Living With Grief
Helping others through shared experiences
Many people can feel alone in their grief, not realizing that others have similar thoughts and experiences. Hear from other people and families about how they are coping and navigating their lives after losing a loved one. We welcome you to share your own stories or articles about living with grief. Submit an article.
He’s gone. I will never see him again. I will never hear him again. I will never feel him again. He is gone from this earth. I am trying desperately to wrap my head around this new reality, but it is still too painful to grasp.
I live in 15 second increments. Make the coffee. Water the plants. Back out of the driveway. If I project too far ahead I just see a cliff. So I don’t look past the next task in front of me.
Over a month ago I had to say my final good-bye to my beloved Bernese mountain dog Atlas. Afterward people were great, more supportive than I would have thought. But I sense the time is here when they expect me to move on. It was a dog we are talking about after all. Only I am not ready. In fact, I strongly suspect this loss has altered me irrevocably.
I have some experience with how loss can change you. Over twenty years ago I was left at the altar, which by the way is not at all like they would lead you to believe in romantic comedies. Before this, I was a rather stoic person. Even as a child, I prided myself in my emotional control. But something broke that December day, and I became a veritable leaky faucet. I hoped with time I would regain the control over my tears. But alas, I have now accepted the fact that I am officially a crybaby.
I cry in secret now. Part of that has to do with the fact that I am not sure others would understand how or why I am grieving so deeply for a dog. I never had children of my own. People might mistakenly assume I saw Atlas as my child. I did not. He was my dog. Still I loved him incredibly. There is something so preciously untarnished about the relationship you can have with a dog. Their love is so pure. Their acceptance of you is so complete. My relationship with Atlas was an unshakable safe haven for my sometimes insecure soul. He kept me connected to the sensory-filled joys of life on earth. He is no longer there to do that.
I know. I was lucky to have had something so precious in my life. But the past tense in that sentence highlights my new reality. I was so lucky, but I no longer am. The loss is undeniable.
I realize only part of why I feel I must hide my grief is because Atlas was a dog. Mostly it is simply because… I still feel the loss, at times in a desperate how-can-I-possibly-continue panicking way. Grief is a completely individual experience. Even those who also loved the one who is gone must travel their own paths. I realize now this is true whether the loss is a parent, a sibling, or a human friend. The journey is a solitary one, and it is terrifying.
So this is for anyone else who, like me, is feeling utterly alone in deep sadness because a loving relationship that once gave their lives meaning no longer exists. This is for anyone who wonders how they will pick up the pieces of their shattered hearts and reassemble them into anything that will beat again with even a modicum of happiness. You are not completely alone. Let’s grieve and cry together for as long as we need to, even if we never meet. Let’s acknowledge we will probably never be the same. And let’s hope that someday, though I cannot see it yet, someday we can live – truly live-in this new reality with some joy. If it is a fraction of the joy that my relationship with Atlas brought me, I may even consider myself lucky again. Still, it will never change what is lost.
I miss you, Atlas.
Submitted by Julie Anderson in loving memory of her beloved dog, Atlas.
We all have defining moments. In fact, our lives are filled with them. I would describe these moments as stepping though a portal of experience that reshapes the world you live in. Once you’ve been through one of these portals, you can never return to the world you once knew; you can never un-learn what you now know. The question becomes, what do you do with this new knowledge?
Some of these portals are pleasurable and filled with awe and wonder. They could be like the freedom of getting your driver’s license or living on your own for the first time, getting married, or the experience of having your first child. These types of defining moments are often filled with self-esteem, empowerment, or profound love. They can expand your horizon of what you consider possible in your life or deepen your understanding of what true happiness is. These portals often represent your life at its best.
Unfortunately, the majority of our portals are sources of pain and fill us with fear and dread. They are moments that are galvanized in our minds as ones we never want to experience again and will go to great lengths to avoid in the future. They can be moments of utter failure or disappointment. They can be moments of betrayal or disillusionment. They are often referred to as life lessons, and they generally start when we are young.
Do you remember the first time you were bullied? Or the first time you failed a test or got caught cheating? Did you have a best friend who – for no obvious reason to you – decided not to be your friend anymore? Did you come to the realization that you could never seem please your parents no matter what you did? What about your first major break-up from the person you thought was “the one”? They could even be more significant events, such as the divorce of your parents, the death of a loved one, or abuse at the hands of someone you trusted.
If these were life lessons, what did they teach you? Chances are, rather than teaching you resilience, deeper self-awareness, or how to better express your feelings, these portals led to self-imposed lessons of avoidance, mistrust, self-doubt, suppression of your feelings and emotions, and the underlying belief that most of the time, life just isn’t fair. We may have even come to believe that overall, the world is a frightening and dangerous place. Regrettably, these portals of fear and pain often just lead us to more of the same.
As we get older, these negative portals seem to adapt to our changing situations. Perhaps you’ve been cheated on, gotten fired or laid off from a job, been divorced, or suffered a major accident or setback. In many cases, these painful situations seem to outnumber the positive ones, reinforcing the notion that at its very core, life is hard.
This realization is perhaps the most painful of all. Some people try to numb themselves to the pain with drugs and alcohol. Others may turn to even more destructive behavior in the belief that the odds are stacked against them and life will never become easy or fair. Some put their trust solely in their God. And some never lose sight of the idea that the “grass is greener” on the other side of some invisible hill…if they could just figure out how to get there…without knowing where “there” was.
For the majority of my life (so far), I fell into this last group. I thought for sure that if I just learned how to better control what happened to me, I would be able to find the life I was sure I was meant to be living. The life that was filled with self-esteem, unconditional love, success, and true happiness. In other words, a life that was easy.
I purposely went through portals that I thought would lead me there. I got married. I worked my way up the career ladder by being the best employee possible. I had my first child. But despite all of these positive experiences that changed me forever, I never found a place where the grass was always green. Intermixed with grass I found many weeds, holes, and even dead spots where nothing was able to grow. I continued to be disappointed in life.
But I trudged on. After a divorce, I married again with a better understanding of myself and my needs. My family grew and it brought more purpose and joy to my life. I continued to develop my successful career path. Of course, all of this was intermixed with setbacks and painful experiences. Throughout it all, I kept looking for that illusive hill where the grass was greener on the other side. But I began to wonder if that place really existed.
In the fall of 2009, I walked through the most painful portal in my life. The sudden, accidental death of my 4-year-old daughter, Margareta, turned everything I knew on its head. I detested this portal with every ounce of my being. I desperately wanted to run back through to the other side and erase everything I had just experienced. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, there is no going back once you’ve crossed through a portal.
This particular portal seemingly transported me right back to that fearful place of my childhood where the world was impossibly unfair, dangerous and scary. And yet this time, I had the apparent advantage of almost 40 years of life’s experiences behind me. But to my surprise, many of my past lessons of avoidance, control, and suppression no longer worked. This pain was too deep and too large.
Not having ever been one to numb pain with drugs or alcohol, for the sake of my very survival, I was faced with the task of having to battle this unbearable pain head on. With a chest full of tools that no longer worked, I felt compelled to reach out for help in dealing with this overwhelming pain. For the first time in my life – and full of fear – I began to break down the innermost barriers that guarded my deepest, most vulnerable thoughts, feelings and emotions. I no longer cared about the possibility of rejection or being at the mercy of someone else. The worst had already happened.
