Living With GriefHelping others through shared experiences
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Grief is universal.
Just as you cannot avoid death, you also cannot avoid grief.
Sooner or later, it will find you. In fact, it may find you so many times, you could start feeling that life is just a series of grief-filled losses.
Some episodes of grief seem a bit easier to rebound from than others. Maybe you got laid off from a job you loved, only to have it open the door to one that is even more fulfilling. Or when a romantic relationship that once seemed like it would last forever devolves into one of irrevocable hurt and disappointment. You can learn from what went wrong and look for a new one that better fits your innermost needs.
Other episodes of grief can be so deep and so painful, they become downright debilitating. Often, they make you rethink and reevaluate everything you thought you once knew about life itself. This level of grief often happens as a result of the death of someone so cherished and integral to your life that you can’t imagine life without them.
And if you’re anything like me… it is certainly one of the deepest forms of grief you will ever feel and one of the hardest you will ever have to work through.
While there is no universal timetable or sequence of how we deal with grief as individuals, there are plenty of common themes and reactions to grief that everyone seems to experience.
There are also some universal truths about grief — and life itself — that have the ability to help anyone work through the pain of grief.
Based on my own experience and hearing from countless others who have lost a loved one, here are some of the basic truths that have helped me and many others work through the devastation of debilitating grief.
Truth #1: You cannot change what has already happened.
Unlike many things and situations in our life and world, death is permanent. Unchanging. And so is the past. Despite our science-fiction fantasies, there are no time-traveling machines that can take you back to undo what has already been done.
This truth seems obvious. But when you’re in the depths of your deepest, darkest grief… logic has a habit of taking a back seat to wishful thinking.
No matter how hard or how long you try, there are no amount of “what if” scenarios you can run through your head to go back in time and make different choices, take different actions, or say what needed to be said.
And yet… nothing you read here is going to keep you from doing this hopeless exercise if you feel compelled to do so (and so many of us do). It is only once you exhaust yourself of the seemingly endless catalogue of “what if” scenarios in your head, you are able to choose to let it go and move one more (productive) step forward in your journey of grief.
Truth #2: The only moment you have any control over is right now.
This is really an extension of Truth #1, but it is so important, it’s worth going into more detail.
Even when we’re not grieving, so many of us get caught up in the trap of trying to control everything and everyone around us. We do it in the name of trying to control our lives down to every last detail. It seems to be human nature to feel that control = safety; lack of control = danger, stress and anxiety.
But reality is not so straightforward and simple.
It is true that we feel more secure when our environments are seemingly under (our) control. But the reality is that all of the time and effort we put into trying to control what is not ours to control is a HUGE source of stress and anxiety in our lives.
We’ve already covered that you can’t change the past. It is out of our control. We also know that we can’t control the future…. or can we? We can INFLUENCE the future through our current thoughts and actions, but we can never control it. Because it hasn’t happened yet. And because it hasn’t happened, it is inherently out of our control.
What is in our control is this moment, and this moment alone.
And even in that moment, we are limited to what we can control: OUR thoughts and OUR actions.
Not those of your kids. Not those of your spouse. Not those of your parents, boss, coworkers, friends, or random strangers around you. You can influence them to be sure… but you cannot control them. They are not yours to control.
So when you are suffering and feeling completely out of control in grief (and life), here’s what you CAN control…
You can focus your thoughts and attention on THIS moment. You can close your eyes. You can take a deep breath — or as many as you need. You can pay attention to what you are feeling — emotionally and physically. You can remind yourself that what you are feeling is not permanent. You can decide what specific action you want to take right now that may influence a change to what you’re feeling in the next moment.
Maybe that action is to write about what you are feeling in your journal. Call someone who you know who will listen (and not judge or offer advice). Take a walk outside. Hit some pillows. Allow yourself a cleansing deep cry. Do something kind for yourself. Whatever it is… it is the one thing you can control at this very moment.
All of this takes practice. It is not a quick fix. And it will not prevent any future moments of painful or uncomfortable feelings. Which brings us to…
Truth #3: Whatever you’re feeling at any given moment is what you’re supposed to be feeling.
There is no script or manual for what you should feel in grief… or life. Feelings are your (very personal) reactions to your thoughts. And I’ll say it again: whatever you’re feeling at any given moment is what you’re supposed to be feeling.
Why? Because you ARE feeling it. So you might as well accept and honor it.
Sadness. Anger. Rage. Despair. Guilt. Helplessness. Hopelessness. Whatever you are feeling at this — or any — moment is your REALITY. The very definition of “reality” is, “the world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them.”
Just remind yourself it will not last.
Of course, plenty of people can (and will) tell you how they think you should feel. When people get frustrated or tired with your seemingly endless grief-filled feelings that make them uncomfortable, they will make it known they no longer want you to feel those feelings. Some will feel entitled to bluntly say it to your face; others will try to change the subject and ignore your feelings; and some will drop out of your life completely.
Which brings us to…
Truth #4: Your relationships with others will change.
This truth is a result of basic cause and effect. Your relationships change because YOU have fundamentally changed. As I said earlier, grief on this level makes you rethink and reevaluate everything you thought you once knew about life itself. And when your basic life perspectives change, you change with them.
And not everyone is going to like that change in you.
