This New Path

My life has had some profound shifts the past few weeks. For the better. Changes I set into motion . . . and not something that happened to me. I think that is an important distinction to acknowledge because not many life upheaving events have been by my doing. Instead, they’ve been in reaction to an event thrust upon me. The major changes in life can be easier to handle when we’ve made the choice to make the change.

Recently, I’ve written of communication with the man who killed my child eleven years ago. I have had just over a decade of time to react to my child’s untimely death. To wear down the edges of it so I’m not continually sliced open with its existence. To accept, a bit more each day, that it really happened and this is what my life is now. To accept that someone else’s choice forced a life altering reality into my own. I have had to react to Becca’s death, in a thousand different ways, over the course of the past eleven years.

But now, I have the chance to alter my life again by choosing what path I will take. Each day is full of healing possibilities for me. For every bereaved mom, I think. Sometimes we see them and can hold them close and learn from them. Other times, the air around us is heavy and the light is dim and we can’t see what possibilities lie at our feet.

Then there are the times when we see a path veering sideways off of the one we are walking on. I am sure the path has exposed itself to me before but I just wasn’t ready to see it. It’s always been there, I think, but my eyes couldn’t accept it as being a possibility. I think, when I did finally notice it, I might have tentatively set a foot onto it . . . leaving the safety of the uneven ground I knew so well . . . to peer into its shadowy depth. There were times that I didn’t think this new path was for me. No thank you. I’ll continue to travel the hazardous road of child loss instead of venturing into somewhere I don’t know. I know, by now, the monsters I will face on my journey. I don’t know what hides in the dark curves of the unknown terrain.

This new path exposed itself to me a few years ago. It didn’t seem so daunting, for once. It wasn’t as dark as before. But, I still wasn’t ready to leave the security of what I have known for a decade plus. I stopped, looked at the spot where one path met the other and decided to stay where I was for now. I knew it would present itself again, eventually. And that, one of these times, I would be ready to confidently set foot upon new earth and move forward into it.

This new path didn’t so much present itself to me as I was actively looking for it. I had been seeing it more frequently in the past few years so I knew it wouldn’t be too hard to find. I just had to gather a few things before I set forth upon it. An address. My boys blessing, or maybe just their acceptance. A willingness to face whatever was on the other side in the heart of the other person. The person who killed my Becca. Finally, one day, I had all of those things. I took the step.

I chose to move toward forgiveness and deeper healing rather than not explore what it could be for me. For him. For all of those who were impacted by my child’s death. I didn’t know exactly what I would face as I turned the corner that hid my former journey from me. I had bravely decided to see where this change in my journey would take me. I wasn’t sure. Would it open old wounds? Is there unknown anger lurking just under the surface of my conscious mind? I don’t think so. I am done being angry. The chance that something wonderful could come from forgiveness is worth the risk of changing course.

When I think of where I have been and where I am going I really visualize a path. A physical place with rocks and water and bushes that scratch me when I pass too close to them. Quicksand catching hold of my foot and anchoring me in place while I slowly sink. Sections that are ink black because the sun is blotted out and I can’t see any light. Anywhere. Others that are sweet with tall grass and clean air where I remember my child alive. Places where the horizon looks like a duplicate of what I just passed through and fought so hard to overcome.

Is this new path, I have chosen, a shortcut to the end? The end being complete healing? I don’t think there is complete healing. So probably not. But, it’s a chance for my healing to be wider as I veer from what I know. Will it lead me back to familiar ground? Probably. When I get back to the original path I will be more equipped to fight through the battles that are waiting for me.

I’ve chosen forgiveness and I believe it’s made me stronger.

Know The Truth

“I love watching all the amazing things that you and Stacey do. You’re both really living life and I’m proud of you.”

Another bereaved mom, that I know, sent this message to me recently. I thanked her for the kind words but inside I felt like a fraud. A few days later, I read them to Stacey, and remarked that people see us as an inspiration. Her reply: maybe you, but not me. I felt incredulous that she felt this way. But that’s the truth . . . we feel as if we are not the good that people say they see in us.

These feelings are more complex than simply feeling worthy of such praise. I feel as if the image I create is a smokescreen of half truths. That I share enough of the “good” to trick others into seeing me for more than what I am.

The past month has been a whirlwind of activity centering around the local art competition known as Artprize. Both Stacey and I had pieces that were accepted and shown to the public. Each of our entries has to do with the death of our child and where we are at this point in our healing journey. Much time was spent by each of us, standing beside our project, explaining its meaning to those who were kind enough to listen to our stories of loss. Truthfully, Stacey spent more time than I did and even when I was there I let her do some of the talking for me. It was just so hard to do . . . repeatedly.

Please, for every positive thing I do, know there is negative not far behind.

Being a part of Artprize allowed me the platform from which to speak about my Becca. There were so many people willing to listen that I put myself into a dark place and danced at the edge of depression, again. I’m happy it’s almost over.

We had the chance to open our home to other artists who needed a place to stay during the competition. Many of them traveled from far away just to be a part of this. The expenses of creating art, shipping art, traveling here . . . are high. When you add the cost of staying here, it’s often times undoable. We are lucky enough to be relatively close and have a very large house. Offering to host artists was really a no brainer. But, it came with a price. An emotional price.

