Warriors

Mother’s who have lost children are some of the strongest people I have ever met.

Tonight, I saw a bereaved mother visit her daughter’s grave, as she does daily, then we drove past the jail that held her child’s murderer. We were on our way to pick up a young girl who’s been staying with us. Can you imagine the strength it takes to be her?

She knelt upon the six feet of dirt that lies above her child’s coffin, picturing how her daughter looked the last time she saw her, and places her hands where her daughter’s would be. She quietly talks to her child. Sharing her day. Telling her how much she misses her. Whispering her love into the blades of grass that have started to grow on the rectangle of recently turned earth.

As she does every time, she cleans off the piece of marble where her daughter’s name is etched. Straightens up flowers, waters the blooms that are real, situates the little angel statues that have been placed for her beautiful child. Her daughter no longer has a bedroom for her mother to clean . . . so she does what all grieving mothers do, we care for the place where our child’s body rests. For her, it’s a peaceful cemetery that is bathed in the colors of sunset every night.

She climbs back into my car after visiting with her child. Sometimes, I walk to the grave site with her. Most times, I wait in the car because I don’t want to intrude on such an intimate moment. I don’t want my friend to feel uncomfortable in her grief. Grief is an incredibly intimate affair. I pull around the corner and stop for a minute, always with the window rolled down, so my friend can call to her daughter once more, before we leave, and tell her she is loved. I always say good bye, too.

Tonight, we had to go pick up the young lady who is staying with us, a refugee student from the Congo, after she was finished with her job. The quickest route to take to her job was one of the busy highways in our city. We were upon the jail before I realized it was the one he is being held in until the trial. Immediately, I was worried about her. This could have been a trigger. Especially right now. Last week there was movement in the court proceedings. Movement that caused the pain to wash over the family again. A decision that sent the family reeling with it being placed right in the middle of this grief path they walk,

She didn’t utter a word. Maybe she just couldn’t utter anything about his existence such a short distance from the highway. Possibly, for a moment, she was able to deny his existence, anywhere. I don’t know which one it was. Or maybe neither. The strength and grace she shows every single day is inspirational.

Within a few moments, the brick building with tiny slits of windows, was lost behind the now full trees. We continued north on the highway until we reached the exit for our student’s job site. A few minutes later, the girl sat in the back seat and my friend asked her (with joy in her voice) how her day had been.

Yes, there is strength in the visiting of our child’s grave site. Not falling to our knees and clawing at the hard earth with our hands is sometimes difficult to not do. Or even laying upon the new grass that covers our child’s final resting place, and refusing to leave, because they might need us . . . and we sure the hell need them.

There is also tremendous bravery in being able to be so close to the person who ended your child’s life and not go completely insane. No screaming, in the hope he can hear you. Just grace.

But I think the greatest act of courage must be to allow another young woman into your life and to care for them, be concerned about their well being. When you would give anything to have this be your daughter instead. That, my non bereaved friends, is an act of strength and hope of the highest magnitude.

We become warriors, when our child dies, in order to survive. Eventually, we are warriors for each other, and the children who need us.

YOU are strong. I am strong. Imagine how strong we are together?

Ability to Bend

The Willow has been my favorite tree for as far back as I can reach through my thoughts. When I was young, I remember tying the long branches together and making a swing for myself. Back and forth I’d float . . . watching the sun sparkle and sprinkle down through the leaves. Drops of light fell warmly on my skin and I felt safe.

For me, Willows have always been female. Their energy soothing and loving. Soft and maternal. They seem to dance as they sway in the breeze, beckoning me to rest my back against their parchment white trunk. I don’t spend enough time in the company of Willows.

The Willow Tree is also known for it’s flexibility. The tree can bend itself into unbelievable contortions without snapping. In reading reference material for this blog, I’ve also learned the tree is a symbol for recovery and healing. Teaching us to surrender to the process instead of fighting the elements around us. To not only survive, but find a way to thrive. Find your way to thrive in unbelievably difficult conditions.

Every grieving mother needs to find her way to survive. I can tell you what has worked for me, and maybe it will help you, too. Though, we usually stumble upon the thing that saves us by chance. When you find it . . . hold on to it. Make it part of your every single day. No exceptions.

The past few weeks have been chaotic in our household. We’ve taken on the care of an individual who is very needing, and deserving, of this care. But it’s drained me. Completely. The reason isn’t that what needs to be done is too huge to accomplish. Instead, it’s because it hasn’t allowed me the time to do what I need in order to maintain my very fragile grasp on the peace I try to cultivate. The already frail hold has weakened, considerably. It’s not that far a fall to land in the place that will crack me open again. I’ve bent and bent and bent in the recent weeks. Even the Willow will eventually splinter, then break, and land with a thud. I don’t want to break.