In the early stages of intense grief, existing relationships with those around you usually take one of three paths: 1) they grow deeper and stronger, 2) they become strained and problematic, or 3) they become estranged or end completely.
Remember Truth #2 and the part about you have no control over what other people think and do? You can certainly influence your relationships by what you say and do… but you cannot control their thoughts and actions. And many times, in the wake of a significant loss, their thoughts and actions are going to feel hurtful.
So if someone doesn’t support you in the way you think they should (or wish they would); if someone you care deeply about falls out of your life because they can’t handle the intense grief; if someone is downright nasty and verbally abusive… you don’t have much (if any) control over it.
There’s usually only a few things you can do…
If someone means well but doesn’t support you in the way you want or need, you can explain what you need by giving realistic examples. If someone is hurtful and doesn’t feel the need to change their behavior, you can distance yourself from them (in hopes that eventually you can re-engage…or not). If someone drops out of your life, you can try to reconnect when your intense grief has softened some.
And the reality is, you’ll most likely make new friends with people who have experienced the same level of loss as you. These new friends will be a welcomed source of comfort and understanding.
Truth #5: You’ll survive this.
Most of us have heard this famous quote from A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh:
“You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
But you may not have heard the larger quote it is a part of:
“If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.”
I can’t think of a more wonderful quote for someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one. And it is the absolute truth.
For anyone who is in the deepest, darkest depths of grief, you need to look to others who have been where you are to see that just like them, you will brave the horrible feelings and thoughts; you will find an inner strength you never knew you had; and you will come out of this with a new level of hard-earned knowledge and wisdom.
. . .
Have another truth to add to this list? You can share it with others by adding it in a comment to this post.
As I write this, I’m laying in a field of grass at a park near my house. My son is happily playing with some newly made friends a few feet away. A cool breeze dances through the leaves of the trees overhead, creating a beautiful symphony of whispers. I listen to bursts of laughter peppered in the conversations of the kids who have joined together to make the most of their short time at the park before the sun sets and they have to head home.
All of this makes me want to pause and savor this moment.
As adults, we get so caught up in the trappings of work and assumed responsibilities that we often lose sight of what it is we’re actually living for.
Many of us inadvertently end up living to work. We feel pressure to provide our children a better life than what we had. But must do so in a world where the cost of living seems to be on an endless upward trajectory. Society teaches us to define our worth by the importance of our profession and the amount of money we make. We work a ridiculous amount of hours at the expense of quality time with those we love and hold dear.
Many of us try to numb the growing pain and frustration we feel by filling our time with distractions and surrounding ourselves with “things” we think will make us happy. And we hope they will somehow fill the void — oblivious to the fact that the void is caused when we neglect the actual “living” part of life.
It is the part of living that kids instinctively get: making the most of the time left before the sun sets.
Sometimes we are faced with very sobering wake-up calls that point out this void and error of our ways.
For most of you reading this, it was the death of someone so dear to you that life as you knew it came to an abrupt end.
While we’ve always known death to be inevitable, we now know all too well that the sun may set long before we are prepared or ready for it. For most of us, that wake-up call caused us to lose our taste for the frivolities of life.
We no longer seem to have the patience for superficial relationships, gossip, or activities that have no apparent point other than filling time. We now crave purpose and meaning in everything we do. We know that the sun may drop from the sky without a moment’s notice. We want to make the rest of our days count.
Grief does that to us.
And yet, after losing someone we can’t imagine living without, we seem to stop living all together. We simply exist.
In its first iteration, grief is too overwhelming to do much of anything except try to get from one day to the next in one piece. We’re still here. Our hearts still inexplicably beat. We somehow still draw a breath. But we remain suspended in our bubble of grief. Not able to touch the world around us that we once knew.
So here we are with a new conundrum. We have seen the error of our past ways. We have realized that life is fleeting and meant to be lived to its fullest, appreciated for the gift that it is, and filled with purpose and meaning.
And yet it still feels impossibly out of reach.
This time, instead of the trappings of work and responsibility, we are trapped inside impossible, smothering pain.
We hear from others who’ve been in our shoes that these intense feelings won’t last. We’re told it won’t always be this painful. It’s just that now is our time to grieve. Now is a time to lean on others for support and guidance. Now is a time to look within.
There is no timetable for how long this phase of grief should last. Everyone is unique. And so is our individual pace of grieving.
As for me…
Coming up on seven years since my daughter, Margareta, died…it is only now that I finally feel ready to move onto my next phase of grief. Call it Grief 2.0 if you will.
In hindsight, Grief 1.0 for me was all about coming to terms with a life without my daughter in it.
It has been a slow and difficult process. I was focused entirely on how to take my pain and learn how to transform it into opportunities for personal growth. It was about learning what my purpose and passions are. It was about redefining relationships with those around me. It was about deciding what “living” really means for me in this new landscape of my life.
And as much as I felt and thought I had come so far over these last few years, I realize now I wasn’t really living yet. Oh…I talked a good talk. I experienced insight after insight. I was an example of hope to those still in the earliest part of Grief 1.0.
But I hadn’t yet reached the point where I was ready to stop talking about what it means to live and actually start living.
