Happiness Found

Earlier today I laid my phone down on the dining room table and walked away to care for the dogs. Since there are five of them . . . this took a few minutes. When I was finished I circled back to pick it up and noticed there was a single sentence, typed in the message bar:

“Mom can you come in”.

It wasn’t there before.

Without hesitation I said hello to my daughter.

“I love you I love you I love you,” I shouted to her in the empty kitchen, “thank you for coming to visit me!”

I then took my time making coffee and continued to talk to her. All the things I say to her daily except this time I knew she was here listening to me. 

“I miss you. I want you to come back home. Are you ok? Are you happy? I want you to be happy honey. I miss you. I know you are here . . . I want to hold you.”

I always stand still when I say the last part. “I want to hold you.” I put my arms out and hope that her spirit is slipping between them and she is leaning into me. Sometimes, I can feel a sudden denseness of the air in front of me. It feels slightly warmer, more solid. The sensation is always fleeting, though. I’m left yearning for more.

“Are you happy?” I asked her again and hoped for an answer. I want to know my child is happy. 

Pondering the message that was in my phone I asked her, “Where do you want me to go? Am I ready to come where you are? Is it time? Do you miss me so much, even where you are and knowing the whole picture, that you need your mother?”

The months following her death were the hardest I have ever experienced. Truly, an endless nightmare. I did not want to be here anymore. If there had been a way to join her . . . I would have. One that would not send me to a place where I would not be able to see her. I needed to be with her wherever she was and I was willing to leave everything in this world behind. I would have walked up to the ledge and fallen into the abyss without a second thought.

Today, I realized, this isn’t my truth anymore.

‘I’m not ready to go’ flashed across my mind and sliced deep into my heart.  

Oof, I thought. What the hell is wrong with you – I chastised myself. If given the chance to see your daughter you’d say no? What kind of mother are you?? You don’t love her very much if you can turn down the chance to see her so easily!

Then I thought of my sons. What kind of mother would I be if it was so easy to leave them behind? At the beginning of this child loss journey I thought dying would protect them from my love. What my love does to my children. Over time I’ve let go of this thought. I know it isn’t true. I no longer feel as if they are in danger because of how much I love them. I know I need to be here for them. But, I realized, there is something else behind my desire to remain where I am. Not just my sons.

I wanted to stay here because I am finding happiness.

I don’t think you know how difficult it is to write that sentence. 

The words carry with them a betrayal of the deepest kind. 

Yet, I am haunted by my other words. A thought I’ve written about many times: bereaved mothers can’t continue to live only for others. Telling myself that I have to be here for the boys, though true, doesn’t touch upon the fact that we need to find a reason within ourselves to continue to live. 

Is it okay for me to say that I want to stay here because I am happy? But am I also saying that I am fine with Becca being killed and gone? Do I have a right to happiness? Should my happiness outweigh my sadness? Is the guilt I feel worth the happiness? There must still be a part of me that measures my love for my deceased child by the pain I feel over her absence. Have I been punishing myself for the last thirteen years by denying most joy that I have felt? Has my love for her turned into a burden for me to forever carry?

Stop it, I tell myself. Just stop. You know better than that! You’ve told other mothers, of dead children, to be gentle with themselves. To not judge themselves so harshly because when we do we always tend to find ourselves lacking. I check off each line in the list of reasons I shouldn’t feel as if her death is my fault. Yet, I feel hollow. I haven’t convinced myself that I’m not to blame. I wonder if I ever will. 

Grieving moms will fight against feeling joy. We don’t think we deserve it. Feeling happiness, when our children can’t, is obscene to us. Laughing when we usually cry thousands of tears is foreign and uncomfortable. Pleasure doesn’t belong in the center of extreme heartbreak. 

But, we deserve i t, don’t we? If anyone needs to feel a bit of happiness, it’s a grieving mother. We’ve experienced enough pain.

We tell ourselves truths that we think we believe and then we have a moment when we know we actually believe them and were previously wrong. I’d been actively (or so I thought) cultivating happiness in my life. Going through my days in a purposeful manner, yes, but also on a very narrow and controlled path. It’s much easier to keep your world the way you want it if you keep it small. Is that happiness or an illusion? It’s surviving not thriving.

