Place of Peace

As I have shared, over the past eight months, I’ve had the incredible chance to live closer to Lake Michigan. It’s not just an beautifully immense body of water to me. I am, somehow, connected to it. I can’t remember the first time I saw it yet it’s somehow always called to me.

My small family, the three kids and I, spent a handful of days each summer on the beach. Soaking up the sun, generally getting pretty good burns as we are all fair, and playing in the waves. That is the Lake Michigan most people know. Summer on the lake.

Then by accident, and divine intervention of some sort, I found myself at the lake on a frigid winter day. Everything that came with the death of my child was too much for me to handle. The enormity of the truth of it all was an avalanche that I needed to escape. I got into my car and drove. Most of the drive, I remember, I was in tears. I don’t remember, however, making the conscious decision to go to the park where I ended up. Kirk Park. The one we always went to as a family. But, there I was.

The natural surroundings were an outward manifestation of my anguished grief. Destructive and raw. The waves crashed and the seagulls screamed. Strong winds pulled at the edges of my coat and tangled my hair into a mess. I wasn’t physically prepared for the intensity of the elements. No mittens. A bare head. Tennis shoes. Yet, I don’t remember feeling cold. Now, with years between that moment and this, I think it’s because my soul was frozen with shock.

I screamed. I raged. I swore at the heavens. I hated.I sobbed. I contemplated walking into the water and letting the waves end my pain. I didn’t cover my face as it was sandblasted by the frozen bits of earth. I didn’t have a desire to protect myself from anything. At that moment the raving beach was me.

Over the years, since that first visit to the beach after Becca’s death, I’ve come to love the lake in the winter. More so than I do in the summer. Often visiting it once or twice a season because it was a 45 minute drive from where I lived. Now, it isn’t. I can hop in the car and in less than ten minutes I am standing on the lake that is so much a part of me and my healing journey.

Which is exactly what I did yesterday. And, I found a lake that I have never seen. Instantly I felt a deeper connection than the last time I was there.

I won’t go into details, but it bears mentioning, that we’ve experienced a blast of Arctic air over the past week. A polar vortex it’s been called. I underestimated the change it would cause to the lake.

Yesterday was gray. Everything seemed to be in shadow. A mist, heavy enough to leave clothing wet and hair damp, hung in the air. The piles of snow in the yard were tinged with the color of soot. The day wasn’t particularly pretty in any way. I wasn’t prepared for the beauty the lake would show me.

I drove the road that follows the lakeshore, through a small neighborhood, and spills out into the along beach. The view in front of me was monotone. The foggy mist was a film in front of everything and made it appear flat. Dark, almost black, bare trees stretched toward a pale sky. The snow was dirty here, too. Even the snow fences, a bright red at the beginning of the winter season, were dulled to almost nothing. And, where was the water?

There were a few other people parked in the spots closest to the pier. I was the only one who got out of my car and started toward the lighthouse. I’ve always been a bit careless. In my defense, my being needed to get as close to the water as I possibly could. Turns out, there was no chance of me getting anywhere near the water. In fact, the waves were so far from shore I could neither see nor hear them. I’ve never been at the lakeshore when there was no sound whatsoever. Until yesterday.

When I got far enough away from the parking lot there was silence. Not just a moment of quiet. Complete and utter stillness. Even the rain falling made no noise. It was as if the world was wrapped in cotton batting.

I walked out as far as I could on the cement pier. I’ve never been to it’s end because as much as I love the lake I respect her power. Water gives life and takes it away and I am no longer hoping to die. When I reached the farthest point I could . . . I just stood still, closed my eyes, and was.

When I turned my back from the parking lot the terrain looked as if I was on another planet entirely. The mounds of sand, snow, and ice were endless. As far as I could see seemed otherworldly. Ice at my feet. Then sand mixed with snow. Followed by ice stacked on ice covered with a sand snow mix. Even farther out evenly spaced peaks of ice chunks. I wonder how tall they were? I wanted to see where the still moving water washed up and over adding to their size with each wave. I wanted to hear the waves crashing loudly and the ice groaning under its own weight. I needed the movement that the lake always provides.

