This is my husband’s first Father’s Day. Of course, we expected my stomach would still be big and round on this day. We thought we would be excitedly preparing for the twins arrival in a few short months. I had a gift planned out for Dan (I’m still going to give it to him) that he could use with the babies. We will still celebrate him because he is still a father.
He is still a Father. Dad. Daddy.
Before the twins died I was talking to a classmate of mine who was working on a qualitative study about how fathers feel after stillbirth. At the time we never thought anything would happen to our own children. But I listened intently as this Dad/fellow classmate explained to me the way society often bypasses fathers after infant loss. He told me about how he had lost a baby and the message he repeatedly received in her wake was that he needed to be strong and take care of his wife. Rarely did someone ask him how he felt about being a Dad.
I remembered thinking about how I wanted to be really intentional in recognizing how much of a Dad my husband already was through our pregnancy. It was important that he knew that his role started before their birth and that I recognized it. So often, we assume a Mom becomes a Mom when she gets pregnant and a Dad becomes a Dad when the baby arrives.
But, Dan did all kinds of fatherly things for them while I was pregnant. He maxxed out their college fund. He bought a Spanish children’s CD so he could learn with them. He checked on me all the time. He carried a soccer ball around the house prepping for Finnian. He imagined what things he would tell Maisie so she felt adored. He talked about where he wanted to take our family during the summers and what kinds of cars he would get the kids. And not just in an imaginary sense, but in a future budgeting preparation. He made sure every craving of jalapeno poppers, strawberries, lemonade, pasta, or burritos was immediately satisfied as though the order came straight from the kids. He attended every single doctors appointment. I will never forget our first ultrasound. D clutched my hand as we waited to find out if we had one or two healthy babies. Then he said, “That’s the heartbeat!” Before me or the nurse saw it. I will never forget the sound of excitement in his voice. That sound rang through my ears through the whole pregnancy – in all our life together I had never heard quite the sound of that fearfully excited wonder from him.
Dan’s only access to the twins was through me until their birth, until he held them gently in his arms. I will never forget the look on his face in the hospital – the way his lips curled in pride as he looked at them before cratering into tears. I remember the way he gently kissed their heads and told them he would always love them. I remember listening to his whisper and hearing the furious rush of love behind his words.
Still, more people reached out to wish him condolences after the loss of our dog than our twins. Rarely does anyone (except other grieving fathers) ask him about the babies, or his experience with it all, or even how he is. And he doesn’t reach out about it. He’s generally quiet anyways. And men grieve differently. D went right into ‘do’ mode after the twins died. He tore up our deck and put it back together. He made over the yard. He threw himself into work and began producing more. He started making plans for trips. He is training for a run. He is doing.
My own Dad has been grieved for 12 Father’s Days this year. He also went into do mode in his grief for many, many years. He will talk to me about memories of Rachael or what happened or how he wished things were different. And hovering under his words, unsaid, is simply “I miss Rachael.” I know he does. He misses her every single day.
In the hospital, my Dad was the last to leave the day I was admitted. On that first day we didn’t know what would happen. The prediction was that we would likely lose Finnian but that I may stay in the hospital 3 months trying to nurture Maisie. At one point the staff did an ultrasound to see how both the babies were. I could only see my Dad and Dan standing side-by-side looking at the screen. Grandfather and Father side-by-side watching the tech check for heartbeats and movement. Finnian had lost all his fluid but had a strong heart beat. Then they panned to Maisie and she too had a strong heart beat. As the tech focused in on her, Maisie wildly bounced (as she often did) and both Dad and Dan jumped and said, “Did you see that!” Patting each other on the back and excitedly talking about our sweet girl …. This is one of the last visuals I have of being pregnant.
My Dad was also the first to arrive the next day when I went into labor. He showed up at 4:30 in the morning to be a support to Dan and me. A few short hours later he was consoling us. He reluctantly and with absolute despair inducted Dan into the grieving father’s club. He hugged him and kissed my forehead. And then he told us how proud he was of both of us as parents. We are both parents.
If you know a man that had a child or infant die, they are grieving this Father’s Day. Please take a moment when you see that Dad to pat him on the back and tell him their child was so lucky to have them.
“Finnian and Maisie were so lucky to have you.”
“Rachael was so lucky to have you.”
And then wait while he clears his throat … he might talk to you about it, he might bring up a sports team, he might swig his beer, nod is head and move on. But you will have told him in a very simple way that you remember his children, that you recognize he is a Dad still, and that he is a damn good one.
