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Here's How The Zombie Apocalypse Helped Me Through Losing My Son To A Terminal Illness

I didn’t plan on being a fan of “The Walking Dead” ― my teenage son, Robby, got me hooked.  

At first I would leave the room when he watched the popular AMC series because zombies were just too scary for me. And it wasn’t really the gore or the violence, it was their relentlessness. Nearly impossible to defeat, the undead creatures incessantly stumble over and through obstacles, obsessed with getting their cold, clammy hands on their prey. Being chased and powerless to escape a predator (especially when that predator is intent on eating human flesh) was the stuff of nightmares for me, so I just couldn’t bring myself to watch it.

But my son loved the show. He loved the excitement, the danger and the darkness. Most of all he loved the characters. He appreciated their grit and bravery, especially in the face of overwhelming adversity and horror. His favorite character was Glenn ― who wasn’t the fiercest warrior but was definitely the kind of guy Robby would want as his friend. Funny, resourceful, big-hearted and brave ― I like to think of Glenn as Robby’s avatar in that zombie world.

The show took on a special resonance for both of us in the fall of 2015. Robby was 19, and antiphospholipid syndrome (APS), the blood disorder he’d been dealing with for three years, took a turn for the worse, forcing him to come home from college. Chemotherapy, experimental procedures and irreversible lung damage meant it was just too dangerous for him to remain at school. He needed support with an ever-expanding team of doctors and a shrinking list of options, so I left my job to focus on his care.  

Robby was understandably prickly about relinquishing his independence, so we negotiated an approach that respected his autonomy and included my advocacy. Everyday life was filled with stress and worry for both of us, and any distraction we could manage to find was very welcome. 

One day I came into our family room while Robby was watching an episode of “The Walking Dead,” and I found myself intrigued despite my trepidation. I discovered that, like many other horror stories, the suspense was powerful, but I also noticed it was unexpectedly thoughtful and filled with complex storytelling about universal themes.  

Robby’s illness had forced us into a very small world, but “The Walking Dead” gave us a chance to explore bigger questions and ideals from the comfort of our couch.

Robby smiled knowingly as I leaned on the back of the couch, watching over his shoulder. He enjoyed that I became engrossed almost against my will. After that first taste of zombies, my fan status grew, and we watched the rest of the season together. I even added “The Walking Dead” to my Netflix queue so I could watch it from the beginning and catch up on everything I had missed during all those years I had avoided it.

As I got more involved, Robby and I spent more and more time together analyzing the show’s twisting plot and marveling at its cool stunts.  

“What would be your weapon, Mom?” he asked me. As a former fencer, he approved of my choice of the samurai sword carried by another favorite character.

We discussed how the skills Robby had as a black belt in karate would serve him well in holding off zombies and bad guys. And he grinned with sly pride when I told him that he was the fearless protector I would want by my side in that dark world. 

I was amazed by how much I found myself loving the show, but what really surprised me was how the show sparked deep, philosophical conversations with Robby. We delved into questioning the nature of good and evil and discussed the definition of community and family. We debated if the leader of the survivors was generous or foolish to share scarce supplies with unknown newcomers. We considered if revenge or betrayal is ever justified. Would the “bad guys” be more sympathetic if we were more privy to and involved in their backstory? What would each of us sacrifice for the people who count on us? Robby’s illness had forced us into a very small world, but “The Walking Dead” gave us a chance to explore bigger questions and ideals from the comfort of our couch.

For me, even the title of the show has layered meanings ― like an Escher drawing that can reveal different perspectives with each view. Obviously, the term “walking dead” refers directly to the zombies who have overrun the world, bringing danger and destruction to all in their path. But a deeper look at the emotional life of the survivors reveals that the living can also be seen as “walking dead.” If they lose touch with their humanity as they protect themselves and desperately chase the necessities they need to keep living, then even the most heroic among them could become as monstrous as the zombies themselves. It is this perspective ― that mere survival is not enough and we need to live for deeper values and connections ― that drives the best parts of the story and connected deeply for me as I watched Robby struggle.