With various circumstances coming into play, I took a hiatus from writing about grief last fall. It was pointed out by someone I love that it had become all consuming to me. I had begun to feel obligated to produce posts on a regular basis. I was addicted to looking at how many people were reading and sharing my insights. The more I felt I was helping others, the more I felt my life held purpose and meaning.
But at what expense? At the neglect of the relationships that mean the most to me?
During that time, I took advantage of an opportunity to instead write about how to live your best life — the one you’ve always dreamed of but never knew how to actually achieve. I wrote about ways to overcome all the self-imposed obstacles that keep you trapped and immobilized in a state of fear. Fear of failing. Fear of trying in the first place.
It was an eye-opening experience. Here I was giving other people motivation to take those first real steps towards “living”, and yet I wasn’t doing it myself. The truth is that I hadn’t been ready to.
For me, Grief 2.0 is all about taking what I’ve learned and actually start living this life until my sun sets.
It is about taking action on everything I’ve learned about what it means to truly live. It is about seeking new experiences. New adventures. New ways of improving my closest relationships. It is finding the balance between using my passions and skills to help the greater good while also using them to benefit me, my family, and my friends.
It is about doing all these things while still honoring Margareta and recognizing how she’s inspired this new phase of living. Though I’m not exactly sure what my future path will look like, I finally feel I have the actionable tools and knowledge to explore what lies ahead.
. . .
Back in the park, the sun is beginning its final descent to the horizon where it will soon disappear. My son and I are about to head home. He has enjoyed his time at the park with his new friends. That he may never see them again does not matter. What matters to him is that he made the most of the time he had while he was there.
And from here on out…that is what I intend to do as well.
Sometimes there’s just no getting around it…
…life can suck.
To be a bit more specific, something so horrible can happen that seemingly sucks the life right out of you.
When my 4-year-old daughter, Margareta, died suddenly in 2009, my soul seemed to die along with her. At least, that’s what it felt like at the time.
I felt empty and dead inside.
At the same time, the emotional pain was so overwhelming, it seemed to ooze out of my pores feeling like millions of tiny shards of glass slicing me from inside out. I physically ached from head to toe. The physical pain was just as unbearable as the emotional pain.
I felt like there was no way I was going to survive each day of pure agony. When the sun inexplicably rose each morning, I fancied ways to make sure I DIDN’T survive another day only to face that same pain all over again. (Thankfully I never acted on those thoughts.)
Never in a million years did I think I could survive the death of my daughter.
But I did.
The impossible task of working through those painful emotions took lots of determination. Lots of patience. Lots of reaching out for support from others. And lots of years.
But before I move on, let’s take a step back…
All of those common reactions to grief – anger, denial, numbness, isolation – are just our self-imposed avoidance techniques to shield ourselves from the unbearable pain.
Some of us get trapped there. Too afraid to move for fear of the avalanche of untapped pain that will surely bury us. We are convinced we could never dig ourselves out. I certainly was.
And yet, over time, I chose to push forward down that treacherous path.
If for no other sake than to be the mother that my other children who remain at my side needed me to be, I realized that I had to live again. I mean really live… and despite my initial emotional tantrums about it, invite happiness and joy into my existence once again.
I realized there was no way I could spend the rest of my life a shadow of who I once was. I was fortunate to be able to see that pain breeds more pain. Despair feeds on despair. It’s an addictive, no-win situation.
Over the years, I’ve made the conscious and deliberate decisions to stop thinking so much about the pain surrounding her death, and focus more on the joy her life brought me… as short as those four magical years were.
Six years and counting and it’s still hard work. But it feels less daunting with each passing day. Week. Month. Year. Why? Because each time I chip away at that seemingly endless wall of pain, I can see the progress I’ve made.
And yet, like any addiction, it’s really easy to fall back into that pit of despair. Of anger. Of hopelessness.
Back to the present…
Case in point. A few day’s after this recent New Year’s celebration, I had a moment of realization.
While I feel pain over Margareta’s death every day, I had been in a heavier funk for a handful of days. I hadn’t paid too much attention to it because it happens quite often, and I’ve learned to just ride out the rising waves of grief knowing that they will even out once again. But this one seemed stronger than usual.
Sitting with my family watching TV, I had a moment of clarity. New Year’s. Of course!
My emotions were reacting to the reality of yet another year coming and going without Margareta by our sides. Another slap in the face that we’ll NEVER have another year ever again that allows us to be with her.
Tears welled up in the corners of my eyes. A wave of despair engulfed my body.
WHY?? Why did this happen to us? How can I face THE REST OF MY LIFE without my daughter? It’s not fair. None of this is fair. I’m angry. I’m really f’ing angry and sad and hopeless that I have to live with this damn pain for the next 40 or 50 years!!
As if an act of serendipity, I suddenly remembered that a monthly support group for bereaved mothers was starting in about an hour. I realized I could go there and let it all out. If anyone would understand what I was feeling, they would. And after all, I felt I had every right to feel this way (and I did!).
I cried the whole way there. I was convinced that fully immersing myself in this anger and despair for the next few hours would do me good. It would be a release.
And then something unexpected happened. As I walked up to the group, I heard Katie, the woman who founded the support group, telling another mother that she wanted to focus this meeting on learning how to let happiness into our broken lives.
She said that after three long years of feeling anger and despair, she had come to a place where she finally felt ready to be happy again. And yet she needed help. She needed to be taught how to do it this time around. She wasn’t fully convinced about the idea she kept hearing – that happiness is a choice.
