Be Brave Little One

There’s a rabbit hole that nearly all grieving mothers stumble upon as they walk the path of child loss. Early on in our journey, we don’t notice it. Eventually, though, we turn toward its gaping opening and peer into the darkness. Believe me, as I’ve done this a number of times, it’s a long way down.

During the first few days after Becca was killed, people showed up at the house, stunned at the news. One couple, old neighbors of ours, told me they had been trying to get ahold of her to ask her to babysit the day she died. The woman cried as she told me she’d called my daughter multiple times because her children loved Becca. “If only she’d answered”.

The Saturday in January I lost my child, her plan had been to go to my parent’s house to get help setting up her new laptop. The store she bought it from had called her and told her it wasn’t ready to pick up, she could get it on the following Monday. Her plans having changed, she didn’t go to her grandparent’s house. Instead, she stayed home and ended up going out with her roommate. Was that what set Becca on the path that would end her life?

I know if my neighbor had talked to Becca, she would have watched the kids, and her life might have been saved. What other events had almost saved her? And why didn’t they? At what point was her life locked onto a path that ended on a cold highway in the winter darkness?

When we pluck at that string, our entire life, as well as our child’s, starts to unravel. We keep pulling, searching for the event that led to their death. Every time I’ve done this I’ve ended at the same place. The moment I stood in the woods and decided to keep my child instead of releasing her for adoption. Did my decision to raise her seal her fate? If I had let her go . . . would she still be here? I wouldn’t know her, but I would sacrifice that for her to have a life. I would give anything for her to have her life back. Even my own.

I think it’s natural to examine all of the “what ifs”. But it’s heartbreaking. We must come up with a way, even if it’s just in our own minds, to give our child a chance at continued life. Spending too much time in the “what ifs” can be dangerous. It can drive us mad.

To heal, however, we MUST be attentive to all the thoughts which come up. I know I’ve written about this before (and I will write about it again) but if we push the scary thoughts aside, ignore the ugly ones, they’ll remain. In time, they will beckon us with their insistent call again. Until they are heard, examined in their totality, they will have power over us. I’ve learned, as with almost everything else on this journey, it will take more than one time to finally accept anything on this path.

Thoughts resurface. Worries come back. Things we thought we dealt with completely will appear on the horizon again. Don’t ignore them. Pick them up. Look at them closely. You will see they are a bit smaller than last time. Paler in color. The edges aren’t as sharp. Acknowledge them for what they are. There are gifts in the hardest places, too.

Tonight I will be thinking about the eighteen-year-old girl, standing in the snowy woods, steeling herself to tell her parents she wants to keep her baby. I’ll comfort her as well as I can. In a whisper, I’ll tell her that it’s ok. She did the best she could. Then I’ll tell myself I am doing the best I can.

And that’s all we can do.

Traces Of The Past

Sometimes, it’s hard to travel the streets I know intimately without seeing ghosts. They don’t appear every time . . . but when they do, the images stay with me for days. There is one street in particular that holds many impressions of happenings from the past. For the first seven years after Becca’s death, I chose a circuitous route in order to avoid that particular road. The memories scattered along it’s length were too hard to recall.

For a brief time those faint traces of Becca’s life were comforting. The life we had all lived together existed when I could see the physical locations. As the months pass by . . . it seems as if our child’s existance is slowly being erased. The years start to accumulate and new buildings go up, old ones come down, we no longer recognize the world that once was. Was that store there when she was alive? I’ve reached for my phone to ask her, forgetting for a split second, then realize I can’t.

Fortunately, or possibly unfortunately (depending on where my level of sadness is), the main markers of our life together still stand. In the distance of about three miles there is a memory on every block of the street. From our life to the funeral home we used after her death. It’s only very recently that I have been able to travel said street without flinching, as I drove along, as I passed each memory.

And it’s recent that I have decided it’s time to leave the house she knew me in. This is an incredibly difficult decision to make. But, I know it’s what is best for me. I have worries about this move. My biggest worry? Will my child know to follow me to where I am going. I know for some this sounds silly, however, it’s a fear that is very real for me. I imagine it’s a fear for other grieving mothers, as well.

In this house, I can lay my hand on a doorknob and know my daughter touched it once. I can stand on the section of floor where she stood, letting me hold her, while she cried. If it’s quiet enough I can hear the laughter. When it’s dark, I can see her form in the shadows. As I right, this I wonder if I am making the right decision, after all. Am I strong enough to leave the space our life inhabited for so long?

When I stand in my living room for the last time I am going to say, very loudly, “Becca, it’s time to go. Come with me, honey.”

