrible happens. We don’t teach kids how to respond to this kind of situation. It’s a failure of communication in both cases. I’ve seen that happen to some of my other young clients. Adults need to figure out how to teach their kids how to talk to each other. Even better, it should be taught in school. If we did that it would extend into their adult lives.
“It’s good that now your friends and relatives are reaching out and talking to you. That will increase now that you’re back at school. You’ve met someone, Alex, who could be another good friend. Can you see how this means things are starting to get better for you?”
Kevin sat and thought about her words and her question.
“Yes, I think things are getting better for me. But it’s taken so long to get to where I am today, and I still have a lot further to go. Makes me wonder how much longer it will take.
“There’s something else that’s a big problem. It realized it yesterday when I got home from school for the first time since I’ve been back. The house was so empty. And being alone, being lonely, is terrible.
Kevin dropped his head and was silent for a short period. When he spoke, he was still looking down, and his voice was soft and fragile. “I’m so lonely when I get home. I’m lonely because I miss my mom and dad and my brothers and sister. But you know that. Now my best friends know it, too. I told them about it. I don’t know what to do about it. What can I do about it, Dr. Ranse? What can I do so I won’t be lonely when I’m all alone at home?”
“Can you ask a friend to come home with you and do homework? You could ask a different friend each time. Would that help?”
“Yes. In fact, Laura and Jeff offered to come home with me one day a week each. Laura on Tuesdays and Jeff on Thursdays, and we’d do homework and play video games or watch TV and eat dinner together. Jeff even said he’d stay overnight with me, and we’d go to school together Friday mornings.” Kevin grinned. “Even though she offered, I’m sure Laura wouldn’t be allowed to stay overnight, and I wouldn’t want her to.
“Thing is, when they leave, the house will go back to being totally empty except for me. I’ll be alone again.”
“Are there some other kids you can invite to come over at other times, even if it’s not regularly?”
Kevin thought for a few seconds. “I could ask a friend from each of my other classes, the ones that Laura and Jeff aren’t in with me.”
“Which are those classes?”
“Let me think… AP Computer Science, Spanish 3, and Chemistry… no, scratch that. I already have Alex for Chemistry, even though he’s not in my class. He lives a couple blocks from me, so I think he’d be able to come over sometimes.”
“Once tennis starts up I’ll have matches two days a week after school, and we’ll have practice some days, too, and I’ll be with my teammates. I’ll get home later than usual those days. Getting home later is better.”
“Kevin, I have a related question. Why didn’t you move from your family home? It’s much larger than what you need. You could sell the house and move to a condo or an apartment. It wouldn’t be so large and so empty. It wouldn’t have all of those memories, memories you’re trying to avoid, to stop remembering.”
“You don’t understand! Moving won’t solve the problem of my memories. I’ll never forget those memories. If I move, I’d have to go into each bedroom and decide what to do with their things. Or I’d have to hire someone, a company, to come in and do it for me. Both are terrible choices. I can’t do it myself. Hiring someone else to do it is worse, much worse, because it means I’d be abandoning the memories I have of my family. I can’t do that. Not now. Not ever. I want to keep the good memories. What I want to forget are the bad memories. I don’t know how long that will take me. I don’t even know how to do it.
“If I try to sell the house now, buyers will find out what happened there, and they’d be scared off or they won’t want to pay as much as it’s worth. Also, the house is paid off. There’s no mortgage. So the only expenses are Connie and the gardener, and utilities and property tax. If I moved, I’d still have utilities and either property taxes or rent to pay. Besides, the value of the house should keep going up. I don’t think I should give that up now.
“Something else, my house is familiar. We lived there when I was born. It’s the only house where I’ve lived. My memories of living in my house and living with my family are there. I hope they will become happy memories at some point. Even if they don’t, I wouldn’t want to lose them. I think the best and easiest thing for me is to stay where I am.”
“What about getting a pet? A cat or a dog? A cat is good because most cats don’t mind being by themselves during the day, and they don’t have to be walked. Dogs can be lonely in an empty house; maybe two dogs, small dogs, would be better. Dogs are good because you’d have to walk them in the morning and as soon as you get home. That gives you something that depends on you that you have to take care of.”
“I suppose. We’ve never had pets, so I’m not eager to get one. But I’ll think about it.”
“I think this is a good time for a short break. Would you like something to drink?”
“Do you have Snapple or orange juice?”
“We have Snapple, either Kiwi Strawberry or Pink Lemonade.”
“The Kiwi Strawberry sounds good.”
