Living With Grief
Helping others through shared experiences
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While I dream a lot, most of my dreams are not worth remembering – and for the most part, I don’t. Beginning from when I was a little kid, the vast majority of my dreams that I remember at all are anxiety-filled or nightmares. Even when they’re not bad, more often than not, they do not contain anyone recognizable from my waking hours.
So when I found myself in grief support groups after my four-year-old daughter drowned in 2009, I was completely envious hearing various people tell of their frequent dreams featuring their departed loved ones. One woman told a group that she got to review the day’s events in long conversations with her dead son every night. Others told of being able to see or hear their loved one every time they had a hard day. I listened in silence feeling a mixture of jealousy, anger, sadness and frustration knowing that I had not had a single dream of my daughter since she died.
How I wished the dreams would come. For months after her death, I remember pleading with her every night to visit me in my dreams, only to awake the next morning disappointed. And yet the dream stories at the support groups kept coming.
I don’t remember how many months it was after she died, but finally the first dream featuring my daughter, Margareta, came. It was during one of my regular long, convoluted dreams that made no sense, but I found myself in an auditorium or gymnasium filled with parents who watched as their young children filed into the room in a line, as if they were in a parade. I remember being elated and shocked all at once as I laid eyes on my daughter, whose hair was noticeably shorter than when she was alive. I remember thinking, “Is this real?” knowing she was dead. I even asked a father next to me, “Can you see her?” thinking I might be the only one who could. She didn’t speak. She just looked at me and smiled and then walked out of view. The dream ended, but I was filled with gratitude for the brief glimpse.
Another dream some months after that one was the most memorable and wonderful dream I’ve ever had. I don’t remember anything else about the dream except that it ended with me walking into a backyard where my husband and other family members were gathered for a barbeque. My husband explained to me that somehow Margareta was able to be with us and I turned and saw her and quickly picked her up and hugged her tight. Then I held her so I could look at her lovely face. She gently caressed my cheeks with her small hands, and looking into my eyes smiled and said, “Mommy loves me.” I woke up in tears. I knew how much my daughter loved me, but hearing her say those words to let me know she knew and had felt how much I loved her was what my soul desperately needed to hear, especially since I was still so filled with guilt over her death.
In the five years since her death, I have had very few dreams featuring my daughter. I can probably count them on one hand. One was an unwelcome nightmare, during which she lay sucking her thumb on the concrete near a pool and began to stiffen from rigamortis as I looked on in horror and desperation. But the others have been wonderful, short glimpses and reminders of my beautiful daughter. She doesn’t speak, and they don’t last long, but I am so thankful for them, because in each of them I know she is dead and that they are a gift.
This last month was a hard one for me. It marked the fifth time we had to celebrate her birthday without her and the fifth anniversary of that horrible day when she drowned in our pool while we were home. Day after day I struggled with intense emotions and feeling overwhelmed from everyday life. On one particularly bad day, I wrote about it and then after work, I drove to the cemetery, which I don’t do much anymore. I sat at her grave and cried and talked to her. I told her everything that was on my mind, but mostly how much I missed her; how much I wanted to just hold her and hear her sweet voice again. As most trips to the cemetery are for me, it helped release some of the tension I’d been holding.
Later that week, I was surprised by another rare dream featuring Margareta. I don’t remember how it started, but my husband and I were driving on a road that started to get very rough, and then we came to a dead end as if the road had led us into a cave where the exit was covered with rocks and boulders. We got out and started removing the rocks, and as I pulled them away, I began to see Margareta’s face on the other side. I was ecstatic! She smiled and then began talking — which she has only done once before in my dreams. I don’t remember anything she said, but I know I got to hug her and talk to her and spend time with her, as if she were responding to my conversation with her at the cemetery a few days before!
What about you? Do you have memorable dreams of someone you lost? For those who can seemingly dream about your dead loved ones whenever you want, I continue to be envious. For those who rarely if ever have dreams featuring your loved one, I sympathize with you. While I don’t expect to have another dream about Margareta for a long, long time, I will continue to wait with hopefulness.
