Creating A Wall

For the first time, I’ve been asked to write about one particular aspect of child loss. How we seem to push others away. I hope I can answer the question, fully, posed to me. This is written using my own experience and those others have shared with me.  I always hope those struggling with child loss will find a trained professional who is equipped with the knowledge and tools  to help them.

There are so many things that bereaved parents share on this path. Yet, each of our experiences is completely different. Grief is as individual as a fingerprint. Even two people, who have lost the same person, will have their own unique journey. Yet, there are enough similarities that we can recognize where another person is. The subject I’ve been asked to write about is very important because if we don’t recognize it . . . it can destroy us.

All bereaved parents seem to have, at some point, the propensity to push others away from us. The reasons we do this are varied and complex. It’s done both knowingly and without insight. There are times when we can see that we are engaging in this behavior. When we do, we can work through our isolating tendencies with help, so we don’t add more pain to an already anguished situation. Other times, sadly, we don’t see what our actions are doing to those around us, and more importantly, to ourselves.

Over the years, since losing my child, I’ve realized that I had to identify who I was after her death. After the “dust had settled” and life around me went back to everyone else’s normal, mine didn’t. The person I was before no longer existed. Not only did I have to find myself – I had to figure out how I fit into a world that was new to me. I was not a mother to a living daughter anymore. I was the mother of a deceased daughter. An identity I didn’t want and had no idea how to wear. I railed against this change in my who I was.

Please understand: It is going to take us an extremely long time to accept and become comfortable in our new life. We DO NOT want this life we were forced into when our child died. The time it takes for a bereaved parent to come to terms with the death and find peace surrounding it will be different for everyone. Sometimes, it never happens for the person. But, it will be on our personal timetable, no one else’s, and we have to do the work. The tricky part is knowing what work we need to do. There is no “one size fits all” guide.

The simple answer to why we push people away is: vulnerability.

We don’t, as a society, know how to be vulnerable and not feel weak. Instead, we feel as if we are failing when we show emotion, somehow. Especially, men. Vulnerability leaves us open and raw. There is always the chance we will be hurt more. So, we build that wall . . . we push away our family . . . before they have the chance to cause more pain. We are putting a boundary between us and the outside world.

I did this to my twin sons. One of the first blinding insights I had the day Becca was killed was that if something happened to them, I would never survive it. At that moment, I didn’t even know if I was going to survive losing her. So, I told myself I couldn’t love them as much as I did. I had to pull back and create a safe space. I felt relieved when they went to their dad’s because to look at their horrified and tear streaked faces caused my heart to break even more. And, loving them might kill them. Forcing distance between us could keep them safe, and would certainly help me, my fractured mind rationalized. Without the insight of a calm mind I thought we needed a physical separation. Therefore, I allowed it to happen. It was an attempt to protect myself.

Pushing people away, however, happens in non physical ways, too.

Most often, I think, anger sprouts from pain. If we trace the root system backward, and underneath, we usually find it to be true. It is hard to see pain, for what it is, when you are immersed in it. Like trying to gauge the immensity of the ocean when we are at the lowest point between two waves.

When children are little, and don’t have the words to adequately express what they are feeling, they act out. I’m not sure it isn’t the same for adults who don’t have a way to communicate the mass of feelings they are carrying after their child dies.

Responsibility, which can will lead to shame and guilt, when you look behind it. If you don’t take anything away from this blog but the next sentence, then it will still be worth reading. It does not matter if we were with our child at the time of their death, or not, we do feel responsible.

The one job we have as a parent is to protect our child. Our deceased child’s age does not matter, nor does how far away from us they were in the world: wherever, whatever, however, we should have been able to see it and stop it. I was not in the car Becca was killed in. I was not the driver. I didn’t serve the driver alcohol that night. I was home. Asleep. Powerless.

Yet. If my daughter hadn’t seen me go out dancing on the weekends, maybe she wouldn’t have thought it alright to do. If she’d never seen me drink . . . maybe she wouldn’t have ended up at the bar that night. Ridiculous, right? See how easily we can twist facts until we are solely responsible for their death.

Then, sometimes we may actually hold some responsibility. How do we even start to work through that? I am close to someone who believes she owns a portion of the responsibility for her child’s death. Whether she does, or does not, her perception is what matters most. It is the heaviest of weights to believe we caused our child to die. Somehow, we have to figure out how to put it down or it will drive us into the dirt.

