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.

A Gift for the Bereaved

Alive-in-Memory-A-Gift-for-the-Bereaved-smallThe holidays can be a lonely and difficult time for people who have lost someone close to them. Lonely from the isolation they feel at secretly – or not so secretly – resenting the joy the season brings when they are filled with despair so deep that it colors their every thought. Difficult because the overwhelming pain of missing someone so dear to them leaves them feeling as if it would have been easier if the world itself had just come to an end when their loved one died.

When you experience a loss so profound that it shakes you to your very core, your outlook on life inevitably changes. Things that once seemed important may tend to appear trivial in the sobering reality of the fragility and unpredictability of life. In this light, the materialism of Christmas and other gift-giving holidays might seem unimportant to them. Short of bringing their loved one back from the dead, they may not want to receive anything that can be wrapped in a box.

Thinking back to that first holiday season after my four-year-old daughter’s death, I didn’t want to receive gifts at all. What I craved the most involved no wrapping paper or bows. Many days I didn’t have the energy to venture out of the house or sometimes even to talk, and would have appreciated the simple act of quiet companionship. Sometimes all I wanted was a loving hug and someone to cry with.

Over the years since my daughter’s death, my grief has evolved and my needs have changed. However, one thing has remained the same: I miss hearing her name. After the first few weeks and months after Margareta’s death, most people stopped talking about her. It had become too painful for them. It is very isolating to feel the pain of missing someone, constantly think of them, and yet feel as though the rest of the world has forgotten about them.

The best gift family and friends could offer me now is the gift of hearing them say her name out loud without me bringing her up first. I would love the simple act of hearing them say, “I thought of Margareta today. I really miss her.” It might bring tears to my eyes, but it would bring happiness to my aching heart.

It’s the Most Difficult Time of the Year

Alive-in-Memory-Its-the-Most-Difficult-Time-of-the-Year-smallSo the song goes, it’s the “most wonderful time of the year” for many. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, etc…this is most certainly a holiday season. Sparkling lights and decorations adorn many houses and stores. Holiday advertisements, shows and songs saturate the airwaves. Cards from relatives, friends and vendors arrive day after day in the mail. Party invitations are sure to follow. You can’t help but see the joy and excitement in the faces of children and adults alike.

The problem is, there are a group of people who don’t see this as a season of joy – but one of dread. Dread of the constant reminders and inescapable torture of the pain associated with the loss of a cherished loved one during a time of year almost exclusively focused on celebrating family.

These people often suffer in quiet anguish, wishing they could completely shut out the outside world and all of its overwhelming holiday noise. They begin to resent the relentless happiness and joy…and may even come to hate this time of year.

My husband and I lost our four-year-old daughter, Margareta, in the fall of 2009. The Halloween and Thanksgiving that quickly followed had been very painful, but the anxiety of the impending first Christmas without her was devastating. How could we possibly celebrate a holiday primarily focused on children when one of our children had just died? While both of us would have preferred to skip Christmas altogether, we still had three other boys who believed in Santa.

In an attempt to try to alleviate some of the pain, we decided to alter our normal routine slightly. It was an effort to not just go about “business as usual” when there was nothing usual about this Christmas – much less life – anymore. So, instead of buying a regular Christmas tree, we borrowed a friend’s artificial tree. It wasn’t much different than a real one, but at least it was different.

Knowing it might be a confusing time for our boys, we took them to a workshop for bereaved children at a local hospice that was designed to help them navigate their conflicting feelings during the holidays. They made memorial candles for their sister and ornaments featuring her pictures. Guided by grief counselors, they shared their feelings with other children who had lost parents and grandparents.

Nevertheless, we were faced with the reality that preparing for Christmas must go on. Shopping for presents for our boys was pure torture. Walking past all the beautiful party dresses Margareta would have loved to wear, and seeing all the toys she would have wanted made me constantly have to fight back the tears amid the thick crowd of holiday shoppers.

We were faced with a new quandary: we couldn’t buy her gifts anymore; she wasn’t there to give them to. In the weeks before Christmas, one of our boys wondered aloud whether Santa knew if Margareta had died. I told him yes, Santa knows she died. It was quickly followed by the question, “Will he still bring her presents?” I didn’t know what to say, so I said as much. “I don’t know, but I’m sure Santa will know what to do.”