I love you, Margareta, and I’ll see you in my dreams…
Growing up, I wanted to think I was a “glass half full” kind of person, but the truth is I was always anticipating and worried about the next bad thing that I was sure would happen to me. I lived amid the constant feeling that life around me was unpredictable, chaotic, and often unfair. That is a bitter pill for a little kid to swallow, so my solution to get rid of the ever present anxiety was to continually try to change myself and my behavior in desperate attempts to control the people and situations around me.
I’m sure you can guess that this never seemed to work. It would seem to have an effect for a short while, but then something would “go wrong” again. Ironically – and unbeknownst to me at the time – it caused even more anxiety as I was constantly trying to mentally catalog the apparent cause and effect my behavior and actions had. If I did “A”, then “B” happened. Except that sometimes when I did “A”, then “D”, “G”, or even “L” happened. It was too confusing and hard to keep track of. But being prone to perfectionism, I kept trying.
Looking back, I have to wonder what my ultimate fear was. I know for sure I didn’t like the feelings of sadness, loneliness, shame, and certainly didn’t like feeling like I was at the mercy of this unfair universe. But what was it that I was scared would happen if I didn’t keep trying to keep it all under my control? To this day, I’m still not sure.
Those feelings of anxiety and my desperate attempts to control the people and situations in my life followed me into adulthood. It just became a way of life for me. And it became more complex as the years went on. There were more people and more situations I had to juggle to try to control…and bigger risks at stake.
Instead of just making sure I was getting good grades in school to get into college, I now had to make sure I kept my employers happy so that I could keep a roof over my head and food on my table. After having a family of my own, I felt the responsibility of not only trying to keep my own life under control and happy, but theirs too. The anxiety intensified, and it became overwhelming.
Overwhelming or not, it was my life, and I did the best I could at trying to balance all of it. Amid the anxiety and complexity of my life, I was able to find some happiness. My children were beacons of light and love that I held tight to. After ending a disappointing marriage, I found love again and added a stepson and then a daughter to my beloved family. We were a tight-knit family that focused all our free time on finding new adventures and memories to share. The anxiety and challenges never went away, but it was better balanced by the rewards my family brought.
That all ended on September 30, 2009. On that day my four year old daughter, Margareta, drowned in our pool while we were at home. On that day I learned my ultimate lesson: no matter how tightly we try to control our lives and everything in it, we are not in charge of what happens to us.
That stark reality is scary and horrible and can be incredibly unfair, but we cannot change it.
At first, the grief of losing my daughter was like experiencing all those feelings of anxiety, sadness, loneliness, unfairness, and chaos over the course of my lifetime times infinity. True to my lifetime of experience, I tried desperately to overcome the intense feelings of grief by controlling my actions and behaviors. It didn’t work; it seemed to have the opposite effect of just intensifying them instead. This beast that was grief was unlike anything I’d ever encountered. The harder I fought to suppress it, the worse it seemed to get.
The pain remained unbearable, so I waged this battle against grief for several years. Just as I had done before, I mentally cataloged all of the grief triggers I experienced in hopes to avoid them the next time. I adjusted my response and behavior to each trigger to try to find which ones made the pain lessen. To my frustration, none of them did and the triggers remained unpredictable and intense.
At some point, I realized that my lifelong urge to try to control my life was actually making things worse, and made the choice to stop fighting grief. In doing so, I finally began to achieve the sense of inner peace I had always been looking for. The irony that I learned this lesson in the face of my worst nightmare come true was not lost on me. It became the silver lining around the dark cloud that I was immersed in.
The reality is that the worst has already happened. My daughter is dead and there is nothing that I can do to change that.
Knowing that I survived the worst pain I will ever face has significantly reduced my anxiety and changed my perspective forever. Challenges that used to seem insurmountable or cause for alarm now appear manageable in comparison. I now know I have the inner strength to handle whatever comes my way. I now have the humility to know that I cannot control the emotions or reactions of anyone else. I now know that showing my vulnerability and asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but one of courage and strength.
