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.

 

 

Knotted Regrets

Eleven years ago, today, was the last time my daughter came over for dinner. Of all the things we discussed that afternoon . . . who knew, I would need to know she wanted to be cremated, just a week later. I didn’t. There are times, when I wonder, if maybe deep in her soul . . . she did.

Becca came bounding through the front door, as she usually did, with a loud hello and a tight hug. She joked around about a show I was watching on the History Channel. She loved to make us laugh. But then, the conversation turned toward the serious. She shared with me how she had made up with a friend, recently, with whom she had a falling out. Then, she started to talk about her childhood.

It wasn’t until she said the words, “I really loved my childhood . . . I wouldn’t change a thing,” did I realize there had been a time when she wanted to have a different one. My daughter had felt, and rightly so, that there had been too much responsibility laid on her shoulders at a young age. I know her friends lives were much different than hers, I guess I just didn’t realize how much it bothered her. Writing this now, my heart feels like it’s being squeezed because my daughter felt “less than”.

Becca had the responsibility of watching her brothers when I had to work. I’d never knew how much that prevented her from doing. I know she said she wouldn’t change a thing . . . but I would. And, herein lies one of the biggest issues, mothers who have lost children, grapple with: the regrets.

Regrets over things we did, as well as those we didn’t do. Continuously playing conversations, we had with our child, over and over in our minds. Wishing we’d said something different or that we would have taken the time to say more of the good things. Hundreds of “I wish” or “I should have” statements gallop through our thoughts every day. Pounding the lost moments and the broken promises and the harsh words into our souls. Each one, like a pinprick, into our hearts. We are punishing ourselves for not keeping our child safe from the world.

The truth is we don’t need to beat ourselves up . . . others do that for us. Depending on how your child lost their life, there will be some, who ultimately blame the parent. But, that is a topic for a different blog. For now, we’ll focus on the regrets.

To say to you, don’t let the regrets steal your thoughts, is wasted. You will. I did, and still do. Regrets we carry while our child is alive, turn into anchors around our neck, after their death. If you think that I am going to say something cliche like: take the opportunity now to tell those you love how you feel, I’m not. I mean, yes of course, do that. But, I also realize how unrealistic it is to think we can live like “everyday may be your last”.

It’s unrealistic because it’s exhausting to live on guard all day, every day. Most bereaved mothers, however, do live this way for quite a long time after their child is gone. Each time my sons left the house, for a long time after losing Becca, I was certain they were going to be killed, too. My behavior, erratic from grief, was exacerbated when they were out of my sight. I’d have cyclical thoughts about them dying and wondering if they know I love them. Them dying . . . and being unsure I did enough to keep them safe. It felt as if I was sending them to their death every time I allowed them to leave the house. A person, simply cannot live, with that level of anxiety and fear. It takes a very deep toll, on both our physical health, as well as our mental well being. I truly believe that losing a child ages us immediately, and, shortens our life span, drastically.

My thoughts caused me to gather even more regrets in those first years. Watching my boys walk down the street, I’d have the obsessive urge, to yell to them that I loved them. What if something happened and I didn’t take that chance? Immediately, the regrets set in. It’s truly a hard thought process to interrupt. But, we need to do just that.

As bereaved mothers, we also need to find a way to put the regrets we do have, down. They are so heavy and cumbersome. They serve no purpose in our lives. We must find a way to forgive ourselves for the mistakes we made. I believe, where my daughter is now, she has already forgiven me my wrongs. I also believe, she wouldn’t want me to burden myself with them when I set off on this new path. I think this is where the true problem lies: forgiving ourselves.
Child loss grief is such a tangle of truths. Sadness, pain, shame, blame, guilt, regrets, responsibility . . . are all connected and wrapped around each other, tightly. This knot, in our lives, can take years to ease apart. But it’s part of healing. It’s a delicate process.

I made mistakes. I still make mistakes. I’m human. I will continue to make them, of that I am sure. Most of the time, I did the best I could . . . sometimes, I just flat out failed. It’s taken years for me to understand that I can let all of those regrets, hundreds of them, go. I carry enough, with me, on my journey . . . I don’t have room for the negative. When they surface again . . . I’ll let them go, again. And, I won’t beat myself up because I should have been perfect. I’ll never be perfect . . . but I will be authentic.

Examine your regrets. You need to in order to release them. Probably, more than once. But understand they do not define you . . . or your relationship with your child. I know, Becca’s feelings about her childhood, don’t define our relationship.

I wish for you, grieving momma, peace in the thoughts that come to your mind. Peace in your aching heart. Forgiveness for yourself. Love from those around you.

I wish for you, healing.

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.