Dr. Ranse stepped out and returned with two bottles of Kiwi Strawberry Snapple for Kevin and one for herself.
“Kevin, what I want you to talk about now will be very difficult, but it’s very important. How did you find out what happened to your family?”
Kevin sat, thinking, for almost a full minute, reliving what it was like. Then he told her.
“I was at a sixteenth birthday party for one of my friends, Ted Gering. Ted lives on the other side of town, so another friend, Devon Benson, and I went together. Devon’s dad drove us to the party. After the party, he picked us up and was going to drop me off at home. When we got to the intersection of Sutter Drive and White Avenue, the streets were blocked by cops and yellow tape. Mr. Benson told us to stay in the car, and he walked over to a cop and talked for a minute. The cop let him pass, and then I couldn’t see where he went because Sutter Drive curves to the left and goes downhill. He disappeared.
“When he came back a woman cop was with him. I was in the back seat. Mr. Benson had Devon get out of the car, and they walked away. I knew something happened at my house. Maybe a fire. I wanted to get out, but the woman cop got in and held my hands. She told me what happened. I didn’t remember one word of what she said, but I knew what she meant. My parents, my brothers, and my sister were all dead. They’d been shot. Murdered.”
Kevin started sobbing. He took a wad of tissues and cried into them, then took another wad. He couldn’t stop crying. He was so out of it that he didn’t realize that Dr. Ranse had helped him move to the sofa and was sitting next to him with her arm around him, and he was leaning against her and sobbing into her shoulder.
When he eventually stopped crying, he forced himself to look at her. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t need to be sorry. You’ve had all the grief about what happened stored up, and it needs to be released. Crying is one way to release grief.”
He started crying again. His tears went on and on for what felt like forever to him. Talking about it brought it all back, the horror of that night and the two weeks that followed. The funeral and the burial service. And the weeks that followed. Right up to today.
“Dr. Ranse, it’s so hard! I closed the doors to their bedrooms, and I haven’t opened them because I can’t imagine going into them. I can’t do it! I know I need to, but I can’t! How could someone kill five people, my entire family, in cold blood? And three of them were kids! They didn’t rob the house. All they did was break in and kill everyone. Everyone but me because I was at a friend’s house for his birthday party.”
The tears kept flowing, and Kevin couldn’t stop them. He didn’t want to stop them. A tear for each member of his family, multiplied by thousands and thousands.
He sat, his head bent down, his face in his hands, crying. He hadn’t cried this much since the two weeks after what happened to his family.
He mumbled through his sobs, “Sometimes I think it would have been better if I’d been home and I’d been killed, too. Then I wouldn’t be so sad and so lonely.”
Finally, he stopped crying. He took a handful of tissues and wiped his eyes and his face. Then he looked up. “I don’t know what to do! I miss them so much. I miss them so much! What can I do, Dr. Ranse? What can I do?”
Dr. Ranse helped Kevin stand, and they returned to sit across her desk from each other.
“I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to start. I don’t know how to start.”
“You need to connect to the good things, the happy things, you would do with your family.
“Start by making a list of the personal things you need to do at home, things that connect you to your family and to where you live.
“You said you closed the doors to your family’s bedrooms. Start the list with that, opening the bedroom doors, one at a time; one a day, one a week, whatever works for you. What do you think about doing that?”
Kevin took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He nodded. “I suppose I could do that.”
“Those can be the first three things on your list. Then add something else to the list. For example, after all three bedroom doors are open, go into one of the bedrooms and sit there for a while, remembering one of the family members who used that bedroom. For example, your brothers’ room.
“Do you think you can do that?”
“I guess. Probably. It’s going to be difficult. Really difficult.”
“When doing something seems overwhelming, you may find that accomplishing just one little thing you need to do will let you move on to the next thing then the next thing and eventually to the bigger and more difficult things. You’ll find you can do everything if you approach each thing that you need to do, one at a time.”
“How can I make this list of things to do?”
“Create the list on your computer. Do you have Excel?”
“Create a spreadsheet. Title it and save it where it will be easy to find, like on the desktop. Enter numbers down column A sequentially. For each number in column A enter the name of something you need to do in column B. Start with just a few; don’t have too many when you start out. You can reorganize and move the rows around so you can keep them in whatever order you decide you want. You could sort the list in different ways, too.
“To get started, whatever is number one on your list should be something little, a simple thing that you know you can accomplish. For example, you said you closed the doors to the bedrooms of each of your family members. So the first thing on your list could be to pick one door and open it. Don’t go into the room. Just open the door and walk away, leaving the door open.
