*For those still struggling with infertility or are early in their pregnancy/infant/child loss journey, please know that this post contains information about a new pregnancy and ultrasound pictures.
Today is a very important day for us, a milestone day. Six weeks ago we announced to our Facebook tribe of friends, family and colleagues that we are expecting a son this year. In a few short sentences we tried to express that this little boy was the remaining embryo from the IVF that gave us our twins. The announcement came one day before he reached the same gestation that we lost them … unplanned but significant I suppose.
It’s significant because this little boy is being carried after a loss - a major, life-altering, still aching loss. And while we don’t identify with the term ‘rainbow baby,’ because he was created with the twins before they were gone, it is the current cultural term to describe a pregnancy after loss – a rainbow pregnancy.
I’ve written a few posts to try to describe pregnancy after loss, each one rambling longer than the next, before I realized I don’t know how to describe it just yet. There is a powerful colliding of emotions, a squishing of contradictory feelings that ruminate daily in my heart. I’m sorting it out. Living it now. That’s why I haven’t posted in several months. I’ll save the ramblings to sort through later.
This was what our FB announcement said: "We are cautiously excited to announce that we are expecting a baby boy this June! This little guy is Finnian and Maisie’s triplet, our frozen miracle of science and prayer. We are so hopeful that we get to hold this extra special baby and believe he is already carrying the spunk, spirit, and love of his brother and sister. We will take all the prayers, positive energy, or any way you might lift us up for a safe pregnancy. Come on 2017, we need a win!"
In addition to learning how to navigate the roller coaster of a rainbow pregnancy, we are in the midst of a very complicated high-risk pregnancy. For all the mamas out there who managed through high-risk pregnancies – I salute you. No, that’s not enough - I admire the hell out of you. Because a high-risk pregnancy has it’s own colliding, squished emotions that pull you outside the normal pregnancy experience and force you to quietly fight for the life your body is just supposed to know how to grow.
We have been on careful watch this pregnancy since it still incredibly unclear why our twins were born early. We knew I went into pre-term labor because I contracted and delivered, but we have no idea what exact sequence of events led us there (we have great doctors though and have been working off theories to manage the care of this pregnancy). Our first trimester was riddled with episodes of bleeding and threatened miscarriages due to a hematoma. Our second trimester began with the revelation that I have an irritable uterus that painfully and frequently has spells of pre-labor type contractions. We have been attending weekly doctors appointments and ultrasounds to check that these contractions do not cause my cervix to begin the labor process. Two weeks ago, my cervix did shorten and we wasted no time getting in to surgery and sewing it closed.
So why is today a milestone? A big, important day for us? Because today we have reached medical viability at our hospital. Some hospitals require 1-2 more weeks of gestation, but we picked the one with the most advanced NICU. We picked the one that has the knowledge, equipment and resources to take a baby born 18 weeks before their due date.
Today, if my son is born, they will try to save him. He is considered “viable” to live outside of my uterus. This moment washes over me with immense relief that collides and squishes under the weight of losing our twins so early. When they handed me our daughter, Maisie, she was alive. I stared at her heart pounding, knowing she wanted desperately to take a breath. And I searched the room for anyone to help her and they could not. They could not because she was too early to survive without me. No equipment could help her fragile lungs.
It was this moment that I recounted while I laid on the surgery table for my cervix. Numb from the waist down and exposed to a room of scrub-clad doctors and nurses, I told their story. I let the tears slide down my cheeks and puddle by my face while I begged them to please get me to viability. I tried desperately to impress that this little boy that I am carrying is more important than any other baby because of what we went through with his brother and sister. My medical professionals were fighting for me … but I needed them to know what the battle was for and why. I needed them to know that I am willing to do absolutely anything I can to get him here, and I need their help.
We are here now. 22 weeks. And the reality is, he needs a lot more time. We are still hoping and praying he makes it a lot longer. But we are also realistically preparing for what happens if he comes prematurely. Each week is a new goal. Each week increases his survival chances and decreases his risk of long-term health struggles.
Each day I feel him kick more. Each week I see him on the ultrasound, perfectly formed, happy and heart-thumping. Every time I am filled with immense joy and love for this little boy. Every time I imagine the twins reaching the same moments. It’s messy.
I’m laying on the couch with my feet in the air the majority of the day just to keep him in. Often perusing Facebook to see how my friends are tackling their careers, advocating for political change, nurturing their young families, and advancing their studies. And I put all those things on hold for myself. Because right now, feet in the air, I am fighting the hardest battle I’ve ever fought and he is so worth it. He has always been viable to me.
Hello friends, I took a hiatus from writing last month but have received several recent encouragements to get started back.
We traveled at the beginning of September and then took the rest of the month to settle into our new reality – which is actually a non-changed reality - A reality in which we do not have to figure out how to juggle two newborns and all their needs. Our house is still quiet. That’s the thing about infant loss or pregnancy loss. On the outside your life seems unchanged, but you were planning for major changes. And when they don’t come … you just feel lost. Lost and sad and quiet and kinda lacking purpose.