And in an instant, I shed the weight of anger and despair. I happily released it into the atmosphere to float away. I felt lighter. I felt calm. I felt like everything was okay once again.
What was the magical spell that allowed me to do a complete 180 so quickly? It can be summed up in one word: PERSPECTIVE. This one word radiates with an amazing power. It can change anything and everything in the blink of an eye.
I had been so wrapped up in my anger and despair, it began feeding on itself. And yet it is the OPPOSITE of how I want to feel. Where’s the logic in that? (There isn’t. Grief is completely illogical most of the time.)
When I heard Katie talking about wanting to be happy, I was reminded of how far I had come from those dark days. I reinforced all those choices I made along the way to be happy again.
Happiness IS a choice. It is a choice based wholly in perspective. You can choose to focus on what is wrong and bad and painful in your life. And in doing so, you can make yourself miserable.
Or you can choose to focus your energy and attention on what is right and good and loving in your life… without pretending that nothing is wrong or painful. This is the essence of happiness.
Don’t believe me? Try it. Don’t just say you’re going to try it and do a half-assed job. Give the good things in your life your FULL attention. Write them down. Engage in them. Make choices that help encourage more of those good things.
Do that, and your mood and energy and PERSPECTIVE will change. Maybe not as much as you’d like at first, but with practice you’ll get better at it.
I choose to focus on the good in my life. The love. The happiness. This doesn’t mean I don’t get caught up in anger and sadness and frustration… but I choose not to stay there. I choose to refocus my perspective when I’m ready and able to do so.
And it has made all the difference.
And it can for you too.
This post was originally published in November 2014.
The day after my four-year-old daughter Margareta’s death in 2009, we received a call asking if we would be willing to donate her heart valves and corneas. Being believers in the benefits of organ donation for years, we agreed. I was told that day that while the corneas would only be viable for a short amount of time, the heart valves would be frozen and kept for two years in hopes they would help give another child a second chance at life. During the call, I asked to be notified if and when any were used.
Over the next few years, we received occasional grief support letters and cards from the transplant organization, but we never received any word that Margareta’s heart valves had been transplanted into someone else. As the end of the two year time frame neared, I decided to email the organization to get confirmation that there was no longer any chance her heart valves would be used so that I could stop wondering about it. This was a week or so before Thanksgiving 2011.
The day before Thanksgiving, I received a call from Maggie, who was in charge of donor relations. She told me she had received the email and it took her some time to look up Margareta’s files. She apologized, saying that it was not noted in our file that we had requested notification of transplants. What she said next took my breath away. One of Margareta’s heart valves had been sent to New Mexico, but had not been a perfect fit and sent back. After that, one of her valves had been sent to California (the state we live in) and had been transplanted into a five-month-old baby boy. We have no other details, and were told that it is entirely up to the recipient’s family to initiate any contact between them and our family. I immediately started crying.
I don’t know who this boy is or if we’ll ever meet him. All I know is that a piece of Margareta’s heart has helped give him a chance to live the full life that she didn’t get. While I’m quite certain that this boy and his family are thankful every day for this gift of a second chance at life, on this Thanksgiving I want to tell him a little bit about the girl who literally gave a piece of her heart to him.
We don’t know each other, but our lives are now forever intertwined. When you were five months old, you received one of our daughter’s heart valves in a procedure that I can only imagine gave you a renewed chance at a long life. The heart valve belonged to our daughter, Margareta, who died shortly after her fourth birthday. While we miss her terribly and always will, we are able to find some solace that she was able to grant you the gift of a healthier, longer life. There are a few things you should know about Margareta, and my hope is that they will inspire you in some way.
In her four short years, Margareta lived life to the fullest. While she loved dressing up and embracing her inner princess and diva, she wasn’t afraid to play rough, get dirty and scrape her knees if it meant having a good time. She was game for just about any adventure and wasn’t afraid to try new things. While she never had the chance to grow up and follow her dreams, I hope you will always follow yours. I want you to know that whatever life throws your way, you will always have all the strength and courage you need to follow your heart and reach for your dreams…even if you get a few scraped knees on the way.
Margareta also danced to her own beat. She wasn’t one to conform to what she was “supposed to be” based on society’s rules, and used her creativity and talents to explore life from new perspectives and we encouraged her to do so. She was quiet and observant when she wanted to learn, and she was loud and outspoken when she wanted to lead. She seemed to understand life is a continual balance of opposing forces and seemed to have had the wisdom of someone who had learned the lessons of a lifetime. I hope that you keep your heart and mind open to all of life’s possibilities and ideas. The love of learning and ability to look at problems from a new perspective can only improve your experience.
There are many more things I could tell you about Margareta, and I’ll always be happy to tell more stories or answer any questions you may have. I would love to think that in some way she helps inspire you to fully embrace this gift and the life you have and to live without regret. My hope for you is that you live a life filled with gratitude, compassion, kindness, and happiness. I wish you the wisdom to recognize that relationships with those you love matter more than anything else, and that you always take advantage of the opportunities to let them know how much you care.
I encourage you to always listen to your heart, and know that a vibrant, beautiful soul once shared a part of it.
Wishing you a long, healthy life,
Maria (Margareta’s mother)
Today is my daughter’s birthday.