To feel we could have saved them, but didn’t, makes us feel powerless, now. All of this emotion has to go somewhere. Either we destroy ourselves or those around us. Usually . . . a bit of both.

The guilt that is coupled with holding responsibility can be debilitating. With the guilt comes the shame. We feel shame in failing. In being part of the circumstances that led to our child dying. We may feel shame at some of our behaviors in the months that follow a child’s death.

These three things: responsibility, guilt, and shame are braided together so tightly – they are sometimes impossible to break because of the strength in which they give to each other. I think this might be one of the hardest aspects of grief to unwind and figure out.

The next part of parental grief I want to talk about is the “others”. The outsiders. The people around us who don’t know what to say, what to do, and often don’t realize they’ve said something which lands like a punch. When this happens to us enough times . . . we don’t allow ourselves to get into situations in which pain is added to us. People say stupid things not knowing any better. Sometimes they do know better yest say it anyway. We lose some friendships. Some relationships because the chasm between us and them is just great to cross.

Seeing intact, happy families, can be unbearable for a bereaved parent’s broken heart. I would time going to the store, late at night, so there was less chance of running into any families. Anger would swell up quickly when I saw mothers and daughters together. Rage. Jealousy. I wanted my child and I would never have her again. I hated the mothers who still had their daughters. Hated. I felt rage toward everyone and everything. I didn’t know where to put the hostility. So, I just stopped being around people.

After our child’s death, after the funeral, we will run into people that we are seeing for the first time since the passing. Of course, they will pay condolences and we have to re answer questions surrounding the whole thing. It’s exhausting. Immediately, we are shoved back into the first days and we relive, and reignite, the deep burning pain. We don’t have to survive these encounters if we just hibernate and see no one.

Other people’s expectations of what grief is often wrong. It’s not neat. It doesn’t run along a straight path. Dealing with A does not lead to B, and so on. The “stages of grief” that people know and expect us to follow is unrealistic. I had a woman call me just months after Becca was killed and asked: are you done crying yet? I blew up at her. After the passing of some time and with a lot of self evaluation I have come to understand what a question like this truly does.

It made me feel like I was failing in how I was grieving. I wasn’t “getting over it” quickly enough. Was I wallowing in self pity?” What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I grieve right?? Truthfully, to this day, I feel as if I’m not far enough along. When we feel judged, whether we can verbalize it or not, we pull away. It’s easier to just be alone.

Being alone can be easier. We don’t have to fake anything for anyone. We aren’t able to understand the maelstrom of emotions that have taken over our minds, yet, we react to them anyway. Sometimes, we even create situations that will force others to leave us. In an attempt to to protect ourselves. Or, to punish ourselves when we feel responsible for our child’s life ending.

The only thing we can do, to help ourselves and others, is to identify why we are isolating and pushing others away. Identify and find the help we need to do the work in order to start truly healing. If we don’t . . . we risk the chance of never finding happiness again. Of losing relationships with those we love. Of never healing.

And, our child wouldn’t want that for us.

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Gifts Given

Each one of my children has an artist’s soul. This is one of the good things I have passed down to them! I’ve watched as they’ve heard the callings of the artist’s song and turned this into a creation! From when they were all little, chubby hands wrapped around thick crayons, each spent hours drawing at our kitchen table. As they grew so did their chosen medium change. Gabriel is a very talented illustrator. Matthew can capture an image with perfection. Both can weave words into stories that will captivate the reader. They have the expressiveness that a child of mine would come by naturally.

Watching them create, through the years, has been wonderful for me. Recently, I’ve seen my twin sons talents blossom exponentially. Even using these gifts to work in media and make the world a better place. I can not wait to see what the future holds for them . . . and their art!

But, for my daughter, the story is different. All that she will create has been created. There is no waiting excitedly for the next thing she does. Her contribution to the artistic world is complete.

A few years before Becca lost her life she had started to work with oil paints. In my closet I have the small wooden box she used to carry her supplies. Little tubes of paint, a few brushes, a palette knife, and some crumpled up paper towels. I’ve opened the box, a few times, to peer inside. It’s too painful to do this too often. So, usually, I just hold it and cry.

I have a small watercolor she did, with my father, when she was about eleven. You can tell where he started the line of trees and she took over and finished them. I also have a frame which holds four crayon drawings she did when she was three or so. The red one is me, blue my mom, green my sister, and purple my father. I remember the day she drew them.