The death of my daughter led to years of working diligently and purposefully to learn new tools that would help me work though pain in order to learn from it or let it go, become more self-aware of my needs and feelings, and most importantly, develop a deeper understanding of what I want in my life. In essence, this portal was a catalyst to the most meaningful personal growth I have yet to experience.
Albert Einstein once said, “The only source of knowledge is experience.” And while I will always regret the death of my daughter, I will forever appreciate what it has taught me – and will continue to teach.
Chances are, you’ve heard of the stages of grief Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced in her 1969 book, “On Death and Dying.” The stages are:
It is a very nice idea that you can break grief down into defined segments that have a clear beginning and end. This way, you would know when you’re done with one stage and when to move onto the next in progression until you’ve accepted the death and come to peace with it. It would be nice…but reality isn’t so simple most of the time.
A common misconception about the stages of grief
For several months after my 4-year-old daughter’s sudden death in 2009, I saw a psychologist who specialized in end-of-life and grief counseling. When I asked about the stages of grief I had previously heard of, she said she had actually studied under Dr. Kübler-Ross when she was younger. She explained that one of the most common misunderstandings about the stages of grief is that Dr. Kübler-Ross was using them to describe the similar experiences of many terminally ill people facing their impending deaths – not of someone who had lost a loved one. However, since grief from losing a loved one shares very similar emotional responses, the stages of grief became widely assigned to both those who were dying and those they left behind.
Most explanations of the stages of grief now include the caveat that grief is a unique journey and many people don’t experience these stages in a prescribed order, and some may never experience all five of the stages. Instead of a roadmap, these “stages” might be more accurately described as “reactions” to grief, and should be used to help us understand some of the more common emotions experienced on the journey of grief.
Choosing a new vocabulary
The problem with words is that they may carry different meanings to different people based on personal experience. The five stages didn’t particularly resonate with me because my definition of those words didn’t seem to match what I was experiencing. In hindsight, and from my perspective of losing a 4-year-old child in a sudden accident, I would change these words so that they might better describe some of the common experiences shared by those who’ve lost a loved one.
1. Devastation instead of Denial
When someone hears that they are terminally ill, I can understand why they might deny the validity or reality of their diagnosis. After all, we continually hear feel-good stories of people who beat the odds, or were misdiagnosed, or found some alternative treatment that miraculously cured them. It would be expected that their instinctual survival mode would kick in and they would convince themselves that they will be one of the lucky ones…because the alternative is too scary to accept.
In the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s death, the pain is so overwhelming it is impossible to comprehend how you can survive it. You cannot wrap your mind around how you will go on living in a world that no longer includes your loved one. The word that best describes how I felt during this time was complete and utter devastation.
Just like the denial of a terminally ill person, in an attempt to avoid the pain, your mind can pretend the death didn’t really happen. You might continually expect them to walk through the door, or be on the other end of the phone when it rings. You might keep telling yourself that this has to be a nightmare that you’ll soon wake up from. While some people never experience these illusions, for others it can go on for months or even years. But unlike a terminally ill patient who is told of a future probability that hasn’t happened yet – and therefore is not absolute – you cannot change the fact that your loved one died. You are simply trying to avoid the devastating pain that comes with that reality.
2. Anger is still Anger, but also Avoidance
There is no denying that with any kind of loss, you are bound to experience some amount of anger. You may be angry if you feel your loved one’s death was avoidable – especially if it was at the hands of someone else. You might be angry at God. You may be angry at yourself. You can become angry at your family and friends for saying unhelpful (or even hurtful) things to you and not supporting you in the way you want them to. You may even be angry at your loved one for dying. Many people often become angry that the rest of the world continues to go on, not seeming to acknowledge or care that you just lost one of the most important people in your life and you can’t figure out how you’re going to live without them.
I’ve read before that sometimes anger is your mind’s way of deflecting other, more vulnerable emotions you don’t want to experience. These could include fear, shame, guilt, helplessness, or simply a pain so deep and intense, you have not yet developed the tools you need to deal with it. Anger, on the other hand, is familiar. It is a primal defense against external threats. Yet anger isn’t meant to be prolonged or a tool for avoidance. You shouldn’t deny your anger, yet you shouldn’t let it keep you from learning how to better understand and then deal with all of those scarier, more vulnerable emotions.
3. Bargaining is replaced by “What if…?”
I can understand how a terminally ill person would feel compelled to try to change the prognosis by trying to make a deal with God or the universe. But in the case where our loved one has already died, we no longer have any bargaining power. Instead, many people find themselves replaying the events that led up to their loved one’s death in their heads in a futile attempt to re-engineer how the outcome might have been altered. The bargaining of a terminally ill person is replaced by, “What if…?”
What if they had gone to the doctor sooner? What if they hadn’t gone on that fateful trip? What if we had understood the warning signs for what they were instead of brushing them aside? What if, what if, what if…? There are endless variations of decisions we could have made and actions we could have taken. Many of us go through this heart-wrenching exercise in a desperate attempt to regain the previously held illusion that we are in control over what happens to us in our lives. But try as we might, all of these “What if…?” scenarios only end in feelings of regret, helplessness, guilt, or misery. The sooner we decide to stop asking, “What if…,” the sooner we are able to begin the slow journey of tending to our broken hearts.
4. Overwhelmed replaces Depression
Read a list of the symptoms of depression when you’ve recently lost someone dear to you, and you’ll likely identify with most of them. However, I’ve heard some psychologists and grief counselors argue that instead of calling it clinical Depression, it is simply our natural response to such a significant loss. It includes feelings of sadness, emptiness, and hopelessness. It causes complete and utter exhaustion, sore muscles, loss of appetite or mindless eating. It can cause severe insomnia or feeling the urge to escape a painful reality with constant sleep. It can even bring feelings of wanting to end your life; thinking it is the only way you’ll ever escape the unrelenting pain. Regardless of whatever you or others want to call it, it is what it is: completely overwhelming.
When the overwhelming feelings and emotions interfere with your ability to go back to work or just go about your daily life, some people choose to take medication. Others oppose it. Regardless of what you decide is best for you, the important thing to remember is that what you are experiencing is a normal reaction to such a devastating loss. In my personal experience, it is important that you be patient with yourself and allow all of these feelings to wash over you in order to process them and eventually let them go. The more you try to repress them, the longer they will stay.
5. Acceptance becomes Healing
In the case of a terminally ill patient, I think the idea of acceptance is to stop fighting, and find a way to come to peace with the inevitable reality of impending death. I can imagine this is the most difficult step of all…and some may never reach it. Similarly, some who have lost a loved one – a child in particular – may never come to “accept” the death. To many, acceptance often implies agreement or approval. To others, acceptance may imply severing ties to a past we cannot let go of. Acceptance doesn’t have to mean any of this. In the case of losing a loved one, acceptance may simply mark the moment we are ready to begin our journey of healing.
Our loved one is dead; we can’t change that. Instead, we have two choices. First, we can choose to stay wrapped up in a security blanket of misery. Why? Some feel it is the strongest, most palpable connection we have left to our loved one. It may feel as though we would be betraying or diminishing our love for them if we were to ever be happy in a world without them. I have been there myself, and place no judgment on those who are not ready to leave that world.
