(W)hole

When I found the foot high statue in the image above . . . I was struck by what it said to me. A perfect depiction of the hole left in a mother’s chest when her child dies. The gaping wound every bereaved mother suffers when her baby is taken from her. You may not be able to see it, but every single one of us has it. And we all protect it, for the rest of our days.

Over the past few years, finally being strong enough to venture out of my safe little world, I’ve met other mothers who have lost children in as many different ways as you can imagine. But don’t imagine them . . . they will break your heart.

One of the often discussed truths is whether it is easier to lose a child when you’ve had the chance to say goodbye before they go, or when their death is sudden, with no preparation or last words. I lost my daughter in an instant. In the time it took for a car to flip and break her neck. She was here, then gone. I didn’t watch her suffer bravely through a long illness. Holding her hand and telling her I love her as she slipped away wasn’t an option for us. On a Thursday I hugged her, not knowing it would be the last time I would touch her while she was alive. The following Sunday, she was dead. I am thankful for the conversation we had Saturday afternoon when we both said we loved each other. At least, I have that.

I know mothers who did spend their child’s last moments with holding their hands. Telling them it was ok to go. Stroking their hair and kissing their foreheads and easing them into what comes next. At times, I envy this seemingly peaceful farewell. Most times, though, I can not imagine having to watch my child circling toward their death. I don’t think I would be strong enough. Would I have been able to tell Becca it was ok to go? I’ll never know.

Then there are those of us who have someone to blame for our child’s death. A person(s) took the life of our precious child by their actions. There is deep rage when our child’s death is the outcome of someone else’s choices. I’ve shared in prior writings the fact that the drunk driver that killed Becca had been arrested just six weeks prior for a second drunk driving offense. His choice to drink enough to show an alcohol level of .28, then drive, took my daughter from me. From the life she was building.

When I wanted to see her, touch her, I was told she was “evidence” of a crime, so I could not. Later, I was informed that the driver would not be charged with vehicular manslaughter because killing someone while driving intoxicated is an intention-less crime. Intention or not, my daughter isn’t any less dead. A law that benefits the guilty. You better believe there is a deep anger inside of me.

Then there is the horrible truth of murder. The person had intent to kill another human being. Someone decided that your child didn’t deserve to live. That they had the right to decide to cause them death. I don’t know how to even begin to wrap my mind around this truth. There is another level of complicated grief when there is an actual person to place blame on for our child no longer being here with us.

What about the soldier killed in war? Who do you place the anger on then? Where do you direct your rage? Toward an entire people? Ideology? I don’t know. I’m not sure there are any adequate answers for these questions.

The one thing all grieving mothers have in common is the hole blown through our chest . . . the space where our heart used to be, whole. Every one of us lives with this state of being. The individual facts that surround each death make our grief journey our own. The smallest truths we have to grapple with, over and over in the still dark of the night, are what we must find a way to heal intimately.

The answers we need to find are most often within ourselves. You can’t give them to us. We need you to help us remain strong enough to keep walking this path. To know that, even as we sit quietly, our minds are racing over the facts that surround our child’s death. Very rarely do we have a waking moment that is not influenced, in some way, by our child being gone.

We all have an empty space and we are trying to repair it as best we can.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Winter

A few days ago I read a meme on Facebook that said “The path isn’t a straight line, it’s a spiral. You continually come back to things you thought you understood, and see deeper truths. This couldn’t be more accurate in describing the path of child loss.

I’ve often described as traversing through a landscape which vaguely resembles what your world was before. Our lives get divided up into two parts: before and after. A boundary that is solid and immovable. In the after, as we look around, things are familiar yet different.

I remember wanting to stay stuck in the moment right after I found out my daughter had been killed. I knew I couldn’t go back to before, but I didn’t want to start moving away from the space of time she had been alive. I wanted the world to stop. Everything to freeze. I understood I couldn’t have her back but I couldn’t imagine a life without her. I just wanted to stay as close to my living child as I could. But we can only stay there so long. Eventually, reality forces us to look up and around us as we begin to bring our child’s existence to an end in the tangible world.

In the eighties, there was a made for TV movie called “The Day After”. There is a nuclear explosion and the survivors are forced to find a way to survive the nuclear winter that follows the blast. This is what life was like, for me, in the months following Becca’s death. Even now I wince as I write those two words together.

In my “winter of the soul” life was muffled. As if cotton surrounded me. Voices bounced around and I was never quite sure where they came from. Grey. There was so much grey. I couldn’t see colors. I knew I should be able to fashion words into complete sentences . . . but the ability was lost to me. As far as I looked, all I could see was broken pieces of what my life had been before. Pieces that were scattered across my entire world.

I remember I was in a panic to scurry around, on my hands and knees, trying to find even the tiniest pieces so I could put it all back together. It’s not possible. The biggest piece that was missing couldn’t be found in physical form again. My child. So I started to walk the path with my head down, eyes blurred with tears, and muscles sore from attempting to carry all the pieces with me.  Except, I’d stumble upon a piece, I thought I’d picked up already, over and over. I couldn’t figure out why. Had I dropped them? Or had they been stolen? Why were they reappearing?

Finally, it dawned on me, they are in my path again because I have acquired new tools. Tools that allow me to work on them and fit them in more accurately than the last time I held them in my hands. We learn as we walk this path. Even when we don’t realize it. We learn from others who have been there before us. They come back for us when we seem hopelessly lost, and walk us toward the opening. Answers are found within us. Answers we didn’t know we had. Or more accurately, we couldn’t see the first time we walked past them. They were covered with the thin grey layer that settled on everything when our nuclear winter began.

