It’s the day before Mothers Day and I feel compelled to share some thoughts before some of you send awkward wishes to mothers who have lost a child.
Let me begin by giving context for this post.
Last year was the first Mothers Day following the loss of my daughter, Hilary. While I was quite cognizant of its significance, I intended to spend the day the same way I had in previous years; going to church, a place where moms are joyously celebrated and acknowledged. But before I was even out of bed that morning, my social media feeds and text messages were flooded with well-intentioned messages that began with, “I know today is going to be hard…” or ” You must be feeling….” Really? Respectfully, I must say that unless you’ve walked in my shoes, you don’t know what I’m feeling.
I know you all meant well in acknowledging my loss, but in truth, it gutted me. I hadn’t forgotten that Hilary was gone; I’m reminded of it daily. So, instead of getting ready for church, I waved the white flag and crawled back under the covers.
I still have a reason to celebrate, friends. Even though he lives on the other side of the country, I have a son. We talk almost daily, and most recently, like so many others during the Great Isolation of 2020, we’ve taken to using video chats . Some of our conversations are mundane, like talking about his fish tanks or my work-day. In others, one or both of us are fighting off tears as we navigate a life without his sister/best friend, and my daughter, Hilary. There have been times when we’ve hung up on one another in frustration. But most days, I get to tell Cameron how proud I am of him; I get to remind him that he’s an amazingly talented young man, and an incredible father to his two young sons. There are days when he revives my soul with affirmation that I’m a good mama. These are the hallmarks of parenthood.
You see, I’m still a mother.
So, as Mothers Day looms on the horizon, let me share some advice for how to approach me and other mamas whose motherhood has been altered, if not changed completely:
Please don’t send “helpful” articles on how we, as bereaved mothers feel, or how we should navigate this emotional day. We already know; we’ve been doing it since the moment we lost our child.
Don’t over-think the message. Simply send us the same wishes you’d like to receive. How we respond is up to us. Maybe we’ll tear up. Perhaps we’ll be resentful. Then again, maybe we’ll just smile. You’re not responsible for any of our responses.
On Mothers Day and on any other day of the year, don’t be afraid to say our child’s name. We love hearing their name mentioned in a fond or funny memory. The idea that speaking of our loved one will cause pain is a fallacy. Actually, the opposite is true.
I have friends for whom Mothers Day is going to look different, painful or bittersweet. You know who you are. To you, I say:
I see you. I honour you. I celebrate your willingness to keep going.
It began as a low rumble. We could hear it coming from off in the distance and began to batten down the hatches, making what preparations we could before it struck. Assuring our charges that they were safe, changes began slowly and inconspicuously.
“We’re going to have you sit two metres apart; just to be on the safe side,” we assured the residents as we rearranged their wheelchairs in the activity room.
Then the wind began to pick up and we had to change course.
“Don’t worry. We’re going to bring your meals to you in your room. It’s just to keep you safe.” These words brought little comfort when spoken by someone wearing goggles, a surgical mask and a gown. Their own fearful eyes and trembling lips were not masked by Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
I continue to be positive and focus on spreading joy and not fear. Sweating under my own PPE, I play my guitar and sing songs of faith and hope outside the resident’s rooms as they hum along and gently sway in their wheelchairs, safely perched in the doorway of their rooms. A musical concert played within the parameters of the government-mandated physical distancing.
Now, instead of music, the residents are making the sign of the cross as they listen to their beloved rosary being blared over tinny CD players that are plugged into hallway outlets.
Given the task of connecting family members to their loved ones through Face Time and other means of virtual connected-ness started out as fun and gave me a real sense of purpose.
In a resident’s room, I link a daughter to her mother through Face Time. “Mama, stai bene?” a voice, inches below hysteria asks her Italian mother. “Sei malato?” She’s asking if her mother is okay, or is she sick.
The praise we were once receiving for being there for their loved ones while they themselves are not permitted to visit, has become more accusatory. “Was that a cough? She just coughed! Is she okay?”
I answer as positively as I can. I don’t know if it’s a tickle in her throat or if in fact, she’s joining the number of sick. I just don’t know anymore.
I pass by Ermelinda’s room, peeking my head in her doorway. “Stai bene?” I ask. She says she’s okay, but lonely. What once was as simple as breathing, I enter her room hoping it’s not a mistake.
“This is so hard,” Ermelinda begins, tears already forming at the corners of her eyes. “I know we must do this to stay safe, but for twenty-four hours a day, I’m in this room with nothing but my thoughts.”
“I can sit with you a while,” I tell her, perched at the edge of her bed as she sits in the dark. Ermelinda suffers from perpetual headaches and cannot tolerate the light.
“My Mario died when he was forty-one years old. I know it’s been a long time, but I miss him so much. Especially now when I’m stuck in my room and my sons cannot visit.”
I know a thing or two about grief and what is required to ease the pressure on the ever-present hold it has on the bereaved. “Tell me about him. What was his name? Where did you meet him?”
The next fifteen minutes I learn about her beloved Mario whom she met in the same village in her homeland of Italia. She tells me about her son who was only twelve years old when his father died, thrusting him into manhood and role of provider. Ermelinda’s countenance changes in the brief time she purges herself of memories, both good and sad. A small sliver of light pierces the darkness.
