This Is Not Goodbye

“Now I’m the one going ahead . . . I’m not afraid . . . I can be brave, too . . . “ – Beth, Little Women

For a years, I’ve gone over nearly every aspect of losing my child. I imagine there are ones I’ve not thought of yet . . . but I have the rest of my life for them to find me. I’ve healed in some ways, not completely (never completely) and there are others which I’ve not inspected too closely. Simply, I’m not sure I will survive them. Yet, they stay visible in my peripheral vision . . . waiting their turn. This one, the one I’m attempting to write about, has been heavy on my heart since the moment I knew my daughter was dead.

Each detail of that night is like an autumn leaf that I keep pressed between the pages of the book of our lives. Most are worn from being held, in my hands, multiple times. If I turn to one page, in particular, one I’ve skipped past dozens of times . . . the leaf is in perfect shape. Vivid colors, the veins still strong. The smell brings me right back to the moment my boyfriend stepped out of the back of the police chaplain’s car.

I could tell by the look on his face that the young woman’s body was that of my daughter, Becca. As he held me, he told me they had allowed him to kiss her still warm forehead. I kept screaming, “I need to help her . . . I need to help her!” Later, he told me her spirit had ridden back with him in the car. I believe him. I asked him what she looked like. He answered, confused . . . lost.

When I think about this, anguish rises in soul and I can’t help but think I failed her at the most important time of her life. The end.

Mothers teach their children about life. I wasn’t given the chance to help her through her death.

When I took Becca to school, the first day of kindergarten, she and I both cried. She didn’t want me to leave and I didn’t want to go. But, I knew at the end of the day, she’d be home again. I could talk to her about all the new things. She would know I would be there to pick her up and she could trust that I wouldn’t leave her. Our time apart was more acceptable because we would hold each other again. This made the separations much easier on both of us.

Her death, I couldn’t hold her after and tell her everything was going to be alright. Lately, I’ve found myself wondering what that conversation would have been like.

“Mom, mom . . . what happened?”

“Come here,” I’d say, taking her in my arms, “you were killed in a car crash, honey.”

“But why? Why? How?” she would ask, confused, as I held her close to my chest.

“A drunk driver killed you . . . oh baby, I’m so sorry!”

“What do I do???? Where do I go? Do I have to leave you?? I can’t leave you, momma, the boys, I can’t go. I’m afraid. I don’t know what’s there!”

“I know honey, and I’m so sorry I can’t go with you. I don’t want you to either, but we don’t have a choice, my Becca.”

“But what do I do??? How do I go??? How do I leave you??”

“You have to be brave, sweetie. You have to be a brave girl. I know you can do that. I know you are strong enough to do this. It’s scary, I know, but just like when you went to school . . . I’ll see you again after, I promise.”

“Mommy . . . momma . . . I don’t want to go!!”

“You have to turn around and walk away, honey . . . “ even with these words, neither of us loosens our grip.

I take her face in my hands and look into her beautiful green blue eyes, “You have to go before all of us. I didn’t want it this way . . . but it’s what we have to do right now. I will always be your momma and you will always be my Becca. My only daughter. The one who made me a mother. I know you are scared, I’m scared to be without you . . . but our love will never fade. You are beautiful and smart and strong and brave. I promise I will be there with you one day. We will all be there. The boys will come. We will all be together again, I promise.”

I can feel her head shake slightly in my hands.

“Go now, my Becca, go and wait for us. Be strong. Soar through the heavens. Glide past stars. Dance in the winds that blow around the entire world. Play. Laugh. Visit us when you are lonely. And know, you are always loved. It’s been such a privilege to be your mother . . . you were my first true love, my girl.”

I would gently kiss her forehead and let my hands drop to my side, as my daughter turned away and bravely walked into her heaven.

Warriors

Mother’s who have lost children are some of the strongest people I have ever met.

Tonight, I saw a bereaved mother visit her daughter’s grave, as she does daily, then we drove past the jail that held her child’s murderer. We were on our way to pick up a young girl who’s been staying with us. Can you imagine the strength it takes to be her?

She knelt upon the six feet of dirt that lies above her child’s coffin, picturing how her daughter looked the last time she saw her, and places her hands where her daughter’s would be. She quietly talks to her child. Sharing her day. Telling her how much she misses her. Whispering her love into the blades of grass that have started to grow on the rectangle of recently turned earth.

As she does every time, she cleans off the piece of marble where her daughter’s name is etched. Straightens up flowers, waters the blooms that are real, situates the little angel statues that have been placed for her beautiful child. Her daughter no longer has a bedroom for her mother to clean . . . so she does what all grieving mothers do, we care for the place where our child’s body rests. For her, it’s a peaceful cemetery that is bathed in the colors of sunset every night.

She climbs back into my car after visiting with her child. Sometimes, I walk to the grave site with her. Most times, I wait in the car because I don’t want to intrude on such an intimate moment. I don’t want my friend to feel uncomfortable in her grief. Grief is an incredibly intimate affair. I pull around the corner and stop for a minute, always with the window rolled down, so my friend can call to her daughter once more, before we leave, and tell her she is loved. I always say good bye, too.

