Living With Grief
Helping others through shared experiences
Many people can feel alone in their grief, not realizing that others have similar thoughts and experiences. Hear from other people and families about how they are coping and navigating their lives after losing a loved one. We welcome you to share your own stories or articles about living with grief. Submit an article.
I lost my ex-husband, Bill, (father to my 3 children) last July 2013. The grief struck me hard. He fought the disease of addiction. The addiction won the battle. He was just so tired and took his life. I too have seen signs via several ladybugs and one dragon fly. I believe wholeheartedly it was him trying to comfort me and let me know he was ok. I found aliveinmemory.org via a search on ladybugs and afterlife. I believe more than ever in life after death now.
I recently watched a video of a TED talk by Ash Beckham taped in September 2013. In the TED talk, Ash suggests that being “in the closet” is not merely a reference to hiding your true sexuality from others, but says, “I think we all have closets. Your closet may be telling someone you love her for the first time, or telling someone that you’re pregnant, or telling someone you have cancer, or any of the other hard conversations we have throughout our lives. All a closet is, is a hard conversation, and although our topics may vary tremendously, the experience of being in and coming out of the closet is universal. It is scary, and we hate it, and it needs to be done.” It’s an interesting metaphor, and – I think – an accurate one.
The video made me reflect on all the “closets” I’ve put myself in throughout my life because I always avoided those difficult conversations. An unintended result of avoiding difficult conversations is that it forced me to hide my true self and true feelings almost all of the time. I just stuffed all those painful, uncomfortable feelings deep into my dark closet. In that sense, I now wonder if I had spent virtually my whole life locked in a dark closet, not only hiding from others, but rejecting my true self. I was avoiding having the tough conversations with myself regarding the fact that I was incredibly unhappy with various aspects of my life.
One of the aspects of my life I was never unhappy with was my role as mother. I find deep, rewarding joy and contentment in nurturing my children and helping them figure out this complicated thing we call “life”. It was the one aspect of my life that remained constant and fulfilling. So when my daughter died suddenly in 2009, the foundation of one of the best parts of my life was shattered.
For the first time in my life, the pain was so overwhelming, I couldn’t figure out how to stuff it in a closet like I had with all those other uncomfortable feelings. I wanted to scream from the rooftops how horrible, unfair, unbelievable, and intolerable this pain was. It was suffocating. Unlike all those times before, I was face-to-face with my true self and couldn’t push her back into the shadows of my closet. The day my daughter died began the most important and difficult conversation I’ve ever had – and it is a conversation with myself. That conversation has a name for me: Grief.
Sure, I tried to avoid that conversation at first. From the first few days after Margareta died, I looked to others to provide comfort and support. I went to grief counseling and as many bereavement support groups as I could find. I found other parents who had lost a child to commiserate with. But as I sat there crying and telling my story and sharing my feelings, I wasn’t really talking to them…I was starting to talk to myself.
That scared, hurt person inside of me who had lived in the dark corner of a closet within me for so many years began to speak. She spoke of vulnerability, of fear, of uncertainty, of feeling lost and alone. And for the first time in my life, I finally stopped ignoring her and began to listen. I began to try to comfort her – to sit down, hold her hand, tell her I wasn’t going anywhere, and that we would figure out this impossible situation together.
It wasn’t easy. It forced me to face a lot of deeply ingrained fears and negative feelings I had avoided for so long. It was uncomfortable. It was painful. But it helped. The benefits weren’t obvious at first. Over time, it became easier to face those uncomfortable, painful feelings. So much so that I began to process not just my devastating grief over Margareta’s death, but the grief of other “losses” throughout my life. Not losses of people, but losses of other significant hopes and dreams.
My willingness to invest time and energy into this difficult conversation that is grief has helped me reinvest in this life, even though the landscape has irrevocably changed. While my hopes and dreams have been forced to change, it doesn’t mean the new landscape that I find myself in has to permanently be bleak and devoid of all happiness and joy. Margareta wouldn’t have wanted it that way. My other children and family certainly don’t want it that way. And the person who used to be stuck in that dark closet has no intentions of ever going back into it. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
In the months after my daughter’s death in 2009, I found myself struggling with the notion that others around me didn’t appear to be grieving the “right way.”
