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.

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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.