Home is my sanctuary. Where I retreat when the outside world becomes too much for me to process. It’s a (mostly) controlled environment shutting out the uncontrollable. I am by no means a perfectionist. If I was I wouldn’t be living with five dogs and two cats. My things don’t need to be in order or in precise condition. Nothing needs to match. I just need my personal surroundings to be as stress free as possible and generally quiet. Calm. Or, not calm if I need to fall apart. It’s my soft safe place where I give the most vulnerable parts of myself, freedom.

The freedom to be ugly and undignified. Petty and jealous. Furious and damaging. Because . . . all of these emotions are part of this journey I am forced to take. When I blow up at something that shouldn’t elicit such a reaction, Stacey understands. And, that goes for her, too. It’s hard to control these feelings when someone else is in your space. When I’m the host, it’s up to me to make sure my guest has everything needed to insure a pleasant time. There were days, while we had our artist guests, that I didn’t think I would be able to do it. I’d spend time talking about my dead child, sharing her story over and over, only to have to pick up one of the artists from their venue and drive them home. Upon reaching home, I had to cook them dinner and spend the evening chatting about the day. Or, chat happily as one of them cooked dinner for us. Lovely to have a French man cooking our meal but there were many times I just wanted to climb into bed and cry myself to sleep. When my space isn’t my own, I tailor my behavior to those around me and this can be damaging to my well being. I was relieved when they left and the house was empty . . . except for us.

It was fun to tell people we were cool enough – interesting enough- bohemian enough to house artists but it was exhausting. I would love to say that the entire experience was wonderful from start to finish but, as I’ve explained, it wasn’t. Not because of them, mind you, but because of me. So, all the “how awesome!!” we got from people envious that we were living such a colorful life make me feel fraudulent. I often feel like a lie. A misconception to others. A hollow inspiration.

I’m not always living. It might seem that way but most days, in all honesty, I am just surviving.
Surviving in a world that doesn’t include my child is difficult on the best days. Imagine the days it’s harder. The days when I don’t give a fuck what’s happening outside of my bedroom door. What kind of role model am I then? I desperately need people to know that I am not always doing great things. I am not always hopeful and positive. I’m not squeezing every moment of joy out of this life.

I have my down days. Many bad days. Days when I am a bitch because I am jealous that you still have your child with you. Ones in which my anger rages because I have to talk about Becca in a past tense. A lump in my throat because I have to swallow what I really want to say. Hopelessness because I know I just can’t do one more day without my daughter by my side. Those days are as real as the good ones I share on social media. Please, please, know this.

I don’t want to mislead anyone in any way. It wouldn’t be fair to them or to me.

So, I’ll just keep bumbling along this uneven path my feet are on for as long as I am here. If I have given you the impression that “I’ve got this” . . . understand, I don’t.

I do my best. Accept my worst. And, keep moving through.

Again.

A few weeks ago one of my twin sons, Gabriel, came to visit me in the town to which I’d recently moved. I was so excited when he told me he was going to visit! There were two “firsts” I was looking forward to. One, he hadn’t seen the historic home we’d moved into and I was eager to show it to him. Two, he was bringing a young lady he’d been dating for a while and this was going to be our first meeting. The visit was everything I had expected . . . and more!

Since losing my daughter it’s been a struggle to feel truly happy. I have had moments of happiness, which have grown longer and larger, but the day he spent with me a few Sundays ago really made me feel confident that life was going to be ok. I told him this, too. Always with the qualifier “without your sister here” so as not sound like I’m over her passing. As I said those words to him, “I’m really as happy as I can be” . . . I meant them. Both of my sons were doing well. Working. Living. Loving. What else can a mother want? I have it all. (except for my daughter).

I felt certain that the hardest part of life was behind us. I was satisfied this was the truth. Then, on a beautifully sunny Saturday, lightning struck twice. It was as if some invisible hand had parted the clouds, picked me up by the back of my shirt, and dropped me right back into the day my daughter was killed.

I was at work when I received a phone call that began with these few words:

“Mom, listen to me . . . I want you to know he’s alive.”

I started to spin out of control quickly because my son, Matthew, kept saying:

“MOM! MOM! He’s alive . . . calm down . . . Mom, I need you to calm down . . .”

I flew out of the bathroom, already running and telling anyone that would listen, I had to leave NOW. Standing in the back warehouse, with all three of my bosses looking at me, I was asking my son if his twin brother was in a coma. I was yelling. I was spinning around, in place, with one hand across my forehead in disbelief. How could this be happening. Again. I’ve already lost one child . . . didn’t this mean the chance of losing another was nearly zero? Wasn’t closing down the life of your child like a vaccination of sorts?

What I remember hearing in that first conversation with my son was that his brother had been in a bad crash. He told me where Gabriel was: a hospital in Flint. Flint is 113.6 miles from my job. Travel time is 1 hour and 39 minutes. At that moment it might as well have been half way across the world. They were too far away. I was frantic

I have recollection of Matthew telling me there was no brain damage. Holy shit, I thought, this is really bad. There didn’t seem to be any paralysis, either. Holy fuck, how bad is it when they are checking for those things? I must have asked my son if he was telling me everything, or if he was telling me the truth, because he kept saying:

“I promise, Mom, I’m not holding anything back. Please, don’t rush here, I need you to drive safely. He’s ok.”