There is an old Patty Griffin song that I used to play on repeat: Making Pies. The song has a sweet somberish sound with an undertone of bravery. The lyrics tell a story of a woman making pies instead of caving into her grief (at least that’s how interpreted it). My favorite line “You could cry or die or just make pies all day. I’m making pies.” Oh Patty, me too.
I have actually, literally, started making pies. I'm staying at home during the day and often baking a pie. I’m fortunate enough that my husband is able to take care of our living needs – so I’m “breaking” from school and work. The advice to take a step back from social work while I try to recover makes absolute sense. My work and study require my heart to be strong, it requires me to put my pain on hold so that I can hold someone else’s pain. (Side note: Hug a social worker if you can. There is not shortage of self that they are giving in their work.)
I can’t give that right now. Some days I want to – I miss working. I miss helping others. I’m bored a lot of the time. I actually cannot remember a time in my life where I haven’t worked, volunteered, or gone to school in some time consuming combination. But, I’m forcing myself to recover, to gently glue the pieces of my heart back together so it can hold. I’m also working on gluing those pieces together so we can hopefully open our hearts again. In the process I think I can learn to be better in my work …
Also, I think I am becoming a better human. Loss does that. It breaks us and forms us and builds us. Strange, but true. I wouldn’t pick it though. But unfortunately, I can’t unpick it now.
The truth is, I still cry a lot. I spent a lot of life being strong. I spent a lot of the last decade and a half standing up to the pain of loss. I spent a lot of hours being bigger than my grief. But losing my babies … it was just cratering in a way that I can barely put words to. I feel so incredibly broken inside. But also, I feel full. Broken and full. Love does that – makes us bigger.
In the healing space, I’m practicing holding both things: love and pain. It’s true of all loss though isn’t it? We learn to hold the weight of our love and our pain. We practice over and over until we are recovered. I don’t expect to fully recover until this life is over, but recovery is a lifelong thing any way. At least that’s what I would tell a client … so I’m gently telling myself. Every day, every step, a little closer. The bravery is in letting both things exist (love and pain) without feeling like you have to get rid of either to be healing.
So in the meantime, I’m making pies. It takes time, concentration, and I feel good about the outcome. When I need an hour or so to escape – I’m putting my hands in the dough, stirring the raspberrys or apples or cream or peanut butter (for Dad), or pecans (for Mom) and appreciating the ability to make something.
I didn’t cook or bake much before we lost the babies. So I’m learning this as I go. It’s new. It’s yummy. My husband loves it. I’ve picked up a couple other hobbies/self care activities too, but this is his favorite.
“I could cry or die or just make pies all day. I’m making pies.”
I’m interested to hear what new thing you began after your loss? Did you make something? Create something? Or start doing something different? Change an exercise routine? Please share … maybe it will inspire another griever with something that they could try while learning to live this new life after loss. Feel free to post a comment here or on the blog Facebook page: Facebook.com/lossandlife
We have spent the month of July surrounded by family and water. We’ve visited both my parent’s different lake houses and travelled north to play in the pool with my nieces and brother and sister-in-love. The water is refreshingly cool in this heat. The sun pushes with humid forces against our skin, the pressure mimicking the weight my heart feels most days. But the water feels light and I still float.
I have been laughing with my family. I’m mostly an extrovert by nature – I gather energy from being around others. I’ve let that energy flow through me in the moments that we have spent time with our family and friends – I laugh. I laugh hard. Sometimes I laugh so hard it appears that there is no brokenness, sometimes the laughter blasts from my lungs, past my vocal chords, and escapes in a burst of joyful sound. I have a good laugh.
I’ve also been laughing on purpose. After my sister was killed, I was afraid that my laughter meant that I was not hurting enough. Or at least that was what others might think – I know I was hurting. I’ve spent my entire adult life grieving her. At some point, I learned that laughter was actually a sign of conquering death; a sign of refusing to let the monsters win.
Since the twins have died, I’ve tried to force myself into moments of laughter. I never want their lives to be remembered as the thing that broke me … because I never want them to be remembered as anything less than wonderful. Even when it doesn’t appear to be so, my life is currently a balance of survival. I am working to express the memory of the joyfulness my twins brought to my life and I am woefully, heart-brokenly, living their absence. The waves are still ever-present, unpredictable, and difficult to describe. Every moment I am conscious of living without them. Living and being without them. Being alive, living each moment, and not having them. Every moment I am aware of this.
This weekend I was talking to my sister-in-law, also my dear friend, over coffee on our second morning visiting. Sitting at her kitchen table, she told me about recognizing my ability to laugh still. She mentioned that it was good to hear, that even when she visited for the memorial she noticed how I could get swept up and laugh with the family. She started to say, “It’s almost as if you’ve forgotten for a moment...” and then she said, “no … that’s not right … it’s as though … I’m not sure. But it’s good to hear.”
I knew what she was trying to say. It’s almost as though I am okay. But she knows the brokenness in my heart. She has sat and cried with me. She has held my hand and wept for my babies. She watched me hold them in the hospital. She has listened to me recount over and over the fears, the devastation, and the missing. She is also still grieving the loss of her mother (in addition to her niece and nephew) … so she get’s it. She knows that no amount of laughter can get her further away from missing her mom.
