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.
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.
Now, let me begin by saying I am not – by any means – “healed” in my grief from the death of my four-year-old daughter, Margareta, in 2009. I don’t think I’ll ever be. The day she died, a part of me died too. That loss left a gaping, tormenting hole in my heart and soul that has mostly stopped bleeding and shrunk a bit over the years, but will remain with me until the day I die.
And yet, in the years since her death, I have managed to not only learn how to live in the shadow of grief, but to allow joy and happiness back into my life. In fact, I would argue that I have learned how to harness the pain and devastation into fundamentally improving myself. Over the past few years, I have started the process of transforming from someone who used to just “survive” life without truly enjoying it to someone who is learning to thrive in most aspects of living. I am not referring to thriving in a monetary or materialistic way, but in how I open myself up to, interact with, and relate to the world around me.
So what is the secret to healing from grief? Over the last few years, I have tried to write about it. I have bared my soul and deepest, darkest feelings and fears in order to try and capture “it” so that others may use it in their own journeys of healing. And yet I’ve never been able to capture its essence in one succinct idea.
That is, until now.
I cannot take credit for it. I sat on my couch last night for some rare alone time (I am married with four kids). I looked for a show to watch on TV and decided to indulge myself by watching a recent episode of The Long Island Medium. I like watching the show because it usually provides me with an opportunity to cry and release the built-up pressure of sadness over my daughter’s death that I usually hold at bay during everyday activities.
During the episode, Theresa Caputo surprises a woman in New Orleans with a private reading. The woman had lost her 15-year-old only child, Kamen, in a car accident some years before. Her sister described her as a “shell of her former self”.
In the reading, Theresa is communicating what Kamen wants to convey to his mother. He describes her as constantly going back to the day he died, and – in fact – living her life trapped in that horrible moment of time. She appears to be stuck in the worry and guilt that many bereaved parents face: that their child suffered alone, in devastating pain, and scared in their last moments. It torments us.
Then Theresa – using Kamen’s words – offers the secret to healing our grief in a simple, profound way. Theresa says:
He said, “The way you loved me is the way that you can heal.” All the love, encouragement, and everything you gave your son; if you gave that to yourself, you would be healed.
And there it is. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Everything I have tried to convey in the past few years encapsulated in one succinct statement.
I have begun to heal, and even thrive, because for the first time in my life, I am learning to treat myself the way I treat my kids. I am learning how to unconditionally love myself. I am learning how to look inward for support and encouragement during even the most difficult days and moments. I am learning how to transform the darkness of grief into the light of love by looking for the lesson hidden deep within the pain.
I would be lying if I told you that embodying this statement is easy. In my experience it is not. But I am convinced that it is the basic understanding that we need to begin to heal our grief. And with knowledge, comes power – the power to choose whether we are at the mercy of our grief, or whether we teach ourselves to not only live with the pain, but use it to reach a deeper, more fulfilling understanding of life itself.
I wish you peace and comfort on your journey.
Not too long ago, we took a family vacation to the Grand Canyon National Park. It was our first time visiting the park. For our second day there, we planned a relatively easy 1.5-mile hike that we could all do together as a family, including our three-year-old son.
Not too far into the hike, it soon became clear that it would not work with our toddler, so my husband turned around to take him back. But before doing so, he suggested that me and our other kids (ages 15 and 12) hike to the end of the trail – a 12 mile round trip and over 3,700 feet down (and then back up again). Our family has done numerous big hikes in Yosemite, so our kids were excited about the prospect. I, on the other hand, thought only of the strenuous effort required for such a hike, and the certain overwhelming pain that would result.
I immediately brushed off the idea and insisted that I was willing to hike to the 1.5-mile rest stop and then turn around. I had no intentions of being pressured or bullied into a hike I wasn’t mentally prepared for. So I focused my attention and efforts on walking down the dusty switch-backs, while feeling the pain start to creep into my knees and ankles. When we reached the first rest stop, my kids begged me to keep hiking down the canyon to the end of the trail.
Again, I immediately thought of the impending pain of hiking back up the steep trail. But as I looked into the pleading eyes of my kids, I recalled past hikes to tops of majestic waterfalls and the beauty we saw as well as the camaraderie we shared, and decided to go another one and a half miles to the 3-mile rest stop. After all, I thought, it was still early in the day and we’d been on many six and seven mile hikes.
As we started down the steep switch-backs again, my 12-year-old began protesting that we shouldn’t stop at three miles, but go all the way to the end of the trail, which loomed far in the distance. When I rebuffed his efforts to change my mind, he grew sullen and moody. I got so frustrated by his attitude; I snapped at him to cut it out and suggested we turn around right then and there if he didn’t. Having come to an impasse with his disappointment and my irritation, we called an unspoken truce and kept walking.
