You Can’t Stop A Boulder

Once a week I have the opportunity to talk to other grieving parents. I don’t always avail myself to said opportunity, but when I do, I am stunned at what we have in common. No matter how we lost our child . . . many feelings are universal.

The one that is most often mentioned: guilt. We find a way of taking whatever happened and making it our fault. One mom shared a story with me. The story is of a little boy who was sleeping soundly in his bed. One night a boulder, that had been firm in the side of the cliff for hundreds of years,  came loose. The massive rock rolled down the hill, gaining speed, eventually crashing through a wall. Instantly killing a little boy as he slept soundly in his bed.

How had the boulder become free? A storm, years prior, had caused the river to flood and weaken the earth in that area. Somehow, the surveying team missed the danger when they inspected the area for homes. Four years later, the boys parents had chosen the home because of it’s good school system and close neighborhood. It had taken them a long time to find the perfect place to raise their child. As a condolence, people said that there was no reason for this to happen, it was after all, an act of God.

Those of us who have lost a child know what the parents did to themselves, don’t we?

They blamed themselves for their son’s death. If they hadn’t chosen that house, on that hill, with those rocks that had seemed so beautiful in the sunset, he would still be alive. If they’d never left their previous home then this would not have happened. For the rest of their lives, they will carry the guilt of what happened.

When I listen to other parents talk about the death of their child, I am amazed at how easily events can be described in a way that illustrates their responsibility. As their words spill from their mouths . . .  I want to cry out: It’s not your fault!! Yet, I do it to myself, too. I can manage to weave the recounting of Becca’s death into a tale that makes me the guilty party. Why do we have such an intense need to be culpable. Society isn’t blaming us, we are blaming ourselves.

I’ve heard parents say if they hadn’t sent their child to school that day, they wouldn’t have died in a bus accident. Or if they had kept them home when it began to snow, their child’s car wouldn’t have skidded off the road. If they’d said no to going to the movies, their child wouldn’t have been drinking in the parking lot and  succumbed to alcohol poisoning. The truth is, as parents, we can do everything right, and it still doesn’t matter.

If you are reading this, and haven’t lost a child, please don’t become terrified of allowing your child to live. You can not wrap them in a cocoon and keep them safe. If we are alive, we have to live life. Don’t change that. But, please, if you know someone who has lost a child and is struggling with this massive, and very common, guilt . . . share this with them.

A lot of times we won’t listen to ourselves, but it helps to hear it from someone else. We can let the guilt go.

Our children would want that for us.

 

Confronting Guilt

Guilt is a monster that demands to be fed. No matter the cost . . . it’s going to find what it needs and take it from you. We are better served by looking it in the face and asking it’s reason for existing. There is always a reason. Often times, the reason isn’t our responsibility. Especially the reason our child died. But, somehow, we still carry the guilt.

The moment my daughter was killed I was sleeping restlessly in my bed miles away. Earlier in the evening, while I was at work, an ominous feeling settled on my shoulders. I tried to shake the feeling of impending danger but I just couldn’t. Even going so far as to tell my manager I wouldn’t be back to work there again. How did my subconscious mind know this? And if it was going to warn me . . . why not go all the way and tell me exactly what was going to happen so I could stop it?

As I lay safely in my bedroom, as my sons slept downstairs, my child’s life was ended by a drunk driver. Why did I go to sleep? How could I not pay closer attention to the feelings I was experiencing? I knew my boys were home that evening. They had no plans. I should have called my daughter and made sure she was alright. I had time. I left work near midnight. She wouldn’t be killed for just over two hours. If I’d acted . . . she might still be alive. If I had demanded she tell me where she was, then driven to get her, she would still be alive. If I’d picked her up and brought her to my home, tucked her into bed next to me . . . she’d still be here.

As her mother, I should have known this was the possible outcome of the night. I didn’t. Was this because I am not a good mother? Or I didn’t love my child enough? I failed her. I cost my daughter her life. And I have to live with this truth for the rest of my life.