I didn’t believe him. I was CERTAIN he was holding the most devastating information back because he didn’t want me to speed and have my own crash. Was he downplaying the truth of his brother’s condition so I wouldn’t drive like a maniac to get there? Yes! My mind told me. YES!!! It screamed at me! “YOUR CHILDREN DIE!!” I kept shaking my head as my son tried to calm me, console me, make me believe his brother was, indeed, alive.

“I need you to be ok, Mom!! Promise me you won’t speed, promise me you’ll be careful!”

All I kept saying was, “I have to leave . . . I have to go . . . I have to get there now . . . I know you aren’t telling me the truth . . .”

I was in my car and on the street within seconds. I didn’t know what to do first. I needed air in my tires but I couldn’t waste the time getting them filled – there wasn’t enough gas in my van yet it would take too long to fill it up – how far could I get on what there was . . .

I think I drove in circles in the parking lot, trying to figure out what I needed to do first, because I had to keep moving. I had to be doing something. I was literally spinning my tires in panic.

Fortunately, a coworker messaged me and told me she didn’t want me going alone. I had it in my head that I just needed to get on the highway and get the hell across the state. She told me that Joe, a high school friend of the boys, would go with me. I almost ignored her message, turning left toward the highway instead of turning right and going back to work. I didn’t and having Joe with me for the long ride helped.

As we drove toward the highway I filled him in on what little I knew. Something inside of me told me that I had to hold it together for Joe. I was the adult, even though Joe is 24, and I had to appear calm for him. As I explained Gabe’s condition (as I knew it to be) I tried to hold back the tears. Why was I able to remain calm for someone else but not myself?

In between conversations with Joe, about mundane things, horrible thoughts were racing through my mind.

Would my child have a cognitive disability. I know Matthew said no brain damage but he could be just saying that. Gabriel is sarcastic and fast witted and intelligent. In a lot of ways, he is my most difficult child, always testing the boundaries and not caring about consequences. He’s thoughtful and philosophical and questions everything. Full of angst. At times, it seems, he carries the sadness of generations that have come before him. An artist’s soul with a deep well of emotions. What would I do if I had to look into his beautiful eyes and know he’s lost part of who he was? Would he be aware that he had been permanently changed? Somewhere deep in his mind would he know he wasn’t fully himself anymore? Would this realization sadden him? Or was there a chance that he might never know who he was before this crash?

These thoughts rushed in but I kept pushing them back so I could concentrate on the highway.

Oh my god. What if he is hurt badly enough that he spends the rest of his life in a wheelchair? I know Matthew told me there wasn’t that kind of damage but my son knows me well enough to be concerned that I would drive well over the speed limit to get to them. What if Gabriel could no longer use his legs? Both boys played soccer in high school and continue to play to this day. Gabriel recently discovered a love for disc golf. Are the courses wheelchair accessible? His arms. Paralysis could include his arms! How in the world would he feel if he could no longer run or kick or shoot a baskeball?

Which would be better? A cognitive issue, or a physical one? Would one be easier to overcome than the other? How would Gabriel approach the loss of either one? OR BOTH?? Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.What the fuck!! Why did the miles seem endless as I sped toward the east side of the state?! I needed to touch my child. Matthew needed me there, too. I am the mom. I am supposed to make everything right. No matter their age . . . children still look to their parents for guidance. I had to get there and DO.

I was told the car flipped between 40 and 50 mph. No airbags deployed. Unsure of seat belts. The crash happened in a construction zone and wasn’t found for a few hours. A female officer knocked on their father’s door to ask if they knew a Gabriel Kelly. She said there was a crash and he was in serious condition. I was told by the boys’ stepmother that Matthew anguished over what to say when he called me. He had to give me the news yet keep me calm enough so that I didn’t freak out (which I did anyway) and hurt myself getting there. Then Matthew had to sit next to his twin brother’s bed, while doctors and nurses tended to him, all the while wondering if he’d just lost another sibling. Trying to remain calm as old wounds were opened and blood started to spill. Angry at his brother but thrilled he was alive. Matthew had also been placed in a space from eleven years ago . . . instantaneously.

On a beautiful late summer day, the kind that can only be found in Michigan, Matthew and I were standing on that cold gray highway in January again.This time it wasn’t me trying to protect him, but instead, him attempting to shelter me. Side by side, we sat at the foot of Gabe’s bed, and just looked at him. Grateful when he surfaced out of the drug induced sleep long enough to say something. Crying when he would moan from the pain. Matthew told me how much it hurt to see his brother this way. That he wished he could take the pain away. I wished I could take the pain from both of them into myself.

A few days after the crash, when my mind settled down enough to move from the emergency state, I thought: Damn it! That is what I get for saying I was happy. For thinking life was going to be good. To be openly optimistic and hopeful. Life said: Yeah? Watch this. Then it proceeded to recrumble the ground beneath my feet. Why? Why did another tragedy have to happen? I’ve had enough! My family has had enough. In the past I’ve half joked around about having been Hitler in my previous life because I was getting a good amount of karmic payback in this one, it seemed. There should be a quota for the number of children on mother can lose. Can we ink that in somewhere? Who do I need to talk to?

