The Path

Often, I describe the journey of child loss in a physical manner. In my mind I see the path, we walk, as a dark and sometimes treacherous trek. We have no choice but to keep moving forward into the unknown terrain.

The first time the sun rose, after Becca was killed, the land around me wasn’t the same as before. A haze hung in the air and muddied my view. Hills rose where once the land was flat. Deep fissures had opened across what I could see. Landmarks, which previously stood proudly, were reduced to rubble. And, worst of all, there was no clear way for me to set off on my journey. Scattered everywhere were pieces of her life, our lives. There was nothing to help me get my bearings because it had all changed in an instant.

I wanted to stay balanced in the moment between what life used to be and what it was now. We can’t, though. The moment comes, when every bereaved mother, has to decide where to place her first step on this alien land. And we do so . . . woefully unprepared.

My path is long buried, heaved to the surface through trauma, rich dirt. The size varies: sometimes wide, other times barely there narrow. There are times when it stretches out in front of me and I can see for miles. My difficult times are when there is a sharp turn into thick woods and I have to walk by faith alone. Storms come, and drench the earth, making it difficult to keep my footing. I’ll slip and reach to grab at something, I know was there, only to find out it isn’t. And, down I go . . . covered in mud and hopelessly overwhelmed.

Continuously, obstacles loom ahead of me. Often times, they are ones I thought I had overcome previously. A handful of years had to pass for me to realize . . . these obstacles will keep appearing until I have dealt with them fully. They are too large to overcome in one interaction. When we realize this, that we will have to work through certain things multiple times, we start to feel a bit more in control as we travel the length of our grief path. We have no other choice but to attend to our obstacles or they will keep reappearing – larger than the last time.

I’d like to take a moment here and give you some hope. It’s ok that some things keep appearing in front of us. The enormity of what we must come to terms with, and accept, can not be done in one interaction. You have not failed because an issue has reappeared for the tenth time. This is a life long process . . . integrating what we’ve been through into our every day. We didn’t say good bye to our child, completely, at the funeral, we do so in little moments each day. So goes the process of acceptance.

Though everything on this path seems to be fixing the shattered . . . there are moments when we see beauty and can just “be”! I’ve come around a dark corner to have the sunshine splashed across the path in front of me. I’ve made it to the top of hill, after much hard work, and been rewarded with a panoramic view of a green valley spread below me. I’ve come upon others, who walk their own grief path, and for a bit . . . we sit and share our stories. Giving each other hope, strength, and understanding.

Though being with others in “down time” is healing . . . we must also turn away and continue on our own. As I have often said: this is a solitary journey that can not be taken alone. So, on we go. One foot in front of the other, not knowing what is going to appear ahead of us, just trying to survive. We do the best we can . . . which changes from moment to moment.

This trek is arduous. It makes me feel bone weary most of the time. My hands are raw from dragging myself over the rubble. Wounds from Becca’s death reopen when I catch their edges on a branch I didn’t see. I muddy my own way as my tears fall upon the earth. So many times, I sit on a boulder, convinced I can not move a muscle because there just isn’t any strength left in me.

Turning my head, I let my gaze fall upon the stretch of path ahead of me. A slice of sunshine illuminates a small section. Inside the beam of light, I see my Becca, standing and waving at me. Her smile widens as she sees me push myself off the boulder. With her hand, she beckons me toward her, and renewed . . . I continue on my journey.

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.

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.

Still Mothering

Behind me, there is a red set of shelves. In it’s former life it was a dresser. When I no longer needed it as such . . . I took the drawers out and made them shelves. I couldn’t get rid of it because it is a piece of furniture my daughter knew me to own. On it’s top, I have photographs, candles, and the marble urn which holds my daughter’s ashes. I always keep fresh flowers next to her urn. I call them ‘Becca Flowers’. Every night, I kiss her picture and tell her I love and miss her. I am going to do this until the day I die.

Another bereaved mom I know goes to the cemetery, to visit her daughter’s grave, every day. She decorates for the approaching holiday and talks to her child. I was privileged enough to help her choose new flowers, in the colors of Mardi Gras, to put in the wreath she keeps there permanently. We spent about twenty minutes picking the right flowers and color combination. The mom took much care in making sure the bouquet was exactly what she wanted, what her daughter would like. I understand her desire to spend the time and care she did in this small task. I do the exactly the same thing when I choose flowers to put next to Becca’s ashes.

Last week, I was talking to someone at work about how much I admire this mother for going to the cemetery every day to see her child. In response, he asked “Do you think that’s healthy?”. My immediate answer was “Yes.”. He asked me to explain and it’s taken until tonight for me to be able to put my reasoning into words.

When our child is born, and placed into our arms, we accept the responsibility that comes with being a parent. We help them learn everything they need to learn along the way. We love them completely . . . most times more than we love ourselves. Every single aspect of their life . . . we are a part of. As they grow, our role in their life changes. What they need from us moves from one thing to another, but it lessens as they grow more self sufficient. Then comes the days when they seem to barely need us at all. Yet we still have the deep calling to care for our child. It never goes away. Even after our child dies.
Especially after our child dies.

Try to imagine, if you can, having your child’s full life narrow to the size of a burial plot. Or a marble urn. All your mothering, the love you still need to give them, has such a small place to physically fit. The younger the deceased child the longer the list of things they never had a chance to do. Graduate from school. Attend college. Fall in love. Marry. Become a mother. Our child is robbed of so much.

Bereaved mothers are robbed, as well. Instead of helping my daughter choose a wedding dress, I chose what she would wear for the visitation. Becca will never call for me, while she’s in labor, because she needs her mom. All of those things, the mothering I never got to give her, still need a place to go. Where do I put it? I keep fresh flowers next to her urn. A candle burns every night.

Where does my friend do it? She keeps her daughter’s plot neat and tidy. Adorned with all the gifts she will never be able to place into her hands. I watch her rub her palms lovingly over the winter grass. Hear the words of loss and longing she speaks, as she places a kiss over her daughter, and tells her she’ll be back to see her tomorrow.

Is it healthy you ask? I think it would be unhealthier to have all of this love, and loss, bottled up inside of us with no place to go. We are mothers. Our child died, but we did not cease being their mother. Caring for the final spot our child inhabits is what we can do to care for our child in their absence. This helps us heal.

I hope those who have not lost a child can understand the importance of our actions when it comes to this. I also hope, very sincerely, that they never truly understand the truth of my words.

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.