When talking to others, and expressing this thought, I’m always told I have no responsibility for her death. (But I do.) I wasn’t the driver who chose to drive after drinking. (But I could have changed the course of events.) Physically, I had no hand her dying. (But I should have known my child was in physical danger.) You see how our mind works? How we can find a way to feel responsible for something we had nothing to do with? The weight of the guilt we carry can crush us and force us to our knees. It lives in our chest so fully we can’t take a deep breath. Our heart beats are restricted and our blood flow is weak. We are dying, ourselves.

Guilt will take what it needs, and we are left to exist on what’s left, unless we confront it. It’s parasitic existence must be ended. In truth, we most likely, couldn’t have stopped our child from dying. In our heads, this fact is acknowledged. Our hearts, however, don’t always know this. We spend our life, our child’s life, keeping them safe and preparing them for a future of their own. We baby proof our homes, walk them to school, get vaccinations and physicals, feed them healthily. Teach them about strangers, lock our doors at night, talk to them about safe sex. Their safety is entirely our responsibility. Except, when it’s isn’t.

I’ve not met another grieving mother who didn’t carry some guilt. It’s part of the whole package. Emotions you didn’t know you would experience. That you don’t know how to deal with. As I’ve said before: you can’t heal what you don’t acknowledge. Find the source of the guilt. Where you tell yourself you went wrong. And look it in it’s eyes. Question it. Examine it.

When it doesn’t have an answer for you . . . tell it to go.

 

 

After

Grief can cloud our world so completely we become hopelessly lost. Lost to those around us. To life and the world. Sadly, also to ourselves. We exist in a place that is shadowy and unfamiliar.

We exist in a place that is shadowy and unfamiliar . . . full of sights and sounds we never knew before. For a time, we stay stuck in the moment balanced between when our child was alive and their death. We try to reach back and find the few seconds before we knew the truth. We lower our heads and weep. When we look . . . the entire world has changed forever. There are some bereaved mothers who never find their way back.

For a time, we cope. There is always a flurry of activity around death, especially in the days just after it’s arrival. People rush in to care for us. Food is prepared to nourish our bodies. Words of comfort are said to nourish our souls.  The wagons have circled and for a time we feel protected.

Then time starts to move away from the day that changed us to the center of our being. The phone falls silent. All the condolence cards we are going to receive have been opened. No more prepared meals, it’s time for us to begin caring for ourselves again. With great sadness (and often anger) we watch as other’s lives to back to normal knowing ours never will.

This is when we realize the rest of our life is in front of us and we better figure out what we are going to do with it. So . . . we try. Remember, we are lost. I liken it to being dropped into the center of a landscape that has been blown apart by an atomic bomb. We see things that we know we should recognize, but we don’t because they have been altered enough to be unidentifiable. In our memories, we know these things should exist, but no matter how hard we look to find them, they can no longer be located. Pieces of what remains are scattered at our feet so we desperately try to put the past back together again. Make it whole. Know this: it’s easy to get lost here, crawling around on our hands and knees trying to find the smallest part of our former life. Not until we realize that this is a futile effort will we be able to embrace the life that we hadn’t planned on.

I think there is a hidden place in every grieving mother’s heart where she hasn’t quite admitted that her child is dead. It’s too difficult. So, there is a small place where our child still laughs. Where we let our minds imagine what they would have been some day. A quietness that allows us to hold them and stroke their hair. We visit this place, but not too often. The anguish is too suffocating. I often visit here. Just for a while, though. When I leave and close the door I know I will be back again.

During my days, I will continue to build my life. I won’t try to replicate the one I had before my daughter died. I’ll never be able to do so. However, the pieces of her I still have, I will carry them with me each day and use her to decorate my life.

Be patient with us, we are trying.

Low Tides

In the spring of 2002, my daughter did something not many teenage girls do. She asked me to go on spring break with her. I was shocked. And elated! We decided to go to California so I bought the tickets.  Before we knew it . . . we were on our way!

The flights were grueling. After eleven hours of layovers and travel, we landed in Los Angeles. Exhausted, we fell into bed and into a deep sleep. Early the next morning Becca gently shook me awake and asked me to walk down the beach with her. In the cool morning air, we quietly walked down to the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Together we stood there and took in the incredible vastness of the world.  Becca said she wanted people to know she’d been there. Bending over, she wrote her name in the wet sand. I lifted my camera to my face and took the picture you see above.

