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How My Autistic Son Expresses Grief

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Death is hard for many of us to process. Someone is here, then they are gone. We use words like “passed away” and “lost” and for a literal mind, it’s hard to understand such verbiage around death. And for someone with such a black and white mind like my son, where someone “goes” is difficult for him to comprehend. It’s even more difficult to explain how he feels about all of it.

My son Ryan has known our next-door neighbor, Mr. Jack, since Ryan was born. Mr. Jack became like a surrogate grandfather to my kids. We were so blessed to have Mr. Jack and Miss Helene in our lives. Miss Helene died six years ago and just last week, Mr. Jack died and joined his lifetime love.

My husband and I were able to go say a final goodbye to Mr. Jack and let him know how much he was loved by all of us. When I went to tell Ryan we were going, he looked at me through tears and said, “Tell him I will miss him,” so I did.

Sunday evening, after we learned of Mr. Jack’s death, Ryan didn’t say much, but he kept coming to sit by me, snuggle next to me and check on my tears. Ryan didn’t need to tell me how he was feeling with words, his behavior was indicative of his grief and heartache.

Mr. Jack knew nothing of autism; he is the perfect example of “teaching an old dog new tricks.” He asked questions and tried to understand and Ryan felt that compassion and understanding which is why he allowed Mr. Jack into his very small circle. When Mr. Jack parked in the wrong place when he went to pick Ryan up from school and Ryan had no problem finding the words to let Mr. Jack know he screwed up, Mr. Jack just chuckled and made sure he got it right the next time. To be yelled at by Ryan is to be loved by him, and Mr. Jack was thrilled to be in the club.

Ryan is right, we will miss our Mr. Jack, but his love will live on in all of us with the beautiful memories we have of him. And although Ryan did not say in so many words how much his heart was hurting, it was very clear by his behavior how sad losing his lifelong friend and neighbor was for him.

How grateful we are to have loved and been loved by such an extraordinary man who proved to Ryan that you are never too old to learn that different does not mean less.

Originally published: June 28, 2021
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