When you are ready, you can choose to begin to find a new way forward in a world that may not include our loved one, but continues to acknowledge and incorporate the deep, profound love we still feel – and always will. We can choose to embrace the overwhelming pain and learn from it. We can learn what matters most to us, and then invite more of it into our lives. We can learn to allow joy and happiness back into our lives. We can choose to heal.
Those are my choices for new words to replace the traditional “stages” of grief. If those don’t resonate with you, then replace them with ones that do. Ultimately, the stages – or reactions – of grief are only there to let you know you’re not alone in this journey.
Wishing you peace.
When grief is new, it is excruciating and overwhelming. Many people get stuck in a quicksand of pain that is so thick and intense, it feels impossible to escape. As you struggle through those first few days, weeks, and months, you begin to be pulled so far down into it, you can’t imagine how you’ll survive. I certainly felt that way. I’m grateful that those days are behind me.
And yet you do survive. Despite all odds, you wake up each morning. Your body still functions. You find a way to quietly camoflauge yourself within with the “normal” world around you. You learn to live one day at a time. One moment at a time when the day is particularly hard. Slowly – and painfully – you begin to acclimate to a world without your loved one in it. You do it because you have no other choice.
Over five years after the death of my 4-year-old daughter, Margareta, I’ve acclimated as best I can. I’ve continually faced and dealt with those painful feelings and emotions using every tool I can think of. I still go to grief support groups. I write about grief. I talk to a grief counselor when I feel the need to. I talk about Margareta with those who want to hear. I’ve come to terms with the impossible reality that she is gone and never coming back.
My grief over my daughter’s death will never go away. Ask any grieving parent and they’ll tell you the same. We’ll never “get over it”. What we have to do is accept it and learn how to live life despite of it. I’ve heard some bereaved parents don’t like using the word acceptance. That is because they associate the notion of accepting their child’s death with being okay with their child’s death. But you can accept the reality of something without ever being happy about it; without ever being okay with it. You can’t change the past, so you might as well accept it in order to begin to be able to heal from the devastation you find yourself in.
I have healed a lot in the past five years. The open, oozing, excruciating wound of my broken heart has since scabbed over. I’ll always have the painful scar that reminds me throughout every day that my daughter isn’t here. It’s that constant reminder that is the hardest for me now.
I’m grieving a future I’ll never have. I’m reminded every day of what could have been, but can never be. I’m grieving lost hopes and dreams. I’m grieving the loss of my only daughter and the mother-daughter relationship I only had a glimpse of. Instead of the intense, searing pain of early grief, it has transformed into a dull ache I’ll never escape from.
I don’t think I’ll ever feel fully at ease with this constant ache. I’ll always miss my daughter. I’ll always regret that I didn’t get to watch her grow. But I’m dedicated to learning how to live a happy, meaningful life despite of it. I do this in her honor. I do it in the honor of my other children, husband and family. I do it because I didn’t physically die when she did.
In her four short years, my daughter lived life to the fullest – full of love, honesty and without fear. It is now my goal in life to do the same. I know she would have wanted it that way.
It’s seven a.m., and I am awakened by warm breath on my cheek and loud breathing in my ear. I turn toward the warmth, open one eye, and am inches away from a black nose, white muzzle, and whiskers close enough to tickle me. Holly’s mouth is open, with her pink tongue protruding. She is panting into my face, without as much as a whimper or bark, for the morning hello. Standing next to my bed, she is the exact height to rest her chin on the edge of my mattress. We are eyeball to eyeball. She stares at me. This translates to “get up.” She continues to watch me until I stir from under the covers. I delay this delicious moment by petting her and feeling the softness of her silken ears that are still honey-colored.
I tell her, good morning, ‘”seis kindt,” which is the only Yiddish I remember from my childhood. On days she liked me, my mother called me her sweet child.
I continue to stay submerged to the neck under my warm down comforter. Holly stares. She is relentless. This is our basic communication system, no barking, just eye contact. I am not annoyed that she has wakened me earlier than my usual 9:00 a.m. schedule. In the past she sensed when I was ready to get up. I never needed an alarm clock. She doesn’t sleep in anymore. And no matter how early she appears at my bedside, I say, “Thank you, god, for another day with Holly.” This is an amazing statement for someone who says, “I don’t do god.” But this is a time of crisis and I need all the help I can get– so I’ll take my chances with god.
I roll out of bed to be with Holly. My bare feet and her soft paws pad across the wood floor into the kitchen for breakfast. She gets kibble laced with two tablespoons of heated up canned pumpkin. I was told by a holistic veterinarian that yellow vegetables are good for managing diarrhea. She has had chronic inflammatory bowel disease since she was five months old. I have always believed it was triggered by the stress of repeated dog bites as my too-friendly young puppy gaily approached strange adult dogs on the street. I didn’t have a clue that I should be protecting her. She was corrected severely for her trust and my ignorance. Nothing in the books I read on raising a puppy warned me to keep her away from older dogs. There would be serious repercussions of those early attacks that would change the course of our lives together. We both learned some hard lessons.
I eat my oat bran flakes with a banana and rice milk. Later I will eat my yellow vegetables too, and for the same reason. Her stressors have become mine. We manifest the same reaction to stress and I too have developed g.i. issues. We both have diarrhea.
She follows me back to the bedroom, and stands in the doorway watching while I slip into the gray sweats lying on the wicker hamper. No time for make-up or hair. I cover up my face with oversized sun glasses and my uncombed hair with a wide brimmed hat. Down the stairs we go. I lace up my tennis shoes in the entry way, and grab her red lead hanging on a hook near the front door. I hold the lead open as she presents her neck to me, walking into the loop. Good girl!
I open the front door as she waits respectfully for me to exit and follows at my heels. By now we have both learned the order of things, the status of our relationship. I lead, she follows. It took us awhile to get this straight in our minds– years, in fact. Still, there are moments of hesitation or weakness on my part, and then she leads me. I have to know where I’m going. This may be the mantra for my life. When I’m confident, we’re in sync. That’s the way it is.
Today we are out for our morning walk around West L.A. College. The sun is shining brightly in a clear blue sky and another glorious day with Holly has begun. I am grateful for it.
The tennis ball bulges out of the pocket of my sweat-pants. I will toss it for her to retrieve when we reach the top of the dirt fire road across from the college. Her tail swings as she walks at my side. Her keen sense of smell alerts her to the treasure in my pocket and heightens her excitement. Sometimes I let her carry it in her mouth. She will chase that ball even if she has to limp after it. With the early onset of arthritis, the vet suggested no more running, just walks. I said that Holly would not understand and would despair without the joy of chasing her tennis ball. She would think she was being punished if I withheld her daily play time. I had to weigh the progression of the disease with the quality of her life. She lived to retrieve. It’s who she was. I could never take that away from her. I never did.
When we reach the summit, I unhook her lead and stand facing her with the ball poised over my head. She backs up in a ready pose, alert, waiting, legs astride, mouth open, eyes fixed on the ball. I yell. “Get it!” and toss the ball as far as I can with the limited range of motion in my right arm. She scrambles after it, hobbling but determined, scoops it into her mouth and trots back to me, dropping it into my waiting hand. She backs up into the same stance and is ready to retrieve again. We have played this game at least once a day for nine years.