A decade and a half later, that’s all I want, too.

A few days after Becca was killed I started to write her letters. Letters turned into writing down all the memories I have of her so they wouldn’t be gone when I die. Which eventually took the form of a book. A book I am currently putting together. Spending long hours going over my writing can be very difficult. Stir up emotions that were settled for a time. Some days, it’s just too painful.Most days, actually.

Somewhere along the way . . . others started to help me remember her by writing her name in various places around the world. When my friends travel anywhere, they thoughtfully send me a picture of Becca’s name in a new location. People I’ve never met in person have done the same for us. I’m humbled and in awe that people are taking the time to help me keep my daughter’s memory alive.

This is what we want. We need to know that our child won’t be forgotten. They were here.

Shortly after Becca died I wasn’t even sure if she’d ever been real. My mind was in the protective fog that envelopes us after a tragedy.  At times I was convinced she had just been a beautiful dream. Now, I do all that I can to put her name in the thoughts of others. That’s where she is now. No longer flesh and bone, she’s made of memories and the love we carry for her. She exists because we exist. And we remember.

In the past three days, two people have sent me photos of my daughter’s name on the beach where they are visiting. Places I’ve never been. Stretches of sand my daughter will never visit. When people walk by, and see her name, they won’t know who she is . . . but my baby girl is thought of and that is what makes my heart happy.

Thank you, all of you, who remember my beautiful daughter. You have no idea the healing it gives my broken heart.

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Empty

In the spirit of full disclosure, I want to share a very real fact: I am not as “healed” as my blog might make me appear. It’s true, I have learned much on my ten-year journey upon this path. I haven’t learned it all . . . and actually, every day I come across something else I need to face. This. Is. Exhausting.

Trudging along this path wasn’t my choice. I had a much different journey planned for our lives. As I know you did. Full of light, not the shadowy landscape into which losing a child plunges us. Today is one of those days when the darkness never really left as the sun rose this morning. Somehow, it clung to me and I just couldn’t shake it. As I write this, the sun has almost set and I am glad the day is nearly finished. Dusk has mixed with the ever present shadows and I feel sorrowful. I am glad this day is almost over.

Today is one of those days when the darkness never really left as the sun rose this morning. Somehow, it clung to me and I just couldn’t shake it. As I write this, the sun has almost set and I am glad the day is nearly finished. Dusk has mixed with the ever present shadows and I feel sorrowful. A state we all learn to live in.

Surviving the loss of a child is the hardest thing we will ever experience. We will be doing the healing work every single moment of the rest of our lives. Even as we slumber, our minds are trying to completely accept our new reality. It’s not often we get a restful night of sleep. The best time of the day is the moment we wake up. That split second before we remember the truth. As we push the bedcovers aside, still weary with the weight we carry, we place our feet on the floor to start another day.

This is an undertaking that must both be done in a solitary state, and with others who understand. We need time alone . . . but just as important is time spent with those who can relieve us of a portion of the weight for just a few moments. I’ve found, even when I can hand my pain to another, I have a needy desperation waiting for it to come back to me. The sorrow is proof that we loved. Our aching empty arms remind us that they once held our child. Our tears will bring forth echoes of laughter. This is the truth of being a bereaved mother.

I wish I had words of inspiration this evening. I don’t. Words of encouragement perhaps. When you have a day that is more difficult than you ever thought it could be . . . remember it’s not going to last. The night will come . . . then sleep. Waking up in the morning, willing to try again, is true bravery. Be gentle with yourself. You are doing very hard work.

When I post this, I’ll close the computer, shut the lights off, then stop to kiss the marble urn that holds my daughter’s ashes. I’ll say “I love you my Becca. I miss you.” then I’ll rub my finger across the picture of her as a baby. The one with the smooshy face. If I am lucky, she’ll visit me in my dreams when she’s finished stringing stars together.

Weary, I’ll lay my head upon the pillow with her name. Tomorrow, I will try again.

You will, too.

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.