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.
I won’t hide my face,
tear-stained and sticky.
I won’t cover my heart as it
bulges and breaks.
I won’t disguise the slump of my shoulders,
the lines around my eyes,
the sigh in my breathing.
I won’t pretend that I am not here
But I will
allow the corners of my mouth
to curve upward.
I’ll allow the galloping sound of a laugh
to escape through my lips.
I’ll let it run away
through the air, with it’s mane waving.
I will let your name settle on my tongue
I’ll speak about you
beyond the sadness,
with fondness and sparkle.
I’ll let my eyes brighten
and my heart soften.
I’ll keep your memory -
the picture of your spirit,
the joyful purpose of your short life.
I’ll make sure you are known -
People will recognize
that you are more than just
the sadness of your death.
You are the sparks that re-lit my hope.
You are the kiss in the wind
that reminds me to have faith.
You are the soft song cradled
in the crook of my ear
about the power of love to evade
the bounds of time or death or space.
You are mine, now and always.
By: Tiffany Kann
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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