And then one morning there is no warm breath on my cheek. There is no sweet white face leaning on the edge of my mattress and no pleading eyes riveted on me. She is too stiff to stumble over to greet me. These days she sleeps on her own comforter, preferring to keep her vigil on the floor at the foot of my bed.
I get up without her bedside invitation, and gaze at her gorgeous, still golden body, sprawled diagonally over her crumpled green bedding. She looks up into my eyes, tail thumping the floor and mouth open panting. “Let’s get up, sweetheart.” I gently pull her onto her feet. She flops over on her side. She can’t stand. Her legs, arthritic since she was five, finally have given out at the age of nine. My dog is lame.
I wonder how I will get her down the stairs of my condo and out onto the grass to relieve herself. Standing on the top step and throwing a cookie down the stairs used to motivate her to scurry after it while she ignored the pain in her legs. She wanted the cookie and being a retriever would chase anything. But today I must coax and push and pull and lift her all the way to the stairs. She holds one front leg up in a bent position, and the other paw barely touches down. She hops on her back legs as I assist her. It’s not the first time she can’t walk.
Landing in the wrong position, or on uneven ground as she jumped to catch her obsession, the yellow tennis ball, often caused her to twist a leg, tear a ligament, or injure a tendon, but they always healed after a time of rest. This is different. This is degeneration due to advanced arthritis. This is not temporary and not a sports injury. It is the decline of old age–a premature old age. I learned to handle those injuries by wrapping a large bath towel or my sweat shirt around her middle, tying it at her waist and then pulling up on it to take the weight off her front legs. So I know what to do today.
We get to the stairs; she hops down the first two with me pulling up on the towel. But the pain stops her dead on the third step. I gently smack her rear the way you encourage a horse to move. I hate myself for this but I say emphatically, “You have to walk.” At 65 pounds she is too heavy for me to carry down the stairs. She hops down two more steps, then freezes.
“I can’t do it,” I imagine her saying. My heart sinks. I lower myself onto the stair. She flops down next to me. We sit there together quietly for a moment. Holly’s face turns toward me and she looks at me the way she does when she wants something: her tennis ball, a cookie, to lick the last trace of ice cream off my plate, or eat the crust of my pizza, or to go outside in a rain shower. I always know what she wants. This time the look in her forlorn eyes tells me she wants me to stop the pain.
I try to massage away the ache in those long golden legs with their swollen joints, the same legs that carried her in freedom and joy across parks, fields, beaches, and any open space, soft velvet ears lifted and open as if to propel the whole body and spirit in the poetic motion of life, flying with no limits, no boundaries, no endings, mouth laughing.
I bring her into the veterinary offices the next day to have her legs x-rayed. I already know that she has arthritis as she often limps after her ball. But the surgeon insists on x- raying her legs and also her abdomen. “Golden Retrievers often have spleen tumors,” she says. “It’s very common.” I decide she is overly conscientious. How foolish I think. It’s just that she’s not able to walk, nothing more.
I wait in the examining room for them to bring her back. But the surgeon reports something suspicious in the abdominal x- ray and orders an ultra-sound. I think she is a little bit crazy, but agree to it. Dr. Farber, her holistic vet, carries her back after the ultra-sound. The look on his face scares me. He is death white. I say, “Something’s wrong?’ not believing for a second that this surgeon’s wild ideas have any validity.
“She has cancer of the spleen” he begins, but before he can tell me the rest, I feel my feet giving way from under me .My blood sugar has dropped and I feel as if I will hit the floor.”I gotta sit down.” I tell him. I slump into a chair.
He says, “Sometimes tumors in the spleen rupture and the dog can bleed to death.” He schedules her surgery immediately.
When they cut her open and remove the large tumor in her spleen, they discover two more cancers in her colon just in case the first one isn’t enough to kill her. Is that what they mean by over-kill? They cut her open on the last Thursday in February. I feel cut open the same day. And I bleed. And I bleed.
Malignancy: comes from the root mal, meaning ‘bad’; malpractice, malnutrition, malformation, maligned, maladjusted, the bad kid in Harry Potter, Malfoy. Bad, bad, bad. When I leave any of my pets in the hospital, it is a bad omen. Sometimes I never see them again.
After her surgery, I don’t want to leave her in the hospital. I sit in the car alone, crying. I am afraid to go home without her.
I drive home terrified that something awful is happening to my precious girl. I have forgotten the cats who have been alone without me. The minute I walk into the living room I smell something foul. Stormy, my diabetic cat, has soiled himself and is a mess. He needs an emergency bath. I bend over Holly’s tub to wash Stormy in warm water, and hear the crack. Ouch. I can’t straighten up. My back has bent me in half on the same day of the mal-surgery. I live the metaphor. I cannot stand because I cannot stand it. I am broken. I manage to towel wrap the cat and let him go. Then, unable to stand up straight, I stagger slowly, bent in half, to my bed and lie down. I feel that I will never get up again.
The following day I arrange for my pet sitter to bring Holly home from the hospital. My back is in spasm. I feel helpless. Meryl has cared for Holly for nine years. I know that she is grieving too.
When they arrive at home, I am lying in bed unable to get up. Holly plops down in her bed and stays there. It feels like death in my bedroom. Meryl stands in the doorway and says the wrong words. She tells me to “prepare myself.” I have never been upset with Meryl until this moment. I say, “I’m not ready.” She says ,”Well, you better get ready.” This sounds so cruel to me. I am too angry to tell her that I am well beyond prepared. My life will end with this loss of all losses. Doesn’t she know that I will die without Holly? Prepare yourself?
I struggle to understand why this is happening to my nine year old dog. We are not finished. I did my research on Goldens; nowhere did I find splenetic tumor. I read all the books, went to the best breeders, did all the training, and gained all I could know about this very first dog in my life. I wanted a healthy dog. She became sick. I wanted an obedient dog. She didn’t listen to me. All my unresolved issues in life were played out with her. I was never assertive. I wanted to please her. I waited on her. I worshiped her. I thought you were supposed to give them choices. Do you want to go out and play now? What would you like? What do you need? Let me take care of you. Why is she being taken away from me? Have I failed? Am I still the bad child, the defective child who never did anything right? Is this my punishment?
At night, I sleep on the floor with her. We are in hospice together lying on her comforter at the foot of my bed. I put her head in my lap, massage her shaven abdomen with the deep dark gashes that go from one end to the other, and I tell her how beautiful she is. She sleeps peacefully. I don’t sleep at all. And never will again.
I thought we would grow old together. But time has fast forwarded her into old age. She is leaving me.
Unable to walk the distance from the UCLA parking through the long corridors of the Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, where for the last eight years Holly has proudly announced her arrival, greeting everyone in her path, tail wagging merrily, lifting a paw for a hand-shake and what can only be described as the golden smile. I face the cruel reality. She has been the quintessential therapy dog, the first canine allowed in the hospital and the demo dog for new volunteer teams. I retire her quietly and simply with a phone call to notify the PAC office, and then the call to the adolescent unit where we have worked for eight years. We will not be in this week.