I've been writing so much in the last few weeks. It is hard to know what to share, what to mull over, and what to keep for myself. But, in the end the goal of restarting this blog was to be open and raw in case someone else needs to hear the words pouring out of me. In case, by some chance, in some way, this is how I can continue to share the love that Finnian and Maisie brought to this world.
After we lost Rachael, I wrote a lot poetry. I stopped writing as much poetry after college, after her case was resolved. Just a poem here or there but not with any intentional editing. In the time that I did write though, the poems just flooded my senses. Recently, the same thing is happening... especially in the mornings, when I sit with my coffee and think about what I wish I could tell the twins, or if not them directly what I could say about them. Robert Frost said, "Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words." I think that is true. Here is one of the poems I wrote this week. It is but an attempt to explain why I keep writing right now.
More Than Words
If I could express how much I love you,
If the words could cascade from my mouth
like a raging waterfall
desperate to reach the ground -
over the cliff of my lips,
like torrents of water
shaping the earth with the message
of how much, how strongly, how deeply
my love runs for you -
If the words could begin to shape
the exact size of my love for you,
if they could carry the weight
in a way that would
create a bridge over the chasm
Then maybe, this endless hole in my heart
that runs through my core,
would not echo with such deafening
If my words, imperfectly stated, could still reach you
then maybe I’d hear your response,
if even in a dribbling,
slight swooshing sound,
like a gentle creek
in the voices I long to hear,
Maybe the sky would open,
maybe heaven would sit lower
beneath the clouds
so we could whisper back and forth:
“I love you, baby”
“I love you, mommy”
and every word ever said
would not have been truer
by: Tiffany Kann
I've been thinking about this idea a lot this week – ‘give yourself permission to grieve/feel/be ok/be not ok.’ It is a very therapist-y thing to say and it is definitely something that I have told clients. With all things we tell clients, most social workers know that it is easier said than done. But … you will also hear this idea from veteran grievers, especially those who have lost a child. In person and from the blogosphere it is apparent that child loss is undeniably, inextricably entwined in the lives of parent’s unfortunate enough to live it. Children cannot be removed from the heart. Moms on every corner of the internet share how the thought of their son or daughter, no matter what age or way or reason they have died, remains etched in their minds daily.
I’m still learning to be a part of this group – I, like all the others, am not here by choice. This grief, this new grief that has taken over my life, has me learning again all about the way loss reshapes you. Despite having lived through the violent, traumatic loss of my sister and discovering ways to stay connected to her while negotiating a life without her presence; despite spending the last decade participating in and facilitating grief groups; despite working with grief and studying traumatic loss … I am not prepared for this tangled group of emotions surrounding my children’s death. So I’m giving myself permission to feel them.
What does that even mean? Permission seems like such a strange word in regards to emotions. Emotions happen regardless of whether or not we wish them too. Emotions are also not inherently good or bad, they are simply representations of the way our body or soul is reacting to whatever circumstance or thought is presenting. We can’t necessarily control our emotions (though we try to) but we can control our actions. So why do we say ‘give yourself permission to feel’? Permission insinuates an authorization granted. I think of it as creating an internal space and allowing the feeling to fill you.
In my last blog I mentioned the wonderful support system of friends and family that have given me permission to grieve. Their permission isn’t because they have the authority to tell me whether or not I can feel, but because they create space for me to express the emotions in this, whether that is through talking, crying, or even laughing.
I’ve noticed that people either struggle with feeling bad or they struggle with feeling good after loss. I think we all struggle a little bit with both, because our minds take over and tell us we should or should not be feeling that bad/good. We worry about what that feeling means about us. We worry the feeling itself is indicative of either our inability to heal or conversely if it is too good, our lack of love for our lost child. I do a little bit of both myself and I noticed it this week. So I took time to give myself permission to experience each feeling fully.
My husband and I went on vacation this weekend. Packing my bags felt bittersweet because I knew that we were only able to go on this trip now because I am no longer pregnant. As we were getting ready to leave, my Mom reminded me to “allow yourself to feel happy and enjoy your husband.” My mom is a veteran griever. She misses my sister all the time and she still wells with tears when she talks about wishing Rach were here. But my Mom also is a constant reminder that we have to accept joy too. So I took her advice. And I laughed a lot this weekend. When the thought of guilt arose I mentally granted myself permission to feel happy. My laughter was not an indication of remarkable healing after Finnian and Maisie’s death. It wasn’t a denial of their constant presence in my mind. My laughter wasn’t even an admission that it is “okay” for them to not be here. My laughter was simply the expression of joy that still exists when spending time with my husband.
