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.

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Past, Present, Future

Four months after losing my daughter . . . a woman, who I considered a good friend, called me. The first words that came out of her mouth ended our friendship.

“Are you done crying yet?”

“Are you (a newly bereaved mother) done crying yet (as if four months was enough to mourn my child’s death).”

The word “yet” was a judgement. She made me feel as if I was taking too long and people were getting impatient with me. She was getting impatient with me. She wanted to know if I was finished. I hung up the phone, but the guilt I felt for not being “farther along” stayed with me for a quite some time. I spent so many wasted moments wondering if I was “doing it right”. In truth, I still have those moments, a decade later.

I’ve come to find . . . many bereaved mothers eventually feel as if they are letting others down with their need to grieve. Not only their need . . . but how they grieve, as well.

In the first days, we have no choice but to grieve openly. Our soul’s screams demand to be heard. The intense pain is all encompassing and there is nothing we can do but be in it. There isn’t a way to keep it contained, even if we try, there just isn’t. That kind of anguish can not be controlled. So don’t expect us to do it. If our grief is too much for you then walk away. We don’t need the added weight upon our overburdened shoulders.

As the months pass, and enough people have shown us (or told us outright) that our grief is getting to be “a bit too much”, we learn to hide it. Cover it with a fake smile or a mumbled “I’m alright” when asked how we are doing. We are becoming masters of illusion as to not upset your world. Or, we stop going out as often, not wanting to see the disappointment from others. It’s easier to be alone with the grief. In solitude, we can be who we are. Grieving mothers. Broken and crying.

I wish I could truly convey how I am doing, some days, so you would understand. I know most bereaved mothers, myself included (usually), wouldn’t wish this pain on any one else. But, oh, there are times when I want a callous person to feel what I am feeling.

Do you remember the movie from the mid 90’s, about a young man who is sensitive and other worldly? There is a scene in which the lead character, Powder, uses his supernatural abilities to try to change a man. Powder grabs the arm of a seasoned hunter and shares with him (telepathically) the agony the deer, he’d just shot, was feeling as it died. There are times when I would give nearly anything to have this ability. A way to immediately put someone where I am every day. Just for a moment.

For a long time (months, maybe years) we put on the face society wants to see, and navigate the world in disguise. We go to work, faking it. We participate in holidays, feeling no joy. We laugh, when we really want to cry. We behave in a way that won’t upset those around us. Because, we’ve learned our grief has an expiration date to outsiders. For others, there is a time limit. And for some ungodly reason, many people don’t have a problem telling us so. As my former friend did after just four months of living without my daughter.

The more time that passes . . . the less likely outsiders are to understand why we are still grieving so deeply. Do they think it’s getting easier? I can assure you . . . it isn’t. Does the passage of years somehow soften the pain from losing my child? No, it doesn’t. If anything, it makes it harder. Every dawn brings me farther from the last time I held my daughter.

There is a heaviness added to my spirit with the passing of each day since Becca was killed. A mother with a living child gathers memories along the way . . . as her child lives life. I carry the moments my child never got a chance to live because someone took her life away. How does one ever stop grieving the loss of a child as life unfolds all around us and we are continually, achingly, aware that our child is missing?

A few weeks ago, I had another friend ask me how I was doing. I was honest. I said, “Shitty. Labor day was the last time my entire family was together, so this holiday makes me very sad.” Their reply: “Hasn’t it been ten years? It should be getting easier.”

I can assure you, it isn’t.

If we are lucky . . . we find our voice and can say, with strength, I’ll forever grieve. I generally try to end my writing with something positive to say to the “outsiders”. But, I just don’t have anything tonight. Instead, I’ll end this bit of writing with words for the grieving mothers.

Grieve. Loudly. Or quietly. With your entire being. Don’t worry about what others think. This is your journey, not theirs. Their child didn’t die, yours did. Be pissed at them for not understanding, it’s natural to be angry. Tell them they are wrong. Or tell them nothing. If you can, explain why they are incorrect. If you can’t, don’t worry about it, it’s not your concern. Cry when you must. Scream at the sky. State your truth, whatever it may be, loudly and with courage. Society needs to learn about what child loss grief is and what it isn’t.

To outsiders, we may look crazed and disheveled. Wild and unkempt. But we don’t care, do we? We are beautiful and pure in our grief. Our pain makes us glow with an inner fire and strength. We have been remade from the inside. Our soul was ripped open and we’ve found the truest parts of ourselves. Make no mistake, though we may seem weak in others eyes, we are stronger than they will ever know. We are warriors and we will lead the way.

When you get to the point in your healing, when you can be authentically who you are at that moment, and you make yourself known to the world . . . you make the path, for the grieving mother behind you, easier to traverse. You change the world.

As We Sleep

A few months have passed since my daughter has come to visit me in my dreams. I find myself going to sleep earlier in the hopes she’ll finally appear as I slumber. When she doesn’t, I don’t awake with the immediate realization my dreams were empty of her presence. I just feel the normal ache that one feels when their hands haven’t touched their child’s skin in years. The profound need to hold our child close again never really leaves us . . . but at moments like this, it’s amplified a thousand times over.