If she were still alive, Margareta would have been 10-years-old. This is the sixth bittersweet celebration of a life that was over after four short years of blissful ignorance of the impending tragedy that took her life. Today, we choose to remember all the love she brought into our lives during those four short years. Though our hearts will ache because she is not physically here with us to blow out the candles on her cake, we will celebrate her continued daily presence in our hearts and minds.
Since I can no longer buy presents for my daughter on her birthday, I’d like to share with you a few of the gifts she has given me. Not the hand-written cards or tokens of her love during those four years, but gifts of wisdom she has brought into my life.
The gift of acceptance.
I struggled for most of my life trying to change things that were not mine to change. I tried changing others – their behaviors, their thoughts, their reactions – only to be disappointed every time. I tried changing the past by rewriting it in my head. I tried changing a future that hadn’t occurred yet.
Basically, if it didn’t bring me a sense of security…I tried changing it.
Margareta’s death helped me truly understand that most of what happens to us in this life is not ours to control. Only when we accept what we cannot change (and what is not our part of our responsibility anyway) can we find happiness and contentment.
The gift of appreciation.
I used to think I was an appreciative person. But then I lost one of the most important people in my life and realized just how unappreciative I had been. I understand now that embracing the little things we usually take for granted makes all the difference in the world.
Savoring that kind word or hug a little longer. Noticing a smile on a stranger’s face. Knowing that every day could be our last makes it that much more meaningful and important. I now better appreciate what I have versus always wanting something else; something more. This level of appreciation brings with it a sense of inner peace I always craved but never knew how to achieve.
The gift of courage.
For the longest time, I never felt strong. I didn’t feel strong enough to stand up for myself. I didn’t feel strong enough to leave toxic situations or relationships. I felt I was a victim and learned to play that role really well.
But when the worst actually happens to you – and you survive it – you discover a source of strength within you that you never knew existed.
In my journey of grief, I have discovered my courage. Courage to believe my needs matter just as much as anyone else’s. Courage to always speak my mind even if I fear the reaction it may cause. Most of all, I found the courage to accept myself for who I am instead of trying to become the person I thought others wanted me to be. I’ll never be perfect. I’ll always be a work in progress. But my daughter’s life – and death – has taught me that life is too short to try to be anything other than who you are at this moment. It has given me the freedom and courage to do what it takes to follow my dreams.
While my dream of watching my beautiful daughter grow will never come true, I will continue to create new dreams that are inspired by all the gifts she has given me.
Happy birthday, sweet girl. Words cannot convey how much we miss you.
Starting this week, there is a rapid succession of difficult days ahead. That is…I anticipate they’ll be difficult.
This week my youngest son will start Kindergarten; something his older sister, Margareta, dreamed of but didn’t live long enough to do. Next week we will celebrate another of her birthdays without her; she would have been 10. The end of September marks the six-year anniversary of her death at the tender age of four. In the days that follow, I’ll be expected to celebrate my birthday…which fell on the day before her memorial service the year she died.
All of these days carry with them the burden of anticipation.
Anticipation can work one of two ways: it can imagine the best-case scenario…or it can imagine the worst. So when we anticipate a difficult grief trigger, it tends to bring up all the worst-case scenarios our imaginative minds can conjure up.
The first year after losing someone is the hardest. It was for me. It’s hard because your mind has no point of reference to compare to. The first holidays, birthdays, and anniversary of their death (angel-versary, devastation day…whatever you prefer to call it) are anticipated as so painful, you can’t imagine how you’ll survive them.
So let’s get this straight: your anticipation of a grief trigger causes your mind to imagine a worst-case scenario, and since it doesn’t have a reference point to compare to, it compares it to the actual event that is causing the trigger. Your mind tells you the trigger will likely bring you right back to the pain you experienced on the day you lost your loved one. So you find yourself in an anticipatory panic even though you’ve already survived the worst pain imaginable. In reality, our minds are our own worst enemies.
So what to do?
That first year, I felt like cancelling all holidays in an attempt to avoid the pain I knew they’d bring. While we couldn’t because we had other young children who expected and deserved the celebrations, we attempted to change tradition enough to make them feel different.
For example, for that first Thanksgiving we accepted my brother’s dinner invitation, but requested a few simple things. First, we asked to keep the invite list as small as possible (his family and ours). Second, I requested to sit at the end of the table so that if I felt like I was about to burst into tears, I could easily excuse myself and quickly slip out of the room to be alone. Third, we requested to skip the “what are we thankful for” question tradition. Just thinking of that question that first year made my blood boil with anger.
For the first Christmas after her death, we opted for an artificial tree. It still looked like a normal Christmas for our young kids, but in my mind it was different. While we didn’t buy presents for Margareta to place under the tree, we did buy a wind chime to place in her stocking and then hung it at the cemetery later in the day. We kept to ourselves that year; just a small normal dinner at home. The day was filled with difficult emotions and we thought it best to keep to ourselves and focus all our attention and energy on our kids.
We had more options on Margareta’s birthday and the first anniversary of her death. I scheduled vacation days from work on both those days because I couldn’t imagine being able to function in any meaningful way. I agonized for months in advance on what to actually do on those days.