Initially, I was frustrated that for the most part, my husband and other children didn’t openly cry or talk about her death the same way I did. Occasionally, I felt outright angry that they appeared to be knowingly suppressing their pain, or showing signs of depression while refusing my urges for them to go to grief counseling. Despite no spoken requests from them, I took cues from their silence and felt compelled to tone down my own feelings of despair around my family. It made me feel isolated in the place where I thought I should be getting the most support – at home.
Not getting the specific type of support I wanted at home, I desperately looked for it in other places. I read book after book about death and grief. I talked with grief counselors. I participated in multiple support groups. I was so driven to talk about my daughter’s death and the devastation it brought. It seemed to me the only way to survive the unbearable pain. But even in those settings – while there were many similarities in how we grieved – I would still find myself a bit frustrated at the numerous differences.
It seemed that the experience of losing a child was different than losing a parent, spouse, or other cherished loved one. But even when I was around other bereaved parents, there were other differences: the age of the child when they died, the circumstance of their death, the support systems each person had in place, or the length of time since their child had died.
While I appreciated the opportunity to find some solace in telling my story to all these people, I found that I ended up comparing their grief to my own.
In the beginning, I was doing it to try to figure out the “right” way to grieve: the way that would somehow alleviate my intense suffering. Talking helped, but nobody shared my exact situation. Therefore, no one shared all the same combination of struggles as me. It made me frustrated.
Later in my grief, if I saw where others struggled in areas I seemed to have a handle on, I offered advice. Just like the situation with my immediate family in the early months, I thought I knew what was best for these people. When they wouldn’t follow my advice – despite it being offered in the best of intentions – I found myself frustrated again. The problem with this approach is that it can unintentionally imply that there is a “wrong” and a “right” way to grieve. But there isn’t.
I can pinpoint the moment when this all became perfectly clear to me. It was while attending a Compassionate Friends conference. During a session, the speaker talked about her own experience of losing her son, and how she grieved differently than both her husband and other son. She discussed studies that showed the typical ways fathers, mothers, and siblings grieve the death of a child (no matter their age). It all confirmed my own experiences.
But then she said something I’d never thought of before. She suggested the main reason we grieve differently – even in the case of a family grieving the same loved one – is because we are not grieving the person; rather, we are grieving our relationship with that person.
Every relationship is unique. So too is our reaction to losing that relationship. In this example, a father’s relationship with his child is fundamentally different than that of a mother’s relationship with that same child. And neither the mother nor the father can truly understand the relationship their surviving child(ren) had with that same child. You can apply this concept to any family member or friend.
In that same line of thought, even if my earlier attempts to find someone who had experienced a loss in the exact same set of circumstances as me had worked, I still wouldn’t have found what I was looking for. Even if our circumstances were somehow the same, our relationships with our loved one could never be the same. Therefore, our grief wouldn’t be either.
Ultimately, I’m left with the understanding that what works for me, works for me. It may or may not work for others. My way is not “right” and different ways are not “wrong.” While I still may be tempted to offer advice to others, I have learned not to judge if they don’t take it. My hope still remains that everyone faced with a devastating loss will somehow find their way through it with the support and understanding they need.
Guilt is a powerful emotion. In my experience, guilt seems to be a combination of various feelings: sadness, regret, embarrassment, shame, incompetence, failure, etc. But no matter what feelings go into forming it, the result is always the same: blame. Whether we deserve it or not, guilt takes over when we blame ourselves for something we think we did wrong or wish we could have done better.
For many who have lost someone dear to them, we find that guilt often creeps in almost immediately. We may feel guilty that we didn’t get to say everything we wanted to or spend as much time with them as we thought we should have. In a situation where we had to make choices for their care or medical treatment, we may feel guilty that we didn’t make the choice they would have wanted. We may feel guilty that we didn’t fight hard enough to keep them alive; or that we didn’t see the “warning signs” to catch “it” early enough.
In some situations, guilt after a loss is more complicated, and often unwarranted. For example, the loss of a child often brings misplaced guilt. Parents feel a responsibility for taking care of and protecting their children, even when their children are grown. I’ve heard bereaved parents blame themselves for just about any type of death at any age. A parent whose young child died of cancer blamed themselves for not seeing the symptoms soon enough – and even for passing along the gene that caused the cancer. A parent whose college-age son died in a spring break car crash being driven by a friend who fell asleep at the wheel blamed themselves for not stopping their child from going on the vacation in the first place. A parent of an adult addicted to drugs blamed themselves for not doing enough to help their child overcome their addiction, as if it were in their power to do so. The stories go on and on.