My son is alive. We have a future together . . . all three of us. Matthew will heal from the terror and pain he’s been feeling for the past week. He’ll be carefree and optimistic and full of joy again. His playful nature will resurface when he can put the weight of this event down. Gabriel’s healing will be slow but eventually he will be back to the sarcastic funny kid we know. And, out walking the disc golf course “meditating” as he calls it.

Lightning does strike twice in the same place. I have no immunity because my daughter was killed. Any confidence I had that my two boys would be safe because we’ve already faced this is completely gone. There are no rules in child loss. We must not take any part of being a parent for granted. I don’t think life came after me because I was too smug or cocky. Well, most of me doesn’t. But it’s going to take a very long time until I feel “safe” concerning my children again.

Gabriel will be coming to stay with me for a while soon. I will be able to mother him and help him heal. I can hold his hand and tell him how much I love him. We can talk about what he’s feeling. He can tell me about his sister being at the crash, and watching over him, more completely.

Please, for me, if you are able . . . go hug your children.

You never know when a storm might be brewing.

 

Excavating Muskegon

I found another piece of my Becca.

A piece I knew I would stumble upon, sooner or later, it just happened to be sooner than expected. That’s ok, though. I wasn’t completely prepared to find it . . . but all of a sudden, there she was.

Muskegon holds very little history for my children and I. In fact, it’s the place that has the least amount of history along the Lake Michigan shoreline. There are other places, beaches mostly, that we spent much more time together. One in particular, Kirk Park, is the most difficult to think about visiting. My stomach clenches and my legs feel as if they can’t hold up my weight. I’m not ready to visit there, yet.

The knowledge that there is a soccer field, in Muskegon, that we’d been to has been in the back of my mind since moving here. I think a few weeks had passed before I remembered the name of the street we took to reach it happened to be the same one I drive down to get home every day. The field is about half a mile to the right of the first intersection I pass through when I exit the highway. In my memory, it wasn’t that close the freeway at all. In trying to figure it out I recalled that we had gotten lost and driven right past it and had to backtrack a good ways!

The sad thing is: I can not remember if Becca rode with us for the long drive or if she met us out there. I can’t call her to ask, either. That is one of the things I hate, among the thousands there are to hate, about her dying. I am the keeper of all the memories . . . and when I can not remember a detail, I fail. And she is erased a little more.

My car, at the time (and many other times in our life) wasn’t the most reliable, so the drive was stressful for me. I wonder if the boys could tell? But, I wanted to at least seem as if we were as carefree as all the other families seemed to be. I should have realized we had what really matters, love.. Anyway, I remember Becca and I sitting on the small section of bleachers next to the soccer field. Was it a hot day? Or a cold one? I can’t remember. The feeling of my daughter next to me, and my boys running around on the field, is what I can remember. I am happy I have not forgotten how she feels.

Becca was always over the top when it came to emotions. She was a very dramatic girl! Which grew into her being a very dramatic young woman. One of the things I both loved and admired about her!! She was not shy when it came to expressing her feelings! Happy or sad, you knew!. On that day, long ago, my girl – the boys big sister, jumped up and rushed down the bleachers. Before I knew it, she was running up and down the sidelines, jumping like a fool, and cheering for her brothers. She possessed an ability to behave ridiculously without any fear of what she might look like to others. Becca was wise. Wiser than me. I didn’t conquer that fear (and some days I haven’t at all) until after she’d been killed. What is there to fear? I’ve lived through the worst, haven’t I?

I imagine her brothers might have been a bit embarrassed, then. I wonder if they remember this day? Or how much their sister loved them. Could they tell they were everything to her? I hope they could. I hope they both realize that now. That girl would have done anything for them. And, I know, they would have done anything they could for her, too. The three of them loved each other more than I ever could have hoped for. She was theirs and they were hers and I am so blessed to have been a part of this family.

My boys have had days when I know they could have used a big sister. For advice. Or support. Maybe kick someone’s ass. (She would have done all three, happily.) I’ve had days when her words would have jerked me out of my low places and set me right again. Every day without her is hard, but, there are days that are nearly unbearable because of her absence.

Then there are the days when I find a bit of her and, for a moment, she’s next to me. Maybe my journey isn’t meant to be moving away from the explosive impact of her death. Instead, what if it’s about going forward to excavate the pieces of our life that landed far away?

When I was young, I wanted to be an archaeologist, digging up treasures from civilizations long gone from this earth. Like most children that dream about this career, we envision ourselves in a far away land, digging up the tomb of an ancient ruler filled with gold or finding proof of a people we weren’t sure existed. My younger self (the one who was still in consistent contact with my soul) possibly knew I would be searching out a different kind of treasure one day. Searching for and gathering my most precious memories.

Discovering this piece of Becca has allowed me to remember the joy of life in that girl! Her laughter is ringing through my head! The love the three of them felt for each other is warm as it surrounds me. The happiness we all had together, even though we didn’t have much materially, brings a smile to my face and new tears to my eyes. I found a perfect moment, again.

Carrying the weight of my dead child is exhausting. But, it’s a heaviness I can not put down. Yet, picking up pieces of her while I travel makes the weight a little lighter. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but I’m glad that those of you who don’t understand, don’t.

Maybe tomorrow I will be strong enough to walk up those bleachers from years ago. Or, maybe all I will be able to do is glance in that direction. Either way . . . I’ve found gold.

My Becca.

Mending The Broken

 

 

At first glance, I know the statue I used as the featured photo doesn’t look like much. However, she’s become very dear to me.