How do you “celebrate” a birthday of someone who isn’t there to celebrate it? Yet you can’t ignore it; you want to acknowledge it is the birthday of someone who is one of the most important people in your life. Do you buy presents and then donate them? Do you make a cake? I didn’t know what to do to make the horrible pain I imagined any easier. Every time I thought of it, I felt overwhelmed.
And then one sleepless night a few weeks before her birthday, it came to me. Margareta loved ladybugs. I would buy live ladybugs and we would release them at her grave on her birthday. So we did. Seeing the chaos of hundreds of ladybugs escaping the confines of the container they had been held in and exploring their new home injected some needed lightness and smiles into a heavy day that was full of sadness. Releasing ladybugs has become a yearly tradition on Margareta’s birthday; one that will continue for the rest of my life…and perhaps her brothers’ lives too.
As for the anniversary of her death – a vivid reminder of the worst day of my life – I planned to do nothing. And nothing was what pretty much what I did that day. It was an uneventful day that – of course – wasn’t nearly as painful as I anticipated.
A new point of reference.
Since that first year, my anticipation of the pain that will be triggered on these difficult days has softened. Each year I have a larger cache of reference points my mind can compare them to. And each year, the level of pain I anticipate lessens. That is not to say I don’t still feel pain and sadness on these days; but I know that pain pales in comparison to what I felt at her death and in that first year after. And I know that I have survived the worst pain I ever could have imagined…so anything else is manageable in comparison.
I will continue to make taking care of myself a priority on these trigger days that lay ahead of me. With five years of reference points to draw from, I’m better able to steer my mind away from imagining the worst-case scenario, and instead try to visualize the best-case scenario. For example, I know I’ll feel sorrow on the first day of Kindergarten because my beautiful daughter never got to experience its excitement and joy; but in the meantime I’m imagining those same feelings for my son, and anticipate being able to share in his happiness.
As for the upcoming anniversary of her death, I still plan to take that day off. These last few years we have consciously decided to do something that we think Margareta would have enjoyed. We do this in an attempt to shift the focus from the pain of her death to the joy she brought us while she was here. I also anticipate knowing that whatever feelings come my way that day, I’ll deal with them the best I can.
Regardless of how new your loss is…just keep reminding yourself that anticipation of a difficult day is always worse than the day itself.
We first hear it as little kids in our bedtime stories. When we’re older, we see it repeated again and again in countless movies. We’re even told we can buy it in endless advertisements. But it isn’t real. It’s all a big, perverse lie that can do real damage in real lives.
What is it, you ask?
It’s the human fantasy of “happily ever after”.
The idea is so alluring we quickly get sucked into its web of deceit and empty promises. Little girls are particularly vulnerable to its grasp; meticulously planning for Prince Charming’s arrival…as we have been promised time and again in Disney movies.
We know the perfect job is just around the corner where we’re paid handsomely for doing what we love for people we respect – and who respect us. We look for our soulmate knowing they’re out there waiting for us. We anticipate our happy little family living in our dream house. No fights or arguments. Everything is effortless. Just pure bliss and ease.
We sit and wait. We wait a lot longer than we expected to. But we don’t give up hope. Day after day; year after year, we are secretly convinced that happily ever after is a real place that we can get to…and will get to. It motivates us. It picks us up when we’re down. It gives us a reason to keep moving forward through the murkiness of life.
Until one day the fantasy blows up in our faces and reveals the devastating truth…
There is no happily ever after.
For many of us, this ugly truth is revealed when we lose someone who meant more to us than life itself. Someone you cannot imagine living without – and who is never coming back. In my case, that dark day of realization came crashing down on me the day my 4-year-old daughter, Margareta, died.
It came without warning. It came in a scream of sirens and frantic attempts to save her. We tried to beat it back to the depths it came from, but it came nonetheless. And in a matter of hours, after over three decades of waiting for it…the certainty of happily ever after disintegrated before my eyes.
Much like that scene in the Wizard of Oz, the curtain had been pulled back to reveal that the great and powerful “happily ever after” is just a construct of ordinary people who live lives that often feel difficult and painful…and they dream of turning fantasy into reality.
Realization leads to anger.
The grief of losing someone – and losing all our hopes and dreams that came with them – is compounded by the anger we begin to feel from being lied to our whole lives. And lied to we certainly were. Not just by others; we lied to ourselves too.
For some, this anger can all but consume us. We rail against the unfairness of it all. Not only are we feeling the impossible pain of losing someone we can’t imagine living without, we are enraged at the realization of all the time we wasted on that stupid fantasy. Angry that we could have been focused on what mattered most: time spent with our loved ones.
We think of all those extra hours we wasted at the office trying to get that promotion or raise, when we could have been spending time with our family – time we will never get back. We think of all those moments where we felt stuck waiting for a better life, when we could have been happy appreciating what we already had…before we lost it all.
Eventually, the anger will subside. It may take more time than you’d like. It may take years. It may feel like you’ll never get there. But you will. You will eventually give yourself permission to shift your focus away from the anger of being lied to toward all the love that still resides in your heart and in your mind.
A shift in perspective.
After suffering a loss of this kind, we tend to see the world in a new light. Things we used to think were once so important no longer seem worth our time and energy. The drama and frivolity that used to occupy so much of our life is now seen as a useless waste of time.