I choose to no longer look at life with a “glass half full” versus “glass half empty” mentality. The glass is what it is and we have the choice to work with what we have. We will have good days and bad days. We will experience joy as well as sorrow. We will be filled with love and with pain. We will continually be faced with challenges and uncomfortable feelings.
This is the ultimate lesson I have learned: I am not in control of my life. I never was. The only control I have is the choice to allow life to happen to me without fighting it; to accept each situation – no matter how difficult or painful – and instead focus my attention and energy on answering the question, “What do I do next?”
I am a member of a club I don’t want to belong to. I didn’t voluntarily sign up for it, yet I’m forced to be in it for the rest of my life. The cost of admission to this club was at an impossible price, but it was was taken from me anyway. The price was my child’s life. My membership card is my child’s death certificate.
I am the parent of a dead child.
I have found that this club tends to keep to itself because its very existence makes most non-members too uncomfortable. Members of this club are the unwelcome reminders that a family’s worst fear can come true. The death of a child has often been described as “unnatural”, and yet it happens every day, all over the world. And still, these parents and their families often grieve in silence long after the funeral ends. There is no “getting over it”; they grieve as long as they are a member of this club.
It doesn’t matter the age of your child when they died; membership in this club changes you forever. It changes your understanding of life itself. It changes your demeanor. It changes your reactions to everything around you. And these changes can have some nasty side-effects. It can cause long-standing marriages or relationships with family or friends to abruptly come to an end for a variety of reasons. It can challenge your faith and rock your belief system to its core. It can cause health issues, or even lead you into deep depression and further isolate yourself from the world.
Membership in this club also brings a torrent of everyday challenges that non-members just don’t understand. For example, once simple questions like, “How are you?” or “How many children do you have?”, become sources of great pain and internal debate. Should you answer honestly and risk exacerbating your pain and feelings of isolation due to the expected horrified look or obvious discomfort of the person asking when they hear your answer? Or do you lie and give the expected answer based on whether you think you’ll ever see the person again, but then feel further isolated or even guilty for seemingly betraying your dead child? This is just one of many examples of dilemmas you never thought you’d have to face.
Even though the pain will last forever, over time, being a member of this club can offer some unexpected benefits. It can give you a greater appreciation of how precious this life of ours is, and make you no longer take certain things for granted. It can teach you a deeper sense of compassion, empathy, and gratitude. It can improve your relationships with yourself and others. It can even lead you towards a life with a greater sense of purpose and meaning. I have experienced all of these benefits, and am truly grateful for these gifts. But given the choice, I’d give up my membership in a heartbeat.
I’ll always hate being the parent of a dead child.
Today is a bad day. It is a day where I feel defeated by grief; defeated by life. It is a day where I feel like crying – and wish that I would so I could let it all out; but the tears don’t come. I feel the pressure behind my eyes, but not enough to break the dam. I’m left with a feeling of heaviness and sadness.
Today is a day where I’d rather be back in bed than have to deal with everything and everyone around me. But I don’t have the luxury of sticking my head in the sand and checking out. So I do my best to stay quiet and keep to myself for fear of snapping at the next innocent person who does something ordinary that I just don’t have the patience for.
Today is a day where everything – every little task or idea – seems overwhelming. Not because it is too difficult, but because I just don’t care. I don’t care enough about anything today to find the energy to give to it. Why don’t I care? Because my daughter is dead – and today everything else seems completely unimportant and irrelevant in the cold and darkness of that reality.
Today is a day in the middle of a difficult month that is book-ended by painful reminders of her death. Her birthday was on the first day of this month – another year passed where she didn’t grow older; the anniversary of her death is on the last day of this month. Part of me thinks this month can’t end soon enough, yet come October first, my daughter will still be dead.
Today is a day where all the beauty around me cannot seem to penetrate the fog of despair. The loving smiles and embraces of my other children this morning; the quiet serenity of nature outside my office window; and even the daily signs I get that remind me of my daughter and her continued presence and importance in my life – none of them can overcome these painful feelings today.
