Her Angel

I often wonder if bereaved mothers judge themselves more harshly than the average person does. We can be pretty ruthless when noticing our own behavior.

Are we mourning correctly? Too much? Or, the right amount? Not enough? Did we laugh too soon? More often than we should? Are we supposed to go on the vacation we already had planned? How long is it appropriate to wear black? Should we mention our child when no one else does? How do we know if we are grieving the loss of our child appropriately?

First let me say this: someone . . . somewhere, will have a nasty comment to make about how you are surviving in the aftermath of loss. The remarks usually start with “Did you see . . . “ or “How could she . . . “ or “Isn’t it time that you . . . “. The last comment is the one that really gets me because all too often it comes from someone who hasn’t buried one of their children. But this blog isn’t about the insensitivity or lack of knowledge that outsiders seem to bring to us. This piece of writing is about how severely we can judge ourselves.

Monday morning, Stacey and I were having breakfast before a meeting I had for an art show. Sitting in a local eatery, we were chatting about what was on the TV and probably making inappropriate comments about one thing or another, when she started to scroll through her emails.

“Oh”, she said,”here is one about the scholarship.”

She then proceeded to share with me the particulars of the letter. A memorial scholarship has been started in Mckenna’s honor and the first one was presented this year. A 2018 graduate, who is furthering her education in theatre and music was awarded the scholarship. Mckenna was quite gifted in music and acting and Stacey wanted to help further someone else’s dream because she can’t help Mckenna achieve her own.

Stacey said, multiple times, oh that’s lovely. Oh, how wonderful. I’m so happy. Which I am quite certain she was . . . but with the acknowledgement that this girl received the honor to further her dreams it was a reminder to Stacey that her daughter won’t. This scholarship only exists because Mckenna was killed and there is no way to get forget this fact. So, in the middle of the restaurant, Stacey started to cry. And then what did she do? What we all do. She apologized.

I don’t remember her exact words but they were something like: “I’m sorry. I think I’m doing good and holding it inside and then all of a sudden I’m crying.”

That statement holds so much heartache. There is the surface sadness, the sadness we expect when we’ve lost a child, but there is so much more mixed in there as well.

“I’m sorry.”

For what? You have no reason to have to apologize to anyone. Ever. Crying is expected. Tears are natural. Everyone cries. Please, don’t say you are sorry. Cry when you need to. No explanation is needed to anyone. Tears are a healing necessity on this path.

“I think I’m doing good and holding it inside and then all of a sudden I am crying.”

Holding it inside is “doing good”? By whose standards? In saying that holding it in is doing good it implies that letting it out is doing bad. Why is that bad? We’ve been conditioned to believe emotions are troublesome and shouldn’t be shared. Being sensitive is seen as a fault. Somehow, society has morphed into a space where we have to keep what is considered “extreme emotions” hidden away. I think this is a huge mistake. It removes us from one another.

But, back to how we judge ourselves in context to how we behave in grief.

Stacey and I have talked endlessly about nearly every aspect of mourning the loss of a child. We always agree that our culture sucks when it comes to both actively grieving and interacting with others who grieve. Both of us think part of our “mission” is to spread awareness about child loss and parental bereavement. When we see another mother crying . . . we understand why. We are compassionate. There is safe space. We can extend this to another, knowing it is what the mother needs, yet we can’t seem to offer it to ourselves. I know Stacey would sit with me for hours, if I wanted her to, so I wouldn’t be crying alone. I would do the same for her. And, there would be no reason for an apology or even the slightest thought that the other was failing. Yet, again, we don’t offer that kindness to ourselves.

It seems we can talk a good game, in theory, but it’s putting it in practice on the playing field where we falter. We still think we are putting others out when our grief overwhelms us and spills into the moment. How do we change societal views when we have trouble changing ourselves?

I guess it’s in small steps. One tear at a time. We didn’t learn to live without our child in one afternoon. Or in a year. Hell, it’s been a decade for me and I still don’t know how. We do the best we can in the smallest of moments.

All judgement has to stop. The judgement from “outsiders”. That which grieving moms have for each other at times, and especially the thoughts in which we hold ourselves up to an impossible yardstick. My way isn’t your way and vice versa. And it shouldn’t be.

Find your way without faulting yourself for the little moments of the journey. Let others find theirs. We are all heading in the same direction, like a spoke of a wheel, toward the center of spirit and healing. Be kind to each other.

Be kind to yourself.

Note: The featured image above is painting Stacey Hilton did of herself and her angel daughter, Mckenna. I’d like to thank her for allowing me to share her story and her pictures in my writing. It adds a dimension that I couldn’t share on my own.

 

 

Hellish Waters

“Is she getting any help? Does she go to counseling?”