We continued down the dusty trail, admiring the amazing beauty of the Grand Canyon. I found myself focusing less on the pain, and more on the adventure of it all. It was also a rare opportunity to have intimate conversations with my kids that are usually held at bay by busy schedules and ever intruding technology. Sure, my knees and ankles still hurt, but the enjoyment of the moment was stronger than the pain.
We finally made it to the 3-mile rest stop. We used the restroom and sat to rest. The end of the trail lingered in the distance, but didn’t seem so far now. The ending point was another three miles away, but half of the trail appeared flat. A big, bright sign warned hikers to carefully consider whether they should continue down the trail. “Going down is optional. Coming back up is MANDATORY!” it read.
My kids didn’t say a word, but they looked into my eyes with hopeful anticipation. At that moment, I let my defenses down. I knew the trip up was going to be very hard and painful. I knew I would be sore for days. But was I really ready to let this once in a lifetime opportunity pass me by because I was afraid of temporary pain and hard work? Despite all my earlier protests, I decided to go, and my kids were thrilled. Their excitement was contagious, and I happily started down the last three miles.
We finally reached the end of the trail around noon, and peered down at the powerful Colorado River cutting through the steep walls of rock. We posed for pictures and soaked in the majesty of the Grand Canyon from deep within. It didn’t matter that we had a six-mile hike up over 3,700 feet back up to the rim – which looked impossibly far away. We were busy enjoying the moment.
The trip back up was very hard. I focused on taking one step at a time rather than continuing to look at how far we still had to go. When the pain and tiredness felt overpowering, I repeated a silent mantra to myself: “Slow and steady; slow and steady.” I took rests when I needed to. I continued to hydrate myself. My boys lovingly offered me encouragement and support when they saw the obvious pain on my face.
Eventually, we made it to the top, and the sense of accomplishment and gratitude was as palpable as the incredible pain and fatigue I felt. Even better were the smiles and deep appreciation on the faces of my boys.
Thinking back on this experience, it reminds me of my journey of grief over the past four and a half years.
When my daughter died suddenly in 2009, it felt as though I was thrown into a deep dark crevasse of devastating pain and disorientation. The only way out appeared to be like an impossible, excruciating, never-ending climb up and out. Never having experienced anything even remotely similar, I saw only two options.
The first option was to stay in the shadow of fear and despair, and try to escape the unbearable pain by avoiding any sort of meaningful interaction with life by numbing myself to everything around me. I could have done this with drugs and alcohol, or I could have withdrawn from all relationships and become a shell of my former self. Much like my anticipation of a 12-mile hike being too painful to even attempt, the fear of living a happy life without my daughter seemed an impossible feat. Early on in my grief, it seemed so out of reach that I didn’t even want to try to feel happy again.
During this time, it seemed to me the only way to end the overwhelming pain was to end my own life, which I was unwilling to do, if only for the sake of my other children. So, I was left with the only other option I could see: walk toward the pain and learn how to live with it.
When I resigned myself to the second option, an unexpected thing happened. Much like when I resigned myself to the idea of going on a 12-mile hike – knowing how painful it would be – a weight was lifted off my shoulders, and my perspective began to change. The dread was replaced by resolve. I would do what it took to re-learn how to live my life in a new way that honored my daughter.
I decided to aspire to the qualities of my daughter that I admired most, and embraced them to begin to rebuild stronger, more emotionally intimate and honest relationships with family and friends. With an open mind and a willing heart, I began to tackle not just the pain of my daughter’s death, but all of the pain and regret over the years that I had long avoided. It was a new beginning, and shafts of light began to break through the dark clouds and their shadows.
Just like the six miles up 3,700 feet, it wasn’t an easy path. It was tiring and painful, and at times I couldn’t imagine how I was ever going to make it through. But slow and steady, I kept moving forward and up. I embraced the support of family and friends, and became my own biggest cheerleader and champion. For the first time in my life, I truly believed in myself and my strength.
My hike of grief is not anywhere near over. The climb will last the rest of my life. The pain will always be there. But like my hike with my children in the Grand Canyon, I am continually learning to balance the pain with the rewards. I have new-found gratitude for my loving relationships. I have a new sense of awe for the beauty that surrounds me. I know that no matter how hard or impossible my path may seem at times, I have the strength to persevere.
I now have the perspective to focus on the journey at hand, instead of an elusive pain-free end point or the regrettable missteps of the past. I can also feel that my daughter is with me every step of the way, whispering love and encouragement into my heart and soul. And for that, I am truly grateful.