Today is a day where I accept being trapped within a wave of grief that has brought me to my knees. I will handle it the best I can. I will be kind to myself. I will be patient with my emotions. I will try not to push myself to do more than I can handle. I will lean on others for support. I will look for the love within the pain and light within the darkness.
Today is a bad day.
I hope tomorrow will be better.
When you died, the whole world did not mourn you. You were not a celebrity; not a world leader. You did not make the nightly news or invent things that changed the world. You will not end up in history books. But you made an indelible mark in our lives and in our hearts.
You meant the world to us.
You are our spouses, mothers and fathers; our grandparents, sisters and brothers. You are favorite aunts and uncles or cherished cousins and friends. You are our children; who may have only lived a few precious years or never even lived to take your first breath.
You stay fresh in our minds long after the funeral is over – long after the rest of our worlds appear to have forgotten you. We think of you in the quiet moments. We think of you when your favorite song comes on. We think of you when we see something we think you’d have liked…or hated. We think of how you’re missing from the special occasions in our lives. We think of you when we wish you were here to give us the hug and reassurance we desperately need from you in our times of sorrow.
We think of you.
Your legacy is not that of the job you held or the number of houses or cars you owned. It doesn’t matter how much money you made or how much influence you had in your community. Your legacy is that of tender moments and loving embraces. Your legacy is how wonderful and important you made us feel while you were with us. It is the smiles you put on our faces and the laughter we shared – even if we never got the chance to hold you.
You mattered to us.
Your body died, but you live on in our memories; in the sparkle of our eyes every time we speak your name or hold you in our hearts. We remember you, and we always will.
We miss you.
We love you.
We are the keepers of your flame.
Next week will mark the day my daughter would have turned nine years old. Even though she died almost five years ago, I feel the responsibility as a mother that I must always remember how many years it has been since she was born, just as I know the ages of my other children. I don’t want to have to fumble for the number and do the math in my head. I just want to know it, just as I know the ages of my sons whenever someone asks how old they are. But, of course, she’s not nine years old. She only lived for four years.
So which is it? Is she forever four? Or was she four when she died and “would have been” nine now? Whatever the answer, it serves as a painful reminder that I’ve lost the joy of seeing my daughter grow. I’m trapped in a world where I’ll always be wondering what she would have looked like? What would she have been interested in? What sports would she have played? Or would she have hated sports and preferred some artistic pursuit instead? The questions are endless.
Having all boys at home, I have no points of reference for what might have been. I have no close friends with daughters who are nine that I can hang out with and longingly see how they act or what music they’re into or what clothes they wear. I look at girls at the park and try to guess how old they are, but I’m never sure. I get glimpses of girls her “would have been” age every now and again, but they are sparse and intermittent at best.
I’m quite sure I’d be sick of the Frozen soundtrack by now, which most likely would have been on heavy rotation in our house. I’m quite sure she would have had her own funky sense of style, and drawers and closets overflowing with a variety of clothes based on her love of them in the four years she lived. I’m quite sure she’d still be driving her brothers nuts, yet endearing herself to them at the same time.
But that’s just it – it is the underlying pain of not knowing. No matter how far I’ve come in my journey of grief, I will always be left longing for the future I’ll never get; a future that contains all my children. So I’m left with a future that contains five children. Four of whom I’ll get to watch grow and mature, and one who will be four when she died and would have been…
From the moment you came into my life, I hated you. I despised you. You came on the heels of my worst nightmare come true – the death of my young daughter. I didn’t know your name at the time. I just knew that you brought with you all the horrible feelings and emotions I had spent a lifetime learning how to repress and ignore.
You broke my defenses down like they were candles trying to stay lit in a hurricane. You pounded me with pain, panic, anger, confusion, hysterics, anguish…and too many more to list. Mostly you came in waves; pounding one emotion down on me after another, but in such quick succession it was hard to even breathe or stand. Sometimes the feelings and emotions came in combinations, leaving me a shaking, sobbing, angry mess. Soon, people around me who knew better told me that you had a name.
