20 Feb 2017
Today I found myself shoveling an entire carton of chocolate peanut butter ice cream into my mouth. I followed that up with pizza.
Now, I’m not at all opposed to enjoying some good ice cream. Or pizza. The problem was I wasn’t enjoying it.
It was comfort food.
Or rather, to be more honest, avoidance food. Suppression food. “I don’t want to feel” food.
I’ve been eating more of that than I’d like to admit lately.
See, I started seeing a new therapist again recently after about 10 years without one. A year ago, I moved away from my amazingly supportive community and started a new job in a new state. I love my new state and I love my new job. I am slowly building a new community here. My new job, however, isn’t the easiest environment for me to be in. I work with pregnant and parenting mothers struggling with mental health and substance abuse challenges.
As a mother who has had all of her children die, this new work place tends to be an environment full of triggers and painful reminders. At least, once a week I ask myself what the hell I’m doing there. But, as hard as it is, I love it and I love working with these women.
It has also made me acutely aware of all the stuff I’ve been avoiding relating to the deaths of my fiancé and my two babies.
I’d forgot just how good I can be at avoiding my crap. I’m really good at shoving it away under the guise of “being professional” and being there for others. Until therapy started bringing it all up to the surface again and I am finding myself shoveling in spoonfuls of ice cream and slices of pizza.
Let me just say this: Grief fucking sucks no matter how many years have passed.
My therapist asked me today when I was going to be willing to mother myself as much as I mother the women I work with, my children, and the other people I care about. (I was less than pleased with her astute observations. Good therapists are great but they’re also rather annoying when they’re right.)
I don’t really hesitate to face the hard stuff if it means I’m supporting these women or people that I love. I’ll sacrifice my own peace of mind in a heartbeat to ensure that others feel supported through hard or painful situations. I really can’t say for sure if that’s a virtue or a character flaw or some combination of both.
I got to thinking about the women I work with and about how crucial it is for long-term recovery and sobriety to eventually choose to be sober for yourself. Most of the women I work with initially come into treatment for their children. They’re doing this work so that they can be mothers to their children and provide the care and support their kids need. Their children are their reasons for being sober and getting treatment. At some point, however, they’ll have to also choose to do it for themselves too.
I realized that grief “recovery” isn’t all that different. For the first 6-7 years after the deaths of my fiancé and our daughter, I was in basic survival mode. It wasn’t about living fully or embracing life, I was simply doing what I could to survive the grief. For the past 7-8 years, it’s been about living for my dead children, ensuring that they aren’t forgotten, and creating a legacy for them. These reasons are not unlike the initial reasons many of the mothers I work with have for entering into treatment.
Now, after more than 14 years of grief, I’m realizing I have to choose to live for me. It’s time to do more than survive or to live in the honor of my deceased family. I have to do life for me.
That is terrifying.
My life has long been about protecting those I love and putting up a strong front (or hiding behind my professional mask of counselor) to make sure everyone else is taken care of. If I can keep myself busy enough mothering everyone else, I don’t have to think about how much I still hurt or about what I need or want for myself in life.
I’m not sure I know really how to mother myself or how to love myself the way that I love my fiancé and my children. It means risking being vulnerable to and for myself, not just for others. It means letting people in and not always being the strong one.
It means embracing this new level of grief – allowing it to rise to the surface and to be open to the uncertainty of who I may become at the end of this part of my journey. It means accepting that many of my relationships will change and some people that I love may not be part of my life for whatever comes next – because like it or not, grief changes relationships. It means that I may have to open myself up to letting more people in and risk the chance of losing them too.
It may even mean opening up to the idea of having a family again someday – whatever that family may look like. Nothing scares me more than that.
The irony is that I apparently had a bit of foreshadowing of this new aspect of my journey last fall when I finished writing my upcoming book – a book that includes these two sentences on the cover:
Love yourself as much as you love your baby.
Fight for yourself as hard as you fought for your baby.
So, as scared and uncertain as I feel, I am choosing me this time. I’m doing this work of grieving and healing for me.
I will learn to love myself as much as I love my family.
I will learn to fight for myself as much as I fought for my family.
Yes, I will continue to do it for them, but it’s time to do it for me too.
13 Feb 2017
When someone you love has experienced the loss of a child, it’s hard on everyone. They are engulfed in a sea of unbearable pain and grief and sorrow while you may be struggling to stand beside them, wondering what to say, what to do, and what they need. You love them dearly, but you don’t really know what they are going through and you don’t know what to do.
Maybe you’re grieving too.
Maybe you’re suffering as you witness their suffering.
Maybe you feel helpless.
Maybe you find yourself saying all the wrong things because you don’t know what else to say.
Maybe you want to love them through this, but no one taught you how to do that.
Most of us don’t really know how to navigate this thing called grief. They don’t teach Grief 101 in high school (although, perhaps they should!).