In the spring, when the earth has thawed, I am coming back and cutting up the patch of lawn where I held her for the very last time.

I’m not odd . . . I’m a grieving mom.

 

Forgiveness As A Choice

When I looked up from the notebook I was writing in my breath caught in my throat. My eyes narrowed as I tried to pull an image from ten years ago to the front of my mind and compare it to the man standing a few tables away. This isn’t the first time I thought I had seen the drunk driver who killed my daughter. In fact, I have always known it might happen because he was released from prison after serving only four years and lives in the same relatively medium sized city I do. My eyes concentrated on his. Could it be him?

He’d be in his early thirties now. Would I even recognize him? Would he know who I was? Does he think about her? About the family he tore apart with his habitually bad choices?

About three years ago, I decided that I couldn’t carry the weight of my anger toward him any longer. It was like acid eating away at my insides. I knew if I was going to start doing any type of lasting healing I had to find a way to let the rage go. Finding a way to do so wasn’t easy. I spent a lot of time soul searching. Releasing the anger didn’t happen all at once. Rather, in small pieces, little by little. I knew someday, I’d see him again, and I would have to tell him I forgave him for killing my child.

Two reasons helped me make this decision.

First, I didn’t want my daughter’s legacy to be one of nothing but pain. Becca lived a beautiful life full of happiness and love before the night her life was taken. She was so much more than a victim of a drunk driver. My daughter would want me happy and as whole as I could be. I want that for myself as well.

Second, she would want him to have the best life he could possibly have. Without getting into a discussion about what happens when we die, I believe where she is she knows it “all”. My daughter was never one to carry a grudge or harbor resentment. I know Becca would want him to be productive and successful with the time he has here. The happy and healthy life she didn’t get to complete. Now, I want that for him, too.

My heart is beating quickly as I try desperately to figure out if the man standing in the coffee shop is the one I spoke to in the courtroom. I waver back and forth between sure and not sure. The answer is revealed when his name is called for his drink order. The wrong name. This isn’t him.

For now, I am relieved of having to make the decision to talk to him or not. This won’t be the day. As I said . . . I am sure that day will come. I hope I have the courage to approach him.

For the time being, I’ll continue to work on forgiving him.

 

 

 

 

The Passing Of Time

When your child dies before you do . . . so many things in life shift in a way you would never have thought possible. There is nothing that isn’t affected in some manner. Everything you see, hear and feel passes through your new reality. Slowly, you start to accept you’ll never be the same again.

I remember the last birthday I had while my daughter was still alive. In my early forties, I lamented the fact that I was probably about half way through my life. Only forty years left to watch my children build lives for themselves. Marry and have their own children. Four decades to spend loving my grandchildren. Not enough time left. Eleven months and three weeks later that all changed.

My first birthday after losing Becca was eight days after she was killed. Four days after her funeral. Thinking back, I can’t remember if we even celebrated. I can’t imagine we did. Or maybe we tried in an attempt to keep things normal for my twins. I don’t know. What I do remember is thinking that I had too much time left to live without her here with me. Forty years to live in tortured anguish without my daughter. The thought of four decades in front of me was too much to bear. How would I make it that long?

I understand now why birthdays are for the young. As we grow older, losses are gathered along the way. Suddenly, joyous occasions have another depth to them. A sadness that can’t be ignored. Joy and sorrow become inseparable companions. Where there is one you will always find the other. It’s just the way it is now.

This is just one of the thousands of ways life changes after the loss of our child. We try to be happy when we know it’s what others expect from us. Our sadness is kept at bay for as long as we can manage. Sometimes it’s for an entire day. Other times, just a few minutes. Grief is different from moment to moment. And this is o.k.  There is no manual to help us navigate this new way of life.

In three and a half hours I am entering my 52nd year of life. Would my daughter recognize me now? I’m grayer. A bit more wrinkled. I walk a little more slowly each morning. I go to bed earlier. My memory isn’t what it used to be. I have bifocals. What would she think of the older me?

Another shift occurred recently. Somewhere deep inside, a voice that I hadn’t heard in a while, spoke up. Whispering, weak from lack of use, it said “pay attention . . . you only have thirty or so years left”.

I hope I hear this voice more often.

 

 

When The Storm Comes

Earlier today I was talking to another mother who’s lost a child. Like me, she lost her daughter. Our time living this grief journey is almost the same.

At the moment, she’s in the middle of some very big changes. Some she saw coming, a few she didn’t. The ones that show up unannounced send us into a panic. She’s panicking. Her water is starting to churn.