I am ready to be happy. Deeply happy. I love my daughter, with all of my heart, but I am not ready to leave this world yet. Those five words that mysteriously appeared on my phone this morning made me realize this. 

And, in truth, I know my daughter wants me to experience joy while I am here. That is what she wanted for me when she was alive and I have to believe that is amplified because of where she is. She knows everything now.

There is another aspect to this whole happiness thing. I believe my happiness here is mirrored by her’s there. My grief is an anchor for her spirit. I envision her, sitting on the edge of the day, shedding tears because I am crying into my pillow below her. I don’t want to be a burden on her soul. I don’t want to be the reason she isn’t investigating every corner of the universe or searching behind each star. 

I truly believe as I move toward being full of joy that she moves toward the same thing.

Mom can you come in.

I will honey, I will, just not yet. I have things to do here.

I miss you sweet girl. I’ll see you again, I promise.

I

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.

 

 

Creating Heaven

The past few weeks have been chaotic. In both good, and not so good, ways. But, that’s life, right? It is indeed. So, we have to find ways to ride the changes that we choose, as well as those that are thrown at us, unexpectedly. The latter are the ones that tend to be the most difficult I have found.

The last fourteen, or so, days have been very trying. I’ve had little time to just be. And, just being is essential to maintaining equilibrium in my life. Both emotionally and physically. As I said, it’s been trying. With the little down time I do have I try to cram as much into it as possible. When I do that, however, everything I attempt is lacking. Then I end up feeling as if I’ve failed, which adds even more anxiety to my life. Tonight I’ve chosen to write instead of doing anything else. But, I am going to write about what I’ve spent my creative energy on, as of late.

The picture above is of a 4 ft. x 5 ft panel. I have three of them on which I am creating a 12 ft angel. The angel is a depiction of my daughter in heaven. This first panel holds her face, the tops of her wings, and the night time sunset sky. I’m entering it into a local art show/competition.

One of the many hard things I’ve had to do, since losing my child, is to become accustomed to her not being “here”. Instead, attempting to envision her “there”. My concept of heaven, I’m sure, differs from many others. The movie “What Dreams May Come” (which I refer to quite often) explains a version that comes closest to what I believe. Initially, heaven appears as the most comforting place you can think of, using your ideas of comfort from your living life. Robin William’s character finds himself in a painted version because he loved his wife’s paintings in their life together. This happens in order to ease the person into the truth of having died. Of being removed from our living loved ones presence. I think this is the same for me, here.

When my boys move to a new place I always ask them to send me a picture of their room. It helps put my anxiety to rest if I can see their surroundings. Then I can picture them there, safe, in their bed at night. Just one of the many mental calisthenics I engage in to assuage my fears and give me the belief all is well in my world. I’ve found myself doing the same with Becca. I can’t ask her for a photo of where she is, obviously, so I try to create it myself. “Doing” for me is as important as “thinking”. I have to work through things in order to make them real to me.

About six months ago I started to paint angels. One day, a vision of an angel painting popped into my head. I knew that the canvas had to be textured because I wanted the wings to really stand out. Since then, I’ve done about a dozen or so angel paintings. It wasn’t until I’d been painting them for a month that I realized why I was doing them. Even though it’s been eleven years since my daughter was killed there is still part of me that can’t accept it. Hence, I dove right into creating angels. My soul knew it was time to understand her absence completely. In order to do this I have to be immersed in the concept of heaven and angels.

The first angel paintings were quick and easy. I don’t put faces on them. I said this was because I know I could never make their faces as beautiful as they truly are. I think it’s more accurate that I would want to make every angel face Becca’s and I wasn’t ready for that. I’m not sure if I am or ever will be ready. So, to the people I explained the lack of facial features, I think I’ve excavated the real reason why. Somewhere, deep in my soul, a tear was stitched together a little bit.

When I witness a sunset I always picture Becca gliding across the colors in the sky. Running her hands through their depths. Snapping her fingers she sends the hues skittering across the horizon. I know she is laughing. I see her this way because it is what makes sense to me. It’s what soothes me. Her new surroundings are what I am trying to replicate with this piece of art.