So, I have no choice but to make the time I need in order to engage my coping mechanisms. Paint. I need to paint. I feel agitated when I haven’t painted in a while. I will carve out time to sit in front of a canvas and create over the coming weekend.

Writing. Writing has been nearly impossible to even consider because my body and mind are never quiet enough, lately, to string two sentences together. Tonight, I had no choice. I was bending to the point I might not recover. It was write . . . or break. So I am writing.

There is no shame at being at the point when it’s all too much. Grieving mothers carry too much every single day just because we exist in a world without our child. A world that demands we participate when many days we’d really rather not, thank you. We owe no one an explanation as to why it’s too much. Though sharing your feelings could result in someone stepping forward and supporting you. As I’ve often said . . . the journey can be easier when shared with another. In any case, you need to take the time out to be in the space of what heals you. You owe this to yourself. To honor the life of the child who is gone. Don’t think it selfish. It isn’t. It’s self caring. Self preservation.

Your first priority must be yourself. Your physical well being, as well as your mental state. Grief attacks us on every single level. It takes any avenue it can find to get to our center. Winding itself around our thoughts and squeezing our heart until it feels as if it might burst. Insistently piercing each and every cell in our body. We can fight it and battle against it’s existence. Which will deplete the little energies we have remaining. Or, we can bend, contort ourselves into seemingly impossible shapes, and work within grief’s demands. We must become like the Willow in order to survive the grief.

Know you are strong, after all, you’ve come this far. Know you are capable. Know you embody the resilience needed to survive the death of your child. Find your way to move gracefully in grief’s currents and let it move you along.

Tomorrow, I think I’ll find a Willow Tree, lean my back against it’s trunk, and let my mind settle itself as the warm light washes over my skin. And heal a little more.

Forever Searching

As I’ve shared in my writings before . . . I have a very complicated relationship with divinity. The easiest way to explain it is like this: I feel that “god” is a person I am angry with but can’t seem to remove completely from my life. Yet, I have no intention of ever getting close to him again. I have relatives like this, too. They’ve hurt me deeply. I know they exist but I don’t have them in my life. There is a silent truce between us and I am fine with this.

Over the past few months, I’ve gone to church more than I have in the past ten years. The first time, I told myself, was to support my friend. Like many mothers who have lost a child . . . our faith is damaged and we seek answers. That is what I said to the Bishop when he asked me what questions of faith I was struggling over. But, I think I’m getting ahead of myself.

As I said above, I initially believed I was going to be of support to someone else. Sitting in a pew in a catholic church, then a folding chair in an old mall, and today, in the lobby of Martin Luther King Elementary School, I’ve realized I’m searching, too. I consider myself Agnostic because this term comes closest to what I seem to be. I know there is “something” but I don’t know what, exactly. There are times when I wish I had unflinching faith, but it’s not to be I guess. Not for me, anyway.

I felt that today, as I sat in a group of six people, listening to the Bishop speak. My friend and I were invited to this service personally by the Bishop. He knows our stories of child loss. And I truly think he thought he could answer our questions, assuage our fears. I am thankful he cared enough to want to do so.

Listening to his words, I believe he was trying to tell us that god takes, but god gives, too. That god took something from our lives to make room for something else. A seed has to die for a plant to be born. God has to squeeze us hard to get the best juice. I understand what he was attempting to explain to us. But, I have trouble with it.

God could have squeezed me in a different way. God could have taken something else from my life. If a seed has to die, let me be the seed. The flower that should be growing is my daughter. I am sure my friend feels the same way. I think nearly all grieving mothers would gladly change places with their deceased child. Happily, and without a second thought.

If we could, we would give them life, twice.

Near the end of the service, the Bishop asked me to share what my questions were. I’ve not had this chance before. A one on one discussion, with a man of the cloth, where I could honestly voice my thoughts. So, I did.

I told him I don’t understand a god that would take my child yet let my pedophile uncle live. I have trouble believing “god is good” when Syria is happening. That there even is a god who would let the horror in the world continue without doing something about it. None of it makes sense to me. And his answer was the same one I’ve been told over and over again: you just have to have faith.

That answer isn’t good enough for me. It wasn’t good enough before my beautiful daughter was killed, and it sure the hell isn’t good enough now. I am not angry with the Bishop, I am thankful he cared enough about me, my friend, about my struggle to take the time to build a sermon around it all.