So we sat for a second, both knowing that there is a paradox in life after grief. Loss often makes us appreciate each moment more fully. We live each second knowing there are no guarantees. Each moment of laughter is an act of survival.
Death did not steal my laughter - it couldn’t, because living is my best representation of the joy present in loving. Death did not steal my laughter because death could not remove Finnian and Maisie from my heart. Death did not steal my laughter because death cannot separate my love from them. Death has done many things – it has kidnapped a lifetime of memories from us, it has left us bruised and aching, it has filled our nights with longing dreams and nightmares. But despite death separating our physical bodies from each other, it could never, ever take away the joy of having known them. Death cannot stop me from loving them more with every one of my own heartbeats, therefore it cannot have my laughter.
Next week I will share more about the balance … Maybe I’ll tell you about the dream Monday night that reminded me to leave room to feel the sadness. This week, however, my oldest niece has been staying with us. She travelled back for her annual visit. A good friend and colleague reminded me “Enjoy your week! Plug into her innocence and life and hug her tight!”
I have been doing just that. We have been playing and talking. She talks about Finnian and Maisie. The first day we visited her home to pick her up I sat with her sister and her by the pool. I was showing my nieces pictures of our dogs on my phone (they love the dogs!) and when I scrolled past a picture of the babies the littlest one said, “Oh how cute! Is that one Maisie?” They had seen the pictures at our small memorial. They remembered the babies. We spent 15 or so minutes looking at other pictures. They talked about their cute toes and Finnian’s little nose. Death doesn’t scare them. They see life. Their acceptance and grace is so beautiful.
My oldest niece has mentioned the babies again several times this week and she asked me a ton of questions about Rachael while we were driving to our next fun place to visit. I don’t let my eyes well with tears in these moments. I answer all her questions with a smile so she always knows it’s okay for us to talk about them, because we love them.
Death didn’t steal my laughter, because it could not erase their life.
I sat across from a pregnant friend of mine for a small dinner and catch up. Her eyes welled with tears when mine did – our due dates are the same (her full term date and when we expected the twins).
She told me that she wanted to do more for me; That she has cried repeatedly when trying to decide whether to call or give space, that she debated sending me all the wine and chocolate and flowers in the world, that she wished she could “wrap me in bubble wrap” to protect me from any more hurt. She also told me that she has been afraid because I am a reminder of her own biggest fear – one of her children dying.
Her heart is beautiful and open. I’ve also had a similar discussion with a few of my long time best friends on different occasions. They want to do something for me but they don’t know what to do or say, and they grapple with the giant scary proposition of imagining what would happen if their child died.
This got me thinking about what exactly it is that I want or need as a griever. Truthfully, the women who have had these discussions with me have all provided the exact things I have needed (the biggest things). Here are the top three things I’ve needed as a grieving friend:
1. To be reminded that I am remembered and not alone.
When my friend tearily told me that she wished that she could do more, I responded “But you did the one thing I asked you to do – to let me know you were thinking of me. You have done so at random but with consistency since the twins died.”
Do not underestimate the power of a simple text saying, “I’m thinking of you” or “You’re on my mind, hope today is a good day” or “Thinking of your babies today.” These words can remind the griever that they are not alone even if they have isolated themselves. The thing about needing space is it only feels good if you are given the opportunity to choose it – leaving someone alone because you think they need space just creates the feeling that they are forgotten.
The griever is less likely to “reach out to you when they are ready” because they have an internal emotional meter that makes every action feel bigger and scarier before they were grieving. So reach out even if I don’t respond, or I respond with a simple “thank you”… because when the time comes that I don’t need space, or I want a dinner, I will know that you are safe to go to.
2. To feel like my loved one is known.
In the years since Rachael died, 99% of the non-family people in my life have never met her. This fact use to terrify me – “what if no one ever understands who I am because they never see this huge part of me!?” But over time, I have had multiple friends tell me that they feel like they know her through me. I talk about her. I tell stories about her. I want her to be known. Hearing that they feel as though they do makes me feel better, as though I have done my job keeping her memory alive.
The same is true of the babies … although their lives were shorter, although I am the only person who held them alive, although only our parents and sisters saw their faces – I still have so much I could tell you about them. I am so grateful for the friends who have let me repeat stories about ultrasounds and who I thought they would be. I don’t cry when I tell these stories, I laugh and smile and feel the joy of their lives again. We feel joy when we can share our loved ones and by listening and trying to know them you share that joy with us.
3. Permission to grieve as long as needed.
I know that I have talked about permission before. We live in a move- on culture. We live in a culture that believes you are not healing unless you are picking yourself up, swallowing the bad feelings, and moving on. But grief will last as long as love does.
Each death changes us in some way – an important relationship was removed from our lives, parts of our identity are entwined with our relationship to that person, and new information about how life works is being integrated into our personal framework. The best thing for the griever to do is feel all the emotions.
In my opinion, healing is the process of becoming who you are going to be now that you no longer can hold your loved one. That is hard and it takes a lifetime of negotiating new circumstances without them. Give your grieving friend permission to take as long as needed. Tell them “it’s okay if you are sad” or “it’s okay if you are mad” or “it’s okay if you are not okay.” They are going to be those things anyway, but you telling them that you are okay with it removes some of the shame or guilt of feeling like they “should” be better now.
