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.

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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.

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.

All Our Children

My entire life, I’ve not liked meeting new people. I carry matching luggage filled with insecurities and self doubt. Since I lost my daughter, I’ve added new contents to these bags, which go everywhere with me. Though there are many additions . . . tonight, I will talk about just one. But it’s a really big and difficult one. For most people meeting others, it’s a question that’s asked an answered without much anxiety. Not so for bereaved mothers. We grow to dread this particular inquiry.

The question? How many children do you have. A common question for those meeting each other for the first time. I don’t like having to answer it. The situation can go one of two ways and either is stressful for us. Only one is stressful for the other party. I’ve reacted both ways, but there is a price I pay either way.

At times, we can simply answer with the number of children we have and the conversation goes no further. Often, however, the follow up question is asking us to share the ages of our children. This is when grieving mothers really start to panic. How do we answer this?

We can simply give the ages of our living children, then the age our deceased child left this world.

Ages are a weird thing. My twin boys just turned the age their sister was when she was killed, twenty three. In fact, on January 11th, they passed the age when she was the oldest she was ever going to be. They are older than their older sister. I can barely wrap my mind around this truth. If I answered in the way I’ve mentioned above, it would seem I have triplets, which isn’t the case. And the thought of answering in this manner has always made me feel uneasy, so I’ve not chosen to do it. I don’t fault mothers who do. We each have to choose what is best for us, no judgment.

Sometimes, in an attempt to keep the follow up question from being asked about our dead child, we don’t mention them. At all. It’s just easier, we think, to not have to make anyone else feel uncomfortable with our reality. This is a dangerous way to go, I’ve learned from experience, because we are left with a new guilt. We carry enough guilt for not saving our child, somehow, and now we are being disloyal to their memory by not admitting their existence. Internally, we are bleeding to death because of their absence, but we don’t let this fact show on our faces lest we cause discomfort in another.

I’ve chosen this tactic, early on in my new life without Becca, I am ashamed to say. The pain I saved the other person from feeling was heaped upon that which I already carried. The half dozen times, maybe more, I’ve done this have left me crying in the dark begging my daughter for her forgiveness. I don’t hide the fact she existed anymore. Not for anyone’s comfort. Not anymore.

We can, and eventually do, answer the question in a truthful manner. Not ashamed of the fact we have a dead child. No attempt to soothe their nervousness.. I’ve seen the look in people’s eyes when I’ve said my child is deceased. A mix of panic and uneasiness. They don’t know how to respond. And, I’ve learned, it’s not up to us to care how they respond. They’ll figure it out, or they won’t, but either shouldn’t change whether we talk about our child or not.

This is how my most recent conversation with a new person went:

“How many children do you have, Diane?”

“I have three. Becca, Gabriel, and Matthew.”

“Beautiful names! How old are they?”
“The boys are twins, they turned twenty three late last year. My daughter would have been thirty three.”

“Oh . . . would have been?” (that’s when the panic first flickered in his eyes.)

“Yes, she was killed ten years ago, by a drunk driver, she was twenty three.”

I saw his face grow red and he stammered something about having to get back to work.

Generally, this isn’t how uncomfortable this conversation can be. Most times people say they are sorry for my loss. I thank them and we move on. I have learned I can either chance the possibility that the other person will not react well by my answering honestly or I can omit my daughter’s having existed by leaving her name off the list. For me, the choice has become quite simple.

I won’t ever keep the life of my daughter to myself because of how others may react. I don’t care anymore. She’s my child. She was here. Her life mattered. Her death happened. I will say her name any and every chance I get.

When we begin walking the path of child loss, we are still finding our way in everything, because all we know has been replaced by our new reality. It takes a while for us to become strong enough to stand up to society’s expectations of a grieving mother. We have to find our legs and stand again. We must find our voice and speak again. We are the keepers of our child’s life. There is no shame to be felt for this.

For those of you who are on the side of the conversation, where you could feel discomfort, please don’t let it overwhelm you. We know we make you uneasy. That our child’s death forces you to face the fact children die. That if it happened to us . . . it could happen to you. The horrifying fact is: it can.

It happened to us. Please don’t add pain to our already anguishing journey. Stay with us and let us talk about our child. It’s the greatest gift you can give us.

Our Winter

A few days ago I read a meme on Facebook that said “The path isn’t a straight line, it’s a spiral. You continually come back to things you thought you understood, and see deeper truths. This couldn’t be more accurate in describing the path of child loss.

I’ve often described as traversing through a landscape which vaguely resembles what your world was before. Our lives get divided up into two parts: before and after. A boundary that is solid and immovable. In the after, as we look around, things are familiar yet different.

I remember wanting to stay stuck in the moment right after I found out my daughter had been killed. I knew I couldn’t go back to before, but I didn’t want to start moving away from the space of time she had been alive. I wanted the world to stop. Everything to freeze. I understood I couldn’t have her back but I couldn’t imagine a life without her. I just wanted to stay as close to my living child as I could. But we can only stay there so long. Eventually, reality forces us to look up and around us as we begin to bring our child’s existence to an end in the tangible world.