Then I realized . . . I didn’t.

This was exactly how my soul really felt, at this moment, if I stopped and listened to it.

Calm. Peaceful. Content?

With no noise to drown out my thoughts I could clearly hear what my soul was whispering to me.

“You are at peace.”

Before I could throw out all the reasons I shouldn’t be at peace . . . my soul continued.

“This is where you are. Today. You can not bring her back. You have accepted that fact. Your sons are happy and healthy. You’ve faced the unknown by connecting with Joseph. You are actively cultivating a calm existence. This is contentment.There will be hard days, always. But for now . . . let it be.”

And then I cried. Tears of missing Becca. Others of joy for my two boys. Out of gratefulness for what, and who, I have in my life. And, because I finally know what peaceful contentment feels like.

I know I won’t feel this always. As my soul said: there will be hard days. I will rage again. Feel hopelessly broken beyond repair. Endure the heavy weight of empty arms longing for my child.

But, for that one moment yesterday, I was still and my soul was well.

“You’ve found a real place of peace, at the lake, haven’t you?’ my son Gabriel said to me.

Indeed, I have. Both at the lake and within myself.

 

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Say Her Name Please

I had a moment today, the kind that brings you to your knees, while I was at work. I am pretty sure I hid it well as no one asked me if I was ok. In truth, I physically stumbled as images tumbled through my mind. One connected to the next . . . going in and out of focus so quickly it made me feel nauseous. A sweet memory of a three year old Becca followed too quickly by the truth that she is dead. Nearly every thought a grieving mother has is punctuated by the truth of their child’s death.

When my daughter was three I rushed her to the doctor with a horrible rash around her mouth. I was frantic to find out what had caused it and if she was in serious danger! Had she eaten something poisonous? Burned herself somehow? Nothing made sense but I knew the circular red rash around her lips had to be examined. I remember crying in the waiting room as my toddler looked up at me with concern. Sweet girl . . . she was worried about me when she was the one who was sick! This made me cry even harder.

As the doctor examined her face he asked me questions. Were all the cabinets child proofed at home? Had she been left alone for any amount of time? Did we have a pet she might be allergic to? Was there a fall recently? None of those things were a factor in her condition. Then I remembered something. Relaxing a bit I shared it with the doctor.

“That explains it then,” he said, “your daughter has given herself a hickey around her mouth!”

The night before, Becca had been in the tub playing. Toys floated around her, and so did the cup I used to rinse her hair after I’d washed it. I’d often read, sitting next to the bathtub, while she played. At one point, I’d looked at her and she had the rinse cup suctioned onto her face, over her chin. I laughed at her and told her she was being silly! I also told her not to drink any of the bath water but I’m pretty sure she did.

Relief flooded me when I realized what had happened. After her nightly bath, I’d tuck her into bed under her Care Bear blanket, and say good night. The hickey must have darkened somehow, or I didn’t notice it in the dim light, either way . . . it wasn’t apparent until the next day. And then, of course, I panicked.

The image of my beautiful little girl with the creamy skin and red raspberry mouth and chin flashed into my mind today, out of nowhere. I don’t know what caused this memory to shake loose and float to the surface this afternoon. The happiness that was attached to the image, and the reminder of the relief I felt years ago hearing she was going to be alright, swerved into devastation when I remembered that not every situation turns out this way. I can no longer trust that “everything is going to be ok” because that last time . . . it wasn’t.

The days when I could see my children tucked snugly into bed, under my care, safe from the world are gone. No more can I kiss their boo-boos and make them all better. Kisses can’t fix some things. Moms should be able to make everything better, always. We know we can’t. And sadly, bereaved mothers have the proof.

Today’s experience of having the memory and following it to the end was a quick process. Bam, bam, and boom. She was three, beautiful, and full of giggling life. In seconds, she went from a toddler to my deceased daughter. I felt like a tennis ball, lofted into the air to be slammed back to the ground almost immediately. Soaring for a few exquisite seconds. What incredible seconds they were.

It’s like that though, as I said earlier, every memory is ended with the period of their passing. Thoughts all end the same. With identical punctuation. In grammar, a period is defined as being “placed at the end of a declarative sentence indicating a full stop”. My daughter wasn’t done writing the sentence the toddler in her had started.