Tip for the griever:
After reflecting on dinner with my friend, I realized that I am receiving what I need in my closest relationships for two reasons. One is the fact that my friends want to know how to console me. I believe that most of us want to “be there” for our hurting friends and family, but we often don’t know how. So instead of asking, many people try to assume the best way to meet your needs. The other reason is that I am open with what I need in my new grief.
This is my tip to the newly grieving or hurting person. You have so much on your plate it seems unfair to pile anything else on, but this is a simple one (even when it doesn’t feel that way). Just say, “I need you to tell me you’re thinking of me;” or “I need to talk about my loved one for a bit” or “I need to know it’s okay if I cry.” If you can just get out that one line of whatever your need might be, I have a feeling that your consoler will meet it – because they have been wanting to all along.
Today my darling babies have been gone 13 weeks. This upcoming Monday my sister has been gone for 13 years. The balance of numbers is not lost on my heart. I have not moved past counting. In part, because the progression of time carries such shock with it – the clock continues ticking, whether I watch it or not, whether I can feel it or not, whether it should stand still or not.
In all the time that my sister has been gone, we have not forgotten her. We still think about and talk about her in my family. In 13 weeks, I still mention the babies every single day to anyone who will let me.
A few weekends ago we were spending time at my Dad’s lake house. The sun was shining bright, we had all been in the water, and swigged a beer or two. A friend of his pulled a boat up next to ours and tethered to the side. I was not up for socializing with anyone new. It had only been weeks since the twins had died. My heart still sore and achy, my eyes still three seconds away from leaking, I didn’t want to talk to anyone that didn’t know. So I flipped over on my tummy and let the sun stroke my back.
My dad and youngest sister plopped on the seat across from us and talked to the lady on the adjoining boat. She was a friend of a friend so she did not really know my Dad’s story (or ours). I was laying on the seat in between letting their words fly over me.
In the typical small talk way, the woman said, “so you have just the two daughters,” to my Dad. She was about to tell us about her children, her 4 living children and her 3 grandchildren. She wanted to share about her life and all the living people.
“Actually no,” my Dad said without skipping a beat, “that is my oldest daughter, Tiffany, and she has a sister one year younger that died and is in heaven, Rachael, and this is my youngest daughter, Samantha.”
I lifted my head to look at his face. Perfectly calm and with a smile like any father introducing his children.
“Oh,” the woman said with an all too familiar uncomfortabl-ness that strangers tend to wash with when you tell them someone has died, “I am so sorry.” You could tell she wanted to fall through a hole in the boat. She had no idea what to say next.
“It’s okay,” my Dad, said with ease, “I just never want to say I have 2 daughters when I have 3.” Then he smiled and the conversation moved on.
I lifted my head and stared at him behind my sunglasses. My heart stuck in my throat, both in pride and in hope. Hope because in this whole world my biggest fear is that my children will be forgotten. That only I will ever talk about them. That if I mention them people will sink into a hole or run the other direction or I’ll be the quintessential ‘debbie downer.’
But the truth is, Finnian and Maisie are not erasable. They are imprinted on my heart, and their presence, even though brief, was still very real. And it is okay for me to let other’s know that. My parents, both my Mom and my Dad, never let Rachael be erased. She couldn’t be. And they proudly mention her name with the same bravado that they say Sam’s and mine – with never wavering, irreplaceable, un-erasable love.
IF I have more children, I will follow my Dad’s lead and there were always be a +2 to that number, and I will say “it’s okay, I never want to say we have 2 when we have 4.” (or whatever that may end up being). And even if I don’t, if by some twist of fate these are our only children – We will always have 2. And I will never say we have 0, when we really have 2.
If you are a fellow griever I hope you are encouraged too – talk about your loved one, say their name, mention they lived. We can do so with a smile. We can do so in the way we mention our living loved ones. We can change the dialogue around death – so that it isn’t the end; because it isn’t the end in our hearts. They live as long as we do … we know love lasts at least that long, and probably longer.
Earlier this week I re-posted an old blog post – A Note to New Grievers. When I wrote the post I was in a very different place than I am now. I wrote the post in 2013. Ten years after my sister’s murder. 3 years before my twins died.
When I stumbled on it again it was like reading one of those time-capsule letters. You know, the ones you used to write and bury for your future self?
I found myself reading the lines:
“I can attest that it (grief) will change, it will become bearable, and you will change with it. The suffering of it will end. There will be days that your heart wrenches when you wish they were present to experience a piece of life with you - but eventually those will be mere moments in the scope of your life. You will not be crippled by this painful loss – not permanently.”
And thinking – is that true? Did I really feel that pulled back together?
I miss my sister, Rachael, even now... well, especially now. Whenever things get really hard I miss her extra. I wonder about where she would be on the journey to making a family. I wonder how she would hold my hand through this.
But, I’ve grown accustomed to missing her. It’s woven into the fabric of my daily life. I know how to miss her and move through the rest of my life.