During our trip, we enjoyed each other’s presence, we talked about anything and everything going on, and we reminded each other of our unwavering dedication to survive all the hard things together. It was exactly what was needed and I’m glad I had the permission to feel it.
But … it didn’t end there of course. We didn’t return with a miraculous feeling of having shed the grief. Monday evening, after wading through the pregnant bellies on Facebook, and thinking about all the babies and twins we had seen that weekend – it hit me how much I wanted them back. I want Finnian and Maisie back. I can’t have them, but the longing doesn’t go away, not even a little. At first, I tried to fight the tears back not wanting to “ruin” our momentum. Then I remembered to give myself permission. D looked at me surprised when he realized the tears falling again and our conversation went like this:
D- “Are you okay? Did something just happen?”
Me – “I think I just need to be sad for a little bit.” I surprised myself with this statement.
D- “Do you want me to sit with you or give you space?”
Me- “I don’t know.”
And so he sat with me. And I cried. I cried with a sore heart. I cried with an empty belly. I cried until the tears just stopped on their own. It wasn’t an indication that I was falling apart. My tears didn’t mean that I am undeniably broken or dismantled. They meant that I miss Finnian and Maisie. And I allowed myself to feel every inch of missing them in those moments. My wonderful husband also granted me permission by not trying to change it or remove the pain. That is not easy for him. He grieves differently. But he let me anyway.
I’m going through it. I never liked the description of grief in stages or phases. It doesn’t fit what I have experienced or witnessed. Other mothers have described the grief as coming and going in waves. This seems like a more accurate description to me. Only the waves are not rhythmic like the ocean. These waves crash, cascade, and drizzle without rhyme or reason. They come and go in an a-rythmic, non-linear, unpredictable manner. I hear this spreads with time … that the intervals themselves change. I’m still becoming. I’m still integrating this new identity into my life. I am the mom of twins that died at birth. I don’t know how long it will take to weave these fragmented pieces of the new me together … perhaps a lifetime.
I think of Finnian and Maisie every single day, usually for most of the day. So much of the time I feel robbed of my life with them - my thoughts vacillate between dreams of what our time together should have been like and realizations of what our time together was. Despite all this pain, I am full of love. I am full of so much love it makes me feel swollen.
People have been very supportive for the most part. I am grateful to have wonderful family and a few close friends and colleagues that have given me permission to grieve openly, tearfully, and passionately. Because I am so very grieved. Others are very well meaning - telling us the babies are angels, that we will have future children, and that eventually everything will be okay. For the record, we don't believe the babies are angels; we do believe they are humans and that they went to heaven. Sometimes I wish I could just stop people and tell them to pleeeeeaaassseee work within my belief system when talking to me right now. I'm not always that way; I'm usually more open to hearing what different people think and how that is comforting for them. Just for right now, regardless of what you believe, sit with me in the way that I do, because I'm trying to heal and there are too many voices.
Also, there may be future children, but they won't be these children. These two babies are irreplaceable. My heart may expand, my love may increase, my hope and joy may return ... but it will always be tinged with the sorrow that these two are not there. Please know that my longing for them will not go away, when or if I have another child. You might disagree, you might have more experience than I do, or you might just have a way of seeing the future - but this is my reality: every second of every day I want them. I want their specific DNA, their bodies, their laughter, their tears, their little voices saying my name, their little arms around my neck, and that want is SO big I just cannot imagine it ever changing.
I say their names every day - Finnian and Maisie. I find different ways to work it in. During my pregnancy, I wrote to them in a journal and in the last two weeks I have started to do so again. I don't know how it all works, but I love to imagine them receiving the letters one day. It helps to talk about them and to imagine what they would be like - I always try to connect it to the things I knew about them in utero. Their personalities were different than each other and more apparent each time we saw them. We have many pictures of them too. I look at them every day, just because. I would love to hear you say their names. The sound of them brings joy to my heart and reminds me that they are remembered and cherished.
Longing and love are the bulk of grief, and the rest is muddled confusion, pain, and deep sadness. There are moments I cry so hard my body wretches uncontrollably and screams escape. Other times silent tears travel down my face or my throat clenches at the simplest mention of babies. If calculated though, these moments don't make up the whole of my day. I do laugh a little everyday. My husband continually makes me smile. Things are not so destroyed inside that my whole life is wrecked. I am re-engaging slowly with work and friends. I'm reading a little and writing a little each day. I'm still making plans. I smile. I shower. I'm still living - not just surviving but actually choosing to engage life.