Others who didn’t suffer this type of loss may not understand our new perspective. They may resent us for it. They may distance themselves from us. But their issues are out of our hands; we simply no longer have the energy to spare on it.
Without happily ever after to focus on, we can finally see what really matters to us. We can simplify our life and readjust our goals. We can focus our energy on what matters most. Right now that is probably limited to one basic thing: surviving. But eventually, it will lead to a life worth living once again. And that is no lie.
There is a common expression, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” Meaning you can get so caught up in focusing on what is right in front of your face, you lose sight of the bigger picture or perspective. It is very easy to do.
Every day we must react to the multitude of things that are thrown our way; whether it has to do with our job or many other responsibilities. If you’re anything like me, your mind is almost constantly churning…often feeling overwhelmed by all the different things that seemingly need our attention every minute of the day. It’s easy to get stuck living moment to moment, seeing only the “trees” that represent everyday activities and emotions of life that surround you. It’s often hard to see the entire forest that represents your life, the path that you have taken so far, and the direction you want to head in the future.
When my 4-year-old daughter, Margareta, died suddenly in 2009 I found myself transplanted into a thick grove of new, unfamiliar “trees” in the forest that is my life. These trees were big and scary. They grew so thick and tight they blocked out any trace of the light from the sky high above the canopy of my forest. While I had some sense of direction in the previous area of the forest I lived in, this grove of trees filled me with an indescribable pain and left me groping in the dark – desperately trying to find a way out and back to the area I was before. But I could find none.
I was lost in the forest, overwhelmed with grief. Each humongous tree that surrounded me represented a painful feeling or emotion that I was forced to grapple with. These trees signified feelings of guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, isolation, disbelief, despair, torment…and too many more to list. Every time I tried to force my way out of this grove of trees, I was just left bruised and battered and stuck. It exhausted me to the point where I would just fall down and sleep for long periods of time.
After remaining in this grove for quite a while, my eyes adjusted to the darkness. Now, when I looked, I could make out the trees in the distance that once surrounded me. But they were out of reach. There was no path I could find to go back – it was all irrevocably blocked by the horrible reality of Margareta’s death.
I resentfully resigned myself to the understanding that I was stuck in this grove of darkness and despair. I tearfully understood that the life I once led would never come back. Once you feel this level of pain, it is like innocence lost forever to the harsh realities of life.
Then a strange, unexpected thing happened. Instead of fighting to escape these trees by squeezing my way around them, I forced myself to accept them; even embrace them as a representation of how much love I still had for my daughter. I became a literal tree hugger. In doing this, I discovered I could climb these trees…grasping each limb on their thick trunks. Every time I worked to express my feelings about those trees, whether it be in counseling or support groups or writing, I could climb a bit higher to where the branches thinned out and let light and fresh air in.
Over the course of several long years, I climbed all the way to the top of that grove of trees. And from that vantage point, I could see that all hope was not lost. I could see the forest of my life – the path I had taken to get here and different ways I could move forward and out of this thick grove of trees. But it would take work and dedication. It would take a new perspective on the meaning and purpose of my life, and a willingness to accept that it will never be the path I intended to take.
I slowly climbed down the outer branches of that grove, trusting that they would not break and let me fall. I climbed down with a new understanding that while all of these trees in my forest of life appear to be separate from above the ground, their roots are forever intertwined below it. These intertwining roots of good and bad, love and pain, happiness and despair…it strengthens my forest and keeps it alive and thriving. We cannot truly understand and appreciate each of these feelings without having experienced their opposite.
So as I continue to make my way through my forest of life, I find that I experience things on a deeper level than before. I choose to focus my attention on the trees that bring the most meaning to my life. These trees usually represent relationships, passions, and feelings of purpose.
I no longer am certain of the path my life will take, but I know that no matter what happens there will always be a way forward. And if I get lost among unfamiliar trees, I will once again embrace and climb them to remind myself of where I came from, where I am now, and where I can go from here.
And you can too.
For the four short years you were in our lives, your name was spoken more times than I could ever possibly count. Not just by me, your dad and brothers, but by a multitude of family and friends. We spoke it. We sang it. We wrote it. You corrected people on the pronunciation of your name by emphasizing every syllable, “My name is Mar-Gar-Eh- Tah.” You and your name were part of the daily fabric of our lives, and we took it for granted that it always would be.
And then one day…it wasn’t.
On the day you died, a wave of shock and despair hit everyone who knew you. It took our breath away. It left us speechless. Nobody seemed to know the right words to say to make sense of this sudden tragedy. But they tried their best to offer us comfort and show their support in condolence calls and cards.
Many quoted the bible, and offered us sayings they thought would soothe our broken hearts.
“God needed an angel.”
“She’s at peace in the arms of Jesus.”
Others just spoke their hearts in the simplest way possible.
“I’m so sorry for your loss. I don’t know what to say.”
“I can’t believe she’s dead. I feel sick.”
No matter the words spoken and whether they resonated with me or not, I felt supported. I felt our family wasn’t alone in our horror.
But then the funeral was over and everyone went home to resume their lives. The cards stopped coming. The phone stopped ringing. And yet our grief was just beginning. It didn’t end the day we buried you. It grew. How could we go back to living our normal lives if you weren’t here to live it with us? How could the earth keep spinning? How could people keep going about their daily business – laughing and happy when everything in our life had been ruined? The feeling was maddening.