Your name was Grief.
When I realized who you were and how you operated, I decided to wage war on you. I felt I couldn’t possibly continue the barrage of emotions that constantly debilitated me, so I became determined to stop you in your tracks and send you back to the depths of darkness you came from.
In the early weeks and months, my first defense against you was to “play dead” like an opossum being hunted by predators. My mind became numb to dull your overwhelming pain. I felt as though I had become an automated machine going through the motions of life without really experiencing it. The sensation felt like when you stare at the open road in front of you on a long, boring drive and then can’t remember how you got from one place to another. But over time, you found ways to defeat my numbness.
I then tried distracting myself with work; burying myself with so much busyness you couldn’t force your way in. But you were always there lurking in the shadows waiting for your moment to strike. Most often you would pounce when someone broke me out of my busy stupor by innocently asking, “How are you?” At that moment, my concentration broke and you flooded into every crevice of my body. Enraged, I thought to myself, “Do you REALLY want to know how I am?” But I’d bite my tongue and flatly answer, “Fine,” while you surged your pain through my body.
Having lost these battles, I began scanning over countless books and articles to try to discover your tactics and secret weapons so that I could plot my next moves. I attended therapy and support groups to learn from the experts and others who had survived you so that I could gleam their winning strategies and use them for myself in defeating you. It didn’t do much good. I found myself withdrawing from everything and everyone around me to try to isolate myself from you and all your triggers. It only served to strengthen your resolve.
Occasionally, I won small victories. Talking about you and your oppressiveness to others seemed to send you away momentarily. But in the quiet moments, you always reappeared. Writing about you made me feel as though I had the upper hand, but the glow of victory soon faded after the last word had been written. Exercising seemed to alleviate your oppression, but in retaliation, you often cranked up your attacks to leave me too exhausted – physically and mentally – to find the motivation to work out. Spending time in nature often gave me a sense of peace and inner strength that softened you some, but could never defeat you altogether.
I spent years fighting you until I finally accepted this fact: I cannot beat you. I cannot make you go away. In fact, the more I fight you, the stronger your feelings and emotions take over me. I’ve found that you feed on fear and anger. I’ve discovered you thrive and grow from any attempts to control or resist you.
So, if I can’t win, I officially wave my white flag and surrender. But I do so on my terms:
I Will No Longer Fear You
Despite the few times when I thought the only escape from you was to end my own life, I am still here; still standing. I have survived every painful emotion; every panic attack; every uncontrollable rage; every bout of severe depression. I am stronger than I ever thought possible, and will no longer fear your attacks. While I know some will still come out of nowhere, take my breath away and bring me to my knees, I will stay calm and know that your attack will eventually subside. I will ride the wave and let it take me where it will, knowing that eventually I will find my way home.
I Will Support Your Other Victims
Much like others supported me in my time of need; I will reach out a supportive hand to anyone who is within your grasp. I will listen quietly to their story as many times as they need to tell it. I will share my experience with those who seek it in hopes it will bring them a sense of understanding and community.
I Will Learn From You
Since you can be a destructive force to those who resist you, I will instead pull you closer and look to you as my ultimate teacher. For I have learned that deep within your pain and suffering lie kernels of truth and knowledge on how to live a meaningful life: a life without fear; a life filled with love and compassion. As you were created by losing a cherished loved one, you have love at your core. I will learn how to find the love at the center of every pain. I will learn to find the truth at the center of every fear. And when I learn these truths, I will share my knowledge with the world.
These are the terms of my surrender, and I know you have no choice but to accept them.
From the moment we found out you were coming into our lives, we felt electric: a mix of excitement, adrenalin, and a dose of fear for good measure. We dutifully began plotting the course of our lives together – starting with milestones like Kindergarten, puberty, graduation, career, wedding, grandchildren, etc. Then we began making our maps more detailed with our hopes and dreams for you. We prepared as well as we could for your arrival.