The truth was I didn’t know. This was all new territory and incredibly painful. My husband and I discussed whether we should participate in one of those programs where you can fulfill the wish list of a child in need, but it was all so overwhelming, we didn’t do it that year. Instead, we followed a suggestion I had read for people grieving during the holidays. I asked that we all write a note to her and put them into her stocking. Ultimately deciding that Santa would not leave her stocking empty, I purchased a wind chime I thought she would have liked. That was her only present.

Christmas morning came and the boys rushed to find the presents Santa had left them. They were lost in the magic of excitement while we stood by with smiles painted on our faces. We did find comfort in their joy, but it was hard to watch. After some hours had passed, we drove to the cemetery to hang up Margareta’s wind chime on a tree near her grave. Let me tell you…there is nothing quite as sobering and heartbreaking as having to visit your four-year-old daughter’s grave on Christmas day to deliver her present.

In the five years since her death, Christmas and the holiday season has become significantly easier. After years of difficult grief work, we have once again discovered the joy the season brings. We see it in the faces of our children. We look forward to sharing the excitement of our youngest child – born a year after Margareta’s death. We can truly celebrate the season once again.

Of course that doesn’t mean the pain is gone…just softened. As I wander through the stores during the holidays now, I face a new kind of pain. Instead of seeing what I know she would have wanted, I’m faced with the reality that I don’t know what she would have wanted. I don’t know what my daughter would have liked at nine-years-old. It is a hard reminder that we didn’t just lose our daughter – we lost our future with her in it.

So, if you find yourself dreading the impending holidays, know that you are not alone, and there are plenty of people that understand how you feel. Also know that as time goes on, it will get easier to handle, and one day you may come to find joy in the season again.

Wishing you peace.

To the Boy Who Has My Daughter’s Heart

Alive-in-Memory-To-the-Boy-Who-Has-My-Daughters-Heart-smallThe 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.

Hello,

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)

How Can I be Thankful?

“How can I possibly be thankful for anything anymore?” That’s what constantly raced through my head in the days before the first Thanksgiving after the death of my four-year-old daughter, Margareta, in September 2009. My husband and I had managed to skip Halloween completely that year, but the anticipation of the first big family holiday in the aftermath of Margareta’s death was overwhelming.

I discussed the anxiety with my grief counselor. What should I do? Should I accept my brother and sister-in-law’s invitation to Thanksgiving dinner? What if I burst into tears at the Thanksgiving table? Worse yet, what if I developed a full-blown panic attack? And there was no way I was going to participate in the tradition of going around the table saying what we were thankful for. NOTHING! There was nothing I was thankful for. In fact I was the absolute opposite of thankful. My daughter was dead…never coming back.

My counselor gave me helpful suggestions. She advised that I talk to my brother and sister-in-law and let them know that I preferred a small gathering over a big one. She said I should request that we not say what we were thankful for that year. She also suggested I sit in a chair closest to a door where I could quietly excuse myself and leave if I started to panic or cry. The advice alleviated some of my anxiety.

The first Thanksgiving went rather uneventfully. I managed to get through it unscathed. In the five years since, our family has often opted for non-traditional Thanksgiving venues. We’ve taken our other children skiing or to amusement parks. In those cases, Thanksgiving dinner was eaten unceremoniously at restaurants. Other times, we’ve participated in smaller traditional Thanksgiving dinners with relatives. We still don’t say what we’re thankful for. This year we’re going to have a quiet, smaller dinner at home.

I’m much better at dealing with holidays these days, but it is still a painful reminder that for the rest of my life, my daughter will remain missing from all our family events. While I am able to recognize many things to be thankful for in my life again, I will never be thankful that my daughter is dead. Ever.

I think the holidays get easier to handle as the years go on. The gaping wound has closed in the last five years, but the scar of a broken heart will last forever. Intense pain has been replaced by a quiet longing for my daughter. Rather than focusing on the devastating pain of her death, I’ll keep trying to learn to focus the joy her short life brought us – and for that, I am truly thankful.