She and I were sitting at the kitchen table together. I was sketching and she was trying to copy me. At such a young age she managed to capture the important details of our likenesses very well. I love looking at the pictures and remembering that day.

I thought I had, in my possession, all of the pieces of her art that I would ever have. Then, Friday happened. And, I was given an incredible gift.

In 2004, my daughter was dating a young man named Jose. His family is Catholic. My daughter decided to make both he, and his mother, gifts. One, I knew about, the other I did not. The one I had seen was an oil painting depicting a religious figure. I remember her agonizing over whether it was good enough to give to her. I told her: it’s beautiful, honey, she’ll love it. And, she did.

I have a photograph of the painting. Looking at it makes me obsess about getting real thing. Then, the stars started to move into place to allow me to do just that!

Joseph, for those of you who don’t know, is the driver that took my daughter’s life almost twelve years ago. Joseph works with a young woman who is engaged to my daughter’s boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend? Old boyfriend? I’m not sure how to describe him. Anyway, there is the connection to me getting my daughter’s painting. Joseph asked the young woman, the young woman asked either her fiance or his mother, and Friday the painting was given to me. Not just one, however, but two pieces of my daughter’s art!

I told Joseph I would come to his office to get the paintings on my lunch hour. Waiting for noon to arrive was very difficult. I kept checking the clock. I was actually going to get the painting I’d wished I could have! Then, a text from Joseph, he was going to lunch and would be back at twelve thirty. Alright. I adjusted my plans. At about twelve twenty I left my job and drove to his.

When I was walking up to the double glass doors into his building I began to shake. The feeling you get when you aren’t sure your legs are going to hold you up anymore nevermind propel you forward. I entered the lobby and there was a young woman sitting behind the desk. I know I stuttered when I said I was there to see Joseph. I told her my first name and she finished up the exchange with my last. A minute passed before I realized that THIS was the woman engaged to my daughter’s boyfriend.

I was ready to pick up my daughter’s painting but I was not ready to be face to face with this young lady. Let me be clear, I do not have any ill feelings toward her, I just wasn’t prepared to see who had taken Becca’s place. As a bereaved mother, it is hard to see the world move in and fill the hole left by the death of our child. I instantly started to cry even though I fought against the tears.

Joseph was running late so I sat on a couch and waited for him. The young woman, so kind, came around the counter and asked if she could give me a hug. I think I was in a type of shock. Overwhelmed at the very least. We made small talk while I waited for Joseph.

With apologies, he came through a glass door carrying a red bag that held the painting. I hugged him, thanked him, then said I wasn’t ready to look at the painting there. I would wait until I was alone. On legs I was afraid were going to betray me . . . I hurried out of the building.

I pulled into the first parking lot I came to and wiped my tears away. I reached into the bag and there were two pieces inside! Joseph had told me there were actually two but wasn’t sure I could be that lucky until I was touching both of them. First, I pulled out the larger canvas that was the painting I had dreamed of getting back since my daughter died. There, in front of me, was the image of Mary my daughter painted in oils. She was breathtaking. Simple lines. Vivid colors. Religious imagery. Just perfect. And, now it was mine.

The second piece of art was framed in gold. A color pencil drawing of Jesus Christ with a prayer written in Spanish below it. I’d never seen this one before. A piece of my child that I hadn’t known existed was now in my possession. I can not tell you what a rare gift this is for me! Knowing that all that my child will add to the world has been done it’s amazing to find something new and unexpected.

As I held the two pieces I felt as if I was holding a bit of my Becca. An extension of her soul. It’s taken me a few days to write this blog because I selfishly wanted to keep these pieces of my child to myself. I feel contentment in having them near me. I believe they are where they belong.

I did show photographs of the art to a few people close to me. My spirit soared when two of them made the comment: wow, she paints in the same style that you do! Someone else told me that her Mary painting was very reminiscent of the painting I entered into Artprize 2015 “Our Becca”. And, incredibly, it is. My heart is warmed with the thought that I passed down my ability to paint to my daughter. I can see myself in the things my boys do, artistically, and now I can see it in Becca, as well.

I would like to extend many thanks to the people involved in getting these priceless objects to me. I imagine it wasn’t easy to give up a piece of a girl you loved, too. Thank you, Joseph, for being the bridge connecting the two sides together. I did not think my wish for the painting would be answered but it is very fitting that it was answered through you.

The world is an amazing place. Gifts are given all of the time.

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