These have been the most fulfilling years of my life. Holly and I are connected to these teenagers. They give a luncheon in our honor and cook it themselves. It is the only time I am there without her.
The kids from 2 South, NPI’s Adolescent Psychiatry unit personally serve my lunch to me: macaroni and cheese, a green salad and chocolate cake. I am the guest of honor. It is the most elegant luncheon I have ever attended. I sit with a group of adolescent boys and girls on long wooden benches with our knees touching under the table. I relish the homemade food they created, and we talk about Holly. Each child has a story to tell about how Holly helped them with their problems. I am amazed that they know her stories as well as I do. For years I kept a journal and documented all the dramatic anecdotes. I wrote about all the kids she helped to recover; about all her healing work. Now it’s over. All we can do is remember.
Today, these are not psychiatric patients, they are just “our kids” remembering “our” dog. I am ceremoniously presented with a plaque in Holly’s honor. They have decorated the frame with paper flowers surrounding her picture featured in the center. It is the photo taken on our last day at Malibu Beach, her last day playing in the surf, hobbling on three legs on the muddy shore chasing after her tennis ball. She posed for the picture, standing with her front paws on a rock formation, with the shoreline and the sea behind her, like a picture post-card saying,“Greetings from Malibu.” Like many of the patients photographed for the last time with a therapy dog on their beds, this is the last picture taken of her. The plaque with this picture hangs in the Neuro-Psychiatric hospital in honor and memory of the healing work she did there.
Even though she couldn’t attend it, the luncheon is for Holly. There are tears and laughter. I am losing my working partner, my companion, my golden girl. These children will never forget her. I will never forget them.
At home, Holly entertains those that come to honor her, and to say goodbye. Her beloved Auntie Kc, the director of the PAC program at UCLA who trained us to be the first therapy team comes to visit her. She lays on the floor with her arms around Holly, just as she has always done when we invaded her office in the hospital. Holly would roll over on her back and the professional director of a prestigious program would get on the floor and give her a bear hug. Today she does the same. And Holly purrs and hums softly from pleasure at the touch of Kc’s hands on her body.
Other devoted friends come to the house when I notify them that the time is short. Her “Auntie Meryl,” the extraordinary pet sitter, comes to say goodbye. She and I have resolved the argument about “prepare yourself.” We both know it is now. And it is all about Holly. Kisses and hugging go on all day. Holly has done well and is being rewarded. She devours the affection and forgets about the pain as canines do so well. She smiles her famous golden retriever smile and gazes at her friends with those eyes that entrance us all. Meryl says, “She is my best friend; she got me through some tough times.” I didn’t know this.
That night I keep a dim light in the room so that I can see if the nose bleeds start again. She has had cortisone injections in the knotty joints in her legs, codeine pills for pain, and morphine packs that slowly release pain killers, but still she pants, and doesn’t sleep. Panting is the way that dogs express their pain. I hold her in my arms, and massage her legs. She will need a new morphine pack tomorrow, Friday. She had nose bleeds a few days ago that would not stop. I carried her to the car at 7 a.m. with blood covered towels wrapped around her face. Applying pressure did not stop the bleeding. My bedroom walls and carpeting are covered with rust colored stains.
She was hospitalized for two days until the bleeding was cauterized. They don’t know what caused the nose bleeds; maybe it was the pain medication. We are treating advanced degeneration in the joints of her legs. The surgeon is amazed she can stand at all.
A new ultra-sound reveals that the cancer has returned. It was removed with her spleen. Now it is in her abdominal area. She weighs 65 pounds and I cannot carry her anymore. My back is in spasm. We are both in pain. I have not slept more than a few hours in weeks.
At 4 a.m. she seems to be quieter, so I crawl into my own bed; exhausted and sleep deprived. I drop into a numbness for about an hour. The sound of loud breathing close to my face jolts me awake. I open my eyes. She is staring at me. She somehow managed to get up and drag herself over to the edge of my bed, to the place she used to waken me quietly every morning breathing into my face.
Today when she looks into my eyes, I know exactly what she wants. She continues to stare. Holly has learned to make eye contact for everything she wants. I am the key to fulfilling all of her needs. I look into those brown soulful eyes, and I have no doubt of what she is asking for. I say out loud, “Okay, I will help you.”
I get dressed, and wait for 7 a.m. to call the veterinary offices. All the doctors are busy with their morning rounds. It is after 9 a.m. when I get a call back. “Is she going to get better?” I ask her internist. “No,” he says. I take a deep breath and am quiet for I know the next answer before I ask. “Am I prolonging the agony?”
I leave a message for Dr. Farber to call me when he comes in. Dr. Farber has given her acupuncture and positive energy for a year. She follows him everywhere, without a lead, even into the dreaded surgery room, so deep is her trust. She will die in his hands. I will not let anyone else touch her. He calls at 11a.m. He is reticent to help me with this decision. He says, “Maybe there is something the surgeon can do for her legs. The cancer has not invaded any organs yet, she might have a few more months.” Now I am totally confused. I suspect he’s having trouble letting her go. I tell him I’ll speak to the surgeon.
She calls me at 1p.m. I say, “She’s still eating, she still responds to me, she’s still alert, the cancer hasn’t attacked any organs yet.” She tells me, “The constant pain in her bent and swollen joints is more than arthritis, since she has not responded to any of the anti-inflammatory meds. It may be bone cancer to be causing this much pain. And as far as eating, she’s a Golden Retriever. I have seen them eating and still wagging their tails down to their last breath. We would have to biopsy her legs to see if it’s bone cancer.”
“No, we will not do that,” I say. “Please tell Dr. Farber I am coming in.”. I will keep my word. No crying, no sympathy. No pity. I must seem normal. It is just another day, another trip in the car to see Dr. Farber.
I look in the mirror at my blank face, eyes puffy without sleep, without make-up and notice my half eyebrows. I take an eyebrow pencil to draw in the missing brow line and put on some cologne. I’ll smell normal to her when we go out.
It’s just another day. I help her hop on her back legs by tying a large sweatshirt around her middle and pulling up on it to keep the weight off her front legs. We go down the stairs one at a time. I have to lift her into the back seat of the car. My friend Nina, who always comes through when my dog is in trouble, has offered to go with us. We drive up to her house as she is returning from walking her pack of five West-Highland White Terriers. She is a slim young woman wearing light blue denim jeans and a tee shirt. Her curly blonde hair bounces as she leads the Westies on their little legs down the street toward us, with light leads in both her hands. It’s a Westie parade as the sun lights up the pure whiteness of their fur and cars slow down to take another look at this pretty girl with the five cute dogs.
Miki, the oldest, has been Holly’s best friend from the first day they wrestled in the park and bonded as puppies of four months old. As they matured, Holly tolerated all the hi-jinx that she would never allow with any other dog. Miki still acts like a puppy, full of playfulness and although the same age, Holly hasn’t played with Miki for years, though she still enjoys her company.
When Nina sees us in the car, she brings the dogs into the house; all but one. She comes right back with Miki, opens the back door of my car and Miki jumps in next to Holly. They have traveled together many times, smashed up against each other and the other dogs, crammed into the back seat with Holly perfectly content to have Miki sitting on top of her.