Later this afternoon, Stacey and I were walking around a thrift store. There were two Willow Tree angels sitting on the shelf. One of them was titled “thank you for the gift” the other was “angel of learning”. I don’t think those angels were there by chance. Our children are our gifts. The brightest blessings we could ever receive. And learning. Oh the things we’ve learned since losing our daughters. The biggest? How to live without them here.

I read once that our relationship with the deceased keeps developing as we learn more and we come to terms with their absence. I think I will forever search for answers. Answers about her death. Answers about all “the bigger questions” and that’s alright.

The searching keeps me moving forward.

Shores

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to spend a night on Mackinac Island. For those of you not familiar with this location, it’s an island off the northern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula, with Lake Huron lapping it’s shores. We arrived in a small town at the edge of the Mackinac Bridge. Parking our car, we left our luggage with the porters and waited to board the ferry. The waters were a cold steel gray topped with fast moving whitecaps. I was scared. I’ve never been to the island, ridden the ferry, or been on one of the great lakes when the waves were so large.

Traveling with another bereaved mother, who’d been to the island many times, we boarded the boat. This trip was a sort of pilgrimage for her. Anxious about going somewhere she’d last been with her deceased child, she settled into her seat and looked out the foggy window. I ran my sleeve across the glass . . . trying to clear it enough to see outside. The ferry started to move and the swell of the waves grew larger as we pulled into open water.

My friend told me where the life vests and exits were “just in case”. Then, thinking it was funny, started to sing lyrics from “The Edmund Fitzgerald”. I looked at her with horror and she said “it’s a nurse’s sense of humor, dark”. Not long after that we hit a huge wave that lifted the boat about five feet into the air. Now, you have to know this boat seats nearly a hundred people and has two decks. Being tossed that high means the water was rough! For a moment, we hovered in the air as the boat fell. Then we slammed down into our seats. And I thought, if I die, I’ll see Becca. I think we lose our fear of death when we have a child that’s gone before us.

Either the captain slowed down or the waves calmed down as we approached shallower water, I don’t know which. I was then able to concentrate on the hazy shapes in the distance. I asked if the shape I saw was Mackinac Island. My friend said no, it was another island, but we were almost there.

My mind starting thinking about how grief is often times described as waves. How we are fighting the currents and just trying to stay afloat. I agree with this description. Then, a thought flashed into my head. She’d been here before. She knew what the islands looked like when the weather was sunny and the waters a clear blue calm. She’d never been here when the weather was as it was that day. But she knew that the mist covered shape in the distance was solid ground. Even though, at the moment, she couldn’t see it. The trip across this stretch of the lake wouldn’t last forever. She KNEW there was land.

Our ground was solid when our children were alive. When our child died, a tsunami swept across our land and wiped much of what we know away. On our good days, we stand on that ground, looking at the drastically changed landscape surrounding us. On the bad, the waters rise and sweep us to sea.

During these moments, the ones when we think of how easy it might be to slip below the surface and give in, we have to look across the water and find a familiar shape. We know there is land. Reaching it might be difficult . . . but it’s there! The waves rise and fall. When they carry you to their crest, find the land and swim towards it. Keep doing this, over and over. Until you make it to shore.

I think my friend was calmer than me on the ferry because she knew what lay ahead. I didn’t, therefore I was more anxious. We can help ourselves, and each other, by remembering what we stood on before our child died. Reminding each other that the maelstrom won’t last forever.

As we drew closer to the island, the soft shapes started to come into sharp focus. My friend pointed out a white church very close to the shore. She told me that her daughter, Mckenna, wanted to get married there some day. Now, she wouldn’t have the chance. Her mom was going to leave a rock, with her daughter’s name on it, outside of the church. Her pilgrimage.

The ferry slowed, we floated on the waves, and I took a picture of the church through a foggy window. A picture taken for a grieving mom, a daughter who’s future was stolen by someone else’s hand, and for me. Someone who didn’t know this shore existed, but felt blessed to visit it.

I don’t always know where my journey will take me. I do know that the journey can be better if you don’t always do it alone.

Mother’s Days After

18578515_10209592102466738_978814193_nI haven’t written a blog entry in a while. I’d have to check to see just how many days it’s been. The exact number isn’t important, but the reason I haven’t written is. To me. Mother’s Day just hits me like a punch in the stomach. The days leading up to it are full of anxiety, the day of is difficult, and the days following are full of sadness.

This past Sunday marked the tenth time the day of celebration for mothers passed without my daughter. As I’ve done since the first one, I pulled out a few things I have from past holidays, that she gave me. I ran my fingers over the paper of homemade cards as if they were made of precious materials. To me, they are. These things are irreplaceable. Let me take a moment to give you some advice: save it. Save it all. One day you might be happy you did.

