This New Path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Broken Heart

For the past few days I’ve been giving much thought to having a broken heart. Right after Becca was killed I remember thinking “how is my heart still beating? It should just stop.”. Before I lost my daughter I don’t think I ever gave any thought as to whether a person can die from heartache and loss.

According to science, broken heart syndrome is a real condition. Just last year we saw it happen with a famous mother and daughter. The mother died the day after her daughter passed. After reading about the condition, I’ve learned the medical term is: stress induced cardiomyopathy. Women are more likely to suffer from this than men. It’s a reaction to a surge of stress hormones. These facts are clinical. Here’s my truth about a broken heart.

Mine shattered when I was told my daughter was the young woman dead in the body bag. There was “proof” it was her, but I didn’t believe it until a friend came back from seeing her. He told me they unzipped the bag and let him kiss her forehead. She was still warm. Inside of my chest . . . my heart exploded. As I tried to wiggle out of the police officer’s arms, so I could run down to my daughter, my heart beat so wildly and out of time that I thought I might have a heart attack on the same highway where Becca died. There are days, still, when I wish I had.

The thought that our heart physically changes when we lose our child won’t leave me. As if it DID blow apart, but somehow, quickly knitted itself back together enough to keep my body functioning. The pieces reattached to each other, yes, but not arranged the same as before. My heart is different than it was when Becca was alive. I am different. From the smallest cells to the farthest corners of my mind, I’ve been changed.

I also believe I’ve been both weakened and strengthened. I know that sounds odd . . . and makes little sense, but I’ll do my best to explain what I mean.

The cracks in my broken heart have exposed a strength I’m not sure I would have found if not for losing my child. A strength that every single mother gains when she gives birth. The moment we hold our child for the first time, and whether they are with us for an hour or seventy years, we have the truth we could lose them. We don’t often consciously think this thought because it’s too horrifying, isn’t it? Yet, we do know that to love so deeply means we may hurt as deeply someday, too. So, way down inside of our mothers’ hearts, there is a small seed of strength waiting to be called upon if we ever need it. Sadly, some of us do.

When my heart broke wide open and the blood rushed out, so did the combined voices of all the bereaved mothers before me. The lineage of women behind me, cried with me, as I mourned my daughter. I didn’t know it, but I was being lifted by my feminine ancestors. We are held by the hands of those who went before us. Sometimes, in the quiet of the night, I thank them for walking with me during my journey.

All of this being said, personally, I would rather not have found out how strong I really am. I could live without the knowledge that a broken heart can repair itself. That I can march through the days, empty of my Becca, with some hope for my future.

Remember, even when we are alone, we aren’t truly alone. Our hearts can heal. Don’t expect to be the same as “before”. You won’t ever be that person again. The person you  become, however, will amaze you.

Let your heart heal. Your child would want you to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fearful

When the phone rang in the middle of the afternoon, a few years ago, I was surprised to see it was my son. Excitedly, I answered the phone and said hello!! My son’s first words were, “I’m gonna need you to not freak out.” That’s when I heard the sounds of hospital monitors in the background. And I did, indeed, freak out.

I started yelling, asking him if he was ok. Not taking into consideration that he was speaking to me, so he was ok. He told me to stop yelling, he couldn’t talk to me when I was like this, or he would hang up. You can probably guess he eventually hung up on me. With the promise he’d call back when I could be calm. When he did finally call back, I learned the details of the car accident he’d had on the slushy highway a few hours earlier. A crash that left him crawling out of a car, that had landed on it’s roof, in oncoming traffic. His only injury was a snapped collarbone, thankfully.

Even after I knew what had happened, I was still mildly hysterical, and a complete mess. My child was safe. He was hurt, but he would survive this. When I had calmed down enough to process what had happened, I realized I would never be the same when it came to my children being hurt. Bereaved mothers nearly always feel the fear that another one of their children may be taken by death.

Late last week I was talking with another grieving mom I know. She told me her very young son had been sick all day. High fever, lethargic. One of her sentences was heartbreaking. She shared she had been a nervous wreck all day, beyond worried. The truth that she’d had to bury one of her young children already was far too real to not take into consideration when her other child was so sick. This mom’s son was killed by a distracted driver. An adult who was checking his social media. Nothing this mother did led to her child’s death. He wasn’t sick. But even though the two situations involving her children were not the same, her mind circled the truth of child death. We go to the worst that can happen because we know it’s not impossible.

