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Black Hole of Grief

Black Hole of Grief

Two months after our daughter died, I walked into my first support group for bereaved parents.  I remember thinking that all the people there looked so normal.  I’m not sure what I expected, but at the time, I believed that having your baby die happened to “Other People”.  Not people who looked like me.  I have not idea how I expected the other bereaved parents to look, but different…

As I listened to the others tell their heart breaking stories, I remember thinking: “This is NOT going to be me.  I’m not going to be sitting in this meeting 5 years from now still crying about my dead child.”  I was going to approach this grief thing just as I had the rest of my life.  Give me a book to read.  Send me to a therapist.  Tell me the steps that I needed to take.  I’d follow every piece of advice and I would get OVER this horrible pain…quickly.

I was so naive and so judgmental back then.  At first, I would comfort myself that THEIR pain was bigger than my pain.  It was the only explanation that I could find that years after their babies’ deaths they were still devastated.  As time went on and I continued to attend the support group, I revised my original hypothesis.  No, MY pain was definitely bigger than their pain.

It took me a very long time to come to the realization that there was more than enough pain to go around and that we all had more pain and sadness than we could bear.  It was only by banding together and sharing our pain that we made life more bearable.

After eight years of attending the group every month, I began facilitating that same group.  I began to introduce myself to newly bereaved parents as “the long view”.  Today, my daughter would have been 23 years old.  I am still the long view.

Here are a few of the hard learned lessons that I have learned:

  1. I have very little control over the events of my life, but I do control the grace and dignity with which I respond to those events.
  2. I have to grow my dead child just as I grow my live children.  My dead child still has birthdays, milestones and anniversaries.
  3. The pain of having a child die never goes away.  We learn to live with it and we learn to cope. We rediscover hope.Grief Renewed
  4. I am still her parent.  As her parent, I will never stop loving her and I will never forget her.

Time does not automatically heal all.  I had to put in the hard work.  I had to cry.  I had to rant.  I had to learn that life is not always fair and that I am not entitled to a pain-free, perfect life.  As time went on, my family and I round a new normal. We found hope.  We found the courage to have another baby.  We found the strength to move forward.

I learned to carry my daughter in my heart rather than in my arms.  I learned how to look for the gifts that she gave to me if only I would open my eyes to acknowledge them.

My life has been so unbelievably enriched by the experience.  Of course, I’d prefer that my baby had lived, but all in all, I’m happy.  I have hope.  I am a survivor. I am strong and capable.  And, I’d like to believe that my daughter has taught me how to live in grace and dignity and perhaps to be a little less judgmental.  After 23 years, I am your long view.

 

 

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Today I am remembering my own personal guardian angel, my sister Becky.  She died 22 years ago today, when I was 4.  I’m having a particularly tough time this year, and I’m not entirely sure why.  My mother says it’s because I’m only just starting to comprehend this with my adult brain. 

Molly & Becky

Molly & Becky

 

Part of me thinks that is ridiculous.  I remember my sister with vivid detail, and this isn’t something that I woke up with when my frontal lobe was fully formed.  I remember my grandmother holding Becky at my 4th birthday party, and—in my typical 4 year old way—I decided it was time for a musical interlude.  I serenaded Becky with some absolutely preposterous song that had no tune or real story because while I sang, her eyes never left my face and she smiled at me while I did.  Baby sisters make the best audience. 

So it’s not as if I don’t remember my sister or didn’t understand that “dying” meant I would never see her again.  I knew that.  I was angry about it.  I knew it meant my parents were sad.  I knew it made my dad cry, something I had never seen before.  I also knew it was wrong; my baby sister wasn’t supposed to die.  That’s not how things worked. 

But at the same time, there are things I didn’t understand.  The day after she died was Halloween, and my mom said I begged her to take me trick-or-treating.  One of my aunts took me to my preschool Halloween party because I refused to miss it.  I was still 4 and couldn’t miss the chance to dress up.   

Years later, I would get so frustrated with my parents.  Fall is my favorite season, and I take any opportunity to decorate the house, but my mom never wanted to get out the fall/Halloween decorations.  In my narrow teenage mind, I thought it was because my mom doesn’t have any Martha Stewart home décor skills (she doesn’t).  Now I look back and wonder how I could be so completely blind.   

I understood from a child’s perspective, but now I can identify with my parents.  I watch my friends balloon up with their own little bundles of joy and it’s such an incredible (and weird!) process.  One of my friends lets me touch her adorable little baby bump all I want, and I just keep touching it.  How fascinating to grow a human inside of you.  I have no idea how my parents woke up in the morning or kept breathing.  I worry about my future children and my friends’ children too. 