Tonight, we had to go pick up the young lady who is staying with us, a refugee student from the Congo, after she was finished with her job. The quickest route to take to her job was one of the busy highways in our city. We were upon the jail before I realized it was the one he is being held in until the trial. Immediately, I was worried about her. This could have been a trigger. Especially right now. Last week there was movement in the court proceedings. Movement that caused the pain to wash over the family again. A decision that sent the family reeling with it being placed right in the middle of this grief path they walk,

She didn’t utter a word. Maybe she just couldn’t utter anything about his existence such a short distance from the highway. Possibly, for a moment, she was able to deny his existence, anywhere. I don’t know which one it was. Or maybe neither. The strength and grace she shows every single day is inspirational.

Within a few moments, the brick building with tiny slits of windows, was lost behind the now full trees. We continued north on the highway until we reached the exit for our student’s job site. A few minutes later, the girl sat in the back seat and my friend asked her (with joy in her voice) how her day had been.

Yes, there is strength in the visiting of our child’s grave site. Not falling to our knees and clawing at the hard earth with our hands is sometimes difficult to not do. Or even laying upon the new grass that covers our child’s final resting place, and refusing to leave, because they might need us . . . and we sure the hell need them.

There is also tremendous bravery in being able to be so close to the person who ended your child’s life and not go completely insane. No screaming, in the hope he can hear you. Just grace.

But I think the greatest act of courage must be to allow another young woman into your life and to care for them, be concerned about their well being. When you would give anything to have this be your daughter instead. That, my non bereaved friends, is an act of strength and hope of the highest magnitude.

We become warriors, when our child dies, in order to survive. Eventually, we are warriors for each other, and the children who need us.

YOU are strong. I am strong. Imagine how strong we are together?

Shores

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to spend a night on Mackinac Island. For those of you not familiar with this location, it’s an island off the northern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula, with Lake Huron lapping it’s shores. We arrived in a small town at the edge of the Mackinac Bridge. Parking our car, we left our luggage with the porters and waited to board the ferry. The waters were a cold steel gray topped with fast moving whitecaps. I was scared. I’ve never been to the island, ridden the ferry, or been on one of the great lakes when the waves were so large.

Traveling with another bereaved mother, who’d been to the island many times, we boarded the boat. This trip was a sort of pilgrimage for her. Anxious about going somewhere she’d last been with her deceased child, she settled into her seat and looked out the foggy window. I ran my sleeve across the glass . . . trying to clear it enough to see outside. The ferry started to move and the swell of the waves grew larger as we pulled into open water.

My friend told me where the life vests and exits were “just in case”. Then, thinking it was funny, started to sing lyrics from “The Edmund Fitzgerald”. I looked at her with horror and she said “it’s a nurse’s sense of humor, dark”. Not long after that we hit a huge wave that lifted the boat about five feet into the air. Now, you have to know this boat seats nearly a hundred people and has two decks. Being tossed that high means the water was rough! For a moment, we hovered in the air as the boat fell. Then we slammed down into our seats. And I thought, if I die, I’ll see Becca. I think we lose our fear of death when we have a child that’s gone before us.

Either the captain slowed down or the waves calmed down as we approached shallower water, I don’t know which. I was then able to concentrate on the hazy shapes in the distance. I asked if the shape I saw was Mackinac Island. My friend said no, it was another island, but we were almost there.

My mind starting thinking about how grief is often times described as waves. How we are fighting the currents and just trying to stay afloat. I agree with this description. Then, a thought flashed into my head. She’d been here before. She knew what the islands looked like when the weather was sunny and the waters a clear blue calm. She’d never been here when the weather was as it was that day. But she knew that the mist covered shape in the distance was solid ground. Even though, at the moment, she couldn’t see it. The trip across this stretch of the lake wouldn’t last forever. She KNEW there was land.

Our ground was solid when our children were alive. When our child died, a tsunami swept across our land and wiped much of what we know away. On our good days, we stand on that ground, looking at the drastically changed landscape surrounding us. On the bad, the waters rise and sweep us to sea.

During these moments, the ones when we think of how easy it might be to slip below the surface and give in, we have to look across the water and find a familiar shape. We know there is land. Reaching it might be difficult . . . but it’s there! The waves rise and fall. When they carry you to their crest, find the land and swim towards it. Keep doing this, over and over. Until you make it to shore.

I think my friend was calmer than me on the ferry because she knew what lay ahead. I didn’t, therefore I was more anxious. We can help ourselves, and each other, by remembering what we stood on before our child died. Reminding each other that the maelstrom won’t last forever.

As we drew closer to the island, the soft shapes started to come into sharp focus. My friend pointed out a white church very close to the shore. She told me that her daughter, Mckenna, wanted to get married there some day. Now, she wouldn’t have the chance. Her mom was going to leave a rock, with her daughter’s name on it, outside of the church. Her pilgrimage.

The ferry slowed, we floated on the waves, and I took a picture of the church through a foggy window. A picture taken for a grieving mom, a daughter who’s future was stolen by someone else’s hand, and for me. Someone who didn’t know this shore existed, but felt blessed to visit it.

I don’t always know where my journey will take me. I do know that the journey can be better if you don’t always do it alone.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.