But in some cases, the guilt is expected, and some may even say warranted. These are the “preventable” deaths. My daughter’s death was one of these preventable deaths; she drowned. Not only did she drown, she drowned at home in our pool while we were at home. It is still somewhat hard for me to say that. I could spend lots of time giving every detail of what happened that day. I could tell you until I am blue in the face that her death was a complete accident and had I known what was going to happen, I would have gladly traded my life for hers. But the fact is that many who hear that a four year old girl was near an uncovered pool alone – no matter for how short a time – will lay blame upon us for not being with her or taking steps to prevent it. And I cannot argue with them.
My deep guilt magnified the despair I felt after she died. It made me feel like a complete failure as a mother, and even as a human being. It led me to thoughts of suicide, which I thankfully never came close to acting upon. It made me ashamed to tell anyone how she died. I chose my words carefully to avoid having to disclose the reason. I thought that saying “she passed away” or “we lost our daughter” would be more acceptable than “she died” or even “she died in a tragic accident” – which was true, but was the most likely to lead to the dreaded response, “Oh I’m sorry. May I ask how?”
I’ve spent many hours in counseling and support groups who have told me over and over that it was a terrible, tragic accident and that I shouldn’t feel guilty. They gave me all the reasons why it was an accident, and how it could have happened to anyone – and often does. The sad fact is that drowning is the leading cause of death for children under the age of five. I listened and nodded in understanding. But deep down, the guilt remained.
Four years after her death, while I cannot say that my guilt over my daughter’s death is completely gone, it has loosened its grip. Why? I think it all comes down to choice and perspective.
I recently read an article describing how humans have an inherent tendency to focus on the negative. Born out of primal survival skills, if we are always aware of the danger around us, we are better prepared to run from it. As a result, we’re often unconsciously looking at the downside to every situation and anticipating the next potential threat. The problem arises when tendencies turn into habits and then long-term habits begin to shape our reality without us even realizing it. But when you hit the proverbial “rock bottom” – in my case, the death of my daughter – and you survive it, one of the only ways to go is up.
“Up” for me has been slowly learning a new perspective on life using the lessons I’ve learned the hard way. Learning how to embrace life and live it to the fullest. Learning how to replace tendencies of negative thinking with conscious choices based on love, truth, compassion, and joy. Learning how to stop worrying over the past and future, and focusing on what I can control here and now. It has not been easy to try to overcome lifelong habits, but it has been rewarding.
I’ve chosen to focus less on how she died and more on how she lived. I’ve chosen to remember how vibrant, confident, adventurous, and loving she was – and know that it is a testament not just to her inherent personality, but to the loving, supportive environment we provided for her. I have chosen to acknowledge that it is an unrealistic idea that we can keep an eye on our children 24 hours a day, and for the most part they manage to stay safe; but that accidents do happen. I am confident in knowing that I remain, and always have been, a loving mother who adores her children and provides a nurturing environment for them. And I can happily say that I know how much my children love and adore me.
Whether my guilt will ever completely go away remains to be seen. Until then, I’m going to keep chipping away at it by sharing the unending love I have for my daughter with the world as my witness.
Possibly one of the hardest aspects of grief for me has been that I can’t control it.
I spent the majority of my life trying desperately to control everything in it. I wanted life to be predictable and – above all – peaceful. The problem has been what I tried to control and how I’d gone about it. I spent many, many years trying to control the people and situations around me through careful, strategic use of my own words, actions (or lack thereof), and responses. It was exhausting and depressing. And as you can imagine, it never really worked. Maybe I could temporarily create the illusion of control; but it would never last.
Many, including myself, try to control our lives out of a need to feel safe or secure in our surroundings. Fear of the unknown can be incredibly scary, and even panic-inducing. When situations or people around us cause us to experience uncomfortable feelings like hurt, anxiety, frustration, anger, or guilt, we tend to want to do anything and everything to make those feelings subside. Sometimes, we can take various actions to change the situation or influence the person to behave differently. But sometimes, we are completely at the mercy of unpredictability and the unknown.