In an ideal world, your heartbroken loved one would be able to say, “Here, this is what I need. This is how you can help me.” Unfortunately, that’s generally not how it works. They have been crushed by a devastating loss and, chances are, they’re giving everything they have to simply get out of bed in the morning. Trying to articulate what they need and what kind of support they want probably feels next to impossible.
Fortunately, loving a grieving friend or family member isn’t as complicated as it can seem. Generally, it’s simply about being a compassionate and kind human.
First and foremost, show up. Be here.
Show up at their door. Run errands for them. Do their laundry. Make them meals and sit with them to ensure they eat (many times in early grief people lose their appetite and don’t eat regularly). Lay on the bed and hold them while they cry.
Continue to show up for months or years – this is a lifetime loss and they will need you for a lifetime. Text them. Call them. Send cards. Remember birthdays and anniversaries of their child’s life. Help them plan birthday parties and holiday remembrances and show up for death anniversaries. Mark them on your calendar so you don’t forget – because they won’t. And they won’t forget those who show up for them.
You will likely say or do the wrong thing at some point. It happens. But if you are willing to keep showing up and work through the discomfort, that’s what will matter. That’s how you’ll help.
Grief is not short lived. Nor is it linear or simple or logical.
Grieving a child takes a lifetime. We love our children for a lifetime and we will grieve them for a lifetime. Society likes to tell us that after a certain period of time, grief should be completed and we should be ready to find “closure” and “move on.”
To be quite honest, if you buy into that way of thinking, you will struggle to be able to support your loved one as long as they will need you to.
Your friend or family member will grieve far longer than you will want to hear about it or be around for it. This is where they will need you to be patient and understanding.
Those who grieve their child(ren) will eventually find a way to live with that grief and that aching hole in their life, but they will never stop missing their child or longing to hold them. Birthdays and holidays and anniversary dates may be painful and challenging for the rest of their life.
When you find yourself tiring of their grief or wanting them to “get over it already,” remember – they are far, far more exhausted and sick of grieving than you can even imagine. This is when they need you most to keep showing up.
While you might be struggling to know what to say, it’s likely your loved one really just wants someone who will listen.
Really, truly listen.
To their fears. To their grief. To their doubts and guilt and regrets and questioning. To the part of them that feels like they’ve failed their children. To their anger and their rage at the injustice of their children’s lives being cut short. To the urges of grief that make them feel crazy and abnormal.
Let those you love simply talk with you and be heard without judgment or false optimism. Don’t try to fix it or to help them feel something different – just listen.
Listen and when you want to object to something they are saying, or inject your own thoughts, stay silent and listen even more.
Listen and then simply tell them that you love them and you are here.
Here’s the honest truth: For a while, your friend or family member isn’t going to be a terribly great friend or family member.
They probably won’t always show up for holiday celebrations or birthdays or fun outings. They’ll probably forget your birthday and anniversary and other special occasions. They may not feel up to attending baby showers and children’s birthdays or being around babies and kids at all (this particular thing might last for years).
In that first year after their child died especially, they will probably forget things you told them or make plans and either forget about them or cancel at the last minute because they just couldn’t get out of bed that day.
When you complain about every day matters like being tired or your child acting up or the annoying co-worker you can’t stand, they may not engage in the conversation the way they used to or may tell you that you’re overreacting. It’s not that they don’t care about your difficulties, it’s simply that what they’ve experienced is so overwhelmingly huge everything else feels small and meaningless in comparison.
So, when they can’t be the friend or family member you remember or want them to be, forgive them. They’re still learning how to navigate life after the entire landscape has changed – not unlike being dropped in a foreign land with no map and no way to communicate.
Get to Know Them
However long you may have known your loved one or how well you might have known them, be prepared to get to know them all over again.
The loss of a child changes us in irrevocable ways.
Your friend or family member isn’t the person they once were and they will never fully be that person again. Grief has forged them into someone new.
Don’t be surprised if they don’t respond to things the way they once would have or if they suddenly aren’t interested in things they used to love or if the beliefs about the world they used to hold so dear are ones they cannot abide by anymore.
No, they won’t be the person you remember and loved so very much. Grief will change and morph them into someone new – and even that will change and morph again over time.
But don’t give up on them too quickly. They may not be the person you knew, but you might really love the person they have and are becoming.
Take time to get to know the new post-loss them.
Finally, if you do nothing else, remember with them.
Help them remember their child through the years and comfort them with the knowledge that their child has not and will not be forgotten.
Share memories with them. Say their child’s name. Remember their child’s birthday. Honor them on the holidays and for Mother’s and Father’s day. Donate in their child’s name. Read articles like this one and discuss it with your friend or family member.
Give your loved one the gift of remembering their child. It’s the greatest gift you can give.