Today is different. Maybe they know. Maybe there is the smell of illness, or medication, or the smell of pain. They greet and lick each other’s faces as we watch with tears in our eyes. It is a final farewell of good friends.
We change cars silently. Nina puts Miki in the house and drives us to VCA Animal Hospital. I call for a tech to come down and carry Holly upstairs. I ask him to place her on the floor, and the three of us are led down the hall into the “grief” room. I don’t want her carried in. I want her to feel as normal as possible. Just another day. .Nothing to be afraid of or anxious about. Holly hops on her back legs while I pull up on the sweatshirt wrapped around her middle. She stops to greet the staff as she passes them in the hallway. Laura, a vet tech, smiles over her glasses at me and glances at the Golden Retriever she knows so well. I tell her quietly “Today is the day.” And that’s all I say. I am not crying. I don’t want Holly to think something terrible is going to happen to her. We are simply here as we have been many times. But the staff has been alerted, and they all know. They stop to pet her. I smile and say hello to each one.
Laura tells me days later that she has never seen anyone bring in their beloved pet for euthanization with the calmness and normalcy that she witnessed that day. She remembered that I had only said, “Today’s the day.” She remembered that I had smiled and said hello to everyone. And she tells me she was stunned. She says women come in clutching their dogs or cats in their arms crying hysterically. I tell her, “I could never do that to Holly.” I didn’t feel brave, just determined that she not be stressed or afraid. It’s the least I could do for her.
The grief room, so aptly named, is carpeted and dimly lit. There is a small love seat and two arm chairs; two lamps with soft pink bulbs and an end table with a box of Kleenex. I have said goodbye to Charlie, Lorelie, Lancelot, and held friends in my arms while they held their dying animals. I have been in this room too many times.
When Dr. Farber comes in, Holly tries to get up to greet him. For the first time, he is not smiling. He does not kiss her on the nose as he usually does. I feel his grief and say, “Aren’t you going to kiss her on the nose?”
“Of course I am,” he answers. And I say what I always say, “Oh, if you knew where that nose has been.” And he answers, “I do know.” And kisses her squarely on her black nose.
I act cheerful, smiling and joke with him. He is morose. I had not realized how hard this is for the doctors who get attached, until I see his long face and watery eyes. I feel as if I want to help him through this. He inserts the catheter in her leg and leaves us, saying to let him know when I am ready. Is he kidding? I want to say, “Never.” I will never be ready. Instead I say okay, I’ll call him.
My daughter arrives. We all sit around and visit with Holly. Nina goes to the candy machine and buys her a chocolate covered peanut butter bar. I say, “Oh, I should have brought her rice cakes. She can’t eat that.” Nina says, “Marian, she won’t have diarrhea.” Holly has lived on rice cakes for treats all of her life because of her bowel disease. She never has cookies or candy. I don’t really get it, that she will not have diarrhea ever again. Her auntie Nina gives her two candy bars. Holly cannot believe her good fortune and wolves them down happily.
One by one, members of the staff come into this room to pet her and say goodbye. She has been coming here for nine years, and the staff know and adore her. Holly has a relationship with everyone. She is lying on her stomach on the sheepskin pad I brought in from the car, with her head up, looking around, alert and interested in watching the parade of visitors. She thinks she’s at a social event, which is just what I intended . The staff members kneel down on the floor and hug and kiss her. She wags her tail and smiles her golden smile for each of them. I find it strange that everyone is saying goodbye, like some sort of ritual. I know in my heart she is coming home with me. She always comes home with me. She is my dog.
Don’t these people know she is coming home with me? I would never leave her.
Everyone is visiting, and talking in this lively room. No one is crying. Holly socializes with everyone, and is having a good time being the center of attention. She loves this. Someone steps in and reminds me that Dr. Farber has to catch a plane at 7:00 p.m. Have I forgotten the horror of why we are here? It is nearly 5:00.
I say, “Okay, please call him.” My daughter gets up and walks out of the room. I think she is fearful of death since her father died when she was fourteen . She avoids hospital visits and funerals. Nina asks to stay. She has been Holly’s auntie, friend and trainer for nine years. I say, “Yes, stay.”
Dr. Farber comes in looking like he just lost his best friend. I have never seen him upset before. He has been my support system for the last year, always smiling, always keeping things positive and hopeful for me and for Holly. He attaches the IV tube filled with fluids to the catheter in her leg. I ask about first giving a tranquilizer, as I know that valium usually helps to relax the animal before the overdose of anesthesia that will stop the heart. He says yes, valium is already set up in the IV tube. Again, he asks me if I am ready.
I think never. I say, “Yes.” He releases the clamp that starts the flow of valium through the catheter into her vein. I lie down on top of Holly, covering her body with my own, feeling her heart beat, and letting her feel mine. I want to shield her from all of this. Let it go through my body first.
Dr. Farber holds her head in both of his hands as the valium is drained from the catheter into her body, and she sinks into a sleepy and relaxed state, her head now dropping to the side of his arm where it rests. Now the pink drip of anesthesia begins. It lasts only a few seconds. I hold back the rush of emotion until I feel her leaving her body. I don’t want her to hear this. And now as if the clamp on my emotions has been released as well, all of the wrenching sobs of a life time expel from the guts of my body.
All that has built up for the last eight months since her diagnosis and probably all of my life begin to climax, building up louder and deeper without any self consciousness, without any concern for anyone else in the room, or outside in the hallway, until the offices and examining rooms and surgical areas and kennels are filled with my agony. It is primal, it is all of the hurt and pain and grief that exists in the world, flooding out of me, and there is no stopping it.
I hear someone else in the room crying softly. It is Nina. My face is buried in Holly’s fur. She is quiet but seems to be asleep. I think I feel her heart. I stop weeping and look up. Dr. Farber is now leaning weakly against the wall. I say, “She’s still breathing.” He assures me she is not. He bends down with his stethoscope to listen, and says, “There is no heart beat.” He asks me if I want to stay longer. “No,” I tell him. Do I want her tail? I never heard of such an idea. I say,”Yes.” Nina carefully cuts the beautiful golden plume keeping it in one piece, and ties it with a ribbon. I put it in my purse, walk to the door and leave her there on the floor.
I go home without my dog.
October 24, 2002: Outgoing voice mail message
To my friends calling to inquire about Holly:
On October 24, I made the agonizing decision to give Holly my final gift of love by allowing her gentle spirit to leave her beautiful golden body and continue the journey of healing for which she was sent to us. She had a beautiful death, assisted by her beloved Dr. Farber, with all the courage, dignity and style with which she lived; surrounded by love and gratitude. With bliss, she died in his hands.
She sends you all her steadfast unshakable love with reminders that:
All we have is love. Love is all there is.
Submitted by Marian Silverman in loving memory of her beloved dog, Holly Go Lightly. “The End of the Journey” is an excerpt from her book, White Rose: Stories of Love, Loss and a Dog Named Holly, available from Amazon.