I’ve often talked about the first time Becca came to me in a dream. She stood at my front door and begged to be let in. I stood a room away, watching through the door, as my daughter’s voice broke with sadness. They didn’t want me to see her, the way she looked, after the crash. But I didn’t care. I just wanted to hold my daughter again. I needed to help her and she needed me to hold her. We needed each other after the tragedy that had happened.

There should be a place, an in between space, where Heaven and Earth overlap. Always lit with the slanted late afternoon sun that casts a golden glow over everything. The smell of new growth in the dirt is heavy, it mixes with the scent of silvery strands, and somehow we know we’ve been here before. Here we can sit next to our deceased loved one. Laugh and cry, and say good bye, until it’s our turn. Maybe we can only reach this place as we sleep.

This first dream I had of my girl was this. But not quite as comforting. As she walked around the table toward me, I could tell her neck was broken, so I reached out my arms to draw her close. One of her hands steadied her head because she wasn’t able to hold it up anymore. I gently laid it against my chest and I felt her both arms circle my waist. She wanted my help. She asked me to fix it. Sorry. She kept saying I’m sorry, mom, I’m so sorry.

I had to tell her I was sorry, too, because I couldn’t fix this. Everyone around us looked at her as if she was something unnatural. As if I should be horrified at the sight of her. I wasn’t. I couldn’t understand why the others were. We stood together, holding each other, swaying back and forth, crying. At this moment, I can’t remember exactly how this dream ended. Maybe it’s written somewhere in one of the many journals I’ve kept. Or maybe the ending doesn’t matter at all. She was there. I held her. We cried because we both knew the life we’d had together was over.

This dream was the absolute hardest one I’ve ever had. About her, about anything. I’ve called it a dream through the first part of this piece of writing because that is what most people would believe them to be. I believe, this was a visit from my dead child. That was the first time she’d been able to get to me. Some time had passed before she had. I’ve wondered why. Because her death was so violently traumatic and instant and unexpected? Was her soul confused at what had happened? Did it take her a while to learn how to move through her new world to find me? I imagine it was something like this. I am so glad she did. And still does.

As I said initially, it’s been a while since Becca’s come to visit me. Some nights my last thoughts are: please visit me baby . . . momma misses you so much . . . please please please.

I miss my girl more than any words can express. The ache is wider and deeper and more full than a few sentences can hold. It’s scream that continually pounds in my chest. A loss that no words can adequately convey. There is nothing I can say to a mother who has not lost a child that will make them feel, even for the smallest slice of a second, the pain that has taken permanent residence in my soul.

When I am sitting across from another bereaved mother, and the haunted part of me sees the same in her eyes, I ask Becca to lead her lost child back to her. Show them how, my sweet girl. Help them sink into their mother’s dreams and let their souls touch for a while. Lead the way, my Becca.

But when you’re done . . . please come back to me. I know there is so much to see where you are, I understand. Tonight though, tonight . . . please come to momma. I miss you.

I need you.

Forever Searching

As I’ve shared in my writings before . . . I have a very complicated relationship with divinity. The easiest way to explain it is like this: I feel that “god” is a person I am angry with but can’t seem to remove completely from my life. Yet, I have no intention of ever getting close to him again. I have relatives like this, too. They’ve hurt me deeply. I know they exist but I don’t have them in my life. There is a silent truce between us and I am fine with this.

Over the past few months, I’ve gone to church more than I have in the past ten years. The first time, I told myself, was to support my friend. Like many mothers who have lost a child . . . our faith is damaged and we seek answers. That is what I said to the Bishop when he asked me what questions of faith I was struggling over. But, I think I’m getting ahead of myself.

As I said above, I initially believed I was going to be of support to someone else. Sitting in a pew in a catholic church, then a folding chair in an old mall, and today, in the lobby of Martin Luther King Elementary School, I’ve realized I’m searching, too. I consider myself Agnostic because this term comes closest to what I seem to be. I know there is “something” but I don’t know what, exactly. There are times when I wish I had unflinching faith, but it’s not to be I guess. Not for me, anyway.

I felt that today, as I sat in a group of six people, listening to the Bishop speak. My friend and I were invited to this service personally by the Bishop. He knows our stories of child loss. And I truly think he thought he could answer our questions, assuage our fears. I am thankful he cared enough to want to do so.

Listening to his words, I believe he was trying to tell us that god takes, but god gives, too. That god took something from our lives to make room for something else. A seed has to die for a plant to be born. God has to squeeze us hard to get the best juice. I understand what he was attempting to explain to us. But, I have trouble with it.

God could have squeezed me in a different way. God could have taken something else from my life. If a seed has to die, let me be the seed. The flower that should be growing is my daughter. I am sure my friend feels the same way. I think nearly all grieving mothers would gladly change places with their deceased child. Happily, and without a second thought.

If we could, we would give them life, twice.

Near the end of the service, the Bishop asked me to share what my questions were. I’ve not had this chance before. A one on one discussion, with a man of the cloth, where I could honestly voice my thoughts. So, I did.