I’m being called away for a debriefing meeting with the administrator and my colleagues. These debriefings are now associated with panic and fear as they usually mean there’s new cases. This meeting is no different. We discover that the virus has now infected one of our residents. Despite our administrator’s attempt as sounding positive–her symptoms are mild, we’re assured–it does little to allay the fears of the caregiver who’s been looking after her for the last six hours. Her head bowed in defeat, her goggles fog up from the tears she’s been trying to hold back. She’s a single mother of two young children. Where is she going to go? How is she going to look after her kids? We’ve already been instructed that beyond coming to work, we are to self-isolate and not venture out, even for groceries.
It’s Friday now, and I hit my own breaking point. I’m tired, but still managing to put on a brave face and crack jokes with the staff and residents. The Nurse Practitioner takes me aside.
“Monica…” he begins slowly as if he had to choose his words carefully. “Would you be able to do a Face Time visit Mrs. M’s daughter as soon as possible? She’s not doing well and her family would like to see her before she…well, you know.”
I go for the iPad, make sure it’s charged and make my way to the residents room. In over thirty years of caring for the elderly, I’ve seen many pass from this life to the next, but never has there been a time when a loved one was not able to have a family member by their side while they did it.
I punch in the contact information and immediately I see a grief-stricken daughter on the screen. I don’t focus in on her mother lying in the bed right away.
“I’m so sorry.” My words are muffled inside my surgical mask.
“Can I see my mama?”
It’s a contortionist’s feat to be able to get Mrs. M in the camera’s view. I’m sitting on the floor beside the bed which is at it’s lowest setting. My own head is resting on the bed beside Mrs. M’s; my arms raised and off to the side to keep her weakening body in view.
My arms are trembling and aching as I struggle to hold the iPad in place. In that moment I’m reminded of the story in the book of Exodus where Moses had to hold up his staff to ensure the Israelites staved off an attack from the Amalekites. His arm grew tired from holding the staff and Aaron and Hur had to put a stone under him to sit on and held his arm up for him until sunset. I feel like Moses, but I have no one to hold up my arms. I find myself weeping along with the daughter, as she pours out her grief and love all at once.
The storm is still raging. More residents have succumbed and others are still being threatened. I’ve lost count, but it doesn’t matter now–it’s all around me, this unrelenting howling.
I still believe in God, but I’m seriously wondering if He believes in us. This feels like deja vu. A trip that should have taken eleven days, the Israelites walked through the desert for forty years before a remnant was permitted into the land of milk and honey. Maybe God is waiting for us to do as He told Solomon in 2 Chronicles 7:14
“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and I will forgive their sins and restore their land…”
I know God didn’t send this pestilence. I also know that what the enemy planned for our harm, God can turn around for our good. He’s done that in my own life–I’m still here, y’all.
Let’s humble ourselves–listen to what the government is asking–telling– us to do to protect ourselves and others. Let’s pray. Really, I think by now we’ve discovered that Covid-19 is bigger than mankind. What have you got to lose by praying to the Creator of the Universe? Seek His face. What is He asking you to do? What is that inner voice, that thing you call intuition, saying? Turn away from thinking you know better than the next guy. Stop hoarding toilet paper. Stop judging the leaders. Just. Be. Kind.
You either love Ricky Gervais’ sense of humour or you cringe. I was neither for nor against him regarding his hosting of the Golden Globes. I was ambivalent towards both him and the awards show, because like him, I really didn’t care.
It wasn’t until weeks later in my support group for suicide survivors, that his name came up again. We were talking about movies that realistically portray grief. Someone mentioned After Life, a short series on Netflix, where Tony, played by Gervais, is grieving the loss of his wife.
There may be triggers, we’re warned. It might not be appropriate for some of us to watch.
Well, that was like dropping the gauntlet.
At the mere suggestion that it may not be appropriate, I decided right then that I’d watch it. If you don’t want me to do something, the best way to ensure that I do, is to tell me I shouldn’t.
I was prepared to cry. After all, it was about loss and grief, and that’s something with which I’m well acquainted. I wasn’t however, prepared to laugh until I nearly peed my pants.
As the story unfolds, we learn that before his wife died, Tony was a fun-loving husband and dedicated journalist. Not so much afterwards. He’d developed an inability to keep his darkest thoughts from escaping his mouth. No one was spared. Not the postman, the dog walker nor his colleagues. Whatever he was thinking, it just came out. His filtre disappeared as he wearied of the banality of life and the incessantly mindless chatter of those around him. Watching the Golden Globes followed by After Life, I’d decided that Gervais and Tony bore an uncanny resemblance to one another, and somehow, I fit in there as well.
Before you settle in to watch the series, let me assure you it’s the response to Tony’s grief that has me nodding my head in agreement–not the drug-sampling, the threatening of bodily harm nor his horrific potty-mouth (although I’ve been known to swear like a sailor at times myself).
Grief can show its face in the unlikeliest of places. Because it’s like a computer program running in the background of your life, you’re not always consciously aware that it’s on. You recognize its low hum when it gets close enough to brush up against you, especially along side a competing emotion.