On the day we welcomed you into our lives, we held out our loving arms and said softly, “Welcome. We’ve been waiting for you.” We stared into the vast universe reflected deep within your eyes with awe and wonder. You were a part of us; an extension of our very being. As you stared back into our eyes, a feeling of intense love for you took hold in every cell of our body. This was true, unconditional love with no boundaries and no end.
Our lives were more meaningful with you in it. You gave us a greater sense of purpose and a profound sense of responsibility. Your life was ours to protect; ours to mold and guide. We needed to teach you all that we knew, and try to help you avoid the mistakes we made. We wanted to afford you every opportunity to make your unique mark on this world. We wanted to make sure your life would become better than our own. In return, all we asked from you was your continued unconditional love, because it felt wonderful. Better than anything else in this life of ours.
We did the best we could as parents. We weren’t perfect. We made plenty of mistakes intermixed with our successes. We got off course of our map here and there and had to identify some new routes. But the destination was always the same: we would take care of you until one day you would take care of us. At that point we would say goodbye and leave you to be on your own. By then you would have a family and be following your own map. We’d leave happy in the knowledge that we made the world a better place by bringing you into it.
But then the impossible happened: you died before we did.
On the day you died, our hearts shattered into a million pieces, as did the world around us. We were left in a dark, unfamiliar place where pain filled every cell of our body where love once lived. The air around us was now hard to breathe. Gravity was stronger than before, and the simple act of sitting or standing used up all of our strength and energy. Our map had disintegrated and we were hopelessly, utterly lost in the darkness of horror and misery.
Amid the darkness, familiar hands grabbed ours. Voices of family and friends guided us as we fumbled about in this strange new world, not knowing what to do. These family and friends all gathered around us to ceremoniously say goodbye to you. And yet we couldn’t. The words never made it to our mouths. We were sure this was all a mistake – a nightmare that we would wake up from and find you standing over us smiling and laughing. We cried out for you, but got no answer in return.
As our family and friends left us to be on our own without you, the familiar world we once knew began to reappear around us. And yet it was very different than before. We could interact with it, but we couldn’t touch this world because we were trapped in a bubble of despair. And yet most people couldn’t see our bubble. To them, it looked as if we were the same person we were before you died – maybe sadder, but basically the same. They expected us to quickly go back to our old routines and be our “old selves”. But they couldn’t see our bubble, and that we had fundamentally changed.
Inside that bubble, everything felt overwhelming. Our reactions to common sights and sounds were different than before. Laughter and joy made us angry and sick to our stomach. We were filled with resentment that the world itself hadn’t ceased to exist when you died. Happiness was now out of reach, and we felt as though we’d never get it back. Some of us didn’t want it back if you weren’t there to share it with us. Even when we were surrounded by people outside our bubble, we felt hopelessly alone and misunderstood.
We became excellent actors worthy of an Oscar. We learned to pretend we were better and back to normal for the benefit of those around us. “Fine” is how we mostly answered the question of, “How are you?” We looked desperately around us for people who actually wanted to hear the truth. We were not fine. When you left us, you took a part of us, and the void it left still ached with a pain so unbearable, we couldn’t find adequate words to describe it.
A few people could see our bubbles; most of them lived in bubbles themselves. Unlike the majority of people in the world around us, these people had the ability to reach inside our bubble and embrace us with understanding. We didn’t have to pretend to be ok around them. We could break down and cry as loud and long as we needed to without worrying about making them uncomfortable. We found a sense of community that we had lost when you died. But none of this made the pain go away.
Over time, small cracks began to develop in our bubbles. These cracks let more light into our dim world. The air that came inside was easier to breathe. The gravity lightened a bit. It still hurt to be alive in a world without you, but we began to learn how to adjust to it so that it wasn’t as debilitating as before.
Many of us learned to pry open the cracks in our bubbles a bit more to let in even more light and air. This changed the chemistry of the atmosphere inside our bubble from that of despair to a mix of memories and longing for you. We learned how to feel happiness and joy once again, even though it never made the pain deep within us subside. We began to learn how to better function in the world around us while still in the confines of our bubbles.