Death and grief are one of those times.
On the day my daughter drowned, amid all the chaos of trying to revive her, I remember pleading with whoever happened to be listening to save her. I can hear myself screaming: “Please save her. Please. Please. Oh god. NO. PLEASE SAVE HER. SHE CAN’T DIE,” amid hysterical sobs and falling to my knees. The idea that she was dead and couldn’t be saved was unacceptable. No. Through sheer determination, I would will her back to life. And yet even on that day while I watched the paramedics and then the ER staff desperately work on her, part of me knew she had already died.
The grief that took over in the aftermath of her death was overwhelming. Looking back, I’m not sure what was worse: the excruciating pain of missing my daughter, or the complete and utter lack of control of anything. I couldn’t change what happened and bring her back to life. I couldn’t control my thoughts or emotions and was a complete wreck. Things that used to be automatic and easy, like cooking or showering were unbearable and almost impossible. I could no longer tell my other children that “everything would be ok” when I couldn’t possibly imagine that anything would ever be “ok” again.
But it wasn’t just a loss of control. It was being face-to-face with the unknown. Questions raced through my head. What if I had just stopped to play with her the last time she asked? What if I had brought her with me that morning? Why did it happen to us? Will I ever be ok again? What is going to happen to my family? My other children? My marriage? What happens after we die? Will I ever see her again? None of these questions could be answered. I couldn’t control any of it by choosing the “right” words or actions.
As time went on, my grief took many unexpected twists and turns. I never knew how I would feel from one moment to the next. I never knew what would trigger my emotions and leave me a crying mess, or in an angry rage, or in a state of panic. And the triggers themselves were random and unpredictable. I would desperately try to figure out what triggered me to try to avoid it in the future. But most of the time, I felt completely out of control. And despite attending counseling and support groups, there was nothing I could really do about it.
I’m not sure when I came to terms with it. I’m not sure when I accepted that grief, in its very nature, is unpredictable and uncontrollable. But when I did finally accept it, it had an unexpected result: I felt relief. It was as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Now, when intense grief appears seemingly out of nowhere, I am better able to accept it, process it, seek support for it, and know that it will eventually pass.
I don’t know what the future will bring, but for the first time in my life, I’m ok with that. I no longer hope for the best while expecting the worst. I no longer try to control others with my words and actions. Instead, I try to speak the truth and express my feelings and needs. I’m ok with focusing on the here and now, yet not forsaking planning for the future. It takes less energy. It produces less anxiety. It provides more contentment. It allows me to enjoy the moment.
But I would be lying if I didn’t admit I still wish I could change the past.
I love and miss you Margareta.
For many, welcoming in the New Year is a celebration of optimism and hope. Many see it as a fresh start and a chance to take steps to improve both their lives and perhaps themselves. Of course, this isn’t a view shared by all. For the newly bereaved, the New Year can be an incredibly painful milestone.
Thinking back to the first New Year after the death of my daughter four years ago, I was blindsided by how painful it was for me. She died on September 30, so I had been preoccupied with overwhelming anxiety over how I was going to handle Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. What would I do? What wouldn’t I do? What if I broke down or had a panic attack on a day that was supposed to be a celebration?
Since I had never been much of a participant in New Year’s Eve festivities, it didn’t even occur to me that the New Year holiday would be a big deal. But in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, I began to realize I was actually dreading it. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that a new year was coming and my daughter wouldn’t be alive in it. I wanted time to stop. I actually got angry about it. There would be no resolutions. No hope. No optimism. All I saw was more impossible pain on the horizon.
Some of you reading this may feel the same despair I did four years ago. The idea that anything good can ever happen again may feel impossible. The mere idea of smiling, laughing, and enjoying life may feel like a betrayal of your loved one. And if you feel that way, it’s ok – it is a normal reaction to grief.
Only when you feel you are ready, I encourage you to give yourself permission to look for hope again. Perhaps it is like a New Year’s resolution. But unlike most resolutions that are doomed from the start because they are too ambitious and too vague, I suggest you set specific, very small goals with the aim of re-learning basic every day habits – but this time with a new perspective.