For Tony, grief was personified in the laziness of the postman who wouldn’t deliver his mail properly, the guy in the park who criticizes him for not picking up after his dog, and the not-so-silent wish among his work mates that he’d justget back to normal.
For me, it reared its ugly head in the form of a scripted telephone call. I barely have the energy to talk to people I do know. Listening to someone talk from a guided script was like nails being pulled down a chalk board.
On this particular day, the call was akin to an ambush. I thought I knew who the call was from and what it was in regards to.
I answered my phone and could already hear talking and laughing before the caller on the other end had even acknowledged that I’d greeted her.
“Oh, hello. Is this Monica?”
“Yes, this is Monica.” big sigh. “Who am I speaking to, please?”
“Great! I’m Marcy, (not her real name) from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). How are you today Monica?”
I felt a familiar sensation rising to the surface. “Fine,” I lied, regretting that I’d even answered the phone. “I’m sorry, but could you please just get to the point of your call? I’m sure you didn’t call to see how I am.”
“Of course, Monica,” There was no change in her tone to suggest that I may have hurt her feelings or even shocked her with my terse response. “I noticed that you signed our petition to raise awareness for mental illness.”
“Yup.” I’m practicing my mindful breaths between mouthing cuss words.
“Great, Monica. Could you tell me why it was important to you to sign our petition?”
“Yeah.” I let out a long sigh. “I signed it because me daughter took her life due to mental health issues.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that, Monica… Have you seen our new site that opened up recently?
She didn’t even skip a friggin’ beat.
“It’s designed like a university, Monica. Can you think of why it would’ve been designed that way?”
This was the precise moment I’d decided I was done. I wasn’t even thinking of Tony, yet I heard him speak as I opened my mouth. “No, I don’t know and I really don’t care. Everything you’ve said so far sounds like it’s been read off of a script. Am I right?” Before she could answer, I continued. “A little disingenuous for a mental health agency, don’t you think–reading from a script rather than actively engaging in an authentic conversation?”
Our chat wrapped up fairly quickly. I took the opportunity to tell her of initiatives I actually was interested in, none of them including the design of a building.
I didn’t swear at her, I didn’t call her names, but I did call her out on what I felt was a really bad communication technique, for which she made no apology. Go figure.
Perhaps in the years BG (Before Grief), I wouldn’t have given much thought to the whole situation. I’m discovering that when you don’t have an outlet for all the big and uncomfortable feels–or you can’t express them to the one to whom they’re directed, you become somewhat of an opportunist.
After Lifedemonstrates this theory perfectly. The whole premise of the series is to show how the consequences of overwhelming grief become something of a ‘superpower’ for Tony. As writer and creator, Gervais explains that the concept of the series was to have the viewer imagine what it would be like to simply not care about life any longer, and to just do whatever you wanted. At one point, Tony considers taking his own life but changes his mind, deciding to make the lives of those around him miserable instead.
I’m not suggesting that making those around me walk on eggshells is my goal, nor do I believe that grief and loss gives you carte blanche to behave any way you choose. What I am saying, is that in viewing the world in this past year through the harsh lens of grief, I have come to see just how disconnected we are from one another–scripted dialogues, void of any real connection, for example. It’s hard to remain silent in the presence of apathy or the lack of respect. Grief and loss put things in perspective. What wouldn’t even show up on your radar before is suddenly lurking just below the surface in a sea of roiling emotion. The Big Feels need to be acknowledged, to be seen and tended to. I think that’s what I liked so much about Gervais’ character, Tony. He was a loathsome and offensive brute, yet so damn honest, raw and real. Slowly, he gave himself permission to connect with others, allowing his grief to transform both him and his relationships. Like Tony, I’ve discovered the thoughts I’ve kept to myself are often best uncorked. If I have no choice but to live each day in this new normal, it’d better be an authentic life worth sticking around for, even if I have to inconvenience others with my authenticity.
On the plus side, you’ll never have to wonder what I’m thinking.
The morning light pours in the window and slowly he rolls over, stretching and yawning as he anticipates another day. Just another ordinary, predictable day.
Now perched at the side of the bed, he rubs the sleep from his eyes and absentmindedly reaches into the drawer of the bedside table for it. It was gone.
That’s odd, he thought. He was sure it was there when he went to bed last night. Retracing his steps, he heads to the front door and checks the closet. The coat he wore last night is hanging there, but the pockets are empty. To the bathroom. No sign of it there either. Not wanting to give in to the anxiety that’s beginning to creep in, he takes a deep breath and heads for the living room. Cushions are frantically over-turned; blankets are shaken, and dust bunnies are disturbed with his hand reaching under the couch.
It’s got to be here. He tries to assure himself as he circles back to the bedroom. It can’t be gone.
Frantically, he rummages through the small table. Note pads, pens, receipts and other miscellaneous items are being carelessly flung across the room as hope turns to panic.Impossible.
He sits at the edge of the bed, slowly rocking back and forth in an attempt at self-comfort.
I can’t even call anyone, he realizes.
Just get dressed, buddy. You can do this. Just one step at a time.