Occasionally we would get a call to see how we were doing. But it was never about you. It was always about their concern for us and how they could help support us. They didn’t mention your name. While I was filled with gratitude to know that people still cared, all I wanted to do was talk about you and how your absence in our life was suffocating.
Over time the calls of concern stopped coming and were replaced by invitations to get back to our previous routines. We were invited to parties, dinners, outings, etc. We were encouraged to get back to the land of the living. At first, we often declined but the invitations kept coming. And your name was virtually never mentioned. And almost six years after your death, it still isn’t.
It seems to me the only way I can still hear your beautiful name – Margareta – is if I say it; if I sing it; and if I bring you up in conversation. It makes me wonder whether people still think of you. It makes me fear that you are already forgotten. After all, you were only here for four short years.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. This is a common topic – and source of despair – at grief support groups. Those who are bereaved live in a world where those we love remain at the forefront of our thoughts. This isn’t just in the first few months or years after your death…but for the rest of our lives. We may even get chastised from family and friends who want us to get over your death and get back to being the way we were before you died…like that will ever happen.
I’ve heard many times a few theories of why people never say your name. First, they think it will remind me of the pain of your death. As if that pain has ever gone away. If they only knew that hearing your name eases the pain…even if just for a brief moment. Second, they don’t know the “right” words to say. I suppose it is a twisted interpretation of the phrase, “If you don’t have something nice to say don’t say anything at all.” To which I reply, even if they say something that doesn’t come out quite right, at least they’ve shown me that you’re still on their mind.
One of the greatest gifts someone can give to me is the act of saying your name. Not waiting until I bring you up in conversation. Not only mentioning you on your birthday or anniversary of your death. But any time they happen to think of you – even if just for a brief second. I’d love to know that outside of our immediate family, we’re not the only ones who still think of you; who still love you; who still acknowledge that you existed.
How I love hearing your name.
I don’t know how I learned it, but at a young age, I was introduced to the concept of what death was supposed to be. It went something like this: you live a long, full life until you have grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and then when you are so old your body stops working, you die peacefully – and painlessly – in your sleep. My vision of death was nice, neat, and acceptable. The problem was that my ongoing experience with death over the course of my life didn’t seem to ever fit that mold.
As a younger child, I heard about relatives who were old – but not that old – dying of things like cancer, heart attacks, or accidental deaths. I was told the story about my grandfather who was shot and killed on the beaches of Guam during WWII when my father was only 2-years-old. Before the age of 10, I had to face the ugly reality that the teenage daughter of one of my parent’s friends was dying of leukemia, and another of my parent’s friends – who I knew well – died after being thrown out of a car that lost control when her son fell asleep at the wheel. The uncomfortable reality of death hit home as a young teen when a boy I occasionally babysat drowned, and I vividly remember staring helplessly at his lifeless body on display at his wake. As a young adult, I sat with silent tears in my eyes at the funeral of a cousin in her early 20s who had died suddenly and unexpectedly from a blood clot in her leg. I could go on and on.
The fact is death is sad and tragic, and it is mostly unfair. These deaths that don’t fit that ideal mold of dying peacefully in very old age leave us with many unanswered questions that can be summed up in one word: Why? It keeps us up at night. It tortures us. It eats at the very fabric of our being. And in response, there is often a common answer that many offer in hopes of soothing our endless ache.
I’d heard this answer uttered in various ways before, but never gave them much thought until I found myself on the receiving end of them after my 4-year-old daughter’s sudden death. While there are many variations to how it is phrased, the most common delivery I heard was, “It was part of God’s plan that we cannot understand and aren’t meant to know.” In another context, I’ve heard it described as our soul making an agreement with their soul prior to living in this lifetime in order to help us learn a key lesson in our reincarnation progression toward enlightenment.
Now I know that the people who offer this as a condolence truly believe it and think it comforting, but to someone who has just lost someone they cannot imagine living life without, it often falls short of being any source of comfort. In fact, depending on the person and the circumstances, it can unintentionally cause a great deal of distress or even produce outright anger.
Here’s why: while their death may be part of some “grand plan” we cannot understand; it most definitely wasn’t part of our plan. And now that our plan is forever ruined and irreversible, we are left with an excruciating, bleeding broken heart that we can’t imagine has any purpose other than to leave our lives in darkness and utter devastation. In the immediate aftermath of such a death, we see no silver lining, no hope, no purpose, and certainly no opportunity for lessons or growth.
In the years that have followed my daughter’s death, I have come a long way from those early feelings of anger towards those who tried to reassure me by reminding me of this grand plan or telling me that my daughter, Margareta, was in a better place. I have come to accept that those words were all they knew what to say after such an unthinkable loss, and that those words probably brought them some sense of safety and comfort in a situation that made no sense. I have forgiven them long ago.
Whether or not I’ll ever be fully and utterly convinced that there is a grand plan, the sentiment will never offer me relief from the pain of losing my only daughter. Even though I’ve grown tremendously as a person since her death and have learned a lifetime of lessons in these past six years, I still ache for her. I still long for a future I’ll never have. I am still left with the reality that my plans were shattered the day she died, and I’ll always regret not having a future in which I get to watch my daughter grow.