In the case of resolutions, most people fail because they try to take on too much at once and don’t have the willpower to change the habits that serve as barriers to their goals. I learned this idea after reading an article called “How Simple Mini Habits Can Change Your Life” by Stephen Guise on the Tiny Buddha website. The basic idea of the article is that you can change your habits by setting mini goals that are so simple to achieve, you actually do them. And if you do them consistently for a certain length of time – let’s say one month – they become a new habit.
Getting back to the idea of allowing yourself to look for hope in the New Year, if I were to suggest mini goals based on my personal experience, here’s what they might be:
1. Say or write one word that describes how you are feeling every day.
One of the hardest parts of grief is our natural reaction to try to suppress the pain. This might be done through outright denial, keeping busy (and therefore distracted from it), numbing it with drugs or alcohol, etc. The problem with this is that suppressing the pain only makes it worse, and can even prolong it. By saying or writing one word that describes how you feel each day, the hope is that you learn to express your feelings so that you can work through them and ultimately let them go. This might be done by journaling, attending a support group – either in person or online, talking with family or friends, or even a grief counselor. Words that I might have used four years ago to describe how I felt could include despair, guilt, panic, fatigued, hopeless, numb, disbelief, angry, despondent, etc.
2. Acknowledge one nice thing that happened that day.
When you are deep in grief, you tend to focus on what you’ve lost and the searing pain associated with it. Your world might become bleak and filled with despair. By acknowledging one nice thing that happened that day, you can begin to create a habit of gratitude, hope, and optimism. Even if you had these habits before your loss, the chances are you will experience them in a new, more meaningful way. Nice things could be as simple as someone holding the elevator door for you, or as significant as a friend stopping by to say hello and let you know they care about you.
3. Do one thing to take care of yourself every day.
This may not be difficult for some, but for myself and many others I know, this can be challenging even when you are not grieving. But in early grief, your energy is usually completely gone most of the time. Even basic chores like cooking or laundry can seem downright impossible. If there is one time in your life that you need to take care of yourself, it is now. Examples of how you can help take care of yourself include: asking your family or friends to help with things you normally take for granted (cooking a meal, doing a load of laundry, etc.), eating something healthy when you don’t have any appetite, taking a nap when you feel exhausted, letting yourself cry if you feel the urge, etc. It could even be something like treating yourself to a massage to help relieve the aching tension you are likely feeling.
4. Smile once every day.
For some, this may be the most difficult mini goal of them all. I know for a long time it was for me. I felt that if I smiled, it would somehow mean I was ok with my daughter’s death. I literally thought I had to be miserable for the rest of my life because of how much I missed her. For the sake of my other children, I forced myself to smile again. For a while, the smiles weren’t authentic, but eventually they led the way to real smiles. Further down the road, the permission to smile led to feeling happiness and even joy once again. Happiness and joy lead to hope and optimism.
That is my ultimate wish for you – happiness, joy, hope, and optimism. While you will likely have to re-learn how to invite them into your life, your ultimate motivation and guide will likely be the deep, enduring love you feel for the loved one you lost. And I know there is no end to the depth of that love.
“How are you?”
It is such a seemingly simple, benign question. Often, those who ask the question are not doing so out of real concern, but just as a polite, meaningless pleasantry. Just as often, those who answer the question would never think to respond with anything other than the implicitly expected “I’m fine” or “Good. How are you?” – even if everything wasn’t fine.
But what happens when the simple question of “How are you?” becomes a harsh reminder of the isolation felt by anyone struggling with overwhelming grief? What happens when it becomes the silent signpost marking the moment when the newly bereaved seemingly take two simultaneous paths: the one visible to the outside world where everything appears to be “OK”, and the invisible path they silently follow, because the ongoing pain associated with it isn’t usually welcomed by society.
Recently, I spoke with a mother who had lost her son less than a month before. During our conversation, she mentioned several times that she was handling it well with the incredible support she received from her family, religion, and friends. But then she mentioned that recently, she could sense that when they asked her “How are you?,” the tone was beginning to change. She said the question was beginning to be asked in a way that sounded as though they were tiring of her pain and were ready for her response to return to the standard, “I’m fine”.