Standing under an ice-cold shower, he tries to bring some life into his stunned body. He throws on the clothes that he’d hung on the back of the chair the night before, unconcerned about the wrinkles.
The drive across town was a blur; he barely remembers being behind the wheel. This should be cause for concern, but right now his ability to feel anything but loss is impossible.
Squaring his shoulders, he feigns confidence as he walks inside. “Excuse me,” his quivering voice betrays him. “I’ve lost my phone.”
“Oh, we’re so sorry to hear that. Life can be difficult, you know.”
“Yeah, no kidding. Could I please get a replacement?”
“Oh my,” the representative says. “You obviously didn’t read your contract thoroughly. Such a pity. So many people forget the fine print.”
“What do you mean? Just transfer my information onto another one. It doesn’t have to be a newer model; I’d be happy with—I’d prefer– the same one.” His hands are splayed as he braces himself against the counter, sweat forming above his lip.
“I’m afraid not. You only get one in a lifetime and if you lose it, there are no replacements.”
“But that’s not fair! There were conversations that I hadn’t responded to yet, I didn’t have the chance to download the memories onto another device and all my connections were on it. If I can’t have a replacement, I’ll lose everything.”
“Did I stutter, sir?” The representative was becoming impatient with him. “I said no replacements. Ever.”
“You don’t understand!” he was crying now. “Everything was on that phone. My whole life was in there.”
The representative stared with eyes void of any emotion.
“C’mon man, have a heart. Do you mean to say I can never have my phone—any phone?”
The representative’s eyes narrowed, delivering an almost venomous reply. “Listen carefully, because I’m not going to repeat myself. For as long as you walk this earth, you will never again have a phone. You will walk around watching people enjoying theirs. You will see people smiling and laughing as they text one another. By habit, you’ll reach into your pocket for your phone, only to be reminded that it’s not there and never will be. The only pictures you can retrieve are the ones that are etched on your brain. The memory card was lost with the phone, and you will have access to neither.”
It’s been a bit of a shit-show these last few weeks. My peer support mama warned me about this phenomenon. I call it Groundhog Day. To everyone who follows a regular calendar, Hilary died almost ten months to the day. For me, it might as well have been yesterday—sometimes even today. I get that it’s old news to most people—even family members, but please don’t force me into your timetable. My journey isn’t the same as yours and there are no familiar landmarks for me to use to get my bearings.
I’d been wracking my brains to find an analogy of loss that people can relate to, and it came to me on my morning drive to church when I thought I’d lost my phone. If there’s anything that can cause a human-doer’s emotions to run the gamut from mild concern to near hysteria, it’s losing one’s cell phone.
Maybe it’s irreverent to compare losing a child with losing a cell phone, but for those of you who think ten months is long enough to be sad, to cry and to lament, give me your frigging phone.
For an entire month.
I’ll lock it up for you where you can’t even see it or hear that ridiculous ringtone. For the next thirty days, you can imagine the thousand memes you’re missing on Face Book. All the likes on your Family Christmas photos will be irrelevant by the time I give you your phone back, and should I even mention the missed text messages? Yeah, people are going to think you’ve forgotten them. They’re probably going to write you off because you’ve been ‘distant’. If you weren’t savvy enough to WRITE OUT your contact list with phone numbers, you won’t even know how to get in touch with people. Of course, you’ve probably already ditched your landline, so now you’re really screwed. You may actually have to resort to real-time visits with those who recognize you outside of your FB profile. Brace yourself: this will involve getting dressed, wearing deodorant and, God-forbid, leaving your house.
Can you feel the anxiety? Can you imagine how inconvenient that loss would be? And it’s only a phone.
I don’t intend to lament forever. I will grieve forever, but I suspect at some point there will be more laughter and fewer tears. Maybe, maybe not. I’m still new to this and each day brings with it a new revelation. Disbelief, for one. Not just in the situation, but the way people handle—or don’t handle it.
If you think you’re helping by not speaking Hilary’s name or talking about her, you’re not. It actually hurts more. Hilary was a funny, complicated and talented young woman. I want to hear your stories and I need to share mine. You can nudge me if I tell the same story twice– I’m prone to that because, quite frankly, some are worth repeating. Tears, I’ve found are very healing, so if you feel like crying, let it come. Your tears won’t upset me—let me comfort you for a change. We can only deeply grieve someone whom we deeply loved.
I’ve learned to let a lot go in the last year. In a year of refinement, I’ve given up mindsets. Roles. Relationships. I suspect as I let go of things, it will free me to pick up other things. Peace, joy and a genuine sense of purpose—these are things I want for 2020. It may take a while to get there. If you don’t want to join me on the journey, fine. Just don’t get in my way.
The past few months have done a number on my identity. When I think back almost thirty years when I’d had a miscarriage, I remember feeling like motherhood had been stripped from me. From the time I knew I was pregnant, I was a mother, and then in an instant, I wasn’t. Doing the simplest of tasks, getting dressed, making a meal or vacuuming the floor took gargantuan effort. I didn’t understand the complexity of grief then, but I do now.