When I acquired her it had been just over a year since I’d lost my Becca. I’d seen her, in the store I worked in, every day. Having just gone back to work after nearly a year of being unable to perform any job . . . I didn’t have the money to purchase her. When I saw her face, and it’s serene look, I knew she belonged to me. I remember hoping that she would be there when I could afford her. Thankfully, she was.

A decade ago, when I finally owned her, she was much different looking. Delicately sculpted arms reached toward the heavens. Her graceful hands curved around the thick edge of a bowl she held aloft. Almost as if she was making an offering. Or sacrifice. She was sending energy upwards.

One day, I looked at her and thought, “maybe she’s gathering whatever the universe let’s fall down to earth.”. A few days later I realized that it could be both. So, I started to place natural objects into her vessel as my own gift to the powers that be. Or, I’d put in little things I’d bought for Becca, in hopes she would see them. Every time it rained, and the bowl caught the drops, I’d dip my fingers into the water. I’d wipe the wetness, imbued with energies from above, across my forehead and over my heart.

The second winter I had her I decided to leave her outside instead of putting her in the garage. Crisp white snow piled up in the little bowl and her face looked beautiful decorated with the lacy snowflakes that fell onto it. Her dark gray figure surrounded by the pureness of the snow made life look like a black and white photograph. She was beautiful.
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Being that she was made of resin, and not cement, the weather weakened her arms. First, the bowl fell to the ground. Her arms, minus hands, still reached upward. I wasn’t sure if she was worth keeping any longer. But, her face remained peaceful.

Shortly after that both arms broke at the shoulder and dropped to the ground. She could no longer offer or receive anything, I surmised. Yet, the calm expression remained. This girl was armless and it hadn’t phased her one bit. Her delicate chin and closed eyes still faced the heavens. If she could stay centered, in the midst of her tragedy, then so could I.

In the past year I have moved five times. This statue has travelled with me to each new location. It’s one of the first things I need to unpack and find a place where I feel she belongs. Her presence is consistent.

If you look closely at her you can see the large cracks that wrap her body. More than once I’ve carefully spread glue along their edges and put her back together. On her side there is a hole that I can’t fully repair. The piece was lost when Cecily wrapped her leash around the statue’s waist and pulled her into the bushes. This hole has come to represent the piece, we all have, that is missing . . . never to be returned. We learn to live with the empty spot, don’t we? That is part of the healing, I believe, the acceptance that life will never be fully whole again. The realization that we have no other choice but to come to terms with our loss. Maybe that is the start of true healing?

When you heal you start from somewhere deep and unseen in your soul. The tiniest broken connection is mended together and a spark of the divine glows again. Then, like a ripple from a stone tossed into still water, the spark spreads outward. Broken pathways are reconnected. Our soul grows warmer as the spark travels throughout. I’ve learned it’s a slow process.A process that will continue occurring until we take our last breath.

Our new house has a large front porch with a wide staircase down to the front yard. On either side of the stairs there are wide pieces of cement meant to hold flower pots. Stacey placed a small statue, a little girl and her mother, on one side of the stairs. When I saw her put it there I said, “maybe I will put my statue on the other side!” Knowing what my statue looked like she kind of made a face. I said, “I know . . . she needs some fixing.”

But, she doesn’t, really.

She’s perfectly imperfect. My scars are represented by hers. If I fix her so that they don’t show should I fix myself as well? The line you can see across her abdomen is where the glue seeped out of the crack while she was drying. Now, that spot is stronger for having been repaired. That line is beautiful because you can see the repair! To make her physically perfect again would be a disservice to all she has been through.

Our scars are where people can reach into us. They show those around us that we are not perfect. Our inner healing can be seen beneath them. Their glow is a light to guide others. Scars, both physical and emotional, are the truth of our stories. They are the unspoken heartbreak that we have in common.

I won’t put her on the front porch, not because she is an eyesore, but because I don’t want anything to happen to her. She means too much to me.

Mend your brokenness but don’t ever hide it. It’s what brings us together.

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Her Angel

I often wonder if bereaved mothers judge themselves more harshly than the average person does. We can be pretty ruthless when noticing our own behavior.

Are we mourning correctly? Too much? Or, the right amount? Not enough? Did we laugh too soon? More often than we should? Are we supposed to go on the vacation we already had planned? How long is it appropriate to wear black? Should we mention our child when no one else does? How do we know if we are grieving the loss of our child appropriately?

First let me say this: someone . . . somewhere, will have a nasty comment to make about how you are surviving in the aftermath of loss. The remarks usually start with “Did you see . . . “ or “How could she . . . “ or “Isn’t it time that you . . . “. The last comment is the one that really gets me because all too often it comes from someone who hasn’t buried one of their children. But this blog isn’t about the insensitivity or lack of knowledge that outsiders seem to bring to us. This piece of writing is about how severely we can judge ourselves.

Monday morning, Stacey and I were having breakfast before a meeting I had for an art show. Sitting in a local eatery, we were chatting about what was on the TV and probably making inappropriate comments about one thing or another, when she started to scroll through her emails.

“Oh”, she said,”here is one about the scholarship.”