Juggling Grief

Alive-in-Memory-Juggling-Grief-smallEver since I had my first child 15 years ago, my life is pretty crowded. As a busy, working mom, I often jump from one activity to the next until I collapse in exhaustion onto the couch in the evening. Part of this pattern stems from a life-long belief that I’m happiest when I’m helping others. I realize now that to help others in a meaningful way, I have to take care of myself first. Overwhelming grief taught me that.

Five years after my daughter’s death, I find myself juggling time for grief with all my other daily responsibilities. I manage to find time to write about it; I try to go to support groups and grief counseling when I can fit it in; and I visit the cemetery every couple of months when I’m having a particularly hard time. That’s not to say I don’t think about my daughter, Margareta, many times throughout the day – every day. But these days, I have reached a place in my journey where grief doesn’t suffocate and affect every minute of my day. It wasn’t always this way.

In the months after Margareta died, grief was everywhere. You know the phrase about looking at life through rose-colored glasses? I looked at life through grief-colored glasses. Not by choice, mind you. Regular things and activities became overwhelming and sources of intense pain through these glasses. Everything I did – every thought I had – was focused on how I would survive a pain that was so powerful, words can’t describe it.

The pain felt like being stuck in a pit of quicksand. I felt as if I were slowly being pulled under, and it took tremendous thought and effort to do basic things like feed my surviving children and get them to school and back. From what I understand about quicksand, the more you move your body and struggle to get out, the faster you sink. So, in hindsight, the debilitating physical and mental exhaustion brought on being caught in a quicksand of grief may have actually been helpful and had a purpose.

For the first time in my life, I was forced to put my own needs first. It forced me to drastically slow down my normally hectic life. It forced me to pay attention to my body; my health. It forced me to focus on me: my survival, my healing and personal growth so that I could then help and support my children in the way they were used to; the way they needed me to.

Learning how to better care of myself has been a slow and difficult process. Unlearning decades of bad habits and negative thoughts is not for the faint of heart. It takes dedication and effort. It requires being willing to unearth the buried pain of the past and thinking about it in a new way. It means having enough humility to admit I’ve been wrong in how I approach and deal with difficult situations. It takes courage to learn how to be more open and honest with myself and those I love. It is admitting that I have more to learn, and always will.

After years of hard work, I have come back to a place where my life is hectic once again. I think that comes with job of raising kids that range in age from four to fifteen. But this time, I’m better equipped to deal with it. I’m better able to balance my needs with theirs. I have a new perspective of what’s important to me, and what benefits my family the most. I’m not afraid to speak up and voice my concerns both at home and work. And it has made a world of difference.

I know now that grief will be my lifelong companion, but it no longer has to rule my life in a negative way. In fact, I have learned how to harness grief into a force for positive change in my life. It makes perfect sense to me since the grief is just an expression of deep, profound love for my daughter.

Looking for the Silver Lining

Alive-in-Memory-Looking-for-the-Silver-Lining-smallRecently, several people have made me think about what it really means when we talk about the “silver lining” in relation to the death of a child – or any close loved one for that matter. After such a death, people often find themselves in the depths of despair and suffocated by overwhelming pain. In desperation, they may reach out to find support from others who’ve already been through it or spend countless hours reading articles and stories that show them there is hope; there is a way out of the worst pain imaginable. But where and how they should start their journey towards healing can become a source of confusion.

At a support group meeting last week, during a conversation about our inherent need to assign meaning to a meaningless event – in this case, an accidental death – a mother who lost her teenage son when he was struck by a car stated that there cannot be any purpose to the loss of a child. Being religious most of her life, she had lost all faith; repulsed by the idea that there could be a God who would willingly take the life of a child for some “grand design”.

After losing her son when she was five months pregnant, another woman read a recent article that I wrote and commented, “I am struggling to find the positive in my son’s death and to grow from this experience, but it is still so raw and I’m not sure how to start… I hope that one day I’ll have peace.” I think the confusion lies in where we should be looking for purpose and how we define the “positive side” of losing a loved one – especially a child.