Even now, when my children travel to and from where they live and when I live, I am a ball of anxiety. They’ve had their licenses for years. They are both good drivers. Millions of people travel the roads of Michigan everyday without dying. But part of me is certain they will die, like their sister did, well before their time. When my son had a serious illness over this past Thanksgiving, I started to cry uncontrollably when he said he was going to play soccer, against the doctor’s orders. I begged him not to. Again, I was worried it would lead to his death. So much of the grief path is spent walking in exhaustion. Worrying about our surviving children, KNOWING death takes the young, we are always on guard. Always hoping to see the thing that might end their life before it reaches them.

Others, trying to comfort us, will say “oh, you’re worrying for nothing . . . everything will be alright.”. In our broken hearts, the truth courses through our veins with each heartbeat. No, it’s not always alright in the end. Like so many other things about child loss, unless you’ve been through it, it won’t make much sense to you. We don’t want to be a worried mess. We don’t want to struggle with allowing our child to live a normal life, one not full of our fears for them. However, we are forever changed.

I’ve shared before the fear I have for my twins who just turned the age my daughter was when she was killed. On January 11th, they officially became older than their sister ever did. For me, their life is delicate and could easily be taken at any moment. I wrestle with this truth and the other truth, I have to allow them to live their lives.

But it’s so difficult to know there is the chance that we may lose another child. To know this and to attempt to remain optimistic about the children we still have here. It’s hard as hell. Please understand this.
I want to take a moment to mention the mother who lost her only child. I can not speak to what it’s like to live in this reality. I haven’t experienced it. I do know one mother who did lose her only daughter. Her strength and courage amazes me daily. Maybe one day she’ll be able to share her feelings here as a guest writer. I think she has a story to tell . . . one that can reach the mothers I can not.

There is beauty in the broken. I see it everyday in the women I know.

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.

Still Mothering

Behind me, there is a red set of shelves. In it’s former life it was a dresser. When I no longer needed it as such . . . I took the drawers out and made them shelves. I couldn’t get rid of it because it is a piece of furniture my daughter knew me to own. On it’s top, I have photographs, candles, and the marble urn which holds my daughter’s ashes. I always keep fresh flowers next to her urn. I call them ‘Becca Flowers’. Every night, I kiss her picture and tell her I love and miss her. I am going to do this until the day I die.

Another bereaved mom I know goes to the cemetery, to visit her daughter’s grave, every day. She decorates for the approaching holiday and talks to her child. I was privileged enough to help her choose new flowers, in the colors of Mardi Gras, to put in the wreath she keeps there permanently. We spent about twenty minutes picking the right flowers and color combination. The mom took much care in making sure the bouquet was exactly what she wanted, what her daughter would like. I understand her desire to spend the time and care she did in this small task. I do the exactly the same thing when I choose flowers to put next to Becca’s ashes.

Last week, I was talking to someone at work about how much I admire this mother for going to the cemetery every day to see her child. In response, he asked “Do you think that’s healthy?”. My immediate answer was “Yes.”. He asked me to explain and it’s taken until tonight for me to be able to put my reasoning into words.

When our child is born, and placed into our arms, we accept the responsibility that comes with being a parent. We help them learn everything they need to learn along the way. We love them completely . . . most times more than we love ourselves. Every single aspect of their life . . . we are a part of. As they grow, our role in their life changes. What they need from us moves from one thing to another, but it lessens as they grow more self sufficient. Then comes the days when they seem to barely need us at all. Yet we still have the deep calling to care for our child. It never goes away. Even after our child dies.
Especially after our child dies.

Try to imagine, if you can, having your child’s full life narrow to the size of a burial plot. Or a marble urn. All your mothering, the love you still need to give them, has such a small place to physically fit. The younger the deceased child the longer the list of things they never had a chance to do. Graduate from school. Attend college. Fall in love. Marry. Become a mother. Our child is robbed of so much.

Bereaved mothers are robbed, as well. Instead of helping my daughter choose a wedding dress, I chose what she would wear for the visitation. Becca will never call for me, while she’s in labor, because she needs her mom. All of those things, the mothering I never got to give her, still need a place to go. Where do I put it? I keep fresh flowers next to her urn. A candle burns every night.