In the eighties, there was a made for TV movie called “The Day After”. There is a nuclear explosion and the survivors are forced to find a way to survive the nuclear winter that follows the blast. This is what life was like, for me, in the months following Becca’s death. Even now I wince as I write those two words together.

In my “winter of the soul” life was muffled. As if cotton surrounded me. Voices bounced around and I was never quite sure where they came from. Grey. There was so much grey. I couldn’t see colors. I knew I should be able to fashion words into complete sentences . . . but the ability was lost to me. As far as I looked, all I could see was broken pieces of what my life had been before. Pieces that were scattered across my entire world.

I remember I was in a panic to scurry around, on my hands and knees, trying to find even the tiniest pieces so I could put it all back together. It’s not possible. The biggest piece that was missing couldn’t be found in physical form again. My child. So I started to walk the path with my head down, eyes blurred with tears, and muscles sore from attempting to carry all the pieces with me.  Except, I’d stumble upon a piece, I thought I’d picked up already, over and over. I couldn’t figure out why. Had I dropped them? Or had they been stolen? Why were they reappearing?

Finally, it dawned on me, they are in my path again because I have acquired new tools. Tools that allow me to work on them and fit them in more accurately than the last time I held them in my hands. We learn as we walk this path. Even when we don’t realize it. We learn from others who have been there before us. They come back for us when we seem hopelessly lost, and walk us toward the opening. Answers are found within us. Answers we didn’t know we had. Or more accurately, we couldn’t see the first time we walked past them. They were covered with the thin grey layer that settled on everything when our nuclear winter began.

When I was young, I was sexually abused. This truth reared it’s ugly head into my life over and over. When I became a woman. When I started my period. The first time I had sex. When I birthed a daughter. But each time it appeared, it seemed smaller somehow. Weaker. Pale. It didn’t have the hold on me it did when I was a young teen. When events in my life triggered the thoughts, I was more able to examine them, then put them away until the next time. I knew there would always be a next time.

And that is what this path is all about. We are never going to get to the end of it and say “there, it’s done. I’m finished”. Our life will be spent holding the truth of the death of our child in our hands and finding a place to carry it. We look at it to see where we can fit it into our lives. We guard it. We mourn it. We live with it. We survive.

This life isn’t about getting over it, or getting through it, or even finding closure. It’s about finding a way to accept the truth and allowing it to live within us in a way that doesn’t slice our insides every single day. Child loss is our truth.

It’s a hard life. But it’s still life.

 

Understanding Others

I often wonder what people see when they look at me. Does my pain show on my face? Is my exhaustion apparent in how I carry myself? One woman told me that I had haunted eyes and it was difficult to hold my gaze. I can understand her point. Who wants to face the death of a child unless you absolutely have to? I wouldn’t.

I didn’t notice it immediately, but eventually the fact that people would become uncomfortable when I talked about my daughter revealed itself. They’d avert their eyes, start to fidget, and attempt to change the subject. Awkwardly cutting conversations short when they didn’t want to hear what I was saying. Many of my friends stopped calling altogether. At first, I was angry. I felt abandoned. What happened to all those who promised to “be there” whenever I needed them? I would reach out . . . but my hand would comeback empty.

For a long time, I let the anger build. I told myself that I would never treat someone else like that. But how could I be sure? Then one day, when I was outside in the sun planting flowers, I had an epiphany. My sad eyes and broken heart were just too much for some people. And that was nothing to be angry about. If I didn’t have to live in a world in which the death of children existed . . . would I choose to voluntarily? Probably not. It can be a dark and lonely existence. If all of my children were alive, would I want to be reminded, often, that child loss occurs? I doubt it. So, if I can’t be certain that I would handle the situation differently, how can I judge others?

This realization was very freeing for me. I didn’t have to carry the weight of anger toward anyone. I could just let it go. Doing so helped me to be more able to deal with the things I had control over. The things I could do something about. I couldn’t change people. I had to meet them where they were, even if they couldn’t seem to meet me where I was. In a place that is so terrifying it’s hard for them to imagine.

The sun shone a little brighter that day.

The day we realize that we are not responsible for other’s emotions, or actions, is the day we start to put all our effort toward healing ourselves. We deserve this. Women, especially, have difficulty putting themselves before others. From an early age, we are taught to be givers. We need to add ourselves to this list. Find what you need to heal and do it. Every day.

Each of us has a switch inside that we must search out and flip. The “thing” that is going to cause a shift in our thoughts and move us toward wholeness. We can have a hundred people around us, never be physically alone, but that won’t help. The work we have to do . . . we have to do in the quiet moments inside of ourselves.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t lean on others, we can. And we should. We just have to understand our hardest work will be done within our own minds and hearts.

However, search me out if you need to. I am always here.