She then proceeded to share with me the particulars of the letter. A memorial scholarship has been started in Mckenna’s honor and the first one was presented this year. A 2018 graduate, who is furthering her education in theatre and music was awarded the scholarship. Mckenna was quite gifted in music and acting and Stacey wanted to help further someone else’s dream because she can’t help Mckenna achieve her own.

Stacey said, multiple times, oh that’s lovely. Oh, how wonderful. I’m so happy. Which I am quite certain she was . . . but with the acknowledgement that this girl received the honor to further her dreams it was a reminder to Stacey that her daughter won’t. This scholarship only exists because Mckenna was killed and there is no way to get forget this fact. So, in the middle of the restaurant, Stacey started to cry. And then what did she do? What we all do. She apologized.

I don’t remember her exact words but they were something like: “I’m sorry. I think I’m doing good and holding it inside and then all of a sudden I’m crying.”

That statement holds so much heartache. There is the surface sadness, the sadness we expect when we’ve lost a child, but there is so much more mixed in there as well.

“I’m sorry.”

For what? You have no reason to have to apologize to anyone. Ever. Crying is expected. Tears are natural. Everyone cries. Please, don’t say you are sorry. Cry when you need to. No explanation is needed to anyone. Tears are a healing necessity on this path.

“I think I’m doing good and holding it inside and then all of a sudden I am crying.”

Holding it inside is “doing good”? By whose standards? In saying that holding it in is doing good it implies that letting it out is doing bad. Why is that bad? We’ve been conditioned to believe emotions are troublesome and shouldn’t be shared. Being sensitive is seen as a fault. Somehow, society has morphed into a space where we have to keep what is considered “extreme emotions” hidden away. I think this is a huge mistake. It removes us from one another.

But, back to how we judge ourselves in context to how we behave in grief.

Stacey and I have talked endlessly about nearly every aspect of mourning the loss of a child. We always agree that our culture sucks when it comes to both actively grieving and interacting with others who grieve. Both of us think part of our “mission” is to spread awareness about child loss and parental bereavement. When we see another mother crying . . . we understand why. We are compassionate. There is safe space. We can extend this to another, knowing it is what the mother needs, yet we can’t seem to offer it to ourselves. I know Stacey would sit with me for hours, if I wanted her to, so I wouldn’t be crying alone. I would do the same for her. And, there would be no reason for an apology or even the slightest thought that the other was failing. Yet, again, we don’t offer that kindness to ourselves.

It seems we can talk a good game, in theory, but it’s putting it in practice on the playing field where we falter. We still think we are putting others out when our grief overwhelms us and spills into the moment. How do we change societal views when we have trouble changing ourselves?

I guess it’s in small steps. One tear at a time. We didn’t learn to live without our child in one afternoon. Or in a year. Hell, it’s been a decade for me and I still don’t know how. We do the best we can in the smallest of moments.

All judgement has to stop. The judgement from “outsiders”. That which grieving moms have for each other at times, and especially the thoughts in which we hold ourselves up to an impossible yardstick. My way isn’t your way and vice versa. And it shouldn’t be.

Find your way without faulting yourself for the little moments of the journey. Let others find theirs. We are all heading in the same direction, like a spoke of a wheel, toward the center of spirit and healing. Be kind to each other.

Be kind to yourself.

Note: The featured image above is painting Stacey Hilton did of herself and her angel daughter, Mckenna. I’d like to thank her for allowing me to share her story and her pictures in my writing. It adds a dimension that I couldn’t share on my own.

 

 

Her Wings

Earlier this week I started to build the wings of a very large painting I am doing of my daughter. When I started to cut the chicken wire to shape the wings, I wasn’t sure if I was doing it the right way, but I forged ahead regardless. You see, I didn’t go to art school so I have no formal training in anything I do. I just do it. Sometimes it works . . . other times it doesn’t. This time, it did.

Let me give you a little back story about the painting to which I am referring.

Last year, I started to paint angels. Partly, because my mind is grappling with the fact that my daughter is one. Initially, I painted angels which were non descript. No characteristics which belonged to my daughter. In a sense, I was circling around the truth of her being in heaven, without getting to the center immediately. It’s a hard concept to accept even if you have seen your child’s dead body. I think painting angels has brought me closer to accepting the truth. In little steps.

Mid January of this year, I decided I was going to confront myself, and my hesitancy to see Becca in the form she is now. To do this, I started a project that has blossomed into something so much bigger than just me accepting my daughter’s latest incarnation. I’ve found it is also a way for others to join me in my grief journey. I think this is going to be something big.

The painting consists of three separate 4’x5’ panels, hung vertically on the wall, giving it the appearance of one big canvas. Each day, upon waking, it seems I have an addition to what I plan to do! Building the wings to project out of the panel was something I knew I wanted to add. Chicken wire was the best way to form strong wings, which would fold slightly at the top, and look like I picture my Becca’s.

So, I grabbed the staple gun and went to work. Now, I often feel Becca near me, but that day I knew she was there without question. I was listening to U2 and the song that was playing at that moment was “Walk On”. “I know it aches . . . and your heart it breaks . . . you can only take so much . . .” and I just lost it. The words felt as if they were coming directly from her. I sank down onto my knees, dropped the staple gun, and cried into my hands. That’s when I felt her presence envelop me. I could feel her wings wrap around me and I felt her warmth. My daughter was holding me because she knew I was working through something enormous. She’s the wise one now.