Everything is filtered through the lense of grief even ten months after the fact. Whether it’s a conversation, a decision of how, where, or with whom to spend my time, it’s all observed from an altered perspective. Like looking through the bottom of an old-fashioned pop bottle, everything is distorted. Nothing looks the same as it once did.
Another bereaved mother once told me that everyday is like groundhog day for a parent who’s lost a child, and it’s true. To others, my loss has becomes old news, “Oh, that was ten months ago.” For me though, it may as well have happened today. Grief is like a computer program that is constantly running in the background of my life. Different nuances of it emerge with a surfaced memory, a holiday or a song on the radio. I’m tired of the incessant pulse of it in my brain, so I frequently shut down. I put on a smile and say I’m fine when I’m not. I say I have a son when asked if I have kids. I don’t acknowledge the child I’ve lost because I don’t want to break down and I certainly don’t want to make others uncomfortable with my brutal honesty. It’s not from pure altruism that people are spared, I just don’t have the energy to deal.
A good day looks like waking up to sunshine and a blue sky. Sounds corny, but trust me on this. When all is dull and grey with your eyes opened or closed, the warmth of sunshine on your face under a blue sky is beautiful. And if you have the energy to leave your cave to enjoy it up close, it’s a freakin’ miracle, my friend.
There’s raspberries too. Popping one of these beautifully plump time capsules reminds me of being a kid in a limitless world. It’s like tasting innocence, when there wasn’t a care in the world. Raspberries remind me of a time when watching Aunt Sadie bake for an entire Saturday morning was considered pure entertainment, of days when I could ride my bike to the lake with my sisters, or lay on a blanket in the backyard with my nose in a book for an entire afternoon. Memories as sweet as those berries pulled from the bush.
I wonder what eight-year-old Monica would have said if someone told her what 2019 would look like. She probably would have headed across the field to the gigantic rock with a fistful of raspberries and had a good cry.
I’m like a dog with a bone when I want to learn something new. I’ll devour everything until I reek of the topic. I’m finding, however, that grief is not something you can learn by osmosis. Who knew?
In my quest to ace my Grief exam, I’ve gone through a stack of books, tons of blogs–everything I could get my hands on–and I’ve given myself an F.
I must admit, I’ve been a little cocky when it’s come to navigating the winding path of my feelings in the past six months. When I’d met Caroline (not her real name) two months after Hilary had passed, I took one look at her and thought, Oh hell, no. She had been bereaved three years after losing her son to a deliberate fentanyl overdose, and she still looked like hell. I determined that I wasn’t going to look like that in three years. Like the 1 in a million person who thinks they’ll be the only one who won’t require antidepressants for clinical depression, I was going to be that one person who would get through grief with a smile on her face. Not a huge toothy grin that said everything was just peachy, but rather, the wistful, damn-she’s-been-though-hell-and-back-but-she’s-still-showin’-up smile that shows just enough grace to hide the arrogance.
Fat chance. We were sitting in a coffee shop sipping on lattes and I spilled the beans, along with a torrent of tears.
“I owe you an apology, Caroline,” I sniveled. “When I met you, you told me that it was one thing to seek joy, but not to be disappointed if I didn’t find it. I was so angry at you for being such a Negative Nancy. But here I am, miserable. It’s all I can do to get my ass out of bed on the days I’m not working, much less be joyful.”
One of her rare, almost-smiles emerges; even a little laugh. “That’s ok. I get it. Who would sign up for this?”
I’m learning that Caroline is a whole lot stronger than I’d ever given her credit for and I’m honoured that she will take her bandages off to allow me to look at her wounds. To me, she’s a freakin’ grief rock star. She can spot a trigger from a mile away, knows enough to give herself “I’m gonna allow myself to feel like shit today” days and buffers them with moments where she chooses joy–or something close to it.
I’ve resigned myself to the fact that reading every book written on grief, surviving suicide, and every other literary attempt at finding hope in the midst of crap isn’t getting me any further down the road. It’s actually been a distraction from doing the real work of grief. This is where my friend, Peter would tell me that there is no right or wrong way to do grief, Monica. You do what you need to when you need to. I know this in a head-smart kind of way, but I couldn’t shake the fact that my emotional responses weren’t adding up. Does grief look like irritation? Annoyance? Panic, even?
I was at a dinner party with friends. I made myself go. I didn’t really want to; I was prepared to curl up on my couch and happily contemplate my navel for yet another evening, thank you very much. But eventually I decided that isolating myself was probably not healthy either, so I showed up. I was doing okay, just hanging out on the periphery of conversations. A hot discussion on gun control ensued; proponents for and against making their impassioned pleas for their stance on the matter, talking loudly and passionately over one another. I could feel my head start to spin and my heart beating fast in my chest. I began doing the grounding techniques I’d heard about. Ok, Monica. What can you see with your eyes? What can you smell? What are your feet touching? I couldn’t take it anymore and I bolted from the room, locked myself in the bathroom and bawled until I was spent.
I think C. S. Lewis best describes what had just taken place.