The twins … I can’t breathe sometimes I miss them so much. The weight of their loss sits like an anvil on my chest. It feels crippling. It feels life altering. It feels … like this is the new forever.
But what if my former words are true?
What if this too will fold in, become part of who I am, and I will move again with ease?
What if the longing and the missing become less?
No … I will always long, I will always miss.
Just as I do Rachael, but more.
More because your children come from the most intimate parts of your heart.
Because your children have true pieces of you.
Because losing them is legitimately losing part of yourself.
I’ve been reading through countless grief sites. Story after story about loss and living without your children. Stories about infertility struggles. Stories about kissing infants goodbye and holding funerals for children. Stories about how people overcome or learn to live again.
I’m devouring these stories. I want to know about the men and women who went before me. I want to know how the grief settles. I want to see the beauty in the terrible wreckage.
The end of A Note To New Grievers recounts the Anne Frank quote:
“Think of all the beauty still around, and be happy.”
So here it is (for now) some of the beautiful things I have seen in this painful time:
Five things for now. I’ll do my best to keep my eyes open for more – even if I see it through the cloud of tears – I’ll look for the beauty for my babies. I'm not quite at the "be happy" part yet. But, I’ll look for it because their lives brought joy, and they are the most beautiful thing of all.
Today we celebrate what would have been my sister’s 30th birthday. We don’t really have anything planned, because my family’s whole focus had been on preparing for my wedding. I chuckled to myself imagining how she would have chided me about that; how she would’ve teased and pretended to be bothered, but still been by my side the whole way. When we were little girls we used to both count down to my birthday because it began our season of joy. My birthday, then three weeks later her birthday, then within a week Thanksgiving, then a few weeks later Christmas and then the New Year. These were incredibly joyous times for our family – we love the holidays and food and gift giving and time together. R really loved the holidays and I can still hear her excitedly telling me that my birthday was around the corner. She wasn’t just excited for me but for us – our season was coming.
It wasn’t planned to put our wedding day in the middle of that season as much as it was of need for a venue, but I am so happy that it is now incorporated into this time of year. Our wedding day was beautiful. Truthfully the greatest wedding I have ever been to, and possibly everyone feels that way about their day. But it was an amazing congregation of all the people in our lives that are important to us supporting our connection to each other. When D looked at me and promised: “I choose to love you every day,” my heart swelled with pride and peace knowing that from this day through forever we would be family. Regardless of what life brings, he will forever be my family. He will be my “us” now.
I know that we both feared that we would feel a hole or sad on the day of without R and his mom, but we were so surrounded by love that it never felt that way. We took time to incorporate small, maybe not completely noticeable, celebrations of who they each were to us. And it just felt like they were there. Not every milestone has felt that way since R was taken from us. I struggled through my college graduation and first apartment and many others.
Grief is funny in the way that it will hit you at times and then one day you realize there are more times of peace – not less missing, just more peace. Somewhere along the way the holidays took their meaning back and her birthday feels more like a time to celebrate. I hope that this becomes true for D and his family as the years pass after his beloved mom’s death. She too loved the holidays and I have big shoes to fill in decorating the house for him and making sure there are adequate amounts of pie to be had. I think she would have loved the pie at our wedding.
I miss R every day, not with the same gut wrenching intensity, and I would still choose to have her here. I have cried a few times in this process – I think I will always cry for her, but the love and support and commitment of my family (old and new) has been a true reminder to revel in the seasons of joy.
In eight days we are get married. Married. In EIGHT days. If you can hear the nervous excitement in my words than you are reading this right. I don’t believe that I could have found a better partner for my life, but we are both aware that this is a huge life step. I’ve been thinking a lot about life steps this last month. I’ve also been thinking a lot about those that are not going to be stepping with us … at least not in the traditional sense.
October has been a whirlwind of a month. Just before the crisp air of this month settled in I traveled to Houston to visit some dear friends. I went carrying bridesmaid dresses and spent some time reenergizing. All the feelings of being drained from my internship (which I have since replaced, but that is a story for a different time), those feelings washed away as I sat with my very dear friends and laughed and drank wine and cried and braided hair and laughed some more.
On the Saturday of my visit, my dear friend and sweet cousin accompanied me to R’s gravesite. I hadn’t been since I move from Houston, nearly 8 years ago. I imagine the place often, will close my eyes and pretend to sit next to where her body rests. There was a nervous energy as we drove there – straight there, I remembered it exactly. Sarah brought beautiful silk orchids to place in her vase and Shee brought a bucket and cloths to wash her stone. There was a small toad living in the water of the vase that sits below where her feet rest. He popped his head out and I had to scoot him away just to get the flowers in. He never left though, just hopped two scooches over and waited. It was grounding - between the toad and the mosquitoes chomping on our legs to remind us that we were the living. We are the living. I miss her. I wish she were going to be here next week. But there was laughter and love and support as I scooped up a little dirt from her site to take home.
The next weekend, I boarded a plan with my dad and his girlfriend to attend my Uncle Steve’s memorial service in Olympia. The entire weekend was beautiful: We spent time with my aunts and uncles, who always leave me feeling enriched. We celebrated and learned about my Uncle Steve’s life. We visited my grandparents’ gravesites. We visited Tumwater falls where my Grandma used to take R and me. We drove by the little blue house that we lived in before we moved across the country.