That is what life is like right now. I think of Finnian and Maisie every single day, usually for most of the day, and my heart aches with loss and love. I don't have a lot of insight to share at this time... just a glimpse into what life is like 6 1/2 weeks after my sweet twins were born and died.
It all feels trite … trying to explain how broken my heart is, how deep the wounds go, how much the aching, throbbing, longing occupies the corners of my mind. Nothing seems right to do. After my sister died, I remember throwing myself into school and work. I remember trying to escape. But that feels impossible now. To escape, to throw myself into anything else, is to admit that all our plans are over.
I know this from my work in grief and from being a griever – the world always keeps moving. Time only stands still for the one grieving and even then the stillness is fictitious.
I’ve only left my house for a few hours at a time. I’ve laughed and conversed and been pleasant. I’m not drowning, I’m not allowing the self-pity to become defining, and I’m denying depression at every step. BUT … I only have a few hours at a time, before I want to crawl under the blankets. Only a few hours where I can pretend that every second that I am not pregnant, every second that I am not carrying my twins, doesn’t feel thoroughly empty.
I cried the hardest I had yet this weekend. The house was quiet and my husband was gone and it just hit me. I allowed the bellows to escape my lungs loudly and my eyes to swell shut and the salt to cover my face. I have no understanding of why this happened. I have no way of integrating the fact that we spent so many months fighting infertility; that I wept in uncertainty if I would ever be the mother I longed to be. Then the greatest blessing of all – two sweet babies. And oddly, I always wanted twins, even before I knew about our infertility, when the possibility was remote that we could ever have them. I felt truly blessed. Every second I held them I was grateful for their lives. We were acutely aware of what it took to have them … and we repeated our thanks as often as we could.
So, how do I go back to “real life” now? How do I finish my classes? How do I meet with therapy clients? How do I continue doing all the things I planned to stop doing in order to be their full time mom? How do I accept that the only Mom I can be for them is in my heart? These questions are all rhetorical, though I don’t know the answer either. No one does. Despite all the well-meaning and caring, there is no one who can answer this for me. Somehow I will do it – I will move forward, if only because time doesn’t now allow another option.
I started this blog a few years ago. We were approaching the ten-year anniversary of my sister’s death. Rachael’s absence and the way in which we integrate the loss into our lives has been a defining characteristic of my family. We don’t accept that she is gone, however we have learned ways in which to thrive despite not having her here everyday. When my husband’s mother died she made sure to teach each of us how to die with hope and grace. Her legacy further encouraged my ideas about grief – it is connected to the amount of love we have and love does not end after death. The goal of Loss and Life was to explore these thoughts and to hopefully share with others ways in which to live after loss.
Of course, as with all things extracurricular, my blog took a back seat as I worked my way through my MSW and the beginning part of my PhD program. But I am back today … today it has been four weeks since my precious twins were born too early to survive in this world. My son and my daughter – a most harrowing loss.
I’ve wanted to be a mother since before I was 10 years old. When asked what do you want to be when you grow up, I would respond “a mother and a writer.” My own mother tells the story of me coming home from second grade convinced that I was pregnant with a miracle since my teacher had been blessed with a miracle baby. To be a mom has been the deepest yearning of my soul.
A little over 8 years ago, I experienced a first trimester miscarriage – a blighted ovum. At the time the loss felt very big but it was also the first time since my sister had passed that I felt hope. I was reminded during that brief pregnancy period that I wanted life. However, many things surrounding that circumstance were not right. I was told repeatedly “at least you know you can get pregnant.”
Fast forward to marrying the right guy and trying to get pregnant – not quite so easy. The infertility battle itself is full of grief. We spent our first year of marriage trying to fight infertility. Finally, after a successful IVF attempt we were blessed with two perfect babies. They had no chromosomal problems, they were growing perfectly, and each and every ultrasound we were able to distinguish their emerging personalities. I bought a home heart rate monitor and listened to them every night. We began purchasing all of the items for their nursery and to care for them. To say that we were excited does not begin to cover it. I have never in my life been as happy as when I was carrying those two babies, married to the man of my dreams. All of this was done while still working as a therapist and pursuing a PhD to research grief. My life finally felt like it was reaching its purpose.