It’s weird to have a child’s grief inside of me as well as an adult’s grief.  I miss my sister for the baby that she was, smiling at my stupid songs, and for what she should have been, my friend and my enemy and my confidant and helping me torture our youngest sister.  As an adult, I’m not sure how I feel about heaven, but I will never shake the thought of heaven as a tea party, covered in pink teacups, balloons, and cakes, completely a 4 year old’s vision of what the perfect world would be. 

 I very rarely dream of Becky, but when I did, she was always a playmate, a fellow child.  Last summer, I dreamed of Becky how she was before she died, a small, warm body with those dark blue eyes.  I was an adult and held her in her old room, rocking her to sleep.  I woke up crying but happy.  It’s weird… this child’s memory mixed with now-grown emotions. 

So while 22 years isn’t a milestone or a particularly special year, I’m having a rough time.  I think as adults we are somewhat dismissive of children’s memories and feelings because they are so fluid.  The stories they tell show us exactly how they remember events, and we giggle more often than not because it’s a very different event than we remember.  Their emotions swing so quickly; one moment they are losing their minds and the next they are playing happily.  But I remember dropping barbies on the ground when we heard the sirens.  I remember seeing my parents cry.  I remember seeing my cousins lined up at the end of my Nana’s bed as she led them in prayer for Becky.  And now, as an adult, I try to just remember my sister.

Last Weekend Together

Last Weekend Together

21 years ago, my 4 month old daughter died suddenly and unexpectedly.  It rocked my world and I continue to feel the aftershocks of that day. Before you roll your eyes and think, “It’s been 21 years, get over it!”  Allow me to say that I live a blessed life and I’m very happy.  I believe that is owed in large part to my daughter’s death.

I have been thinking for months that I needed to find a way to mark this huge milestone.  21 years old means that my baby is no longer my baby but an adult.  A woman.  Sigh.  I missed so much. But, as I was ruminating about all that has happened in the last 21 years, I realized that the best way for me to honor my daughter’s short life would be to thank all the people who played such a huge role in helping me to heal and smile again. 

The kindnesses bestowed upon me can never be repaid but I want those who prayed for me, cried with me, sat with me, bullied me and held me up to know that I not only remember Becky, but I remember them too.  For a long time, Wednesdays were the worst day of the week since that was the weekday that my daughter died.  It was the hardest day to go to work and pretend to be Okay.  But, I remember coming home every Wednesday night from work and finding a note on my door from a neighbor. The note read: “Dinner is ready and hot.  Give me a call so I can bring it over.”  Those dinners meant much more than a hot meal for my family.  Those dinners, at first so unexpected, showed me that someone knew, even before I did how emotionally draining those anniversary Wednesdays could be.

I remember my sister who had an infant of her own and who came over several times a day, every day.  She handed me her baby to breastfeed (just a little) before she breastfed her own baby in order to try to slowly ease my way out of breastfeeding.  After 4 months of breastfeeding, there was no easy way to stop the copious flow of milk.  My sore breasts were just an outward sign of my pain.  Yet, my sister’s generosity in sharing her darling dark haired baby girl not only eased my sore breasts, but eased my aching arms as well. 

I remember my co-worker who went to lunch with me every day and endured my overwhelming sadness.  I remember my neighbors who sat with me for hours and hours in the backyard just passing the time of day, sitting quietly or talking about mundane daily life.  I felt included and surrounded by love.

I remember a boss who made it possible for my husband and me to take our surviving daughter to Disney World.  We needed a little time for this family of four to figure out how to be a family of three again but with the unexpected expenses of a funeral there would have been no extra money for an extravagant trip. 

I remember a stranger whom I had never previously met calling me every day to check on me because she too was a mother who had a baby die.  She understood the isolation of deep grief.

I remember my large family whose distress kept the family tom-toms beating for months strategizing on how they could best help.  Never intrusive, but always loving, they looked for ways big and small to ease our never-ending sadness.  I remember coming home from work and finding my laundry sorted.  What a relief!  I could go to work every day.  I could manage a staff but I couldn’t sort my own laundry.  It just seemed like too many decisions.  So while I was away, a little elf would sneak into my house and sort my laundry.  That kindness said to me: “We believe you’re capable, but we’ll just give you a little hand.”  What a gift.

I remember my 4 year old daughter sitting next to me in her own rocking chair while I cried.  She would pat my leg and chatter to me.  She was so full of questions.  She challenged me to stay in the present instead of drifting back to the past where my other baby girl was.  She reminded me that she too needed a mommy.