I lost my four-year-old daughter in 2009. Until that point, my experience with death was limited. It wasn’t that I hadn’t experienced deaths of people I knew throughout my life – quite the contrary – it was that I hadn’t lost someone so significant in my life that I couldn’t imagine living without them.
Before my daughter’s death, I had been to more funerals and wakes than I cared to remember. I had felt incredibly sad and not known what to say to the immediate family members of the deceased. I had looked in uncomfortable silence upon the impossibly still faces of the people who died and tried to distract myself from the sickening sensation of being exceedingly aware of my own mortality.
Like many people, my support of anyone grieving was limited to telling them, “I’m so sorry,” and then trying to put the whole experience out of my mind as soon as the funeral was over. That way, I could more easily avoid those pesky uncomfortable and painful feelings associated with the harsh reality of death and loss.
Now that I’ve been on the receiving end of those condolences and uncomfortable silences, I can offer my perspective of some of the best ways to support someone who has experienced the loss a loved one.
Don’t try to lessen the pain of loss
With best intentions, people may try to justify the loss in order to soften the pain. How many times have you heard, “It’s part of God’s plan”? Even if you believe it to be true, it doesn’t make the pain of loss any easier. Neither does, “They’re at peace now,” or “They’re in a better place.” In fact, trying to justify the loss usually just makes bereaved people feel worse.
What’s a helpful alternative? Be honest, and let them know how you feel. I would have rather people admit that they didn’t know what to say, or that they felt horrible about what happened. I would have liked to hear how much they loved my daughter and that they would miss her terribly. It would have made me feel less alone in my devastation.
Don’t try to compare losses
Every loss is unique because every relationship is unique and every person has a different set of life experiences. Even if you are tempted to say, “I know how you feel,” resist the urge. Maybe you think you do, but chances are you don’t. Instead, if you don’t know what else to say, sometimes the best thing to offer is a silent hug and shared tears.
Offer practical assistance
Depending on the person and the loss, some people may appreciate assistance with basic needs. If a loss is especially devastating, you can offer to bring a prepared meal or help with chores like laundry or shopping. While some people may feel embarrassed by the offers, others will find them invaluable. I welcomed donated meals from caring friends and coworkers, and it was immensely helpful during a time when cooking and cleaning seemed impossibly hard.
Be understanding and supportive long after the funeral is over
One of the hardest things about losing someone so close to you is that they may remain prominently in your thoughts long after the rest of the world appears to have forgotten about them. The pain of loss does not have a set timetable. For some, it will last the rest of their lives. One of the best acts of support you can offer someone is to let them know you still care about their loss months and even years later. Just mentioning their loved one’s name can mean the world to them – and so will you.
While these are a few things based on my personal experience, there are many more things you can do to support someone who is bereaved. There are wonderful resources in books and on the Internet, and I encourage you to seek them out.
While I will never know the unique pain of losing an only child, I know that raising my sons after the death of my daughter, Margareta, has been full of challenges.
At the time of her death, our family consisted of my husband and me, our three boys from our previous marriages (ages 10, 9, and 7), and our daughter together, Margareta (age 4). On that fateful day, two of her older brothers were home with us. They watched in helpless fear as the chaos of her drowning unfolded. I remember the police trying to distract me as I continued to scream in horror at the sight of paramedics desperately working on her. They kept telling me to comfort my boys instead. How could I? While we had moments of hugging and sobbing together, I would be compelled to go back and watch the resuscitation efforts to see if there was any sign of hope. I completely abandoned them in their greatest time of need.
We all went to the hospital where my stepson and his mom joined us while they continued to work on her in the ER. Their sister was later pronounced dead, and our boys went to stay with their other parents that night. My husband and I were simply unable to function. The boys did not return for several days. When they did, we were not the parents they needed. We were captives of our devastation. We did the best we could, but in hindsight, they had not only lost their sister…they had lost their parents too.
In the days and months that followed, we tried to make sure they received the external support they needed. We took them to a grief counselor. We worked with their teachers and principal to make sure they had regular check-ins with the school counselor. We tried to keep the knowledge of their sister’s death limited to close friends and sports teammates so they wouldn’t be inundated with uncomfortable questions and unwanted attention from classmates. We signed them up for grief support activities and groups at a local hospice. We encouraged them to talk to us about their feelings. We bought them journals to write or draw in.
Despite all of this, they never wanted to talk to us about her death or their feelings. They didn’t want to return to the grief support groups after those first sessions. They turned down offers to go to a grief support camp for kids. They eventually stopped wanting to talk to the school counselor. It was frustrating to say the least. I was horribly concerned for their wellbeing. I hated the idea of them holding in all the painful feelings I was sure they had. I already felt that I had failed my daughter in the worst way possible. Now I felt like I was failing them too.
