Heartache, compounded

After her son’s death, a writer searches for a path forward through personal and climate grief.


In the summer of 2018, my family traveled from Portland, Oregon, to my home state of Montana to scatter our son Seamus’ ashes. After we checked into a rustic cabin in the remote Northwest corner of the state, our 5-year-old son and daughter — twins born two years after Seamus died — bounced down a dirt trail toward the shore of a glacier-fed mountain lake. My husband and I followed on road-trip-weary legs, carrying hats, sunscreen and snacks.

As Gus and Greta stomped in the icy shallows, my sadness eased, the way it always did in alpine air. That’s when I noticed Greta, pointing across the lake, trying to get our attention. “Why are those trees gray?” she wanted to know. Squinting, I made out a line in the forest where the trees changed, from lush and green to ashen and bare. 

I tried to reconcile this with my need for comfort and predictability — after all, we had decided there would be no gravestone, no memorial. There was only this place. 

I knew the previous year had been a historically bad fire season in Montana — 438,000 acres had burned — but seeing the evidence firsthand was unsettling. Things I didn’t want to think about suddenly came into focus: the overgrown forests, persistent drought, rapidly receding glaciers. It occurred to me that this scene could look very different in just a few years’ time. I imagined the lake murky and brown, the surrounding creek beds dry and the towering old-growth cedars reduced to blackened stumps. I tried to reconcile this with my need for comfort and predictability — after all, we had decided there would be no gravestone, no memorial. There was only this place. 

A small memorial honors Seamus.

Later that evening, we were joined by friends and family who had traveled from all over the country to be with us. While the adults caught up over barbecue and beers, my sister-in-law helped the children fashion tiny boats out of twigs, grass and flower petals. We talked about how Seamus would have been 9 years old, the oldest and tallest of his cousins, the “best big brother,” as Gus put it. 

When the topic of fires came up, our friends who live in Gulf Coast states shared tips on disaster-preparedness with those of us who live in the Western U.S. By the time we retired to our cabins, climate change no longer felt like a distant, nagging anxiety. 

“I don’t need another thing to grieve,” I told my husband after the kids were asleep. He reminded me that the mountains will probably outlast humans, then drifted off to sleep, leaving me to lie awake pondering geological time and the extinction of our species. 

The next morning, our bed-headed crew gathered at the lakeside around a photo of Seamus, which leaned against a piece of knotty driftwood, surrounded by the children’s miniature boats. I set the box of ashes next to the photo, though I was no longer sure about leaving them there.

While the kids practiced skipping rocks, the adults shared stories about Seamus — how he astonished our friends by taking his first steps before he was 9 months old, his love of playing outside in any weather, the way he pronounced butterfly “buddy buddy.” I told the group about how, eight years ago, Seamus had spent the better part of an afternoon in this very spot, standing ankle-deep in the aquamarine water, belly-laughing at the splashes made by the rocks he’d thrown. At 20 months, his vocabulary was small, but he knew some words, calling “Brrr!” “Silly!” and “Mommy!” over and over again. 

When our ceremony was finished and it was time for breakfast, I carried the ashes back to our cabin, telling people that my husband, kids and I would find a place to scatter them later. On a hike later that day, we shared the trail with mountain goats, marmots and pika. I wondered which species would survive and which would succumb as the tree line shifted ever higher and the alpine meadows shrank. 

The author and her family row out to scatter her son Seamus’ ashes.

I knew the decision about Seamus’ ashes was inconsequential in light of the looming climate catastrophe. But it was an important milestone for my family, a bridge between our life with Seamus and the future we were building with his siblings. Our last vacation with Seamus had been as perfect as a road trip with a toddler could be, and we planned to return to this lake in the coming years regardless — to remember, to grieve and, hopefully, to heal. 

The next day, my husband, children and I set out in a rowboat with Seamus’ ashes. The sky threatened rain and the water was choppy. Arriving at a secluded inlet, my husband and I looked at each other and shrugged, as if to say, “This will do.” Then the four of us took turns dipping our hands into the ashes, releasing them into the water alongside the children’s colorful little boats. My husband and I both choked back tears, but Gus and Greta were giddy from the adventure. They waved at the water, cheerily saluting the brother they never met. The ashes lingered on the lake’s surface in a gray-white film, reflecting the sky’s light against the deep blue of the water. I wanted to linger, too, but the wind was picking up and the children were getting cold, so I dipped my hand in the water one last time, a silent farewell before we made our way back to shore, where an uncertain future awaited.

Michelle DuBarry is a grant writer who lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow @DuBarryPieEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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