Though this holiday is difficult for me . . . I know it’s harder, in a different way, for newly bereaved mothers. The first one is full of moments of denial. This can’t be real, you tell yourself. Images of last Mother’s Day flash into your mind as you line up the time, to a year before, and think about what you were doing with your child. Every piece of your soul aches to travel back to that day. Any day before your child died, really. Then the weight of the new reality crushes those memories with it’s truth.

On Sunday, I sat at a small Mother’s Day celebration that my friend’s family had. As we chatted, sitting in a circle in the shady backyard, I couldn’t help but notice the four kids sitting across the expanse of grass. Cousins, laughing with each other. Except, one of them was missing. You see, there used to be five. Until one was killed. Her mother, my friend, sat next to me, quiet. Curled into herself.

A few times, I asked her if she was alright. She said yes. We always say yes. The rest of the family, though aware of the huge hole that was left by murder, had all of their children around them. I know they carry immense and indescribable sadness but they can’t experience the pain that my fried carries for the loss of her daughter. I know they understand that holidays will be difficult . . . but I am not sure others can truly understand the depth of our pain on such days. Seeing my friend steeped in her pain, pain that was so real it flowed off of her in waves, broke my heart. I wish I could make it better for her. That I could make it better for all the bereaved moms I know. But I can’t. I can barely make it better for myself.

The Saturday night before Mother’s Day, my friend and I accompanied another mom to the site where her child died last year. She’d spread out a blanket under a huge pine tree, a tree that must have been over a hundred years old, and talked about her son’s last day. We listened to her as she shared her son’s death story. We all need to share the death story of our child. The creek slipped quietly by below us as tears fell upon our cheeks. There is sacredness in these moments. A connection to each other and to life. And death. It’s an honor when mothers share these stories with us . . . let us into their very small and intimate circle of pain.

Being a mother is a sacred act. Raising a child, caring for them, loving them, protecting them, teaching them . . . it’s the most important thing we can do with our lives. Both joy filled and heartbreaking.

The days that led up to Mother’s Day were filled with apprehension for me. I know it’s going to be hard . . . I just don’t know how hard. So I worry I might not make it through. The day of, though it’s been a decade, still brings memories from previous celebrations into my mind. I wonder if she knew how much I love her. If she knows the cards her little hands made were among the most precious gifts I ever could have received. Does she see me get them out every year and cry as I read them over and over. I hesitate as I look at the gifts from my sons, wondering if I should save them “just in case” and then think I am courting death if I do.
The days after are hollow and painful. There is a type of re-realization that Becca is gone for good. She’s not coming back. Even if I cry to the heavens that it’s been too long since I’ve seen her so she should be sent back. It’s a kind of bottoming out . . . again.

I’ve traveled far upon the path in my grief journey. I learn new things every day. But Mother’s Day will forever be one of things I circle back to again and again. One of the many times each year that I need to enter a space I’ve been in before, and work through it again.

Then I can use the knowledge I’ve gained to help the moms who are new to the grief of child loss. Next year, if you know someone who is a bereaved mother, please reach out to her. You will add some happiness to a sometimes very dark day by letting her know she is still a mom. And is remembered as one.

(W)hole

When I found the foot high statue in the image above . . . I was struck by what it said to me. A perfect depiction of the hole left in a mother’s chest when her child dies. The gaping wound every bereaved mother suffers when her baby is taken from her. You may not be able to see it, but every single one of us has it. And we all protect it, for the rest of our days.

Over the past few years, finally being strong enough to venture out of my safe little world, I’ve met other mothers who have lost children in as many different ways as you can imagine. But don’t imagine them . . . they will break your heart.

One of the often discussed truths is whether it is easier to lose a child when you’ve had the chance to say goodbye before they go, or when their death is sudden, with no preparation or last words. I lost my daughter in an instant. In the time it took for a car to flip and break her neck. She was here, then gone. I didn’t watch her suffer bravely through a long illness. Holding her hand and telling her I love her as she slipped away wasn’t an option for us. On a Thursday I hugged her, not knowing it would be the last time I would touch her while she was alive. The following Sunday, she was dead. I am thankful for the conversation we had Saturday afternoon when we both said we loved each other. At least, I have that.

I know mothers who did spend their child’s last moments with holding their hands. Telling them it was ok to go. Stroking their hair and kissing their foreheads and easing them into what comes next. At times, I envy this seemingly peaceful farewell. Most times, though, I can not imagine having to watch my child circling toward their death. I don’t think I would be strong enough. Would I have been able to tell Becca it was ok to go? I’ll never know.