Our bubbles never fully go away. They change over time and may shrink considerably, but the pain will never leave us. This is because the pain was created by – and coexists with – the love that invaded every cell of our body when we stared into your eyes that very first time. And sometimes, we can momentarily release the feeling of pain by focusing our attention on the love that lives with it. The secret is to focus on you and the love you gave us that still lives in our bodies. You remain with us and a part of us.
The fact is we would have died for you. We would have gladly given up our own lives in a heartbeat if it meant you could have continued living. But no one has ever learned how to go back in time to make that sacrifice. So we are left to live and breathe in a world without you. We have to create a new map that takes us into uncharted territory. We do this in your honor. We do this in honor of our family and friends that remain by our side.
We will continue down this new path until we take our own last breaths. And when we leave this world and head into the unknown, we hope to see you there with open, loving arms and hear you say softly, “Welcome. I’ve been waiting for you.”
© Maria Kubitz 2014
I visited my 95-year old grandmother yesterday. She lives over 300 miles from me, so I don’t get to see her as often as I’d like. As we sat catching up, she mentioned that she had been having more and more thoughts about times earlier in life when, in her words, she did things that “were not very nice”. The example she gave me was when, as a frustrated young mother, she spanked my father out of anger during potty training that wasn’t going too smoothly. Recalling the memory brought her to tears.
Knowing my father is coming to stay with her in a few days, I suggested she apologize to him for it so that she can get it off her chest and give him the opportunity to forgive her. Perhaps it will allow her to let the bad memory and associated guilt go. She seemed to like the idea. But the more I think about our conversation, I’m wondering how someone can let go of guilt when the person they feel they’ve hurt is no longer here to apologize to?
The finality of death is a difficult reality to come to terms with, and it often comes suddenly and without warning. Many times there are no opportunities to even say our goodbyes, much less give us the chance to heal all our old wounds with that person.
Sometimes we lose someone we love (or once loved) who we’ve had a difficult relationship with – or are even estranged from – and we are left with the guilt that we didn’t do enough to “fix” the relationship when we had a chance. Guilt may be intermixed with anger, especially if we felt we were the ones who need an apology from them – which we’ll never receive.
Even if we lose someone we had a wonderful relationship with, the pain from losing them is bound to bring up some level of guilt that our relationship was not “perfect” and we didn’t do or say everything we should have. After all, hindsight is 20/20.
In my case, the guilt is that I didn’t do enough to prevent my four-year-old daughter’s drowning death. I have apologized to her more times than I can count. But without her here to say the words, “I forgive you Mama,” the apology never seems to be enough; at least not enough to let go of the lingering guilt and shame.
So what do we do? Do we just live with the guilt for the rest of our lives? Do we just accept it as something we can’t change, much like the pain of grief that never fully goes away? Or do we try to shift our thinking, and change who it is we are apologizing to? Can we instead apologize to someone who is actually here to say, “I forgive you”?
The fact is, even if the person we lost were still here to accept our apology, we still need to forgive ourselves for the feelings of guilt to go away. In the case of my grandmother, even if my father accepts the apology – which, of course, he will – she will still need to forgive herself for a mistake she made almost 70 years ago in order to let the painful feeling go. The hope is that forgiveness from my dad will give her a sense of permission to forgive herself.
So rather than asking for forgiveness from the person we’ve lost – who we’ll never get a response from – perhaps we should be asking ourselves for forgiveness instead.
In my case, I need to come to terms with the fact that I am only human and make mistakes. Whether or not different choices or actions would have somehow kept my daughter alive…I’ll never know. I need to accept that my mistakes do not define me. Instead, I can use them as an opportunity to learn better decision-making skills and responses moving forward.
I am a work-in-progress, and will be for the rest of my life. Rather than asking my daughter for forgiveness, I need to ask it of myself. Will it be easy? No. But it will be the only way I will ever have a chance at letting go of my guilt and the shame associated with it.