And I wasn’t done reading her story.

When you think about Becca tonight, and I hope you do, please think of the giggling precocious little girl who smelled of sunshine and maple syrup. The small child who kept us all laughing. My daughter, the one who first taught me what true love really is.

Say her name for me . . . and smile.

 

Megan Leah

I often write about how different each mother grieves on the journey after the loss of a child. A few months ago I had been sitting with one of my oldest friends and we were discussing the loss of our daughters. Amanda, Mandy to me, lost her child when she was less than a year old in a freak auto accident. This was years ago, in linear time, but just like yesterday for her. While we were talking about different aspects of child loss visiting our child’s final resting place came up. She shared her truth with me and she has courageously agreed to share it with you, today.

I hope you, the reader, can take in her words without any judgement. Being open and willing to share some of the deeper aspects of our grief is very difficult and leaves us vulnerable. I am not anticipating any negative remarks from anyone I know . . . but if I read any, I will deal with it immediately.

I am sharing her writing today because it is Memorial Day. A day set aside for remembering those who died in active military duty, it’s become one in which we remember all of our loved ones who have passed. This is evident by the flowers, flags, and visitors who can be seen in nearly every cemetery. What follows is Amanda’s story about visiting her daughter’s, Megan Leah, grave.

This journey is tough. It’s not for sissies. The truths we have to confront along our way often brings us to our knees. I know, from experience, outsiders can not understand this. I was an outsider when my friend lost her precious baby daughter. I didn’t say the right things. I wondered if she was ever going to get “back to normal”. I have apologized.

I am eleven years into living without my daughter and I am exhausted. Amanda is over thirty years in and still finds a reason to laugh, to love, and has the strength to share a tiny part of a journey that spans decades.

Thank you, Mandy. For your wisdom, bravery, and laughter.

The following is a piece of Amanda’s writing about visiting her child, Megan Leah:

Ok, here we go. With the Memorial Day holiday around the corner I find myself thinking about how many people go to the cemetery to pay respect to they’re loved ones and lay flowers down. I won’t be one of those people.

When my six month baby girl Megan Leah was killed in a car accident back in 1985 I found myself thinking about the one thing that us grieving mommy’s won’t say out loud let alone say it to someone else. My child is 6 feet underground decomposing.

The physiological changes our precious children will go through. It’s not something I want to think about but, if you’re completely honest with yourself you do think about it. How can you not?

For a few years I did go to the cemetery to lay flowers at her grave and sat down to talk to her. Then after awhile my thought “went there”. I refused to go NO MORE! My sweet, chubby baby girl was down there withering away bit by bit and I couldn’t deal.

In my faith I know Megan isn’t really there at the cemetery. She is in my heart and soul. I will always have her all around me. Some people along the way have asked when was the last time you were at the cemetery? I tell them years. They look at me like I’ve lost my mind. They’re right I have lost my mind! My baby was viciously taken away from me and I don’t want to go to the cemetery and have that vision of her decomposing in the ground that I’m looking down at.

So, whether or not you go to the cemetery to honor your child is your choice and I won’t judge you for it. But, I’ve already made mine.

 

Ordinary Days

The past few days my thoughts have particularly active in my head. This is nothing new for me. I seem to go through “dry times” when I can’t put enough words together to make a coherent sentence let alone write a blog! I often doubt, during those times, if I’ll ever have anything worth saying again. Maybe I have used up all of my words. Or, thought of everything I can think of. Weird, I know. I think it’s a writer’s thing. After time passes, the floodgates open and new thoughts and connections come tumbling to the forefront. All at once.

I carry a small notebook with me everywhere I go because I learned the hard way that not all thoughts resurface. Some of them come but once and if you don’t catch them you’ve lost them forever. I know I’ve let, what I consider gems, slip through my fingers. Hence, the notebook. I mean, if spirit is going to send me words then I damn better receive them!