The birth and death of my son and my daughter has shifted me. This time though I have all the information about grief, I have an internal therapist telling me what’s normal and how to be gentle with myself, and I still have an incredible support system. None of that changes the feeling of waking up each morning empty and longing for the children we tried so desperately to bring in this world though. Despite all the knowledge I can’t stop being angry at my body for failing me, again.
So I am back here, writing. After we lost Rachael I threw myself into creative writing. Before the loss I had done journalistic writing. As a kid I wanted to write children’s books. In the last few years I have been writing research. So here I am writing again in hopes to somehow work through this pain.
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.
My eyes flashed open this morning with the spinning thoughts of things I didn’t say eleven years ago. Even with time these things don’t go away. I’ve learned enough to know that all grief is different – that there is some similarity in the names to our emotions but that it isn’t experienced the same for everyone. I can tell you, for me, my family, and many members of the other families impacted that day, that time does not heal all wounds. The wounds do change, they do make room for new life (as I mentioned in my earlier post), but there are times where they still throb and ache. Today is one of those times. I allow myself to sob because I believe it helps cleanse the soul.
If you see my mom or my dad or my sister today please be extra kind. Please don’t make a big deal because that makes things uncomfortable, but just be extra kind. Or if you come across someone else that has suffered loss, has been the unfortunate victim of cruelty, or even someone whose story you don’t know, please just be extra kind today.
I used to write poetry in the early years of my grief. Not only was it my undergraduate major but a way of processing and releasing. I stopped writing poetry after we caught my sister’s murderer … I hope that changes one day. Below is a poem published in Carpe Articulum in 2011 that reminds me (and hopefully my family and the others) that there is still a piece of our loved ones with us always, and that death does not conquer life.
A Separated Existence
Intensity furrows the brow
that stares back from flat glass
and she is searching me searching her
for a sign of existence.
We sit staring at my dark circled eyes
and empty gaze
between the space before my breath
meets her glassy face.
Crouched across the countertop
I remember when the only image
that proved me
When we as little girls stared
into each other’s faces
and balanced the circles on our palms.
During nameless games we took off
running the opposite direction
and collided on the other side of the wall.
With our fingers wrapped
in each other’s we went running
to the back bedroom -
to dolls, to imagination.
And you and I would create
their fragile lives, and they would
complete each other
from day one till the end of time.
I search now this face
to look for dents from your forehead,
her eyes move with mine
and we cannot see you.
I can’t stare at her
lonely face anymore.
I can’t stare at eyes that reflect
a soul depleted from your absence.
So I crawl down from my countertop
and place these cold feet
on the carpet floor – as I am turning,
I see your expression cross my face.
And I am plastered to this glass
writing the story of how
we hung on past death.
* ps the artwork combined with these poems was really lovely and if I can figure out how to upload the photo (all rights reserved) I will do so.
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.”
In a couple days it will officially be ten years since Rachael was stolen from us. This anniversary gnaws at my insides. Ten years. She’s been dead for a third of my life. Eventually, I will have more photos and memories that do not include her. It’s confusing and overwhelming to try to integrate her loss into the grand scheme of my life. I grieve her.
But, what is grief? Is it possible for this one word to describe the full range of emotions related to life without her? Losing her? Living with her death? At my teen grief group we talk about grief being a journey or a weight – that it’s different for everyone. What does that really mean?
Grief is described medically as the natural response to loss – most usually in states of bereavement. It is cataloged by a variety of internal emotional responses, behaviors and even physical reactions. Most famously, grief is described in stages (shock, denial, bargaining, anger, and acceptance). But many grief counselors will tell you that these stages are deceiving and not all-encompassing. Grief can trigger greater psychological disturbances like depression and anxiety or physical stresses like a suppressed immune system. Grief can get complicated and messy. Grief can also be normal with the simple complication of learning to live without the presence of your loved one.
I understand the logical description of grief. I get the charts of emotional responses and the therapeutic checklists of normal versus complicated. But how do we describe what grief feels like? How do we define grief in terms of our own lives?
In A Grief Observed, C.S Lewis beautifully and candidly states, “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear.” And it does feel like fear; it feels like all expectations and beliefs and plans must be re-examined with no definitive answers. Some other ways that we describe grief in metaphor are:
As a Journey. Perhaps the idea of stages, cycles, and varying emotional states is what makes grief feel so much like a pathway to some solution. Often, when we look at grief as a journey it feels as though we are searching for where it takes us … to the end. As though somehow it is a constant exploration. Life is, more accurately, a journey. I think of grief as being part of a persons journey-story, and sometimes that part prevails. And sometimes that part is lessened with time. And sometimes it passes through life’s journey in stages or cycles. And sometimes it does not.