I told him I don’t understand a god that would take my child yet let my pedophile uncle live. I have trouble believing “god is good” when Syria is happening. That there even is a god who would let the horror in the world continue without doing something about it. None of it makes sense to me. And his answer was the same one I’ve been told over and over again: you just have to have faith.

That answer isn’t good enough for me. It wasn’t good enough before my beautiful daughter was killed, and it sure the hell isn’t good enough now. I am not angry with the Bishop, I am thankful he cared enough about me, my friend, about my struggle to take the time to build a sermon around it all.

Later this afternoon, Stacey and I were walking around a thrift store. There were two Willow Tree angels sitting on the shelf. One of them was titled “thank you for the gift” the other was “angel of learning”. I don’t think those angels were there by chance. Our children are our gifts. The brightest blessings we could ever receive. And learning. Oh the things we’ve learned since losing our daughters. The biggest? How to live without them here.

I read once that our relationship with the deceased keeps developing as we learn more and we come to terms with their absence. I think I will forever search for answers. Answers about her death. Answers about all “the bigger questions” and that’s alright.

The searching keeps me moving forward.

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.

Mother’s Days After

18578515_10209592102466738_978814193_nI haven’t written a blog entry in a while. I’d have to check to see just how many days it’s been. The exact number isn’t important, but the reason I haven’t written is. To me. Mother’s Day just hits me like a punch in the stomach. The days leading up to it are full of anxiety, the day of is difficult, and the days following are full of sadness.

This past Sunday marked the tenth time the day of celebration for mothers passed without my daughter. As I’ve done since the first one, I pulled out a few things I have from past holidays, that she gave me. I ran my fingers over the paper of homemade cards as if they were made of precious materials. To me, they are. These things are irreplaceable. Let me take a moment to give you some advice: save it. Save it all. One day you might be happy you did.

Though this holiday is difficult for me . . . I know it’s harder, in a different way, for newly bereaved mothers. The first one is full of moments of denial. This can’t be real, you tell yourself. Images of last Mother’s Day flash into your mind as you line up the time, to a year before, and think about what you were doing with your child. Every piece of your soul aches to travel back to that day. Any day before your child died, really. Then the weight of the new reality crushes those memories with it’s truth.

On Sunday, I sat at a small Mother’s Day celebration that my friend’s family had. As we chatted, sitting in a circle in the shady backyard, I couldn’t help but notice the four kids sitting across the expanse of grass. Cousins, laughing with each other. Except, one of them was missing. You see, there used to be five. Until one was killed. Her mother, my friend, sat next to me, quiet. Curled into herself.

A few times, I asked her if she was alright. She said yes. We always say yes. The rest of the family, though aware of the huge hole that was left by murder, had all of their children around them. I know they carry immense and indescribable sadness but they can’t experience the pain that my fried carries for the loss of her daughter. I know they understand that holidays will be difficult . . . but I am not sure others can truly understand the depth of our pain on such days. Seeing my friend steeped in her pain, pain that was so real it flowed off of her in waves, broke my heart. I wish I could make it better for her. That I could make it better for all the bereaved moms I know. But I can’t. I can barely make it better for myself.

The Saturday night before Mother’s Day, my friend and I accompanied another mom to the site where her child died last year. She’d spread out a blanket under a huge pine tree, a tree that must have been over a hundred years old, and talked about her son’s last day. We listened to her as she shared her son’s death story. We all need to share the death story of our child. The creek slipped quietly by below us as tears fell upon our cheeks. There is sacredness in these moments. A connection to each other and to life. And death. It’s an honor when mothers share these stories with us . . . let us into their very small and intimate circle of pain.

Being a mother is a sacred act. Raising a child, caring for them, loving them, protecting them, teaching them . . . it’s the most important thing we can do with our lives. Both joy filled and heartbreaking.

The days that led up to Mother’s Day were filled with apprehension for me. I know it’s going to be hard . . . I just don’t know how hard. So I worry I might not make it through. The day of, though it’s been a decade, still brings memories from previous celebrations into my mind. I wonder if she knew how much I love her. If she knows the cards her little hands made were among the most precious gifts I ever could have received. Does she see me get them out every year and cry as I read them over and over. I hesitate as I look at the gifts from my sons, wondering if I should save them “just in case” and then think I am courting death if I do.
The days after are hollow and painful. There is a type of re-realization that Becca is gone for good. She’s not coming back. Even if I cry to the heavens that it’s been too long since I’ve seen her so she should be sent back. It’s a kind of bottoming out . . . again.

I’ve traveled far upon the path in my grief journey. I learn new things every day. But Mother’s Day will forever be one of things I circle back to again and again. One of the many times each year that I need to enter a space I’ve been in before, and work through it again.

Then I can use the knowledge I’ve gained to help the moms who are new to the grief of child loss. Next year, if you know someone who is a bereaved mother, please reach out to her. You will add some happiness to a sometimes very dark day by letting her know she is still a mom. And is remembered as one.