Hellish Waters

“Is she getting any help? Does she go to counseling?”

“No, she isn’t.” was the reply.

“Well then,” said the woman, “ . . . I don’t feel sorry for her. She’s choosing to stay sad.”

I’ve heard this conversation more than once, if you can believe that, in the years since losing my daughter. Both about myself, as well as other bereaved mothers. I’m always left feeling angry and saddened. I simply don’t understand how someone could say “I don’t feel sorry for her”.

Honestly? You can’t muster up ANY sympathy or empathy for a mother with a dead child? There is no feeling of compassion toward a woman who had to make “final arrangements” for her daughter or son?You can sit in judgment, of a place you’ve never been, and make the callous comment, “she’s choosing to stay sad”?

I would tell you to “go to hell” but hell is a place where I’ve spent a lot of time since Becca, my daughter, was killed. Do you want to know what hell is for a grieving mother? I’ll share just a small picture of it . . . then maybe you won’t be so quick to draw conclusions about a broken soul.

Carrying a child for months, preparing for the life he or she will have, then having that life taken from you. From them. Take a moment and sort through the dreams you have for your child. Would it be so easy for you to watch them fade away, then disappear, completely? Which one of your child’s dreams could you erase from the future? How about all of them?

Stop reading for a moment. Go to your child right now, wherever they are, and touch them. Feel the warmth of their skin, take in their scent, listen to their voice. Do you know what I do when I want to touch my daughter again? I lay my hand on a cold marble urn. I’ve wondered how long her ashes stayed warm, inside, after her cremation. Have you any idea how one’s mind can spin out when you think about what your child’s body went through after it was placed in the oven and the door shut? The body you spent days, months, years (if you’re lucky) caring for and watching grow.

I’ve watched more than one mother lean over her child’s grave and wipe bits of newly cut grass off of name plates. Placing hands on thin grass (because it takes a while for grass to grow over a grave) above where she believes their child’s hands to be. Thick grass, right up to the edge of where the grave starts, picturing over and over the last time she saw your child’s face before the coffin was closed? Her last glimpse of the coffin as it’s lowered into the ground. The panic she feels because “what if she isn’t really dead . . . what if he’s scared . . . “.

Ten years have passed since I lost my daughter. A decade. But there are some mornings when I wake up, somewhere between fully aware and dreamland, and I forget she’s dead. For that split second, all is right in my world. Then the ugly truth worms it’s way into the center of my mind and the contentment I feel is shattered. That moment though, oh that beautiful perfect peaceful moment, she’s not gone from me physically. Can you imagine the intense anguish I feel when I realize it will be another day without my child? That, for the rest of my life, every day will be without Becca. As long as I live, I have to choose to be here, knowing I’ll never hear her laughter again? That is hell, my friend.

Those first years after child loss we can be unreachable. We live in a continual hurricane, finding the peaceful eye of the storm once in a while, sometimes by accident. But, there is little calm. Fuzzy clarity, at best. The world, as we knew it, is gone. We have been rocked to the very core of our souls. Our hearts have been both blown apart and imploded in a single second. What we’ve gone through is unexplainable. Something you can barely imagine. And when you try to, your mind does a 180 because you’ve seen a glimpse of the hellish horror. Imagine living there.

No, grieving mothers don’t want to be sad. We are not choosing to stay there. Believe me . . . we would all choose to be with our child, instead. Surviving this is so much more complicated than going to the doctor, to get bypass surgery, after a heart attack. Our hearts are shredded . . . there may not be much to stitch together for a very long time.

The same of a counselor. A therapist might be able to help us, but unless we are in a place to hear what’s being said, it’s doing no good. And we can’t just “put” ourselves into that place, either. And as I’ve explained, neither can you put yourself in ours. Getting counseling from someone who’s never lost a child, to most of us, seems ridiculous. And, at times, it really is. We walk around, each day, carrying the brutal knowledge from experience. Not what we’ve read in a book.

So, I beg you, don’t speak about what you don’t know. If you have any compassion, at all, don’t judge a bereaved mother for not doing what you think you’d do in her situation. You can’t know unless you are there. And I hope you never will be. If you can not say anything kind . . . don’t say anything at all. Simple. She doesn’t need the shame you’ll make her feel by stating your very inexperienced opinion.

Every grieving mother I know is fighting to stay above the waves. Don’t stand back and say “if she’d only . . .” reach out a hand to keep her atop the water. Don’t give her more weight to carry. She’s got enough.

And finally, no grieving mother deserves the heartbreak and pain she is feeling. Not now . . . not ever.

On a side note: I went to counseling. I’ve had both good and bad experiences. Though the one therapist I had that did help me, didn’t lose a child, he taught me some very useful coping strategies. However, it has to be a personal choice and the person has to be in the place to participate fully.

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.