“No, she isn’t.” was the reply.

“Well then,” said the woman, “ . . . I don’t feel sorry for her. She’s choosing to stay sad.”

I’ve heard this conversation more than once, if you can believe that, in the years since losing my daughter. Both about myself, as well as other bereaved mothers. I’m always left feeling angry and saddened. I simply don’t understand how someone could say “I don’t feel sorry for her”.

Honestly? You can’t muster up ANY sympathy or empathy for a mother with a dead child? There is no feeling of compassion toward a woman who had to make “final arrangements” for her daughter or son?You can sit in judgment, of a place you’ve never been, and make the callous comment, “she’s choosing to stay sad”?

I would tell you to “go to hell” but hell is a place where I’ve spent a lot of time since Becca, my daughter, was killed. Do you want to know what hell is for a grieving mother? I’ll share just a small picture of it . . . then maybe you won’t be so quick to draw conclusions about a broken soul.

Carrying a child for months, preparing for the life he or she will have, then having that life taken from you. From them. Take a moment and sort through the dreams you have for your child. Would it be so easy for you to watch them fade away, then disappear, completely? Which one of your child’s dreams could you erase from the future? How about all of them?

Stop reading for a moment. Go to your child right now, wherever they are, and touch them. Feel the warmth of their skin, take in their scent, listen to their voice. Do you know what I do when I want to touch my daughter again? I lay my hand on a cold marble urn. I’ve wondered how long her ashes stayed warm, inside, after her cremation. Have you any idea how one’s mind can spin out when you think about what your child’s body went through after it was placed in the oven and the door shut? The body you spent days, months, years (if you’re lucky) caring for and watching grow.

I’ve watched more than one mother lean over her child’s grave and wipe bits of newly cut grass off of name plates. Placing hands on thin grass (because it takes a while for grass to grow over a grave) above where she believes their child’s hands to be. Thick grass, right up to the edge of where the grave starts, picturing over and over the last time she saw your child’s face before the coffin was closed? Her last glimpse of the coffin as it’s lowered into the ground. The panic she feels because “what if she isn’t really dead . . . what if he’s scared . . . “.

Ten years have passed since I lost my daughter. A decade. But there are some mornings when I wake up, somewhere between fully aware and dreamland, and I forget she’s dead. For that split second, all is right in my world. Then the ugly truth worms it’s way into the center of my mind and the contentment I feel is shattered. That moment though, oh that beautiful perfect peaceful moment, she’s not gone from me physically. Can you imagine the intense anguish I feel when I realize it will be another day without my child? That, for the rest of my life, every day will be without Becca. As long as I live, I have to choose to be here, knowing I’ll never hear her laughter again? That is hell, my friend.

Those first years after child loss we can be unreachable. We live in a continual hurricane, finding the peaceful eye of the storm once in a while, sometimes by accident. But, there is little calm. Fuzzy clarity, at best. The world, as we knew it, is gone. We have been rocked to the very core of our souls. Our hearts have been both blown apart and imploded in a single second. What we’ve gone through is unexplainable. Something you can barely imagine. And when you try to, your mind does a 180 because you’ve seen a glimpse of the hellish horror. Imagine living there.

No, grieving mothers don’t want to be sad. We are not choosing to stay there. Believe me . . . we would all choose to be with our child, instead. Surviving this is so much more complicated than going to the doctor, to get bypass surgery, after a heart attack. Our hearts are shredded . . . there may not be much to stitch together for a very long time.

The same of a counselor. A therapist might be able to help us, but unless we are in a place to hear what’s being said, it’s doing no good. And we can’t just “put” ourselves into that place, either. And as I’ve explained, neither can you put yourself in ours. Getting counseling from someone who’s never lost a child, to most of us, seems ridiculous. And, at times, it really is. We walk around, each day, carrying the brutal knowledge from experience. Not what we’ve read in a book.

So, I beg you, don’t speak about what you don’t know. If you have any compassion, at all, don’t judge a bereaved mother for not doing what you think you’d do in her situation. You can’t know unless you are there. And I hope you never will be. If you can not say anything kind . . . don’t say anything at all. Simple. She doesn’t need the shame you’ll make her feel by stating your very inexperienced opinion.

Every grieving mother I know is fighting to stay above the waves. Don’t stand back and say “if she’d only . . .” reach out a hand to keep her atop the water. Don’t give her more weight to carry. She’s got enough.

And finally, no grieving mother deserves the heartbreak and pain she is feeling. Not now . . . not ever.

On a side note: I went to counseling. I’ve had both good and bad experiences. Though the one therapist I had that did help me, didn’t lose a child, he taught me some very useful coping strategies. However, it has to be a personal choice and the person has to be in the place to participate fully.