If you’ve lost someone who meant more than life itself to you
you’re not alone
If you can’t believe they’re gone
or that they’ll walk through the door at any moment
or that they’ll be on the other end of the phone when it rings
or you can’t bring yourself to delete them from your phone contacts
you’re not alone
If you can’t fathom how you’re going to go on living
but somehow you wake up every morning
and somehow you go back to work because you have to
and you can’t understand how the world can just go on like it was before they died
you’re not alone
If you’re angry at your god or the world
and can’t stand hearing people laugh
and don’t think you’ll ever be able to be happy again
and bite your cheeks to keep from smiling at something funny
because you think if you are anything other than miserable it is a betrayal of your loved one
you’re not alone
If you sob uncontrollably
and make those around you uncomfortable
or you can’t cry at all and wish you could
or you cry over things that aren’t sad and have nothing to do with your grief
you’re not alone
If you feel like you’re going crazy
and think things like how cold and wet they must be at the cemetery when it rains
and can’t seem to remember simple things anymore
and hear their voice when they’re not there
you’re not alone
If you feel so exhausted you can barely stand
and every muscle in your body is sore
and your heart literally aches
and you feel nauseated
and you either can’t sleep or can’t stay awake
you’re not alone
If you feel isolated and alone
and completely misunderstood
and feel like you no longer relate to your family and friends
and even lose some relationships you thought would last forever
you’re not alone
If you feel like you’re losing all hope
and even might feel like life is not worth living anymore
and even might have thoughts about ending your own life
please reach out for help
because you’re not alone
While your loss is unique to you
others have experienced similar losses
and others have experienced similar thoughts and reactions
and others have made it through those impossible early days
and others have learned how to be happy once more
and others have even learned how to live a meaningful life
and others are here to support you on this journey
because you’re never alone
and people care about you
When you see me, you probably see what you would consider to be a strong person. You see someone who appears to be living the “American Dream”; juggling a successful career, a beautiful family, a healthy social life, and even time to volunteer for a good cause. You see a person who came back from the death of a young child, and – as you usually put it – has moved on with life. You see someone who has seemingly taken lemons and turned them into lemonade.
But unless I want you to, you don’t really see me. You see me through a veil that I wear. A veil that lets you see a version of me that I think you want to see.
I began to wear this veil as soon as I started to have to interact with the world a few weeks after my daughter’s sudden death at four years old. When I first put the veil on, it felt awkward and didn’t fit well. But I put it on because your reactions to my overwhelming grief seemingly made my life even harder than it already was. I put it on because I couldn’t handle your looks of pity, your awkward pauses, or sometimes your indifference to my pain. I wore the veil because I didn’t want to call attention to myself in my darkest hour.
When I had no choice but to go back to work, you saw someone who didn’t smile or interact with you much, but you thought that was to be expected – at least for a little while. From your side of the veil, I appeared to be throwing myself back into work with a passion and concentration you hadn’t seen before. You even commented on how impressed you were with my work ethic. After avoiding me and leaving me to myself for a few weeks, you decided it was time to go back to your normal interactions with me. You casually asked how I was and expected the standard, “I’m good, how are you?” You apparently thought it would be good for me to start telling me again of your latest dramas and the juiciest gossip. You wanted me to feel included again.
From my side of the uncomfortable and ill-fitting veil, I was barely able to hold a thought for more than a few minutes before my mind turned to my daughter, her death, and the nightmare I was living in. All the while, I was desperately trying to hold back the tears that were constantly welling up behind my eyes day after day and week after week. I used the veil to try to shut you out so I could use all my energy just to get through the day without bursting into tears and screaming at you all to shut up because I didn’t care about work, your dramas and gossip. None of it mattered any more. Nothing mattered any more. I bit my tongue, painted on a fake smile, and told you I was “fine” for your convenience…and by the way…you’re welcome. I guarantee you would not have liked being around me without my veil on at that time.
When I saw you in the supermarket or doctor’s waiting room or my kids’ soccer and baseball games, you saw someone who usually avoided eye contact but smiled back at you and said hello if you managed to catch my eye. You saw someone who politely made small talk with you and seamed perfectly personable. You asked the standard question when you saw me with my four boys: “Are you going to try for a girl?” You didn’t notice that I flinched when you said it. If I was in the rare mood to tell you the truth, you heard my brief, but sobering statement that I had a daughter who had died. You said a brief condolence and then politely changed the topic, stopped talking, or said goodbye.
Behind my veil I constantly pleaded in my head for you to not look my direction. I just wanted to stay invisible and avoid your small talk. Behind my veil it was exhausting to keep up appearances for your side of the veil. When you did engage me, I summoned up all the energy I had to pretend to be normal; to pretend my world was still the way it was before she died. When I heard you start to ask the question I dreaded most, thoughts raced through my mind of how I should answer. Was it betraying her to pretend she hadn’t existed so that I could avoid prolonging this torture? Most often I gave my standard response that politely laughed it off and said, “No, four kids is enough,” in hopes you would change the subject.
The veil has changed a lot in the last five years since her death. I got so used to wearing it that it began to feel comfortable and even normal. Even though it began to feel normal to wear, I never fully embraced it. I looked forward to the times I could take it off and just be myself around you. As I changed over time, so did your reactions. As I learned how to better harness the pain of losing my daughter into learning how to live a more meaningful life, my grief softened and felt less threatening to most of you. I’ve learned to surround myself with those of you who don’t want me to wear a veil, and for all of you I am truly grateful.
These days I don’t wear my veil very often. But I keep it in my back pocket and wear it on days that are particularly hard – often for no apparent reason. I wear it when I get triggered in public by certain special events, an innocent comment, disturbing image, or the sounds of sirens screaming by.
The veil was an invaluable tool when I was early in this journey of grief, but I would love to live to see this society become one that tolerated authentic grief in a way that made the veil altogether unnecessary. Wouldn’t that be something.
“Time heals all wounds.”
If you’ve lost someone dear to you and find yourself in the darkness of grief, I’m certain you’ve heard or read that refrain numerous times already. It’s a nice thought… but the truth is not so simple and clean cut as that. It makes me think whoever coined the phrase hadn’t yet suffered the devastating loss of a loved one that both shatters and redefines the world you live in.
Another new year was ushered in this past week. It will be another year that my daughter did not live to see. It is another unwelcome reminder that she has been gone for more years than she was here to experience. It takes me further away from her – from her birth, her short life, and the impossible moment of her death.
It is distance.
Distance is a difficult concept to grasp or explain in the context of grief. It is both good and bad at the same time. It is both painful and liberating. It can both soften your devastation while solidifying the difficult reality of loss. It can help close the door to the agony of early grief, just as it unearths new aspects of grief that you hadn’t expected…and weren’t altogether ready for.
I am thankful for the distance between where I am now and the horror of the day my daughter drowned. I no longer experience sleepless nights for fear that if I close my eyes I might be forced to see those images I’d rather wipe from my mind altogether and relive the worst day of my life. I’m no longer a complete wreck who can’t manage basic functions in the world around me. I am no longer at the mercy of uncontrollable waves of emotion that might leave me a crying, angry, trembling mess for the majority of the day.
But it isn’t just distance. It is distance combined with hard work. If I had not acknowledged my grief or faced my emotions head on, I might still be trapped in a web of despair concealed by numbness. I might have completely cut myself off from any meaningful interaction with life. I might have swallowed my pain and pushed it so deep that it transformed itself into a devastating and debilitating illness.