Thursday, Friday, and especially today, the gates opened and the thoughts that have been forming flowed full force into my notebook. The half dozen different ideas, on the surface seemingly very different, all connected beautifully . . . each a pearl strung on the same cord. I am amazed when this happens.

In my apron pocket, at work, was the small yellow notebook covered with butterflies. In between customers I scribbled my thoughts onto clean pages. I filled up three of them. On the drive ,I let my mind nibble on each, trying to choose one for tonight’s writing. I thought I’d chosen one, pertaining to tomorrow, Mother’s Day. Upon arriving home, instead of writing, I decided to work on an art project I am entering into a local contest. The featured picture above this blog is a photograph of the project thus far. I am creating an image of my daughter in heaven.

As I was applying the plaster to the area which is the angel’s dress . . . I froze.

With a different past . . . in another future . . . this could be my daughter in her wedding dress.

The thought, the loss, what was taken from her, from us all . . . came crashing down on me like an avalanche. As I cried, but still continued on making her gown, this blog came to me nearly complete. I won’t be writing about Mother’s Day in the way I had intended.

Instead, I will be sharing my thoughts on the anguish held in ordinary days.

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. I know far too many women who will be barely surviving while they miss their deceased child. The pain, especially on days like this, is just to immense to be able to describe adequately. We try to find a way to make it through the day. So, we are told to make plans. Make a plan that doesn’t leave us alone. Make a plan to have someone check on you if you insist on being alone. Make a plan to visit your child’s grave, if you want, or a plan to volunteer somewhere. The most important plan is the one we have that saves our lives if it all becomes too much.

With so much emphasis on how we are going to maneuver these harrowing hours on milestone days we are unprepared for the ones that hit us in the ordinary days.We don’t see them coming until they are upon us. We are caught off guard. Our defenses are down. We don’t expect to be blindsided so when the blow lands it’s crushing. Today, for me, was one of those very ordinary days.

I often think of my daughter when I am creating. Even when the subject matter is not how I view her in heaven. When I am holding a paintbrush my mind is calm and she drifts back and forth through all of my thoughts. Today, the art and real life collided in a way I hadn’t expected. And I lost my balance.

I guess the message I hope to share in this short blog is to tell other grieving mothers to prepare as much as you can to survive the “big days”. But also keep in the back of your mind that the very ordinary moments, we all experience, will be just as painful. Actually, maybe even a little more. Our feet are upon a very difficult path, our footing is not always stable, and we are easily toppled. Expect to fall.

To those who love and support a bereaved mom: Expect her to fall. Just help her get back up, please.

She will need you again and again.

Especially on the ordinary days.

When Time Wobbles

After work today, I met up with my friend, to have a quick lunch. I asked her if she wanted to go to a popular breakfast spot, because we’ve never been, and I thought it would be fun to go somewhere new. She said no because she’d only been there once, with her daughter, before she was killed. I completely understood. I thought to myself, it’s been a very long time since I’ve felt that way about going somewhere. I thought I’d crossed all those bridges over the past ten years. How wrong I was.

Have you ever been in a situation where time seems to slip, back and forth, over itself? So completely believable . . . you forget which day you are really in?

When my boys were little, they loved the pictures that you could tilt one way to see an image, then move it slightly the other way, for a completely different image. To them, it seemed like magic!! The picture changed, so quickly, from one to the other. This afternoon, time wobbled and I was in two different days at once.

As I pulled up to the light, getting ready to take a left into the parking lot, I realized I’d been here before. The snow, which had been falling steadily all day, melted away. In its place, there was a blanket of brightly colored leaves, spread over the concrete. The air around me grew warmer as the time of year clicked back to autumn . . . twenty five years ago.

I pulled my van into a parking space, but when I got out, I was looking at the silver Mazda I used to drive. I shook my head in an attempt to gather my senses. I was doing well . . . until the automatic doors swooshed open and the store was almost exactly as it had been the last time I was there. With a ten year old Becca. That moment tore the breath from my lungs. I should turn around and leave, I thought. But, I didn’t.