It reminded me of my return to work a month after the death of my daughter. While some people welcome the return to work in an effort to distract themselves from the pain, I returned only because I needed the income. I recall the first day back, I made a beeline to my desk, desperately avoiding eye contact with everyone. I dreaded the inevitable question, “How are you?”.
And yet, it came. While many people did their best to avoid me just as I avoided them, some did come to offer their condolences and sadly ask how I was. If I was being honest with them, my response may have sounded something like this:
How am I? I’m completely devastated. The skin around my eyes is raw and hurts from crying so much. Yes – even a month after her death…and there’s no sign of it stopping any time soon. I’m completely exhausted – physically and emotionally. It took all my energy to get out of bed this morning, much less get in the shower and then dressed and into the car to drive to work. On the drive it was hard to see through my tears. At some moments I felt like steering my car off the road and into a telephone pole, but thankfully I didn’t. In addition to a constant feeling of pain and nausea in my stomach, I’m angry when I look around and see that everything is “business as usual” around here and the world continues to march on without my daughter in it. The sound of laughter makes me want to scream. How could anyone be happy right now? I don’t care at all about my job or what needs to be done, but seeing as how I need the money, I’m just going to put my head down and immerse myself in work. Hopefully it will mean that for a few hours today I’ll be distracted from the overwhelming pain I feel. But every time someone comes up to ask me how I am, I’ll be dragged back to into reality and the nightmare I find myself in. So, while I appreciate that you care, I’d rather you not ask. Maybe you could just tell me you’re sorry, or even give me a silent hug…and then walk away. I simply don’t have the energy right now to pretend that I’m “fine”.
But, of course, I wasn’t honest. My answer depended on how the question was worded. If they asked, “How are you?,” I replied, “Fine”. If they asked, “How are you doing?,” I answered “I’m doing”. Both were spoken in a flat tone of voice that implied I was not fine, and intended to discourage them from continuing the conversation. This may sound mean, but it took a lot of energy to keep myself from bursting into tears and telling them how I really was when they asked me that question. Because if I really was “fine”, what would that say about how I felt about my daughter? It made me feel guilty and angry at the same time.
Over time, answering that question got easier and felt less of a betrayal to my daughter. Eventually, I could answer “I’m fine” or even “I’m good” and truly mean it. But it took time and a lot of work. It took going to support groups where I could give an honest answer of how I was doing and no one would try to stop me. Everyone there would understand and encourage me to let it out.
In the last four years, I’ve learned how to acknowledge and express my grief when I need to, rather than keeping it inside where it simmers and grows. I’ve learned to accept that I have both good and bad days, and over time, the good began to outnumber the bad. I’ve learned to not let the guilt and pain associated with the bad days keep me from enjoying and appreciating my life.
How am I doing now? Even though I still miss my daughter terribly, I’m good.
I don’t know how anyone does it, I can’t really bring myself to write anything still, it’s been four years, and he left when he was a couple months after his first birthday. I have a daughter who is turning seven this November who is still with us, but not with me. I am a world apart from her. I can’t really allow myself to think about it most of the time, its just too much. It’s been four years since I last saw my daughter, and my son. They were perfect. I guess i just wanted to let someone know.
Submitted by Emilly Chang in memory of her son, Christopher Evan Patton, and with her living daughter, Chloe Evelyn, in her heart and thoughts.
In a few days, it will be the fourth anniversary of my daughter’s death. Over the past four years I have struggled with how to deal with this particular day. It isn’t like her birthday, which is now painful, but representative of a wonderful day in my life. Instead, it is a day that represents the worst day of my life. A day full of images, sounds, smells, and chaos that I’d rather erase altogether. It represents a day filled with horror. There is no other word I can use to adequately describe it. It may not have been a mass shooting or terrorist act that got 24-hour media attention, but it shattered my heart into a million pieces and part of me died that day too.
The year leading to the first anniversary of her death was agonizing. Everything that first year was new, uncharted territory, and each “first” – Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, family birthdays, vacation – was like swallowing broken glass. How could we celebrate when she wasn’t here to celebrate it with us? The fact that her first birthday after her death was a month before the first anniversary compounded the stress. These weren’t just events that the family should be together for, they were specifically representative of her.