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times, it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”(C.S. Lewis: A Grief Observed)
There it was. Grief does indeed look an awful lot like fear. Fear of being alone and fear of having to be among people. Even resuming hobbies I once enjoyed, like my writing classes or musical theatre haven’t been the same. I could handle seeing people that I’d met in previous classes, but who were these new students? I don’t know you. I don’t trust you. Stay away from me. This is an unexpected nuance of grief, this fear. Fear pisses me off. It shows up as anxiety, wakes me up way too early with the incessant, what are you going to do? on repeat, until I throw the covers back, cursing the very day itself. I decided that rather than make space in my sock drawer for fear, I’m giving it an eviction notice.
The fighting back has involved psychotherapy with a gentle giant who doesn’t irritate me–which is good–very few attempts at seeking professional help in the last while can boast the same result. (During one telephone counseling session, the counselor referred to me as Lady throughout the entire discourse.) There’s also a pair of hot pink boxing gloves that are routinely donned to pummel the crap out of a heavy bag. That feels good. The gentle giant once asked me if I had anyone’s face in mind as I whaled on it. I had to think for a bit, but no one came to mind– unless grief can be personified.
I’m not as far along as I’d like to be on this wilderness terrain, but it is what it is. Some days my only testimony is, I’m still here. That’ll have to do for now.
I’ve never been a stellar cyclist. Balance has always seemed to elude me. One false move or glance and I’m wobbling all over the trail struggling to remain in the upright position. The best piece of advice I was ever given was this: Don’t look down at where you are, but ahead to where you want to go. Not just for cycling; this is a metaphor for living. More than ever, I’m learning to look ahead to where I want my life to go instead of looking at where I am now. If I look at my current situation, I can become anxious and full of doubt, making me lose my balance and risking a crash.
It’s not easy, but it is necessary. Hilary was fond of telling me that everything is temporary; nothing ever stays the same. Whether a season was good or not-so-good, she would just keep going until it changed again, despite her own anxiety and fears. I don’t know that I fully appreciated her tenacity at the time, but now I’m trying to follow in her footsteps. Grief can provide ample temptation to remain stuck and intentionally choosing to re-join life–even find some joy in it– can feel like betrayal, as if somehow you’reover it.
But I’m trying. Today it was a bike ride. A good friend had upgraded his bike and gifted me with his original ride. Although the saying goes “it’s like riding a bike; you never forget,” it took me a while to get the hang of it again. In my favorite park, I found my footing and actually enjoyed viewing the scenery as the gears clicked into place.
While I’m far from mastering changing gears, literally and figuratively, I’m learning. With a change in vocation, I’m navigating uncharted territory. Trusting my own instincts, learning from the experience of others and leaning into that still small voice are the markers that are guiding me into this new foray. Like never before, being vulnerable, quick to admit, I was wrong and I’m sorry, and setting healthy boundaries have become part of my daily existence. Each day has begun with the questions: What lessons am I going to learn today and do I have to learn them the hard way again? Strange as it seems, I look for Hilary in these moments. She was so chill when it came to making mistakes and owning them (eventually!), so I find myself wondering what she would do in the situations I’m finding myself in; what advice would she give. Funny, I never sought advice from her when she was here; I wouldn’t have dreamed of it. Now, however, I’m kind of in the world she once inhabited. One where pain, anxiety and defensiveness are the norm for my charges, I’m constantly wondering how she dealt with the incessant onslaught of emotions. In the still small voice in my spirit, I hear her two cents worth being thrown in: Remember mom; everything is temporary.Don’t get stuck in where you are, but where you’re going. You’re killin’ it, ma.
It was a day of goodbyes. As I made my final trek to Owen Sound, it occurred to me that this would be the last visit I would be making to this little city to visit family. This was the day before Derek was leaving to join our son in Kamloops, BC. But before he could leave, there was some things that needed to be taken care of.
The bathroom for starters. As far as ex-wives go, I think I’m pretty awesome. Arriving at his home as the moving truck was wheeling away meant the only thing that remained was the clean-up. While Derek gathered a load of garbage to take to the dump, I was up to my elbows in Mr. Clean and soapy water. Yeah, I was helping to clean up my ex’s house. Some people marvel at the fact that we can be civil–even kind towards one another. If you haven’t figured it out by now, life is too short to be treating anyone–ex’s included–like an ass hat. Perhaps more so in the last few months, we’ve extended more grace to one another than in previous years, but it’s only been slightly more of a stretch. Whether or not we were able to keep a marriage together had no bearing on the fact that we had brought two children into the world together.
And since we had been together to bring those children into the world, it only made sense that we should be together when we returned one of them to the earth.
After the house was in order, it was time to head to the park. Seated in the front seat of Derek’s car, I cradled a soft velvet bag that contained all that remained of our daughter, Hilary. Focusing on the road ahead, I anticipated our final walk.