Time alone does not heal all wounds. Time just gives you more opportunities to work through your pain…or to find new ways to try to hide from it.
Distance has given me the perspective that the four years I did get to spend with my daughter is much more than those who are denied the opportunity to have children in the first place, or who lose them before they even take their first breath. And while I am forever grateful for having more than a few days, weeks, or months with her, distance also makes me somewhat envious of those who got to spend more time – even decades – with their children.
Four years worth of memories of my daughter don’t add up to much. I don’t have a treasure trove of stories to tell. The milestones are limited and weren’t cataloged all that well to begin with. After all, I was expecting a lifetime of them. She didn’t have friends, lovers, or children who will remember her in perpetuity. Her brothers were too young to remember most of the time they spent with her.
All those everyday moments I took for granted are eroding away on the treacherous path of distance. Details are being lost to time. My mind tries to fill in the gaps based on pictures or conjecture, but it only serves to make me question the validity of those memories I once felt so sure of. When memories are all you have, distance becomes your enemy…and a new form of grief.
I don’t know what distance has in store for me. Each passing day, week, month and year seem to bring new healing and personal growth – and for that I am truly grateful – but it is always with an undertow of longing. I suppose it is representative of life itself. With love comes pain. With pain comes understanding. With understanding comes growth. With growth comes wisdom, purpose and fulfillment.
I suppose if I am forced to live the rest of my life without watching my daughter grow, I will continue to try to grow and thrive in her honor. From that perspective, I can’t wait to see what the future will bring.
The holidays can be a lonely and difficult time for people who have lost someone close to them. Lonely from the isolation they feel at secretly – or not so secretly – resenting the joy the season brings when they are filled with despair so deep that it colors their every thought. Difficult because the overwhelming pain of missing someone so dear to them leaves them feeling as if it would have been easier if the world itself had just come to an end when their loved one died.
When you experience a loss so profound that it shakes you to your very core, your outlook on life inevitably changes. Things that once seemed important may tend to appear trivial in the sobering reality of the fragility and unpredictability of life. In this light, the materialism of Christmas and other gift-giving holidays might seem unimportant to them. Short of bringing their loved one back from the dead, they may not want to receive anything that can be wrapped in a box.
Thinking back to that first holiday season after my four-year-old daughter’s death, I didn’t want to receive gifts at all. What I craved the most involved no wrapping paper or bows. Many days I didn’t have the energy to venture out of the house or sometimes even to talk, and would have appreciated the simple act of quiet companionship. Sometimes all I wanted was a loving hug and someone to cry with.
Over the years since my daughter’s death, my grief has evolved and my needs have changed. However, one thing has remained the same: I miss hearing her name. After the first few weeks and months after Margareta’s death, most people stopped talking about her. It had become too painful for them. It is very isolating to feel the pain of missing someone, constantly think of them, and yet feel as though the rest of the world has forgotten about them.
The best gift family and friends could offer me now is the gift of hearing them say her name out loud without me bringing her up first. I would love the simple act of hearing them say, “I thought of Margareta today. I really miss her.” It might bring tears to my eyes, but it would bring happiness to my aching heart.
So the song goes, it’s the “most wonderful time of the year” for many. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, etc…this is most certainly a holiday season. Sparkling lights and decorations adorn many houses and stores. Holiday advertisements, shows and songs saturate the airwaves. Cards from relatives, friends and vendors arrive day after day in the mail. Party invitations are sure to follow. You can’t help but see the joy and excitement in the faces of children and adults alike.
The problem is, there are a group of people who don’t see this as a season of joy – but one of dread. Dread of the constant reminders and inescapable torture of the pain associated with the loss of a cherished loved one during a time of year almost exclusively focused on celebrating family.
These people often suffer in quiet anguish, wishing they could completely shut out the outside world and all of its overwhelming holiday noise. They begin to resent the relentless happiness and joy…and may even come to hate this time of year.
My husband and I lost our four-year-old daughter, Margareta, in the fall of 2009. The Halloween and Thanksgiving that quickly followed had been very painful, but the anxiety of the impending first Christmas without her was devastating. How could we possibly celebrate a holiday primarily focused on children when one of our children had just died? While both of us would have preferred to skip Christmas altogether, we still had three other boys who believed in Santa.
In an attempt to try to alleviate some of the pain, we decided to alter our normal routine slightly. It was an effort to not just go about “business as usual” when there was nothing usual about this Christmas – much less life – anymore. So, instead of buying a regular Christmas tree, we borrowed a friend’s artificial tree. It wasn’t much different than a real one, but at least it was different.
Knowing it might be a confusing time for our boys, we took them to a workshop for bereaved children at a local hospice that was designed to help them navigate their conflicting feelings during the holidays. They made memorial candles for their sister and ornaments featuring her pictures. Guided by grief counselors, they shared their feelings with other children who had lost parents and grandparents.
Nevertheless, we were faced with the reality that preparing for Christmas must go on. Shopping for presents for our boys was pure torture. Walking past all the beautiful party dresses Margareta would have loved to wear, and seeing all the toys she would have wanted made me constantly have to fight back the tears amid the thick crowd of holiday shoppers.
We were faced with a new quandary: we couldn’t buy her gifts anymore; she wasn’t there to give them to. In the weeks before Christmas, one of our boys wondered aloud whether Santa knew if Margareta had died. I told him yes, Santa knows she died. It was quickly followed by the question, “Will he still bring her presents?” I didn’t know what to say, so I said as much. “I don’t know, but I’m sure Santa will know what to do.”
The truth was I didn’t know. This was all new territory and incredibly painful. My husband and I discussed whether we should participate in one of those programs where you can fulfill the wish list of a child in need, but it was all so overwhelming, we didn’t do it that year. Instead, we followed a suggestion I had read for people grieving during the holidays. I asked that we all write a note to her and put them into her stocking. Ultimately deciding that Santa would not leave her stocking empty, I purchased a wind chime I thought she would have liked. That was her only present.
Christmas morning came and the boys rushed to find the presents Santa had left them. They were lost in the magic of excitement while we stood by with smiles painted on our faces. We did find comfort in their joy, but it was hard to watch. After some hours had passed, we drove to the cemetery to hang up Margareta’s wind chime on a tree near her grave. Let me tell you…there is nothing quite as sobering and heartbreaking as having to visit your four-year-old daughter’s grave on Christmas day to deliver her present.
In the five years since her death, Christmas and the holiday season has become significantly easier. After years of difficult grief work, we have once again discovered the joy the season brings. We see it in the faces of our children. We look forward to sharing the excitement of our youngest child – born a year after Margareta’s death. We can truly celebrate the season once again.
Of course that doesn’t mean the pain is gone…just softened. As I wander through the stores during the holidays now, I face a new kind of pain. Instead of seeing what I know she would have wanted, I’m faced with the reality that I don’t know what she would have wanted. I don’t know what my daughter would have liked at nine-years-old. It is a hard reminder that we didn’t just lose our daughter – we lost our future with her in it.
So, if you find yourself dreading the impending holidays, know that you are not alone, and there are plenty of people that understand how you feel. Also know that as time goes on, it will get easier to handle, and one day you may come to find joy in the season again.
Wishing you peace.