This is the largest piece I’ve ever created. My children are the best things I’ve ever done in life. It only makes sense to bring them together. Creating is my prayer. This piece is a pilgrimage. Moving me toward acceptance. I don’t think I will ever be done “accepting” her death.

So I will just keep creating angels.

Note: If you are interested in following my progress on the art piece I’ve mentioned, please go to “Touching Heaven”, on both Facebook and Instagram. I’d love to see you there.

 

Because We Must

A handful of years back, I had a friend tell me that I always bring up my daughter’s death in conversations. His next statement caused much inner turmoil: It seems you see yourself as a grieving mother before anything else. Did I? Was that wrong to do? Am I wallowing? An attention seeker? Do I want pity? Am I being offensive? Off-putting? Am I completely messing up this grieving thing??

I thought about what he’d said to me. I DID bring it up in a lot of conversations. About that he was right. But, was it inappropriate to do so? I can not tell you how many hours I chased the reasons, and answers, to this question.

Initially, I was hurt by the words. The anger came later.

Was he telling me I needed to stop talking about my daughter’s death? How could he expect me to do that? Did everyone want me to stop talking about Becca? When is the right time to mention my dead child? Does someone need to ask me, “Is one of your children deceased?”, before I bring her up? Is there a handbook of grief protocol I didn’t receive? Not only was I reeling from her absence in my life . . . I now had to remain quiet about it. Maybe he was right, maybe I shouldn’t bring it up in polite social interactions. Screw that.

Then the righteous anger came. Yeah, so what, I DO bring her death up a lot. F*ck him, he doesn’t know. Who the Hell is he to tell me I talk about her too often! Both of his children are alive . . . so he can take his observation and shove it. What I do, what I say, is none of his business. He can f*ck off for all I care!

As the anger dissipated, I started to try to figure out the emotions connected to this situation. First, why did it bother him so much that I did this? Obviously, he felt uncomfortable. He could see the awkward looks on other’s faces as I spoke. Second, why did I feel the compulsion to do this. What he said was true, and after taking the tone of judgement out of it . . . I wanted to know the reason.

Was he uncomfortable because child loss is a terrifying possibility and he didn’t want to think about it? Maybe. The truer answer, probably is, we (read society) don’t handle grief well. It’s foreign because it’s been removed, for the most part, from our life. Years ago, generations ago, death was a part of everyday life. Most families had many children because it was understood some might not make it to adulthood. Child loss was more real, to society as a whole, a hundred years ago. Not so in today’s world.

Does the feeling of awkwardness, in others, stem from our grief being too intimate for them to see? Have we forgotten how to behave when someone else is emotionally hurting? Is our raw pain just too much for outsiders to handle? Yes, yes, and again, yes.

When someone bares themselves to another person, there is vulnerability from both sides. Being vulnerable can be very uncomfortable for many. In our world today, there are so many ways to interact with someone else, that isn’t face to face. We are forgetting how to just “be” with another person. And, as far as the rawness of child loss pain, it can be very overwhelming for those who don’t understand it. Scary, even.

For a while, after my friend made this observation, I tried not to bring up my deceased daughter. I didn’t want others to look at me as if I might be a bit off. But, as I rolled this truth around in my head, I came to realize, there are very real reasons I do this. I needed others to connect with me on this level. I was in a lonely and desolate place. I had to share the pain, share her story, otherwise it remained a silent nightmare. In a world that no longer held her . . . I needed her name to be heard.

The biggest reason, though, was because her death was a monumental life event for me. Think about the huge events that happen to a large number of people: 9/11, the Challenger explosion, any mass shooting. We all gather, in groups, and say, “did you hear?” or “can you believe it?” We share the pain we are all feeling. We need to know we are not in it alone. It’s the same for us. We need a connection. We need validation. We need understanding. We need care.

Becca made me a momma. Her birth completely transformed who I was. It would be foolish for me, or anyone else, to think her death didn’t do the very same thing. Losing Becca changed me at the deepest levels of my being. Of course I am going to talk about it. About her. About my experience on this path. I have no other choice. And, that’s ok.

Let us talk. We need to share. Please . . . listen. Laying ourselves bare, in front of you, is not easy for us, either. Those first months, when we are desperately trying to fit the truth into our hearts, we need to be connected to others. It helps us to accept our new reality. It’s where we start to heal.

We need you.