I didn’t get very far with the wings that afternoon. Crying hard really takes it out of me. I stopped, shut off the lights, and went upstairs. Thinking I’d cried all the tears I had in me. I was wrong. There are always more tears.

Laying in bed, I decided to send a few of the photos to my friend Teresa. She is running my angel project for me. She also knew my daughter. While we were discussing the pictures. and expressing excitement about watching it come to fruition, I started to cry again. I told Teresa and she did her best to comfort me. But, as I lay there I wondered why this was hitting me so hard. Then I remembered the other time I had made wings for my daughter. When she was five.
Becca desperately wanted to be Tinkerbell for Halloween. I couldn’t afford an expensive costume so I decided to make it myself. I bought green felt material and cut out a dress with the little points at the hem. The top of the dress resembled Tink’s attire, but instead of letting Becca go strapless,I sewed it to a white turtleneck. White tights with little green socks were on her feet. I pulled her hair up into a tight bun and gave her a wand. Her wings, though, her wings were the best part of the costume! I used two wire hangers and attached the curve that you hang them from to each other. On the longest part of the sides I pulled the metal out slightly to give them a more natural appearance. I stretched a white gauzy remnant material over them and voila! She had her wings.

Becca loved the costume. She loved the wings the most. At the Halloween party we threw she kept running around, tapping people with her wand, and asking them if they liked her wings, too! Even though I told her it would be uncomfortable she insisted upon sleeping in them that night. I remember peeking into her room after she was asleep. Her hands clutched the wand. The tight bun was coming undone. Her face was smeared with chocolate. But she lay flat on her back because that was the only position the wings would allow. My heart filled with joy just looking at her.

I’d forgotten about that day, until the wings I am building now, shook it loose. At one point during the party, I had seen her standing across the room from me, not moving. She looked at me intently, holding my gaze for nearly a minute, then flashed me with a huge Becca smile.In her eyes, I could see happiness and a thank you, and it was as if no one else existed. Time stood still. Just me and my girl. She was perfect.

I am building her wings for the wrong reason this time. She shouldn’t be dead. It wasn’t her time to become an angel. I desperately want to be back in the chaos of that day. Staring at my child while our souls connected without words. And, that’s why I was crying so hard. I needed to birth a memory. Birth is always painful.

Tomorrow, I am going to spend time working on her wings, again. They need to be huge so she can travel far. They need to be strong because I know she is doing a lot of flying where she is.

Fly high my baby girl. I know you are smiling because our souls are still connected.

I love you.

 

Shifting

The morning I woke up after having the dream was the closest to feeling completely happy I’ve felt in a long time. My daughter didn’t feel eleven years, or another world, away. Her essence clung to everything around me. The warmth of her body hung heavy in the air. It’s as if she had just walked out of the room! I had been in her presence.

Details of the dream were difficult to hold onto at any length. Flashes of images, throughout the day, helped bring them into clearer focus. Over a few hours, I stitched the pieces together into a complete picture. Even remembering I’d been incredulous, during the dream, at being with my daughter again!

A six year old piggy tailed Becca came rushing into the room to see me! A pink and purple puffy jacket squished in my arms as I picked her up into a hug. I held her tight as I kissed her flush face and she giggled! Her sticky little hands held my face and she kissed me!! Somewhere in the dream I asked myself how this could be happening. I pushed it aside and concentrated on the joy of having my child in my arms!

My mother started to pack up Becca’s clothing which signaled to me that my parents trusted me to take care of her again. I don’t know why my child was staying with them but I was elated that I was able to take her home with me. The little voice, that seemed only interested in relaying bad news, told me that this wasn’t real. Not to be too happy because it would all be over soon. As I watched my daughter rushing around gathering her toys I told it to go away. Seeing my daughter so happy, so alive, was amazing and I didn’t want it to end.

But, as dreams always do, it ended.

As I am apt to do, I spent the day ruminating over and picking apart everything that happened in my dream. Why had my parents been caring for my daughter? Why wasn’t she living with me? Becca had been so happy to see me, as if she’d not seen me in a while, how long had we been apart? I’d completely forgotten about her pink and purple jacket . . . why had she been wearing that particular coat? How had I forgotten about it? Why did I remember it now? Had Becca chosen to appear to me as a six year old, and if so, what was her reason? Honestly, I drive myself crazy some days trying to figure things out! I can’t help myself.

My mind whirling with dozens of question I told myself to stop. Out loud I said: “Just stop.”

None of that matters. What matters is that you spent joyous time with your child! You had a beautiful visit with your daughter. A visit that is all too rare. Don’t lose sight of what is important here. So I stopped dissecting dream moments to find hidden meaning and instead put my attention towards the incredible joy in the experience.

To me, though this realization may seem small, it is truly monumental when applied to the entire journey through the aftermath of child loss. The change in perspective from one vantage point to another means a world of difference to the viewer. It’s like looking at the day to appreciate what we can see instead of trying to find what we know is missing.

When our child dies we are plunged into deep mourning. There is not one piece of our world that has not been touched by our loss. To know this truth is to understand why we spend a very long time focusing on the child’s death and not necessarily their life. I don’t believe it is a conscious choice we make to do so. It’s all part of the coming to terms with and eventually accepting that our child has died.