Where does my friend do it? She keeps her daughter’s plot neat and tidy. Adorned with all the gifts she will never be able to place into her hands. I watch her rub her palms lovingly over the winter grass. Hear the words of loss and longing she speaks, as she places a kiss over her daughter, and tells her she’ll be back to see her tomorrow.

Is it healthy you ask? I think it would be unhealthier to have all of this love, and loss, bottled up inside of us with no place to go. We are mothers. Our child died, but we did not cease being their mother. Caring for the final spot our child inhabits is what we can do to care for our child in their absence. This helps us heal.

I hope those who have not lost a child can understand the importance of our actions when it comes to this. I also hope, very sincerely, that they never truly understand the truth of my words.

Sanctuary

This morning, at the last minute, I decided to go to church. I’ve not gone to church for a very long time. There are some pretty long standing beefs between myself and organized religion. Both the institutions themselves, and the deity said to be in charge of it all. Thus far, I’ve not written about religion in my blog. I guess today is the day to explain my beliefs. Only because I feel full disclosure helps my readers understand from where I write.

As humans, we like labels. Labeling a thing as either this or that helps us understand. It defines . . . but also confines. The closest definition of a word that explains religious beliefs, that I can find to describe myself is “agnostic”. However, even within the definitions, there are varying explanations, so it can get muddy. So, here’s my choice in what the meaning behind agnostic means to  me: I believe in the existence of a greater power, such as a god, but it can not be either proven or disproved. I know we can not know everything in the form we inhabit, here and now.

I don’t believe god is either male or female, rather both energies. I believe in the existence of another plane where our souls travel to upon our death, though it’s definitely not the Heaven of fluffy clouds and golden streets and the sound of harp music. I am not making fun of those who do believe in this place, who do believe god is an elderly white haired man sitting on a throne. I strongly adhere to the sentiment . . . to each their own. Please, know that I am not belittling your beliefs.

With my beliefs being shared, in a brief manner, I’ll now talk about my experience at church this morning.

I’d gone to catholic church as a child, with my nana, many times. The name on the wooden sign out front of the massive brick building was “Most Precious Blood” and it terrified me. Inside was no better. Cavernous and dark, it’s interior was old looking and felt eerily haunted to me. Though I can not remember any of the words that were said by the priest, I do remember the general feeling of being told I was not good enough to even be alive.  That there was little hope of escaping purgatory, even as a small child, no matter how hard I tried.

Today’s experience was much different. Though I did hear something to the effect we (the congregation) didn’t deserve “his” love . . . the message was much more positive than I had expected.The priest said that upon being baptized, in the catholic church, followers are given a mission. To spread the word of the church. There was a line in a song that said ” Lord, let me be a sanctuary”. As an agnostic, this is a sentiment I can get behind.

I want to be a sanctuary for other grieving mothers. Having traveled this journey myself . . . I know the terrain, the dark spots, where we can find light. No, I don’t have all the answers but I DO have experience from which to draw. When I say to another bereaved mother that I can understand . . . I really do.

My mission is to help other mothers who have lost a child. I won’t, however, say god had a plan for me to do this after my child died. I don’t believe that statement. It’s a choice I am making to turn my darkest time into something that shines light in our world.

I had a friend tell me, a few weeks ago, that my mess is my message. This saying is easier for me to say with full belief in it’s words. As I grow stronger, I am more able to use the horrible truth of losing my child as a message to reach others who are in a similar situation as my own.

Driving home after mass, another bereaved mom and I discussed what we heard and how we interpreted the words. She said that she has a firm belief in what her mission is after the loss of her daughter. To bring the truth of grieving, and all it’s parts, to our society. So others can understand what a parent goes through upon the death of their child. She said exactly what I believe: society needs to be taught the truth of grief. Before I lost my daughter, I didn’t understand. Neither did my friend. Now, we do and we have to do something with this painful knowledge.

The issues I have with organized religion did not disappear today. I’m not sure they ever will. In future blogs I will talk about them because I think it’s important to share my story fully.

Tonight, though, I’ll go to bed with the renewed belief that I have to do something with my knowledge and experience. I am not going out to try to bring people back to the church. But I do hope that, with my writing, I may be able to help people move back toward themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.