When I was young, I was sexually abused. This truth reared it’s ugly head into my life over and over. When I became a woman. When I started my period. The first time I had sex. When I birthed a daughter. But each time it appeared, it seemed smaller somehow. Weaker. Pale. It didn’t have the hold on me it did when I was a young teen. When events in my life triggered the thoughts, I was more able to examine them, then put them away until the next time. I knew there would always be a next time.

And that is what this path is all about. We are never going to get to the end of it and say “there, it’s done. I’m finished”. Our life will be spent holding the truth of the death of our child in our hands and finding a place to carry it. We look at it to see where we can fit it into our lives. We guard it. We mourn it. We live with it. We survive.

This life isn’t about getting over it, or getting through it, or even finding closure. It’s about finding a way to accept the truth and allowing it to live within us in a way that doesn’t slice our insides every single day. Child loss is our truth.

It’s a hard life. But it’s still life.

 

You Can’t Stop A Boulder

Once a week I have the opportunity to talk to other grieving parents. I don’t always avail myself to said opportunity, but when I do, I am stunned at what we have in common. No matter how we lost our child . . . many feelings are universal.

The one that is most often mentioned: guilt. We find a way of taking whatever happened and making it our fault. One mom shared a story with me. The story is of a little boy who was sleeping soundly in his bed. One night a boulder, that had been firm in the side of the cliff for hundreds of years,  came loose. The massive rock rolled down the hill, gaining speed, eventually crashing through a wall. Instantly killing a little boy as he slept soundly in his bed.

How had the boulder become free? A storm, years prior, had caused the river to flood and weaken the earth in that area. Somehow, the surveying team missed the danger when they inspected the area for homes. Four years later, the boys parents had chosen the home because of it’s good school system and close neighborhood. It had taken them a long time to find the perfect place to raise their child. As a condolence, people said that there was no reason for this to happen, it was after all, an act of God.

Those of us who have lost a child know what the parents did to themselves, don’t we?

They blamed themselves for their son’s death. If they hadn’t chosen that house, on that hill, with those rocks that had seemed so beautiful in the sunset, he would still be alive. If they’d never left their previous home then this would not have happened. For the rest of their lives, they will carry the guilt of what happened.

When I listen to other parents talk about the death of their child, I am amazed at how easily events can be described in a way that illustrates their responsibility. As their words spill from their mouths . . .  I want to cry out: It’s not your fault!! Yet, I do it to myself, too. I can manage to weave the recounting of Becca’s death into a tale that makes me the guilty party. Why do we have such an intense need to be culpable. Society isn’t blaming us, we are blaming ourselves.

I’ve heard parents say if they hadn’t sent their child to school that day, they wouldn’t have died in a bus accident. Or if they had kept them home when it began to snow, their child’s car wouldn’t have skidded off the road. If they’d said no to going to the movies, their child wouldn’t have been drinking in the parking lot and  succumbed to alcohol poisoning. The truth is, as parents, we can do everything right, and it still doesn’t matter.

If you are reading this, and haven’t lost a child, please don’t become terrified of allowing your child to live. You can not wrap them in a cocoon and keep them safe. If we are alive, we have to live life. Don’t change that. But, please, if you know someone who has lost a child and is struggling with this massive, and very common, guilt . . . share this with them.

A lot of times we won’t listen to ourselves, but it helps to hear it from someone else. We can let the guilt go.

Our children would want that for us.

 

Understanding Others

I often wonder what people see when they look at me. Does my pain show on my face? Is my exhaustion apparent in how I carry myself? One woman told me that I had haunted eyes and it was difficult to hold my gaze. I can understand her point. Who wants to face the death of a child unless you absolutely have to? I wouldn’t.

I didn’t notice it immediately, but eventually the fact that people would become uncomfortable when I talked about my daughter revealed itself. They’d avert their eyes, start to fidget, and attempt to change the subject. Awkwardly cutting conversations short when they didn’t want to hear what I was saying. Many of my friends stopped calling altogether. At first, I was angry. I felt abandoned. What happened to all those who promised to “be there” whenever I needed them? I would reach out . . . but my hand would comeback empty.

For a long time, I let the anger build. I told myself that I would never treat someone else like that. But how could I be sure? Then one day, when I was outside in the sun planting flowers, I had an epiphany. My sad eyes and broken heart were just too much for some people. And that was nothing to be angry about. If I didn’t have to live in a world in which the death of children existed . . . would I choose to voluntarily? Probably not. It can be a dark and lonely existence. If all of my children were alive, would I want to be reminded, often, that child loss occurs? I doubt it. So, if I can’t be certain that I would handle the situation differently, how can I judge others?

This realization was very freeing for me. I didn’t have to carry the weight of anger toward anyone. I could just let it go. Doing so helped me to be more able to deal with the things I had control over. The things I could do something about. I couldn’t change people. I had to meet them where they were, even if they couldn’t seem to meet me where I was. In a place that is so terrifying it’s hard for them to imagine.

The sun shone a little brighter that day.

The day we realize that we are not responsible for other’s emotions, or actions, is the day we start to put all our effort toward healing ourselves. We deserve this. Women, especially, have difficulty putting themselves before others. From an early age, we are taught to be givers. We need to add ourselves to this list. Find what you need to heal and do it. Every day.

Each of us has a switch inside that we must search out and flip. The “thing” that is going to cause a shift in our thoughts and move us toward wholeness. We can have a hundred people around us, never be physically alone, but that won’t help. The work we have to do . . . we have to do in the quiet moments inside of ourselves.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t lean on others, we can. And we should. We just have to understand our hardest work will be done within our own minds and hearts.

However, search me out if you need to. I am always here.