And above all else, love them. Love them so deeply and openly and clearly they can’t help but feel it radiating from you.
They need you and they need that love.
Love them fiercely.
09 Feb 2017
To my beautiful daughter,
I was thinking of you today.
But the truth is, there isn’t a day that goes by in which I don’t think of you. Although this world cannot see you, and I cannot touch or hold you in it, you are here. The beauty that is you walks beside me through life, loved with every beat of my heart.
I wish I could see you now – the beautiful, amazing, brilliant young woman you would be if you had lived. The heart of my heart who should be living and breathing beside me, but instead lives and breathes in my heart.
I wonder who you would be now.
How would you see the world?
What would light you with passion and joy?
What kind of person would you be?
What would you dream of?
Endless questions that will never have answers.
This I do know, my precious child.
You will always be mine. I will always be yours.
Your life was beautiful.
You changed my life. You made me more. For you, I will always strive to be more than I am now. I life more fully and more deeply because you lived.
Your life made a difference in this world. The world is better and brighter because you were.
And my beautiful, precious child, although I will always know grief for the loss of you, your true legacy is one of love. Brilliant, unrelenting love.
You are loved. Then, now, always.
I am so proud to be your mother.
06 Dec 2016
When my fiancé died, I thought I knew grief. His death was devastating and agonizing. Every part of me yearned for him and every part of my being throbbed with the painful knowledge that he would never again hold me or make me laugh or smile at me from across the room.
He was my best friend, my love, my one to grow old with and then he was gone.
I grieved and I grieved hard. But I didn’t yet know what it was to be utterly broken.
That came the day our beautiful daughter died. She was my hope, my light, my gift – the part of him that still lived and grew within me.
His death left me bruised and battered and scarred. Her death, mere months after his, broke me to pieces.
Much of my memory of those days, weeks, and months after her death are hazy. It all sort of blurs together in a fog of grief and pain and numb shock. I know that I lived, that I functioned and worked and studied and interacted with life, but the specifics escape me.
I do remember the morning after her death. I woke up and every cell and atom in my body and being ached. Tears were streaming down my face and, for a moment, I didn’t understand why.
My body remembered before my mind caught up again. They were gone. Both of them – my loves, my heart, my family.
I remember watching my chest rise and fall and thinking, “How am I still breathing?”
I could feel my heart beating in my chest and I felt confused, “How could my heart still beat without them?”
How could I be so broken, yet my heart still beat?
For years, I woke up and listened to my heart beat, puzzled by its ability to continue to beat while broken and battered and bruised. I simply couldn’t fathom how it could still function when I felt so broken and numb.
But beat it did and continues to do.
Our hearts can beat while broken, our lungs continue to breathe even when it feels like all the air in our world has been sucked out, and we wake up to face another day because that is the human spirit.
We are resilient beings.
I believe we are resilient because we love. Not the hearts and flowers, commercialized Valentine’s like of love – real, enduring love that weaves through life itself and can never be destroyed or broken. This love is what enables us to have human love – to experience and express love as significant others, as parents, as children, as siblings, and as friends.
When we love fully and fiercely, even when the ones we love the most die, that love never ceases. It is what enables our broken, battered hearts to continue to beat in the midst the devastating grief and unbearable loss.
We are resilient beings.
No matter what life circumstances befall us, we always rise again. The human spirit is about hope. Not the false, get-everything-you-want, never-feel-pain kind of hope, but real true hope that brings light into the darkness when we are lost. The hope that love cannot be destroyed and we will rise again.
Life can send us into pits of darkness and choke us with overwhelming grief and pain. It can level the world as we know it, leaving us broken and barren and desolated. But as long as our hearts continue to beat and our lungs still breathe and we wake up to face another day, there is hope.
Hope of finding beauty in the broken pieces.
Hope of remembering that we are loved.
Hope of knowing that we have endless love to give and share.
Hope of light igniting in the darkness.
Hope of crawling out of the pit of grief to watch the sun rise again.
When we love and lose, when those we love the most die and leave us behind to live without them, life is never the same. We are never the same. Perhaps we are broken. Bruised. Battered. Worn down. Desolated.
Grief and loss isn’t pretty. Healing truly is a fight for life.
But there is always hope to be found in the beating of our hearts.
As long as our hearts still beat, our lungs breathe, and we wake to face the day, we can pick up the broken pieces and create a life that is different, yet still beautiful.
We may still have times where we fall into the pits of darkness and grief, but we always rise. We always find the light and the love again.
Because we are human and we are powerfully resilient – even when we are broken.
I woke up this morning feeling lost and broken in the darkness of grief. Then I listened to my heart beat and I watched my chest rise and fall with every breath and I remembered.
There is always love.
There is always hope.
I am human.
I am resilient.
I am broken yet still beating.