As a Weight. Grief is also often described as a weight. The emotions that develop from the absence of our loved can feel heavy, weighty, and distressingly suffocating. But this weight can, and in most healthy grief developments will, become easier to bear. One woman described grief as a brick that she stuck in her pocket. She said in the beginning the weight of the brick in her pocket was overwhelming. She was constantly aware of its presence. With time, she became used to the brick’s weight and some days even forgot it was there. But it did not go away because her loved one was not un-dead; it simply integrated into her life and she learned to live.
Tonight the best I can do is to say that “grief” is the only word I have to describe the space between Rachael and I. Whether I journeyed here, or I’m feeling the weight in my pocket; whether I’m examining fear or spinning through stages; grief, tonight, feels like a deep distance between us. As though I am standing on one precipice and staring across an expanse that sheds no light on the facing cliff, where I believe she is standing and staring back. I can’t hear her or see her and I don’t know how far away she is – but I do, with every ounce of my being, believe she is out there. So in ten years, I’m still over here looking out there. I still grieve her. And despite the mountain of new memories and photos, I still look across hoping that she is silently and invisibly still a part of it all.
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.
I’ve been inflammatory the last few days. It’s hard to say exactly what has caused my recent irritability, except there seems to be a real or perceived series of ‘unfairnesses’ this week. My heart has been heavy with feeling like I don’t have anyone on my team or that I’m being put into last place with the people I love. It struck me today as I was getting into my car at the coffee shop – after fuming at my partner for not seeing my point of view about an overreacting neighbor – that with each incidence I’ve been saying in the back of my head “Rachael was always on my side.”
This is a true statement and not an over-glorification of my loved one (which often happens in grief); but in truth, Rachael made a point to always be on my side, my team, in my corner, and she’d drop anything to spend time together. I’ve often felt deep guilt at not providing the same unconditional sisterly pact back – at least not with the same intensity.
So getting into the car, as I started a conversation in my own head of what I wished I could say to this neighbor, or my partner, or the other people who have disappointed me this week, my heart echoed “Rachael was always on my side.” With that, the all too familiar feeling of loneliness settled in and my inflammation weakened.
I flipped on the radio for some ease and within 30 seconds an old song started to play … “I’m too sexy for my hat, too sexy for my hat, whatcha think about that ...” There she was. Dancing between our connected hollywood bath, swishing her hair side to side and forcing me to join in. She wanted me to laugh then and I didn’t feel so alone.
Whether the timing was just right to bring a memory of how she handled me when I was frustrated or whether it was truly a sign that she really hasn’t left me alone is hard to say. But I’m definitely too sexy to stay irritable.
For the past several years, I’ve volunteered as a grief group facilitator. I’ve worked with every age from 5 years old to adults, but most often with the teenagers. Grief is different across the life span – it’s different depending on the loss, on your relationship to the loved, on your personal history, on the factors surrounding the loss … it’s basically different for every individual. However, I relate to the rawness of the teenager’s grief. Often they aren’t young enough to pretend life goes on as normal and hide their hurt, but they aren’t old enough to fully understand why their hurt weighs so much. (Or perhaps that is a projection of my own grief journey.)
In my recent teen group, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about “Triggers.” Many of the participants are in the early months of their grief. Many things can trigger the sadness of their loss – a song in the car, a movie with a death scene, driving by a location from the past. These things can drum up an overwhelming rush to the chest of sadness or panic.
In my experience, as my grief has aged with me, some triggers are more predictable (like the ones mentioned above) and you can prepare for them and often numb to them. But there are still complicated triggers, unexpected, that hit you with force. Just the other night I said the phrase “in the past ten years …” and my throat closed up tight, my chest felt shaky, and my eyes welled with familiar tears as I realized in a few short months it will be ten years since I’ve heard my sister laugh. It’s difficult to explain the way loss feels – the internal grasping feeling, searching for the closeness of your loved one.
Triggers can result in a variety of emotions, depending on the type of trigger and what factor of your grief the subconscious is exploring. I presume that “triggers” will be a frequent topic for Loss and Life. As we approach Memorial Day, many of us will take a moment to remember our loved one. Allow yourself to experience any triggers that might be tripped. It is in the release of these intense emotions that we can relieve just a tiny piece of the weight of our loss.
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.
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