I would argue that it is a mistake to look for a “positive side” of a child’s death. The death itself is completely tragic. It can rip families apart; it produces trauma, broken hearts and the worst pain imaginable. If you spend time looking for the positive in that, you’ll be disappointed. The pain of losing a child lasts forever. How is that positive? What purpose can be found in giving a child life only to have it taken away prematurely? It only serves to underscore the inherent unfairness and randomness of life.

Instead, you can focus your efforts on looking for the positive “silver lining” of what that intense, lasting pain can teach those who are left behind. You can learn that you are stronger than you ever thought possible. The pain may teach you to focus your energy into cultivating what you’ve discovered matters most to you now instead of following society’s preconceived – and often detrimental – ideas of how to achieve success and happiness. You can find purpose and meaning in how you chose to live your life and best utilize your talents while you remain in the permanent shadow of that dark cloud that is your child’s death.

Another way to look at it is to contemplate what a “silver lining” really is. The image that always comes to mind is a dark storm cloud that is seemingly outlined by a bright, shining light. This visual image has been translated to mean that for every bad situation – or dark cloud – there is something positive that can come of it, such as the calm and light after a storm.

But what actually causes the silver lining on a dark cloud? The “lining” is not the cloud itself, but the source of light behind the cloud. A child’s death is the darkest cloud that is so filled with pain and suffering, it initially blocks our view of anything positive or hopeful in our lives. But over time, we may be able to step back into another perspective and catch a glimpse of the source of light we once basked in. The cloud will never go away, but when we are able to remember that there is light – in other words, love – that came first and will always be there, the pain of the cloud does not seem so overwhelming. The cloud of death can give us a deeper appreciation of the light of life.

So if you feel stuck or lost, the goal of healing is to not get rid of the dark cloud (your child or loved one died, and nothing can change ever that), but instead to learn to recognize that there will always be light and love that you can find once again as you work through the pain of loss.

 

The Power of Music

Alive-in-Memory-The-Power-of-Music-smallI recall in the months after my daughter died, I couldn’t listen to music on the radio. While driving in the car to and from work, I limited myself to NPR or the local news. I could listen to people talk, but the idea of listening to music felt threatening to me. Why? Because in my experience, music has the uncanny ability to reach past all my defenses and unlock the door to all the difficult emotions I was working hard to keep at bay just to get through each day.

Have you ever had the experience while listening to a song when you thought to yourself, “They wrote this song about my life!”? It may have been on the heels of a difficult break-up or during a rocky patch in your relationship with someone. Songs can also mirror the good times in your life, or speak to you when they put into words the personal growth you’ve experienced. Music can make you feel less alone, or even understood. The fact remains, music has the uncanny ability to elicit emotions – good or bad, happy or sad.

Music is also often a powerful trigger of memories. A song on the radio can seemingly take you right back to a particular time or place in your life. The memories they trigger can magically change our moods in the blink of an eye. Songs can also remind us of others.

There are certain songs that I will forever associate with my daughter, Margareta, even though she only lived for four short years. They include songs she sang herself, or songs I sang to her. There are songs I heard long before she was even born that now remind me of her whenever I hear them because they seem to put to words the heartbreak of losing my precious daughter.

In the days after Margareta died, I felt compelled to put together a tribute to her for the memorial service. I decided to create a slideshow of pictures and set them to music. There was no doubt in my mind what song I would use. It was a song I’d first heard many years before that was featured on a series of television commercials for an online toy company. The song was a combination “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and “What A Wonderful World” by Hawaiian singer Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole. I remember how hauntingly beautiful it felt the first few times I heard it and how it seemed to perfectly capture the joy and innocence of childhood – a perfect representation of Margareta’s life.

To this day, whenever I hear that song on the radio it brings with it a flood of emotions. In the first few years after her death, the emotions were overwhelming and I’d have to turn it off immediately. Now when I hear it, I’m able to think more of the joy my daughter brought to my life than the pain of missing her. No longer is it just a song that captures the essence of childhood for me; it has taken on so much more meaning. Somewhere over the rainbow is now where my daughter resides – whether that place is real or only in my dreams. The song may still bring tears to my eyes, but I can now appreciate the healing power of those tears.

What about you? Did you have difficulty listening to music at the height of your grief? Do you have special songs that remind you of your loved one?