It was too much. Tears welled up in my eyes. I couldn’t leave, though. There is something about being in a place where your deceased child has been. Like part of them is still there . . . waiting for you to find it. I couldn’t leave because around every corner I could hear my little girl’s laugh. I could hear her sweet voice, float over the aisles, towards me. Chasing it, I found myself standing in front of the cereals, watching the shimmering memory of my daughter reach for her favorite one. Swinging herself around, her hair fanning out behind her, big eyes begged me to let her get it. I’m so glad I did.

I’m not sure how long I stood there, today. I was trying very hard not to cry. Someone walking past me, looked at me oddly, and I realized I was breathing as if I was in labor. Those short, open mouthed exhalations, that help to work through the pain of giving birth. I didn’t care how I looked. I was standing there, watching my daughter, alive again. It was beautiful heartache.

I walked up and down the aisles, searching for what I needed, and what I needed was my daughter. Just as in life . . . she was one step ahead of me. I caught a glimpse of her sun gold hair just past the pile of apples. I quickly made my way around the islands of fruit but she was already gone. Always moving, just out of my grasp.

I begged her: please wait please wait please wait . . .

I never caught her. I did see my ten year old daughter one more time, in the store, though. She was standing in front of the flowers and smiling at me. With her little hand, she waved, and was gone. Oh sweet girl . . . my heart aches for you, tonight.

I stood in the spot she had just been. I could still feel her. I thought, the last time I was here, I didn’t know the next time, my daughter would be dead. Who knew a simple trip to the grocery store, a quarter of a century ago, would hold such precious memories? We don’t know until much later.

I picked out a bouquet I knew she would love. Colorful, just like her.

I won’t go back to that store again. As I loaded my items onto the conveyor belt, to pay for them, I realized I’d picked up much more than material goods. Sweet memories, that I’d forgotten, were the most important things I could have found. I was reminded of her musical giggle. The scent of sunshine clung to her hair. Her beautiful eyes, looked up at me, full of perfect love.  A gap toothed smile told me she was happy.

She was amazing.

For a few precious minutes . . . my little girl was with me again. And I was complete.

The Path

Often, I describe the journey of child loss in a physical manner. In my mind I see the path, we walk, as a dark and sometimes treacherous trek. We have no choice but to keep moving forward into the unknown terrain.

The first time the sun rose, after Becca was killed, the land around me wasn’t the same as before. A haze hung in the air and muddied my view. Hills rose where once the land was flat. Deep fissures had opened across what I could see. Landmarks, which previously stood proudly, were reduced to rubble. And, worst of all, there was no clear way for me to set off on my journey. Scattered everywhere were pieces of her life, our lives. There was nothing to help me get my bearings because it had all changed in an instant.

I wanted to stay balanced in the moment between what life used to be and what it was now. We can’t, though. The moment comes, when every bereaved mother, has to decide where to place her first step on this alien land. And we do so . . . woefully unprepared.

My path is long buried, heaved to the surface through trauma, rich dirt. The size varies: sometimes wide, other times barely there narrow. There are times when it stretches out in front of me and I can see for miles. My difficult times are when there is a sharp turn into thick woods and I have to walk by faith alone. Storms come, and drench the earth, making it difficult to keep my footing. I’ll slip and reach to grab at something, I know was there, only to find out it isn’t. And, down I go . . . covered in mud and hopelessly overwhelmed.

Continuously, obstacles loom ahead of me. Often times, they are ones I thought I had overcome previously. A handful of years had to pass for me to realize . . . these obstacles will keep appearing until I have dealt with them fully. They are too large to overcome in one interaction. When we realize this, that we will have to work through certain things multiple times, we start to feel a bit more in control as we travel the length of our grief path. We have no other choice but to attend to our obstacles or they will keep reappearing – larger than the last time.

I’d like to take a moment here and give you some hope. It’s ok that some things keep appearing in front of us. The enormity of what we must come to terms with, and accept, can not be done in one interaction. You have not failed because an issue has reappeared for the tenth time. This is a life long process . . . integrating what we’ve been through into our every day. We didn’t say good bye to our child, completely, at the funeral, we do so in little moments each day. So goes the process of acceptance.