We stood around my grandma and grandpa’s gravesite – my dad and M, my aunt M and uncle M, my uncle G and I all in a circle. I listened as they talked about their parents, the words bounced back and forth over their resting places between their three children, each with a slightly different experience. We discussed my upcoming marriage and the wonderful family I was marrying into. We talked about D’s mom and the legacy she left when she passed two years prior. The moment mimicked that feeling I had at R’s site a week before … I couldn’t quit place it, but it felt right, harmonizing, and comforting.
At my Uncle Steve’s memorial service several friends and family got up to speak.
An old friend of his got up and talked about when they would play music together. He described them turning back to back and beginning to play at the same time – without preplanned music, without discussing which notes to play, and without feeling the pressure of needing to play it right. He said that every time they somehow would be on the same page, they would feel what the other was going to do, and they would create beautiful music. When he asked Steve why that would happen, Steve replied “that’s ensemble.”
Ensemble. That’s it. The coordination of playing a tune together … “All the parts of a thing taken together, so that each part is considered only in relation to the whole.”
When my Aunt M spoke, I could feel my whole heart swelling in pain for her. The loss of a sibling hurts. It hurts in indescribable ways because it carries with it so much of your childhood, your identity, and a lot of the way you understand the world. That irreplaceable feeling of R swept over me. Then I thought about standing at her site with S&S, and earlier at my grandparents, and about the moments with them living, and about the man I was going to marry, and about the friends and family that would be there, and the ensemble kept growing. The musical arrangement of life is awe-some.
When we were little girls, R and I would not have to explain what the other was doing or thinking – not because we did and thought the same things, but because we knew how those fit together, instinctually. Some parts of the ensemble just flow on their own and other parts we practice and rehearse together. Either way, isn’t it worth listening?
I believe in crying. It is the body ‘s natural way of shedding the build up of emotional or physical pain. Medically, it can be understood as a release of stress hormones and toxins from the body. But really, sometimes you just need to let the tears fall so you can let go of what you’ve been holding in or holding on to or left trapped inside. I finally had a good cry on Friday evening. Finally the overcommitted schedule and onslaught of new information that had been flooding my brain since the beginning of classes and practicum settled, and I cried. It was necessary, but it didn’t fully recover the feeling of being drained.
Last year I encountered the world of domestic violence. The first few months were hard as I tried to understand the dynamics of such turbulent relationships. As I tried to reconcile the idea that some people are purposefully harmful to others … it was a difficult thought to swallow. And yet, I learned how to help, how to enter a hospital room in the moment of crisis and shed light on the possibility of hope and change and strength. In fact, I continue to work for the agency part-time and on-call. I took many calls this week, more than I had in one week ever before. And my tear ducts remained on hold.
This year my practicum has taken me to the Child Abuse and Neglect clinic in a children’s hospital. Suffice it to say, the information here is beyond difficult to swallow. There are individuals who both purposefully and accidentally do horrific things to children. There are non-offending parents who must hear the stories from their babies and determine in fear-filled, anger-filled states what to do next. Our role in the clinic is different than I anticipated. We are less support social workers, crisis interventionists, or process helpers. We are fact gathers, collaborators with justice systems, and we help make safety calls. I’m struggling with all of these ideas, but I’m hopeful that this year I will to learn how to work in this environment and stay true to the ways I believe people should be worked with and for, and remain humane. I tried thinking ahead and integrating the horrors I was seeing and reading about this week. My tear ducts remained on hold.
I love the hospital setting. I love being able to collaborate with other helping professions. I love the pace. I love that many people who would never seek out a social worker or counseling will seek out medical care and then we can help them. We sat this week in a hospital wide new employee training on Patient Care Services. Most of the information was fairly general about communication, policies, etc.
One module consisted of two different parents telling their stories of being at the hospital. Each of these parents had a child with a life-threatening disease. The tears stung the backs of my eyes as they talked, but did not fall. I can’t imagine the fear filled days of battling these diseases alongside your child. It dawned on me that I choose to work in violence because it feels like interventions can lead to prevention … but that isn’t always the case in terminal illnesses. One of the mother’s described her daughters plight and the care they received at the hospital, and she said that the care was such “she was able to emerge with her spirit intact.”
I thought about my beautiful Aunt and Cousin who have tirelessly fought her Lupus. And always with a quiet strength that created the illusion that this battle was small in comparison to their love and fight. My Aunt once described her daughter as being full of beauty and grit. I can’t think of a more true description. Ironically, this Aunt writes and teaches about Patient Based Care … she champions for the kind of care that humanizes patients and seeks to comfort, acknowledge, validate, teach, and trust them. I thought about the many spirits that have emerged intact because of her care. I want to be and do this. That is my mission. I wanted to cry for them then, for my beautiful family, but my tear ducts remained on hold.