Then there are those of us who have someone to blame for our child’s death. A person(s) took the life of our precious child by their actions. There is deep rage when our child’s death is the outcome of someone else’s choices. I’ve shared in prior writings the fact that the drunk driver that killed Becca had been arrested just six weeks prior for a second drunk driving offense. His choice to drink enough to show an alcohol level of .28, then drive, took my daughter from me. From the life she was building.

When I wanted to see her, touch her, I was told she was “evidence” of a crime, so I could not. Later, I was informed that the driver would not be charged with vehicular manslaughter because killing someone while driving intoxicated is an intention-less crime. Intention or not, my daughter isn’t any less dead. A law that benefits the guilty. You better believe there is a deep anger inside of me.

Then there is the horrible truth of murder. The person had intent to kill another human being. Someone decided that your child didn’t deserve to live. That they had the right to decide to cause them death. I don’t know how to even begin to wrap my mind around this truth. There is another level of complicated grief when there is an actual person to place blame on for our child no longer being here with us.

What about the soldier killed in war? Who do you place the anger on then? Where do you direct your rage? Toward an entire people? Ideology? I don’t know. I’m not sure there are any adequate answers for these questions.

The one thing all grieving mothers have in common is the hole blown through our chest . . . the space where our heart used to be, whole. Every one of us lives with this state of being. The individual facts that surround each death make our grief journey our own. The smallest truths we have to grapple with, over and over in the still dark of the night, are what we must find a way to heal intimately.

The answers we need to find are most often within ourselves. You can’t give them to us. We need you to help us remain strong enough to keep walking this path. To know that, even as we sit quietly, our minds are racing over the facts that surround our child’s death. Very rarely do we have a waking moment that is not influenced, in some way, by our child being gone.

We all have an empty space and we are trying to repair it as best we can.

Broken Circle

When I think of all the things my daughter will never do, and those that I will never get to do with her, my mind becomes overwhelmed. They number in the thousands. I once tried to make a list, but the more I wrote, the harder I cried. I gave up. Of all of them, there is one that hurts the most.

My daughter will never become a mother. I will not have the chance to guide her into finding her confidence with her own child. Impart my wisdom . . . share my mistakes. The passing of information, from mother to daughter, is a spiritual act. A profound transferring of generations of mothering from one to the next.

Becca was in school to become a primary education teacher. Her job, at the time of her death, was as a nanny for a little boy. My daughter loved children. Anyone who knew her, could attest to this fact. Always the first one parents would call if they needed a sitter. My daughter would have made an incredible mother.

My heart aches for the many things she’ll never do.

She’ll never call me with the excited news she’s expecting. Knowing her, she would have found a unique way of telling me. But I’ll never know what that is.

She’ll never rush into my home, clutching the ultrasound picture, bubbling over with information of whether I will have a granddaughter or grandson. I’ll never know who my first grandchild would have been.

I’ll never get to shop for anything that might make her upset stomach feel better. She’ll never ask me to hold her hair while she gets sick when the crackers don’t help.

We won’t lay in my bed, her stomach huge, talking about all the fears expectant mothers have as their day grows nearer. I won’t be able to tell her it’s ok, I had those fears, too. It’s normal, honey. But, I’ll be right here to help you.

The call to get to the hospital will not ring through on my phone. I won’t stand next to her, holding her hand, while she pushes through labor. She always told me she would need me there or she wouldn’t be able to do it. I know she would have, though.

I will never get the chance to look upon my beautiful child holding her own beautiful child. Seeing Becca lift her head and look at me. Her eyes holding the understanding that all new mothers gain. Now finally understanding all of the fears we had for them, all the reasons we were so protective, all the times we said no.

This circle will never be complete for me. And the one she would create with birthing her own daughter, will never open. I feel like an old flower in a barren garden. I released the seeds to create new flowers years ago, but they never had the chance to blossom. I have to try to keep the beauty for as long as I can because my child never will.

I have two sons who I hope will give me grandchildren, someday. A mother’s place is much different when it is her son having a child than when it’s a daughter. It’s not my place to become an intimate part of the process when it’s not my daughter in the throes of childbirth. That sacred place is where her mother should be. Not me.

I mourn this part of my life with my daughter very much. My heart aches knowing she never got to experience this incredible part of being a woman. So much was taken from her . . . and this is one of the biggest. She would have rocked.

All I can hope for is that my sons will call me when their child won’t go to sleep. Or they don’t know what to do. I’ll be there in a heartbeat.