My various grief support counselors reassured me that their behavior was normal. They explained that younger children are not equipped to deal with such intense feelings, and need to return to a sense of normalcy to feel safe. They explained that it will likely be many years before they begin to fully process their sister’s death. I was advised to just keep an eye on them for signs of major depression or sudden changes in behavior. So I did.
Despite their need to return to “normal”, I was unable to shield them from my overwhelming grief. Even if I had tried, I wouldn’t have been able to suppress my tears and obvious sadness. Since I couldn’t, I decided I needed to be honest with them. I needed them to know it was normal to feel sad. I wanted them to know that the painful feelings after the death of a loved one isn’t something you sweep under the rug and never talk of again.
With the birth of their baby brother the year after Margareta’s death, I was faced with a new challenge: learning how to raise a child in the shadow of the death of a sister he never knew. We knew he was not a “replacement” of his sister, but how would we make sure he knows that? I wondered if my grief would allow me to be the mother he needed. Thankfully, I was.
I think for all of us, he was the catalyst for reintroducing joy into our lives. That is not to say our painful feelings of grief magically disappeared on his arrival – quite the opposite. But he taught us that intense pain and joy can coexist together. Feelings of pain can be softened by joy, and grief has the effect of making our appreciation of the sweetness and joys of life become that much more meaningful.
Now that he is a toddler, new challenges arise. He can recognize Margareta in pictures, but he does not understand why he cannot play with her. He thinks trips to the cemetery are normal, although he doesn’t really know why we’re there. I have not yet figured out how to explain the concept of death to him in a way that he truly understands. That will have to wait for another day.
Almost five years after her death, I recently asked my older children what was the hardest part of losing their sister. Their answer was unanimous: they didn’t like thinking about it because it was so painful. They didn’t want to talk to me about it because it would just make me sadder. They hated reminders of it…like walking by her empty room. They aren’t as uncomfortable thinking about it as much these days, but they don’t go out of their way to do so. Thankfully, they feel more comfortable expressing their feelings.
I know the challenges of raising my children in the wake of their sister’s death are probably far from over and will change over time. We don’t know what lies ahead, but we know that we will love and support each other along the way.
I’ve never been a big fan of Mother’s Day.
I grew up in a household where my own mother thought Mother’s Day was a racket created by Hallmark and the retail industry to sell more products. She taught me from an early age that you should show love and appreciation every day – not just reserve it for one day out of the year. She preferred hand-made cards over store-bought, and she preferred hand-made presents and quality time with us over bouquets of flowers, jewelry, or store-bought gifts.
When I became a mother myself, I was often embarrassed at the fuss others would make over me. While I appreciated the presents and acknowledgement of my success as a mother, I too believed that you should strive to show love and appreciation every day rather than one day out of the year.
But in 2010, my view of Mother’s Day completely changed. Instead of seeing it as an unnecessary excuse to sell products, it became a day I downright detested the thought of. It was the first Mother’s Day after the drowning death of my four year old daughter the previous fall. It was a horrible, impossibly painful reminder that one of my children – one of my reasons for being – was no longer with me.
I remember telling my husband that year that I wanted no celebration. No presents. No acknowledgement of what day it was. The mere thought of it brought tears to my eyes and a sick feeling in my stomach. There was nothing to celebrate. How could there be? Mother’s Day was now like a big scarlet letter on my chest showing what a horrible mother I was. I felt as if I had failed as a mother. I had failed to keep my child safe. I had lied to her all the times I had told her, “Mommy will never let anything happen to you.”
For any mother who has lost a child – and for that matter, anyone who has lost their mom – Mother’s Day is not a day of celebration, but of sadness. The reminder of what you have lost overshadows the memories of what you once had. It doesn’t help that in the U.S., Mother’s Day is one of the most heavily advertised “holidays” behind Christmas. You can’t escape it. Reminders are EVERYWHERE.
Time has softened my feelings of failure as a mother. I look at my four boys; I see that they are healthy and relatively happy, and I’m proud to know that I played a large part in that. I have accepted that what happened to my daughter was a tragic accident. I know that most of the time, the actions and activities that happened that fateful day do not end in death. I understand that it is unreasonable to think I can be with my children 24 hours a day protecting them from every threat. I know that certain things are simply not in my control.
Still, if I had my way, I’d prefer to avoid Mother’s Day altogether. It has become a day for my children, not for me. It is a day for them to follow the societal norm and show that they appreciate and love me. I will appreciate whatever they choose to do or give to me, but it will never again be a happy day for me. It will forever be a reminder that one of my children is missing from the celebration. The only thing that could ever change my mind about Mother’s Day is to have all five of my children with me on that day.
But, of course, that will never happen.