Very simply: we need to celebrate their life instead of only mourning their death. Easier said than done . . . believe me. But, as the years pass, how she died isn’t the first thought that comes to mind. Notice in the first sentence of this paragraph I wrote the world “only” before mourning. We will always mourn. The tragic fact that our child died before us will forever bring a great sense of loss and sadness. However, the beauty in the fact they lived and the memories we carry will begin to present themselves more often. That’s when the shift in perception changes our lives.

This shift can be difficult. It was for me. Being happy felt like a betrayal to my daughter. Still does. Not thinking about the unfairness of her death made me feel as if I was saying her death was ok. I’m not. Her death isn’t ok. How she died, because of someone else’s decision, makes me rage. All the things she missed out on are unacceptable. Some days I won’t be able to think about anything else but how my daughter was cheated. Her twenty three years (and six weeks) held so much more than the split second in which she was killed, though.

For myself, I have to concentrate on how my girl lived, not how she died. Just as in my dream, I need to tell the voice to go away and let me concentrate on the years filled with our life. Often, I repeat it to myself many times a day. It’s easy to slip back into mourning. Expect to slip . . . a lot. I still do and I am in the twelfth year A.D. (After Death) and I expect it to continue. Just don’t get mired there. Our children don’t want our lives to be completely about their deaths.

The life our child lived, and lost, is both an anchor and a balloon for us. On the hardest days the weight of their absence will drag us to the bottom of the ocean. On the best ones, the memories we carry will be balloons that lift us toward the sky.

Let the shift in perception happen. Allow yourself to be lifted more often. Your child will smile with you. And, together you will fly!!

An added note: The photo above was taken by a very dear friend, Kristina, who makes it a priority to put my Becca’s name wherever she visits. This started with people writing Becca’s name in the sand for me and has blossomed into a tradition very near to my heart. I’m blessed to have many different photos of her name around the world. She’s been seen in places she’s never even been!!

 

 

Pieces Of Her

This past Monday, I drove over the spot where my daughter was killed. My friend, Stacey, knows I try to avoid the north part of the city at any cost, especially that section of highway. She’s even shown me an easy off, then back on, so I can bypass that area. As we drew closer to the exit I would need to take to in order to do so, I decided that I wasn’t going to avoid it this time. Heading onto the segment of road, where my daughter took her last breath, was something I needed to do. I wasn’t sure why, though. I just did it.

I tossed and turned for most of that night. Sleep eluded me. When I nodded off I was barely under. The thin dreams, I did have, were full of Becca. Young Becca. Older Becca. Angel Becca. It wasn’t until mid afternoon the next day, when I realized that a new truth about this journey of child loss, was being birthed. My soul struggled with the enormity . . . trying to put it into a concept I could understand. The dark uneasy hours were labor. When daylight came, the truth revealed itself and was born into existence.

Grieving mothers must gather the pieces of their children that are scattered across the world.

Last week, I went into a grocery store that my daughter and I had visited, years ago. The layout of the store was the same. I could picture her moving back and forth, across the aisles, as she had long ago.. In my heart, it was as if I had stepped back into time. But my head knew differently. I doubted anyone, working in the store now, had been there that day we had gone shopping. No one would have seen Becca skipping around, chattering continuously, as I followed her wherever she went. To me, though, her spirit was still there. I could see her.

When I left the store, my heart was torn into pieces, and I was overwhelmed with feelings. Being somewhere our child had known, for the first time after their death, is very difficult. The only way I can describe the feeling of longing and pain is to say it’s akin to a starburst exploding from our hearts. The ache is just too powerful to keep inside our chest.

A small voice, speaking from the center of my soul, whispered to me on the day of this truth’s birth. The soft words said: “Yesterday, you gathered the pieces of her she left there that day. Your soul whirred around her and she was pulled into your being. You carry them now, and forever. You are putting her life back together.The pieces of her life are still there . . . for you to find. Keep looking.”

This thought makes me feel joy! It makes me want to sing! I can still care for my child in this very intimate way.The life we had together has not been destroyed completely. Don’t misunderstand me. I would give anything to have my girl back with me. Without a second thought I would give my own life.

There are days when the anger rages and I hate the unfairness of it all. Other days, I’m so bogged down in the sadness, I can only see a few more minutes of being able to survive this pain. Jealousy, of your intact family, comes to the front and threatens to spill out. Those are the hard days. The darkest of the days. When all I can think of doing is lying down and refusing to continue with this new broken life. The thought of watching the snow, fall from the sky, as it covers me . . . seems a peaceful way to join my child. Like I said, those are the dark days. And I know, they will always come. I’ve accepted this.

Yet, now I know, there are going to be days when I will come across a piece of my daughter, unexpectedly. A beautiful golden moment where she existed, we existed, together. The initial pain will lay my chest open, yes, but it will also allow my soul to gently call to her’s and bring her home.

Our souls are entwined with our children’s long before they are conceived. They are tethered to us. Always connected. When I looked at each of my children’s faces, for the first time, I thought “well there you are!” They were familiar before I even saw them. They are part of us, and we, them. This is how it is meant to be.

My days will still hold much sorrow. It’s the price I pay for loving my child beyond comprehension. Now, I know there will be moments of blinding beauty and immense healing, too. What I do on my journey has become even more important. As her mother it is my calling to search for and gather all of her pieces.

And, carry them with me until we are together again.