Eat, Play, Love: My Journey with Grief

LaDonna Redmond in front of the former homeless encampment where her child died. (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

There was a time when I knew what life was all about. I knew up from down, left from right, a circle from a square. Now, after the death of my child, I am struggling to find my way back to a life with meaning.

My 20-year-old “Sun” Wade died on September 10, 2018. I referred to Wade as my sunshine. Wade identified as queer/non-binary, so the pronouns I use for Wade are they/them/their, and, in writing, the non-gendered “Sun.”

The Complications of Death

Wade’s death was complicated. My Sun had become addicted to heroin, and was one of hundreds of people in 2018 who died of an overdose in Minnesota’s opioid crisis. My Sun had gone into cardiac arrest and fallen into a coma.

Addiction is a thief. It stole six years from my family and Wade’s friends. I didn’t recognize the person that Wade had become, except for brief moments of sobriety. I tried everything to prevent Wade’s death: treatment, tough love, living with me, living with dad, treatment again. And again. I never gave up hope that one day treatment would stick. I hoped Wade would find 12-step recovery by 23, as I had.

Weeks before his death, Wade had relapsed after a long but promising treatment stay. Wade had seemed so ready to begin life anew. We spoke of the possibilities of traveling the world together. Yet within 24 hours of coming to visit me, my Sun had totaled my car and was in jail for a DWI. My last communication with Wade was by text.

An addict is like a hurricane. The chaos they can create in a short time is startling and usually catastrophic. It is hard to love the addict and hate the addiction. Wade had begun to live at the Minneapolis homeless encampment by the Wall of the Forgotten Natives. Our relatives were at that wall — our lineage is African and Choctaw.

The Angels

After lapsing into a coma, Wade was alone in a hospital room for three days. It still hurts my heart to know that my Sun was listed as John Doe.

A nurse believed that Wade had family and decided to reach out to a police officer known as Sarge at the encampment. Thank God for those angels, who helped identify Wade, find medical records, and reach out to me. Sarge knew about my Sun’s food allergies, and had helped to feed him. “Wade is a good kid,” he told me later.

I also met Alice, a woman whose tent was next to Wade’s at the encampment. She told me how polite Wade was to her; she gave him a tent. Another angel. My baby was with the ancestors and angels. I was four hours from the nearest airport when I received the call to come home immediately. It was three more hours by plane from Atlanta.

I was alone. Aretha Franklin had died earlier that week. I listened to an endless loop of her songs. I prayed and cried on the flight home. A kind man seated behind me reached through the seat and put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I am praying with you.” He moved to sit next to me and held my hand while I cried. Another angel.

Losing My Sun
I cannot describe the feeling I had looking at my firstborn’s body laying in that hospital bed. He had been without oxygen during his cardiac arrest, which had caused significant brain damage.

At first, I had hope that Wade would recover.

As days went by, with no improvement, the chances of recovery grew slimmer. I dropped out of the race for Hennepin County Commissioner.

After the tough decision to take Wade off life support was made, my Sun died 24 hours later. I knew I could not watch them take my baby away without total collapse. Leaving Wade’s body in the hospital alone was the hardest thing I have ever done. I could not stand the thought of viewing Wade in a casket. My Sun was cremated.

That was the worst day of my life. I was devastated and relieved at the same time. I knew Wade was free. I didn’t know if I was strong enough to keep living. I knew I had to live. I have another child who needs me. I had to find another purpose for my life. Nothing made any sense any more.

The days after his physical transition are a blur. The paperwork. Arrangements for services. We celebrated his life at the place where Wade felt most accepted. I am a ritual priest. I created the most beautiful ceremonies I could imagine. I tried to imagine ones that Wade would have attended.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that I was no longer myself. Nothing tasted good anymore. Things that gave me joy were empty. I searched the grief and death sections of bookstores for answers. Where did Wade go? Do I believe in God? Was Wade with God? Is Wade with me? I didn’t know what I believed anymore.

My Spiritual Quest

I began a spiritual quest. I reflected on conversations Wade and I had: alternative universes, string theory, time travel, magic. I was searching for the non-physical part of Wade. Proof that Wade existed. Proof that Wade is gone. Proof that Wade’s spirit is still here. Proof that I am alive, although a large part of me died the day Wade died.

My appetites and tolerances have changed. There is no time to suffer fools. I cannot be bothered with the mundane. I cannot focus. I drove from Minneapolis to Santa Fe, New Mexico, for Thanksgiving. I needed different colors and landscapes. I was looking for a different sky.

I bought tickets to Los Angeles and Honolulu. I went to a friend’s wedding in Santiago, Chile. I needed heat on my skin. Different sounds. I hit the reset button multiple times a day. I was looking for water and my sunshine — Wade.

Because of Wade’s allergies, healthy, community-based foods have been my career for 20 years. After my Sun’s transition, I went days without eating. Then, I began to crave very spicy food. I looked for the hottest peppers I could find to awaken my taste buds and my spirit. I learned later that capsaicin in peppers acts as a pain reliever — an edible anesthesia.

I began to cook again. I was careful not to add my grief to the ingredients. I stir love in the pot. I quit eating meat. I don’t want to kill anything unnecessarily.

Unspeakable loss is what people call it. I hate that phrase. It IS speakable. I am no longer afraid of anything. I am contemplating a career change. It is time to contribute to the world in a new and different way.

When a tall, slender Black boy walks by me, I look for Wade in the face. I cry when I pass the place where he died. I cry when I see homeless youth. I give them money and food. I have started meditating twice per day. I work less. I pray more. I visit the shrines of my ancestors daily. I notice the planets and the stars. I am learning how to mourn and let my grief guide me.

A friend gifted me a visit with a psychic who told me, “Wade sends you rainbows.” Later, my daughter and I went to Hawaii. We saw double rainbows, everywhere. I didn’t notice until the last day of our two weeks that Hawaii’s license plate symbol is rainbows. Wade was my Sun. Now Wade is my Rainbow.