Harrison Park is a landmark in the city of Owen Sound. This vast expanse of woodland was donated to the city by a man of the same name, and for years, it had been a favorite place to enjoy nature. Each step along the trail with Hilary still snuggled against my chest, brought back over two decades of memories. I remembered summers of swimming in the pool nestled in the forest. Both Hilary and her brother Cameron were like tadpoles, swimming under water and only coming up for air when they absolutely couldn’t hold their breath any longer. Famished after a swim, we would make our way to the Inn for an ice cream cone. Our Saturday morning ritual was breakfast at the Park Inn and the kids always insisted that we sit in their favorite server, Andrew’s, section where he would talk to them like real people. I noticed that the bird sanctuary was still home to the peacocks. As toddlers, the kids would compete to see who could out-screech the peacocks, much to the chagrin of other park-goers. In Hil’s later years when she would come to see her dad, a visit wouldn’t be complete without taking her dogs, Ebony and Lila, for a romp through the forest– winter, spring or summer–it didn’t matter.
Derek had taken over carrying the velvet bag and I snapped pictures of my favorite places in the park. A field of trilliums that the long-awaited spring had finally yielded, created a beautiful carpet for the forest floor. With the trees finally in bloom, a primordial canopy sheltered us as we went about the business of sharing Hilary with the woodland. I watched with sadness as Derek set about finding the perfect places. I’d never seen him indecisive in the thirty-plus years I’d known him, so I acquiesced to every place he chose, letting him anoint flowers, ferns and paths where Hilary’s feet no doubt had tread.
If I’d wondered if Hilary was hovering over us watching the proceedings, I was quickly assured. Just as Derek had shared Hilary with the river, a dog came bounding out of nowhere, and jumped on the precise spot where Derek had poured her ashes. The dog jumped and frolicked in absolute joy. We looked at each other first in shock, and then burst into fits of laughter. With her love of dogs and any four-legged animal, we knew it could only be Hilary making her presence known. This act alone brought a peace and comfort that was much needed.
Finally, I asked if I could have some of her ashes. Derek went to hand the container to me but I simply held out my hand.
“You want me to just pour it into your hand?” He seemed surprised.
“Sure, why not. It’s just Hilary.”
I think he was a little hesitant at first, but did it anyway. The ashes, which more closely resembled sand from a beautiful white beach, actually seemed warm in my hand. I looked intently at the contents, reminding myself that I was only holding her carrying case; her truest self–her spirit–was everywhere.
I released the ashes into another part the river, at a spot where I was sure she and her brother had stood, watching for fish, frogs and whatever else they believed lurked beneath the water.
We walked for a while in silence when Derek turned to me and said with a serious voice, “Uh, Monica…”
“I think you’ve got Hilary on your pants.”
I looked down at my pant leg to see white finger prints on my thigh. “Oh well, she was always getting into my clothes.” I didn’t brush her off.
While it was a bittersweet occasion, it only seemed fitting that we made the pilgrimage back to one of the most memorable places that Hilary enjoyed; whether with friends, family or in solitude. I’d like to think that wherever she’s walking now is far more beautiful than any place her journey on earth took her and that one day, we’ll be walking the same path again.
I was already in the waiting room when Barbara walked into the office. Although we’d yet to meet, somehow just watching her enter the space let me know she was my assigned peer support person for the survivors of suicide group I’d joined. She had the look of someone who was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. Even when she tried to smile at the receptionist, sadness wouldn’t let her.
greeting was almost apologetic. Like we
were embarrassed by our common thread, we made awkward introductions.
“How long have you been bereaved?” I’d learned the lingo; you don’t just come out and ask when their loved one had taken their life.
been about three years.”
I was stunned. Three years? She looked like it had just happened three weeks ago. She was, well…so pained. I silently declared that I would not look like that in three years; hopefully not in three months.
Barbara recounted stories of learning to push away the people who didn’t help but only added to her pain, how she ceased to make her son David’s favorite foods and telling people that she had two children—not acknowledging that one no longer made earth his home.
“Monica,” Barbara sighed. “Losing David was like losing my leg. I can get a prosthetic leg, or use crutches, but I will never walk on my leg again. It’s like that.”
In my mind, I just couldn’t fathom the hopelessness with which she spoke. It sounded to me like she didn’t think she had a choice.
“I feel like I need to stay connected with things that used to bring me joy,” I processed aloud.
“That’s good,” she encouraged, then landed the sucker punch, “But don’t have the expectation that you will have joy. Highly unlikely.”
“Are you a woman of faith?” I asked.
“No,” she responds shaking her head. “David used to talk about his favorite Catholic church. I don’t know if he ever actually attended it, but every now and then, I order a mass and attend. I only do it because he liked it.”
I suppose this is where I get stuck. While I am grateful that this woman who has also suffered this unimaginable loss would take the time to enter my pain, I can’t help but feel that we are walking a totally different path. I’m not suggesting that a relationship with God is the only source of hope and peace, but as I listened to her words, the over-arching theme was one of a loss of hope and a lack of desire to find it. Much of her ‘advice’ centred around white lies, denial and pushing away. I honour her vulnerability and willingness to share, but I simply can’t go there.
I recently watched the based-on-a-true-story movie, Breakthrough, where a mother is desperate for her son to recover from what should have been a fatal accident. She overhears people talking about the futility of her prayers and medical intervention, and is devastated by their comments. She announces that her son’s hospital room and the adjacent waiting rooms were to be filled with words of life and hope, and if people couldn’t find something positive to say, they needed to leave. I hear you, sister.