In truth, we generally live on the edge of anxiety. We are always waiting for the next big thing to fall into the center of our lives and blow it apart. Can you imagine living with such intense fear all time? A call late at night must be bad news. Or a call that doesn’t come when it should means something horrible happened. It’s exhausting.  We know it’s exhausting for you to watch us live this way. We are sorry.

There are times when the water threatens to drown us. The waves of grief pound us toward the bottom of the sea. Large swells loom in the distance as far as we can see. Nearly drowning, we fight to survive.

When it seems we just can’t keep our heads above the water and we’re ready to give up, another grieving mother appears as a light to give us direct .

Sometimes I’m the lighthouse, other times I’m the swimmer. It isn’t always turbulent, though.

Every so often we have a calm day. The water’s surface is smooth as glass. Laying back, we watch the sky as the currents carry us along peacefully. We have to learn to be in that moment and accept its beauty. Soon enough, another storm will blow in.

I know this: we grow stronger with each thunderous wave we struggle through. Every time we break the surface of water, and take a breath, we remember why we are fighting to live. We know the shore is there. And someday, we’ll reach it.

If you get there before me, please wait, I will need your light. If I make it before you, I’ll shine bright and help guide you in safely.

I hope you all are waiting for us on the shore, as well.

 

 

 

The Journey Within

There’s a quality to cold weather that makes us move within ourselves. I think it’s natural. Most of us do it. Like the woodland animals, we are cozy in our dens, waiting for Spring to arrive. Stretching out in front of us are empty hours waiting to be filled. Quiet time that lends itself well to introspective thoughts.

Many times our thoughts search out and find memories of our deceased child and pull them forth.  But oh, is it difficult to see those images some days. I’ve found, it’s the only way we can begin to heal. We have to lean into the pain, into the truth, and let it take us where it we need to go.

At times, our minds take us to some very dark places. Dangerous places.  This can be terrifying. Overwhelming. We must reach into the shadowy corners and draw forth what we find hidden there. Yes, what we find will scare us. Tear the scab from our ever present wound.  Bring us to our knees even. I’ve learned, after my time as a bereaved mother, this is the only way to heal. We have to know the darkest ugliest parts of grieving and face them head on in order to the win the battle to live again.

No one can do this for us. We must journey within our own mind and face what we find there. We’ve already survived the physical loss of our child. We’ve awoken the day after, put one foot in front of the other, and started on our grief path. Doing the internal work won’t be easy . . . but it will be worth it. I promise.

As I look out the window of my studio . . . the street is empty. The only sound I hear is the wind blowing through the tree branches. In an odd way, the cold keeps me warm. I’ve been home for about an hour and the shadowy thoughts are finding their way into my day. It’s alright. I let them come.

I’ll be journeying inward for the rest of my life.

Growing In Snow

Today, after unseasonably warm temperatures, we are supposed to get snow. It’s been the topic of conversation with more than a few people this afternoon. It seems I’m the only one who is happy the weather is turning more wintry.

Michigan is a state that is fortunate to see all four seasons. Spring is glorious with life bursting forth across the land. The summers are brilliantly sunlit and the air is sweet. Nearly every road is aglow with the fiery red and orange canopies overhead at the height of autumn. In winter, a soft blanket of snow settles on everything and the world is quiet.

I like winter in Michigan much more than any other season. Not because I partake of the many winter activities around me. I don’t. Instead, it’s because I don’t feel obligated to be out of my house and interacting in life. Somehow, the brightness of the sun, so beautiful before I lost my daughter, is painful to my eyes. The laughing crowds at the beach are difficult to listen to when your world has fallen silent. During the summer I feel like I am failing at life because I don’t participate like everybody else does.

Winter is more understanding. The world is asleep. Both plants and animals are in hibernation waiting for the thaw. It’s the same for bereaved moms. Our world is frozen. We wait for a thaw that may never come. Winter is the landscape of our emotions and many of us are comfortable here. I am.

When my children were younger I loved snow days. We’d all be at home together. Hot cocoa. Board games. Blanket tents. These were my favorite days. Snow days now are just as loved but for a very different reason. I can be alone with my sorrow. There is no shame in having a day full of tears. No one looks at me with pity or disgust. I can be truthful to who and what I am. A grieving mother with a broken heart.

The winter my daughter was killed I drove to Lake Michigan often. There were few cars in the parking lot, if any, and I could walk the beach without seeing another soul. The water roared. The bare tree branches were black against the gray sky. What I remember most is the painful scream of the seagulls floating over my head. I could feel my torment escaping my body through their cries. I belonged there amid the frozen things.

I’m not as frozen anymore. The thaw I was waiting for has begun. Pieces of myself have started to shift back into place. It’s going to be a slow process. But the process has begun.

I think I’ll always love winter the most, though.