I remember several years later a friend who wrote me a check for hundreds of dollars so that I could go back to school to become a bereavement facilitator and run support groups for other families who had  also experienced the death of a child.

I remember all the nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters who made time every year to commemorate Becky’s death anniversary by gathering at her tree.  They wrote messages of love on balloons that we hoped would reach from our hearts to her heart and we watched both the children and the tree grow up together.

I remember my parents’ heart-break that they could not fix this giant boo-boo for me and make the pain all go away.  I remember my father’s anger at the belief that it should have been him – the senior family member rather than his granddaughter.    I remember years later when their son (my brother) died watching them with gentle strength and abiding faith withstand the pain of losing a child with great dignity.

I remember my husband holding me in his arms at night and crying with me.  I remember him telling me that we could survive this – and we did!  

There are many other stories of kindness.  Too numerous to mention but no less touching and appreciated.

Thank you.  From the bottom of my heart, thank you.  I can never express how much each kindness lifted me up and helped me to believe that one day it would be better.  No one who has not experienced it can adequately describe how difficult a transition it is from carrying your baby in your arms to carry her in your heart.  Yet, we were surrounded by love, compassion and empathy.  It’s been a long journey.  I remember so many kindnesses. Kindnesses that didn’t stop after a few months or even a few years but continued on even until today – 21 year years later.  Very few people are so blessed.

I remember.

 

She’s had 18 years to get ready for this day. She should be past the tears, she cries some anyway. Bogguss, Suzy, “Letting Go “

I thought I'd be ready.

18 years. What a milestone. High School graduation. Prom. College Visits. What might have been?

No matter how long it’s been, we don’t forget. Grief can still crash like waves. It is all the more surprising when a particularly vicious wave crashes upon you. Although the years have gone by, it still hurts. 18 years. Who would have believed it was possible to survive 18 years without my precious baby?

Does it still hurt as much as it did in the beginning? I don’t think so, but I’m not entirely sure. It still hurts. Perhaps I’ve grown accustomed to the pain. I think that I’ve learned a large variety of coping skills that I can pull out of my bag of tricks when I’m having a bad day. My family and I are certainly not in the depths of depression and single minded sadness that occurred when our baby died. The sadness is more like a deep, soulful sigh.

Don’t get me wrong. There is laughter and hope. We’ve learned so many wonderful things along this journey of grief. I believe that our daughter sprinkles gifts in our path to help us keep moving forward. We’ve picked up many gifts along the way. As we walk down the path, we continue to search in the quiet places for all the delightful gifts that she has left. I am certain, that sometimes, I’m hurrying too fast and I miss a few. That makes the gifts that I’ve discovered all the more precious.

When my daughter died, I felt that I had lost all control of my life. But, the very first gift that my daughter gave me was the realization that I can control the grace and dignity with which I handle this devastating loss. I can choose to be sad or to be hopeful. I can choose to wallow in my grief or to honor her memory with good works.

Part of the grief journey has been keeping up with the evolution of the diagnosis of SIDS. In 1991, SIDS was a complete mystery and every parent’s worst nightmare. Then the arrival of the Back to Sleep program and the increasing number of risk reduction techniques. Wow! I did many of things wrong. Am I responsible for her death? Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I did nothing more than love my child. I did the best that I knew how at the time.

With each new theory, I have to revaluate my position. Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda. In the end, I still come back to the same place. I simply loved my baby. There is peace in that belief.

There are few opportunities to talk about her. Some of our friends and acquaintances don’t even know that we have had a child die. Once the years have gone by, how exactly do you introduce the subject? Do I introduce myself as a SIDS parent? “Hi, my name is _______ and I’m the mother of a baby that died?”

At some point, the information became a quiet treasure that I share only when I chose. I’ve reached the point of being comfortable with the “How many children do you have?” question. Sometimes, I have 3 children. Sometimes I have two. And sometimes, just for fun, I have six! What does it really matter how many children you have to the person standing at the bus stop with you?

The first time I only counted my live children, I was certain that the earth would open up and I would be swallowed whole. Surprisingly, nothing happened. Since then, I’ve become more and more comfortable giving what ever answer I feel like today. It’s very liberating. It’s become my little joke that only my daughter and me share.

18 years! I think instead of crying this year, I’ll celebrate. Who would have believed that I’d make it this far? I’m happy, hopeful and healthy. My children have grown up knowing that they are God’s most precious gifts to me. I will continue to grow my dead child along with my live children. They all will live in my heart together.


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