I choose to believe in God’s goodness. I choose to believe that while there may be pain in the night, joy will come in the morning. I have to choose this daily. I don’t know when that morning will be, but I’m trying to embrace the hope that comes with it. I’m not deflecting, lest anyone should think otherwise. My one-way yelling matches with God and Hilary–for that matter– would prove otherwise. These past few days when the sun has deigned to shine on me and my situation, I have attempted to embrace it–even find joy in it. I used to find joy in running (ok, more like a slow jog), but just putting one foot in front of the other has been an effort, but I want to, so I try. I signed up for another session of musical theatre; it’s ok–not spectacular– but I show up. Same with my writing classes.
I. Show. Up.
I recognize that for some, experiences with God–or how He’s been portrayed by others– has left you with more doubts and questions than hope and answers. But for me, He is my Source of strength. Most days I have no clue what He’s doing in my life. I don’t understand much these days, but I choose to trust. I choose to believe that God will work with whatever daily decisions I make, just as He worked with Hilary’s decision. I know that she is in heaven because of the decisions she made in her life before she chose to end it. If I allow myself to believe that it’s all down-hill from here and my life will cease to have any meaning, relevance or joy, it’s like choosing to lie down and pull the earth up over me. In the words of Hilary, “That’s a hard no!”
The dark days will come, I know. I might be triggered by a song, a smell, or even a phrase, but I’m not going to go looking for them in expectation. I know they are there; no one needs to tell me, but thanks for reminding me. What I am going to do is to choose to move forward in my grief, with the hope of a day that’s maybe better than yesterday. Because hope deferred, definitely makes the heart sick and I’m ready to feel something else in my ticker.
I had signed up for Musical Theatre, a class at the local Arts Centre. The thought of getting up and singing in front of an audience after a twenty-year hiatus scared the crap out of me, which was precisely why I wanted to do it; to step out of my comfort zone. A man I had briefly dated had once said to me, ‘ Are you sure you want to do that? With your low and gravelly voice?’
‘Screw you,’ I thought. For that very reason, I signed up.
It was nerve-wracking and I struggled with the fear that I would get up on stage and botch it supremely. Hilary was supportive and told me that I could do it and to not let the criticism of a guy (whom she’d never met but had already decided she heartily disliked), discourage me from going for it.
After her death, I wasn’t sure I should or could. I was afraid people would think I was getting on with my life far too soon after losing her, but I realized that to not go ahead was like letting fear and doubt win, so I went for it. I’d missed a couple of classes and only returned for the dress rehearsal. Both teachers, Susan and Yo, and my fellow students were amazingly supportive and created such a safe space. Susan assured me that if I decided not to sing in the final performance, but rather just come to hang out with the gang, that would be fine too. My decision was made based on the fact that if I didn’t show up, I’d just be sitting at home feeling sorry for myself, and kicking myself for not following through. I pushed through my misgivings and put on my costume and make-up and showed up.
you make it to the other side of the greatest loss imaginable, you realize that
it would take a lot more than stage fright to take you out. So what if I bombed? What was the worst thing that could
happen? The audience would applaud
politely and forget me as they sipped their morning coffee the next day.
I remember walking through the back hallway towards my stage entrance, my mic was in place, and I was listening to my fellow-student, Deborah begin her song. I was next, and as I quietly stood at the back of the theatre, there was an unbelievable calm. I had no jitters; my heart wasn’t racing and there was a giddy sense of excitement to get in front of the audience and just sing my three-minute song. Cue music. I entered from upstage right into the spotlight. I vaguely remembered seeing my sister in the front row and was glad that we had been instructed to focus our gaze at the control booth at the back of the stage above the seats. I didn’t want to see anyone. As I sang, I was aware that my timing was off and I was not synchronized with the backing track, but I didn’t care; I knew I would catch up. I was having a conversation in my head the whole time I was singing; ‘Oh my gosh, I’m actually doing it. I’m singing in front of an audience and there is no fear. I’m doing it!’
As if being led, I looked to the upper-most right-hand corner of the theatre where I noticed a bright stage light. In my minds eye, I could see Hilary watching from the rafters. ‘I’m going to go for it,’ I decided. In practice, my voice would crack or disappear altogether when I would attempt hitting the higher notes that Ella Fitzgerald sang in her rendition of Someone to Watch Over Me. Not tonight. Tonight, I’m singing for Hilary and I will not disappoint her. I took the final line of the song and raised it up to those rafters from where I was sure Hilary was watching. Perfection—at least for an amateur. And then the applause. I could hear my friends whooping it up from the middle of the audience. With an almost imperceptible grin on my face, I exited to where my fellow students were waiting back-stage. Hugs, high-fives and congratulations greeted me. Relief. And then the tears. Tears that I had finished what I’d started and Hilary would have been proud. Tears for the realization that I’d no longer have this distraction from my grief. It was a bittersweet crescendo at the end of a symphony.
As Nora McInerny says in her Ted Talk about grief, grieving isn’t about moving on, rather it’s about moving forward. You carry your loved one with you wherever you go, into your new normal, whatever that looks like. The grief will continue; there is no expiry date. But you are allowed to move forward with your life—enjoy it, even. After all, the show indeed must go on.