All of those various components and thoughts were multiplied by the other duties of the week – wedding details and class work and my other wonderful research jobs. It all came to a head on Friday night and I finally cried … What about my own spirit? Will I emerge intact? Because I feel drained. I explained it to my fiancé (who thankfully helped me laugh my way into sleep on Friday night), but I am at a point where I feel like I am putting more energy out into the world than I am receiving back. Not by any fault of the systems I am engaged in but more in how I have overcommitted myself to many emotional tasks … if that makes any sense.
The next morning, I rushed off to a weekend of babysitting. I said yes before I knew how heavy my plate would be at this time. But I keep my commitments. As soon as I got to the house the little angels threw their arms around me and cheered for my presence. It was a small delightful reminder of how much they enjoy and appreciate me. I needed that. Then we rushed off to their gymnastics class. As I sat on the other side of a glass window and watched them tumble and climb and hang and jump, I felt my heart recharging. Occasionally, they looked over and waved. They flashed giant smiles of pride in themselves and happiness that I could see them. My whole mood shifted. I knew then and there that my spirit would be okay. We spent the rest of the day building forts, going to a volleyball game, painting, and generally playing. Today we will build a Lego house, go to the museum, and finish kindergarten homework.
When I go home I will need to concentrate on adequate self-care. I recognize that it is essential to take care of my physical, spiritual and emotional wellbeing to be able to truly give my best to all my commitments. I needed this weekend. My spirit needed to be reminded of the good, the playful, the lighthearted and it is certainly intact.
We spent this last weekend on my fiancé’s family farm. I love the idyllic rows of corn and soybeans, the quiet mornings interrupted only by chirping, and most of all spending time with his family. Our dogs ran around without a care in the world and we ate more sweets than necessary. Our nieces, big A and little A, ran around, drove golf carts, and entertained us all. It is a beautiful life.
There is a bittersweet tinge in the air because his mom is no longer there with us. But she helped create this safe and harmonious household. More importantly, she ensured that her death was cushioned by an understanding that love doesn’t stop and that life continues on. Her mission was to show us how “to die well.”
I’m continually amazed at how celebratory each event that memorializes her is and how it still allows for grieving. My sister was ripped away from us … we didn’t have time to assimilate how to continue on, how to celebrate, or how to grieve gracefully. Perhaps that is why in moments that we memorialize their mother, I always take a moment to internally memorialize Rachael – to try to grasp on to the idea of celebrating her life.
As we drove by the cemetery this weekend my future-sister-in-law noticed that her mother’s tombstone had become soiled with grass clippings and general weather ware. She asked me to go with her and her girls to clean the tombstone off. Without tears, they piled a bucket and rags and soap in the car and we headed back. The girls giggled and asked who could use the squeegee first.
I can’t remember the last time I was able to even visit Rachael’s gravesite. It’s in an entirely different city than me now. Each visit always felt so crushing – staring at the 18 year time span marker, the empty spaces for my parents one day, and the flowers that were always dead from our last visit. But I do often think of what it would be like to sit with her under the willow tree that is so close by there …
I filled the bucket with water and poured it over the top of Becky’s stone. Momentarily my throat caught and I flashed to Rachael’s site and imagined washing the stone above her bones. Little A said, “What do you think Grandma is doing right now?” and I just looked at her, and without hesitation she said, “I think she is taking a bath right now.”
Just like that. A glorious reminder of connection that exceeds the boundaries of time and space - in her heart Grandma was doing the very thing that her little hands were helping with. That night I took time to mentally wash Rachael’s stone. I’m not there. Not right now anyways. But I don’t know that time or space truly matters when it comes to love.
I’m getting married this year. Actually, I’m getting married in just under 4 months. This is a huge life thing - a “for the living” life thing. This last weekend I had my bachelorette party. Despite the fact that we are in the anniversary season, that this coming Friday marks 11 years since my sister’s murder, and that in all previous years I have attempted to wipe July off my calendar … despite all of these things, I celebrated this upcoming life milestone. But it wasn’t without immense reminders from my support system that life is bigger than loss.
Before I explain what I mean, I want to send thank you to my dad who loaned us his lake house, took my friends on boat rides, and fed us two big meals. Thank you to my mom who organized a revealing of the dream dress she had customized for me. And so many thank you’s to my sister, who worked tirelessly, thoughtfully, and openheartedly to create a weekend of memories. They all did this during the anniversary season. They all put a life celebration together for me, even while the all silently ached for R to be there. It never showed, but I know. Their support lifts me up and reminds me of the amazing survival we have all exhibited. We are here, we are alive, and dammit we are celebrating it.
I am also ever so grateful to all of the friends who came out and especially to those who flew across the states, those who spent hours making gummies, those who brought goodies and played games … you are all so incredibly special to me.
Loss can take and incredibly toll on some of us. It can take years to feel as though you are thriving more than surviving. But I truly believe that the difference between those two comes from the support systems that you allow to be in your life. I do believe it is an allowance for these things – every one who came out to celebrate with me (besides my dear family) came in to my life after I had lost R. I had to make a careful decision to let me heart open to each and every one of them. Because when you are so badly bruised and mangled from the loss of your best friend it is incredibly difficult to want to have any one else in your heart. But without these people, I would not be thriving. Without some of these women, I would not have even considered dating my fiancé. Without them, I wouldn’t have even begun to explore how my greatest loss could help someone. Without them, I would have lost who I was, who I am, and who I have the potential to become.