Grieving Without God

Alive-in-Memory-Grieving-Without-God-smallI’ve never been religious. I wasn’t raised in a religious household, and even from a young age I saw too much of the dark side that religion can breed – intolerance, discrimination, oppression, and even hatred and violence – to ever want to belong to one. But when my daughter, Margareta, drowned a month after turning four, I was convinced that had I been religious, the pain of her death would have been significantly easier.

I remember thinking that if only I had the unwavering faith that there was an afterlife, I would be comforted knowing that my daughter still existed, and that we’d be together again someday. I thought that with that knowledge, the unbearable pain would disappear – or at least lessen significantly. I recalled in my mind all times I’d seen religious people appear “back to normal” very soon after the death of a loved one, secure in their apparent knowledge that it was part of a grander plan and their loved ones were resting in heavenly peace.

Many of the condolence messages we received in the wake of Margareta’s death had religious overtones, and were filled with scripture passages and reassurances that she was in a better place and safe with God. They mostly tried to reassure us that God had a plan, and that we should find comfort in this. To be honest, I began to resent these letters. While I was well-aware the people who sent them meant well, I found it very insensitive to just assume these words would bring us any comfort. If anything, it made me think they didn’t really know us at all and the letters were more for the sender’s benefit (to help make sense of the death of a young child) than ours.

As the months went on after her death, I began to meet more and more bereaved parents who had lost their religious faith in the wake of their child’s death. In these cases, they rejected the notion that their God would have seemingly “chosen” that their child should die, while sparing others. They spoke of the unfairness of it all and had turned their back in anger and even feelings of betrayal. I began to realize that unwavering faith isn’t as strong as I thought if pushed to certain extremes – like losing a child.

Yet even seeing their disillusionment, I was still compelled to search for answers to whether there was some kind of life after this one. Was there some predetermined plan that would make sense of her death; to give it some meaning? The idea that she died for no other reason than we lost sight of her for too many minutes was heart-wrenching and filled me with unbearable guilt.

I poured over books that described near death experiences and visions of an afterlife, as well as other books that described similar visions of an afterlife and detailed how we live many lifetimes with the purpose of learning different lessons in each. I even got a psychic reading that reinforced this notion. While I wanted very much to believe in this idea, I remained unsure. I couldn’t make that “leap of faith” that it was a certain truth. So I continued down the difficult path of healing my grief not knowing what I should believe.

Looking back, I am actually grateful for my uncertainty and lack of religion. Why? Not having any God to whom I could pray to and ask to “fix” things for me or take away my pain gave me no other choice than look inward to find strength and resilience I never believed was there. This discovery gave me the determination to overcome life-long limiting beliefs that kept me from following my dreams and living a life filled with purpose and meaning. It taught me the true meaning of kindness, compassion, and empathy. It has improved my relationship with those I love, and has taught me to take better care of myself and my needs.

The catalyst for all of this personal growth was the death of my daughter, which forced me to face my deepest, darkest fears that I had avoided my whole life. I have since learned many profound lessons in these past five years. So was it all part of some grand plan? Maybe it is. But since I can’t know the answer to that question as long as I’m alive, I find more comfort in accepting the fact that I don’t know. I don’t want to ask if there is a God or not. I no longer want to find out the “truth” of whether there is an afterlife.

Letting go of those questions has allowed me to release the anxiety that comes with them. It allows me to focus on making the best of each and every day here and now. It encourages me to nurture my relationship with my family and friends who are still with me, while acknowledging that I will think of and miss Margareta every day for the rest of my life. While I would love nothing more than knowing I’ll be with my daughter again someday in a life after this one, I’m learning to be content with the knowledge that with every thought of her and every lovely memory, she is and always will be with me during this lifetime.

I’ll See You in My Dreams

Alive-in-Memory-Ill-See-You-in-My-Dreams-smallWhile 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…

The Worst Has Already Happened

Alive-in-Memory-The-Worst-Has-Already-Happened-smallGrowing 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?”

Follow Alive in Memory

Dedication

This website was inspired by the memory of Margareta Sol Kubitz in hopes of helping others work through the pain of grief.