Robby at Muir Woods on a family vacation in July 2014.

Courtesy of Caryn Anthony

Robby at Muir Woods on a family vacation in July 2014.

As we continued to watch the show together throughout that fall, I began to feel a connection between the relentlessness of the zombies and my deeper fears about the relentlessness of my son’s illness. Just like the characters on the screen, I was on perpetual high alert waiting for some unseen danger to appear in my own life. The potential risk of a procedure, the side effect of a medication, the unexpected downturn of the disease were always waiting to threaten my son’s precarious health ― and my peace of mind. We were fighting just to hold on, but losing ground. Nothing was working, and our worst fears were gaining on us. When would the very real monsters in our lives breach our barricades? In six months? Two years? Any day now?

In the summer of 2016, the barricades did break, and Robby died of a massive blood clot to his lungs. Just three months after he died, I watched the Season 7 premiere of “The Walking Dead” without him, and it was heartbreaking. I was lonely watching without my son, and in a devastating plot turn, Robby’s favorite character, Glenn, died in the opening scene right in front of his compatriots. I connected powerfully to the desolation of the characters in the aftermath of his death and was reminded of the real-life moment in July when Robby died in front of me soon after we arrived at the hospital in Washington, D.C.

Curled up watching the show alone on the family room couch, I was shattered. The death of that fictional hero echoed my feelings for my son ― it was a crushing loss accompanied by a sense that the world won’t ― and could never ― be the same without him.  

I continued to watch through the season, but it was painful. The core group of survivors I had come to love and identify with was beaten down by a brutal opponent who left them defeated and distraught ― feelings that very much mirrored my own over those months of early grieving. My life had changed forever, and it was hard to muster the strength and hope it would take to even begin to rebuild it. 

Caryn and Robby in Alaska in 2008.

Courtesy of Caryn Anthony

Caryn and Robby in Alaska in 2008.

By the winter of 2017, the arc of the story finally started to bend back toward hope as the survivors fought for their vision of a kinder world built on community. They nurtured that spark of hope by making a commitment to the difficult work it would take to achieve the new reality they desired. Similarly, I rebuilt my life as my own hope was starting to return around that time. The shape of our family was being redefined as we simultaneously held space for Robby and felt his devastating absence. I was getting back to work, and I was exploring how I could share my experience through writing and as a hospital volunteer in order to contribute to others facing challenges similar to the ones I had just gone through.

I still watch “The Walking Dead,” and I miss Robby terribly during every single episode, but there is also now a measure of solace in that pain. Watching the show helps me feel his presence as I imagine what his reactions would be as the story continues to unfold. And, as any fan knows, the theme of experiencing loss amid life ― of losing someone precious to you and then having to continue to try and go on living ― is very present in “The Walking Dead” universe, so I find it strangely comforting to be immersed in those feelings with the help of this series that Robby and I cherished together.

It no longer seems surprising or silly that a show about zombies carries true meaning for me. On the simplest level, “The Walking Dead” offered opportunities for pure, escapist entertainment with my son during the worst year of our lives. But, more profoundly, I can see a metaphor for my son’s bravery in the face of agonizing adversity. Like the show’s characters, Robby was charting a path through difficult terrain, and he remained unthinkably strong in the face of life-threatening forces. And I was proud to be fighting by his side, even if my weapon of choice was motherly love instead of a sword.

Like the show’s characters, Robby was charting a path through difficult terrain and he remained unthinkably strong in the face of life-threatening forces. And I was proud to be fighting by his side, even if my weapon of choice was motherly love instead of a sword.

So, I guess it turns out I didn’t actually need to be afraid of treading into the apocalypse. Sure, the zombies are scary, but they don’t faze me after facing the realities of life and death. In fact, they are poignant reminders of time with my son and the lessons of courage and hope that make moving forward possible.

Caryn Anthony is a nonprofit consultant and executive coach from Silver Spring, Maryland. She has a blog called “Any Way the Wind Blows,” geared toward families with a child managing a significant medical condition, and has written for Modern Loss and Complex Child magazine. 

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