SW (one of my bridesmaids) asked me about the anniversary season when we were finishing a morning jog before heading to the lake house. She did so gently and in a way to feel out how I was doing. Why this weekend? Well, because the dress fitting was scheduled and the lake house was open. Those are the practical reasons why. But then the words came out of my mouth before I had time to process them … “because this year, despite missing R so much, I decided I am going to look life in the face and embrace it.”
It has been a few weeks since I have written here. Nothing seemed appropriate after my last post. The ten-year anniversary came and went (as the anniversaries always do) and there was still no profound change in the status quo. But … my grief is different; it does change as the years pass. The changes are subtle from day to day, week to week, and perhaps only more noticeable when I look back on the years.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Helen Keller – she said, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” If you are in the beginning of your grief you may be frustrated with this thought. That’s okay. In my first few years, I was agitated anytime someone told me that the pain of losing such an integral part of my life would ever be assuaged. How could it?
I would never discount your pain by saying that “time heals” or “things will get better with time.” I won’t stretch to say that my definition of “better” and yours will ever match – this is your loss.
However, I can attest that it will change, it will become bearable, and you will change with it. The suffering of it will end. There will be days that your heart wrenches when you wish they were present to experience a piece of life with you - but eventually those will be mere moments in the scope of your life. You will not be crippled by this painful loss – not permanently.
I may not know your loved one but I believe that there is infinite wisdom in the life after this. There is one other quote that I often read and reread because it feels like Rachael would want me to live this: “Think of all the beauty still left around and be happy” (Anne Frank). I hope that one day, maybe not today, that you too will read those words and say, “ok.”
Last October, my boyfriend’s mother passed away from a long and hearty fight with lung cancer. She was a light that could not be dimmed – even by the grasps of cancer. Through the last two and half years Becky encouraged, prodded, reminded, and prayed that we would all live and love and experience life.
Becky had arranged several trips after her diagnosis: she took all of us to Europe, to Nashville, and visited each of her kids in their homes multiple times. One of the trips she had planned was to take us all to a lakeside resort in Iowa. Unfortunately, we were not able to take that trip with her due to a turn in her illness, but she encouraged her daughter to still plan for us all to go. And Christi did just that.
This last weekend we all packed up and headed to the same cabin with the same itinerary that had been planned before. It was a perfect weekend and it happened to be Becky’s birthday.
In the first year after a loss each holiday can feel like a brick to the stomach. Often grievers will mark the amount of days passed. The unknown of how Christmas or birthdays will be handled can be terrifying. After the first year, milestones like holidays can still be difficult but you begin to have a feel for how to celebrate with your family’s new dynamic. Creating memorials or traditions can really help ease the pain of your loved one’s absence – the subtle shift of just missing them to remembering them with a special memorial can help heal.
We celebrated Becky. We laughed. We rode the pontoon and sat by the campfire. And on the evening of her birthday Christi planned a special memorial for her mother. We each took Sharpie and wrote a message to Becky on a Chinese flying lantern. While drawing a picture for Grandma, Christi’s four year old asked, “Now this is going to make it all the way to heaven, right?” Her 8 year old decided that it was the best the messages were written upside down so Grandma could read them. There were tears shed but there was some laughter too. As the lantern slowly rose through the night sky and the light got further and further away, each of our hearts felt a little bit more connected to Becky – despite the loss.
Memorials are symbols. Some will turn into traditions – like eating crème brulee every year on Rachael’s birthday. Other memorials will be one-time occurrences. Participating in memorials is not a fixation on your loved one; it is not considered being stuck in your grief. These events give physicality to the grief that we feel, but they are also moments of celebration. We conquer death when we continue to celebrate life that was lived. I encourage grievers, no matter how far along in the journey, to continue to celebrate your loved ones. And deep down, I truly believe that they are somewhere celebrating us too.
As the tenth anniversary of my sister’s loss approaches, looms, in the future calendar days of this year, I’m struck with the immense realization of how loss has shaped my life. For many years I struggled to not let grief be something that defined me … in many ways that felt like losing the battle … but its not. I grieve because I love deeply. We grieve because we have the capability, the honor, the gift to connect to people, things, and ideals that we love. Grief, in all its various forms, has become a marker for living and loving.
My goal is to help others embrace the existence of loss in their lives, to memorialize the connections to their loved ones, and to simply walk alongside them in their loss and life. As the broader picture of this mission begins to unfold in my daily life and study, I hope to use this blog to explore issues of loss, as well as catalog some of my personal experience. Hopefully, in this small way, I can connect to you and while we can’t remove the absence of our loved one(s), we can continue living.
Hi, I'm Tiffany. I believe in the power of stories to connect us to each other. I write about life after loss and all the love, longing, and learning that comes from it. Grief is big, love is bigger. My newest stories are about motherhood (after both infertility and loss). In my experience, love doesn't get bigger than motherhood.
© Tiffany Kann and Loss & Life, 2013-2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tiffany Kann and www.lossandlife.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.