That first year, I would lay awake in the middle of the night wondering how I could possibly get through the anniversary of her death without completely losing it? I decided I would hide from the world that day. I stayed home like a hermit, and the day came and went. But it was a day full of sadness. A day where I couldn’t hold back the images of that horrible day from invading my thoughts. A day when I replayed the “what if” and “why” questions I had let go of months before.
The second year, I was determined not to hide in sadness, but instead somehow transform the day into a positive one. I decided it would become a day of gratitude for the people who tried to help on the day she died. I wrote thank you cards and ended up walking to the fire station that responded to the 911 call. Taking two of my sons with me, we walked up to the fire house door and knocked. They came to the door and I explained why I was there. Two of the three firemen on duty said they had come to our house and worked on my daughter. With tears in my eyes, I thanked them for their efforts even though she hadn’t made it. With tears in their own eyes, they said they never forget the times that little kids don’t make it. While I’m glad I had the opportunity to talk to them in person, it didn’t provide me with the happiness I was hoping for.
The third year, I tried to treat it like just another typical day. That attempt simply ended in outbursts of anger resulting from repressing my emotions. The fact is, it isn’t just any other day to me. And I can’t pretend otherwise.
This year I am just going to take it as it comes. I know that it will be a sad day no matter what I do. This year, I have decided to do an activity I think my daughter would have enjoyed doing. I am hopeful that the day will bring some happiness to mix in with the sad, but I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t.
I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to approach the anniversary of our loved one’s death. What “works” for me may not “work” for anyone else. I’m sure my thoughts, anxieties, expectations, etc. will evolve over time. I don’t know that it can ever be a truly happy day for me. But I think I’ll just have to be ok with that. I don’t really have any other choice.
For most of my life, I feared death. As a child, if I let myself wonder about what happens when we die, I would end up in a state of panic and have to go to great lengths to distract myself from thinking about it. I’ve had many nightmares throughout my life where I face certain death – most often of being trapped in a car plummeting off a cliff toward the ocean below – only to wake up seconds before the moment of impact with my heart pounding.
Religion has never been a part of my life, and never will. Not accepting the idea of heaven and hell from any religious perspective, my only two ideas as a child of what happens to us after death were either being reincarnated or to just die and our body eventually becomes part of the earth. Neither one sounded comforting or appealing to my childhood logic. If I was reincarnated, I would be an entirely different person and have no memories of this lifetime. If death equaled nothingness, it amounts to the same thing. The idea that my life, my identity, and my memories would all be erased turned death into the ultimate fear for me.
In 2009, I experienced something far worse than my ultimate fear. Not my own impending death, but the death of someone whose life was more important than my own: my child.
In the early days and months after my daughter’s death, I once again grappled with what death meant. I was forced to face the question of what happens to us after we die? After reading many books and talking with others, I still found no real answers. I found no concrete evidence. I found no absolute reassurance. All I knew was that I desperately wanted her to still be with me. In some moments, I actually wanted to die…if it meant that there was even the slightest chance I could be with her again. Not to mention it seemed the only escape from the oppressive pain I felt. Of course, I knew the pain of my own death would cause my family even more anguish and would never do anything to cause my own death.
During this time, I began to notice what seemed like signs from my daughter. They started off as fascinating coincidences, but the more I noticed them, the more they felt like someone was trying to tell me something. Some signs involved dragonflies, others involved ladybugs, and most often I started seeing repeating numbers or number patterns each day, multiple times a day. None of this had ever happened before her death. I told select people, and some brushed it off as my mind wanting to assign meaning to things that had none, but others accepted wholeheartedly the idea that they were indeed signs from my daughter. Yet, as hopeful as I was that these signs were from my daughter, I was still skeptical on some level.
After years of receiving these signs, I am now fully convinced that they are my daughter’s way of reassuring me that she is always with me. I now believe that we continue to exist after our death. I don’t know how. I don’t know where. But I do wholeheartedly believe it. I am no longer afraid of death.
Then an interesting thing happened: in the past year, I have had several dreams where I’m falling towards the water, just as I had dreamed in nightmares many times before. But in these dreams, I didn’t wake up in a panic just before plunging in. Instead, I went into the water and instead of struggling for breath, I surrendered to the situation and relaxed. And in doing so, I didn’t feel pain or panic. Instead, I felt completely at peace.
I think that must be what death is like: a state of complete and absolute peace.
© 2013 Maria Kubitz