Though everything on this path seems to be fixing the shattered . . . there are moments when we see beauty and can just “be”! I’ve come around a dark corner to have the sunshine splashed across the path in front of me. I’ve made it to the top of hill, after much hard work, and been rewarded with a panoramic view of a green valley spread below me. I’ve come upon others, who walk their own grief path, and for a bit . . . we sit and share our stories. Giving each other hope, strength, and understanding.

Though being with others in “down time” is healing . . . we must also turn away and continue on our own. As I have often said: this is a solitary journey that can not be taken alone. So, on we go. One foot in front of the other, not knowing what is going to appear ahead of us, just trying to survive. We do the best we can . . . which changes from moment to moment.

This trek is arduous. It makes me feel bone weary most of the time. My hands are raw from dragging myself over the rubble. Wounds from Becca’s death reopen when I catch their edges on a branch I didn’t see. I muddy my own way as my tears fall upon the earth. So many times, I sit on a boulder, convinced I can not move a muscle because there just isn’t any strength left in me.

Turning my head, I let my gaze fall upon the stretch of path ahead of me. A slice of sunshine illuminates a small section. Inside the beam of light, I see my Becca, standing and waving at me. Her smile widens as she sees me push myself off the boulder. With her hand, she beckons me toward her, and renewed . . . I continue on my journey.

In The Coming Together

When a group of women, get together, conversation inevitably turns to childbirth. Each may forget details of former loves, times gone by, but they never forget, even the smallest detail, of each child’s entrance into the world. Sharing labor time lengths, or difficulties during birth, we bond within the universal experience of creating life. As new mothers, from the moment our child arrives, until we are grandmothers, our experience is our “war story” of becoming a warrior. A new “us” is forged in the fire of labor.

Recently, I’ve noticed, grieving moms need to share the story of their child’s death. Just as we bond over the creation of life, so must we find connection in the truth of our child’s departure from this world. Becoming a mother transformed us forever . . . becoming a bereaved mother does the same to us. And, it is such an isolating and painful experience, especially in the beginning, we must find others who understand.

A few hours ago, three of us from the latter group mentioned above, sat in the living room and chatted for a while. Two of us have known each other for just over a year. The third, Wendy, came to know our group within the past eight months. The second time, Stacey and I, spent time with Wendy, we met her at a park that her family knew well. After hugging in the parking lot, she led us through a field, along the length of a creek, to a very large tree. As we settled ourselves under its boughs, through tears, she shared the story of her son’s battle with depression and the ultimate outcome, the depression claiming his life. Pointing above her head, toward a large branch, she showed us where the bullet came to rest. Wendy needed to take us to this holy place, where Cody’s life had come to its end, and share the heaviness of her loss.

Over the months I’ve known Stacey, she too, has told me the story of how her daughter’s life was stolen from her by a deranged human being. Someone she trusted, and loved, had decided that Mckenna’s life wasn’t worth anything to him. He simply chose to end it. And . . . he did. I’m not sure if Stacey has been to the location where her beloved daughter’s body, was ultimately found, by someone walking their dog. If she wanted to, I’d go with her. Any one of us, other bereaved moms, would go with her. Without hesitation. We have to.

Sharing the story about how my daughter, Becca, lost her life is something I must do, too. The details of her death are as important, to me, as the ones surrounding her birth. Why wouldn’t they be? Her birth made me a mother, a warrior. Her death made me something much stronger.

So, there we sat. Three mothers, with three deceased children, and three completely different ways their lives came to an end. One lost his battle to depression, one was brutally murdered, and one was a victim of someone else’s deadly decisions. Different scenarios . . . with the same outcome. We are sisters who walk the path of child loss.

Though we walk the same path . . . the obstacles we encounter, differ. The shadows, that loom around us, consist of varying things. Guilt. Shame. Anger. Hopelessness. They swirl, just above us, invading our thoughts. Reaching for our hearts. Trying to snatch small pieces of our souls to ensure their own existence.

But when we come together, we grieving moms, we are even stronger than when we stand alone. Two paths, through the rocky terrain of child loss, will never be exactly the same . . . but they will resemble each other’s, just enough, that we can help each other upon this journey.

While we walk, side by side, we’ll continue to share the story of our child. From birth . . . to death.