“The second item on the list can be to pick another door and open it, leaving that door open, too. And so on.
“The next item on the list could be to go into the first bedroom and look around, then walk out.
“Something later in the list could be to return to the first bedroom, sit down, and remember whose bedroom it was, remember them the way they were. The good things, pleasant things, funny things. Those are the memories which are the most important, Kevin. They are the memories you want to keep with you for as long as you live. You’ll be sad doing it, and there may be more tears. But it’s that one step after another, after another, and so on that will help you start to cope.
“As you accomplish each item, in the third and fourth columns on your spreadsheet enter the date and the time you accomplished doing it. In the fifth column, enter how it felt, or how difficult or easy it turned out to be. You can decide however many columns you want to have on your list. Don’t try to create them all at once. Let yourself go back and add other columns when you need to, or want to. When you add a column, put a title at the top so you’ll remember why it’s there and what it’s about.
“By organizing a list of things you need to do this way, you’ll be saving your memories and making your grief manageable. Do you think you can do this?”
Kevin thought about the list idea for almost a minute. “I see that this is something I need to do, but some of those things will be… so hard to add. They’ll be sad. Almost impossible to do!” His tears had restarted, but just tears.
“The most overwhelming one will be to go outside in the backyard. That’s where the police found my family. Where someone murdered them and left them laying face down on the lawn. I’m not going to be able to do that. I might never be able to go into the backyard. The gardener is the only one who goes into the backyard now.”
“Kevin, each of these things will seem hard to do when you put them on the list. Those things that seem impossible, like going outside into your backyard, should be at the bottom of the list. But they should be there. Don’t leave them off.
“Thinking about them, putting them on the list, changing the order you do them, will be emotional. Even overwhelming for some items. But the act of thinking about them and putting them on the list will help you experience some of that emotion before you get to that thing when it’s the next one to do, and you’ll be able to accomplish whatever it is. And then move on to the next thing on the list. Accomplishing each one, one after the other, will help you grieve, will help you recover.
“Make sure you save the list each time you add or update or move even one thing on the list. Then put the date on the top of the spreadsheet and print three copies. One is for you to keep in a three-ring binder. One is for you to give me. And one is for you to bring to our sessions. That way you can keep notes when we talk about the list.
“Kevin, do you think you’re ready to do this? To make your list, add the first small item you need to do, and update the list? And then add other items and accomplish each of them?”
“I’ll try. I guess the reason you want me to print the list and bring it with me each visit and give it to you so we’ll be able to talk about my progress.”
“Yes, that is what I want you to do. If you think you’re backsliding, you can call me anytime and I’ll get back to you, and we can talk about why you’re having difficulty.”
“You said I can reorder the things on the list.”
“Yes, you can. But each time you’re here for your appointment, I’d like to have us talk about the list and what thing or things you’ve accomplished. We’ll also talk about the things you reordered, moved up or down, and why. I’d like you to have a goal to do at least one item on the list each week. After a couple of weeks, I’d expect that you’ll be able to accomplish more than one item each week.
“I suggest that you get a three-ring binder and buy some paper that is already punched. Then when you print an updated list, put it in the binder in front of the lists already in the binder. That way, you can review your progress. You can look at the lists to see if there’s one item on the list that you keep moving down the list because you don’t want to do it. That is a flag that tells you to stop procrastinating and do whatever that item is. And we can talk about it.”
“Okay. I’ll try.”
Kevin thought for a while about how hard this would be, not saying anything. Neither did Dr. Ranse. Then he looked at her. “No, I won’t try, I’ll do it. These are things I have to do. I understand that.”
“Good,” Dr. Ranse said, and she smiled. She got up and stepped to where Kevin was sitting. She gestured for him to stand. Then she did something that surprised him. She hugged him, then stepped back.
“I think you needed that.”
Kevin smiled. “Thanks. I did.”
“Next week, on Wednesday, I want us to talk about being depressed. We’ll discuss what depression is, and we’ll explore the symptoms so you’ll be able to determine if you’re depressed yourself. And I’ll be here to help you make that determination. Okay?”
“I don’t know if I’m depressed. Does being sad mean that I’m depressed?”
“Not necessarily. But that will be a topic for us to explore at your next session.”
“Okay. I’ll see you next week, on Wednesday, at the same time.”
As he walked back to school, Kevin thought about his session with Dr. Ranse. It had been emotional, much worse than he’d expected. But it was interesting that now he was starting to feel better about things. About coping with the loss of his family. Like she’d said, he’d been holding his grief inside all this time, and this afternoon he’d let a lot of it out.
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