Today, when I speak to my grandmother, I will tell her much of the same. My hope for her, myself, and everyone else who suffers the painful burden of guilt is that somehow we will find the strength to forgive our past mistakes and focus instead on how we can use the knowledge we’ve learned the hard way to make the best of the present.
I read about a little three-year-old girl who was killed when a heavy security door fell on her during a crowded fundraiser at an ice cream shop. In what can only be described as a freak, tragic accident, her devastated family is left to wonder “why?” Why her? Why did she have to be in that exact spot in the moment when the door fell? Why did the door fall at all? These questions may torment them for a long time to come. Her death is a palpable reminder that much of the time, death is very unfair.
In many support group meetings that I’ve attended over the years, a common refrain I hear is, “It isn’t fair.” Most often, they are referring to a situation where their loved one died at the hands of someone else. For example, they were hit by a drunk driver, and the person at fault came out of it with barely a scratch. In fact, fairness is in the eye of the beholder, and many bereaved people find themselves angry at the unfairness of the circumstances of their loved one’s death.
I understand their pain. Why did their mother get cancer at the young age of 45, when she had gone to great lengths to take good care of her health while other seem to indulge in many vices for years on end and live well into their 90s? Why did their brother get thrown out of the car and die when everyone else survived the crash with only cuts or broken bones? Why was their baby stillborn after an otherwise healthy full-term pregnancy, while we hear countless stories of babies born many weeks premature who survive? The fact is we consider death to be unfair whenever someone dies before we think it’s their time.
Try as you might, you cannot explain the unfairness away. No one who is bereaved wants to hear, “It was part of God’s plan; we are not meant to understand.” Well it wasn’t part of our plan, and it hurts like hell. “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” is not only unhelpful, but some may argue insensitive. Chances are they were in the place they were supposed to be, going about their day like just like the rest of us. But unlike the rest of us, the unthinkable happened. It is random; it is unpredictable; and it isn’t fair.
Agonizing over why they died can become an insidious trap that many bereaved get stuck in. It keeps us up at night. It can turn us into a shadow of the person we once were. It can freeze us in a state of despair or anger – or both. Unfortunately, to my knowledge there is no secret cure that can be conveyed in words. We are all unique, and so is our grief. We all need to process it at our own pace and in our own way. For some, it may take months; for others, it may take years; and some may never come to stop asking why their loved one died.
For me, it came down to accepting the finality of my daughter’s death. At four-years-old, she had drowned in our pool when no one was looking. While I knew how she died, I grappled with those questions of why. Why did the circumstances of the day unfold as they did? What if any one of those actions or choices were different; would it have changed the outcome? Why did it have to happen to us – a loving, supportive family who took good care of each other? Was there some bigger reason that I wasn’t aware of? The questions haunted me and took up all my energy.
I read many books to try to find the answers. I went to individual therapy and asked them over and over, knowing there was no answer she could give, but at least I said them out loud. I heard my questions echoed by others in the support group meetings I attended; it made me feel understood and not alone in my anguish. Eventually, I came to the understanding that continuing to ask the questions just kept feeding the dark beast that is guilt and despair. I came to realize that even if I had the answers, my daughter would still be dead and the pain would remain. So, I made the choice to stop asking why. I decided to replace it with purpose.
My daughter had died and I couldn’t change it – so what was I going to do to honor her life and memory? I’ve heard of many wonderful ways people channel their pain into ways to honor their loved one’s memory. I’ve heard of others creating large foundations in their name to help others. I’ve heard of others performing small acts of kindness for strangers in honor of their loved one. I’ve heard of everything in between. In my case, I decided to create www.aliveinmemory.org to use my personal talents to try to help others in their grief.
No matter what the act or activity, focusing your efforts on finding a way to honor your loved one can provide meaning for a death that appeared to have none. It can help shift our focus from despair to love; from anger to acceptance. And while it will never change the fact that their death was unfair, it can help us begin to heal.