Recently I met with a friend….a fellow Mother in grief….there’s something about these meetings. No matter how brief….they bring a sense of comfort and support that exists only in the conversations of two broken people. This conversation was about the impending holidays. We concurred that as the years pass the pain does not ease….it does not ever relent. We also agreed that the holidays and the years get more difficult, more painful than the first … despite the popular idea that the first year is the worst and that somehow, magically, the subsequent years are far easier to face.
After this conversation I felt compelled to discuss this. Where does this idea come from? The idea that somehow as your life moves forward against your will…as the moments in time that you had with your child (or really any loved one) slip further away from your present day…that somehow the pain of their absence becomes more bearable….less crushing… is one… I think …. that derives from our culture’s idea that all problems could and should come to a neat and clean conclusion. That if we just cling to hope that everything will “work out in the end.” Our society, in general, prefers a happy ending. It makes us feel like when things aren’t going our way that it will eventually work it’s way out and everything will be all sunshine and rainbows again. This idea does not apply to grief and I truly feel like this is an enormous injustice for the grievers of this world.
I am here to say….that the second, third and now, my fourth years do not “get easier.” In fact, as my friend and I agreed, I believe they are harder than the first in many ways.
With the first year, there are so many unknowns…..how will it feel? How will we include our missing loved one….in my case….my precious child? Do we buy them gifts and if so, gifts to place by their stone or actual gifts like toys or nail polish? That first year you are in, what so many people have described as, a fog. Nothing makes sense. There are many times you sit in conversation with people….even engaging in deep conversation…. and within minutes or even seconds you haven’t the faintest idea as to what you discussed. You hear and see and smell and touch everything through grief. You are constantly dismayed by how life has just gone on….how the world can spin…how the sun can rise…when your baby has gone on before you. In your head screams thoughts of “How can you just smile at me when my child is gone?” You do things in that first year that in subsequent years you are purely incapable of doing. The first June after we lost Maddi we organized a memorial ride in her memory….while we were moving out of her home…just weeks before what should have been her 8th birthday. I look back and cannot fathom how we managed to do all of this and not just collapse under the weight of it all. Although the ride continued for two more years following….the planning and organizing…the energy that goes into something so big…such a massive undertaking…became too much. I couldn’t understand why, at first, but looking back I know….that first year I can hardly remember a thing. I was acting purely as a robot…..I was the walking dead…. and as the fog lifted the tasks in front of me became wholly impossible. This is why I think facing the holidays as each year passes….facing each day as each year passes….actually becomes harder.
Without that fog….it’s been said…there would be no grieving parents. We wouldn’t survive that first year….the funeral….the burial….the birthdays ….the pain…the irreparable destruction of all we knew to be our life….if we weren’t in a complete fog. Even though we know it not to be true, a huge piece of our minds and hearts believe that this cannot be reality. No. It’s just a nightmare that we cannot wake from. No. We will see our children come bouncing through that front door again. We will wake up in tears from our horrible dream and go into our children’s rooms and there they will lie and we will kiss their cheeks and say, “Oh thank goodness” and breath a sigh of relief. Reflecting on how we couldn’t imagine how awful that would be.
And as the hours turn to days….the days to weeks…the weeks to months and the months to years…. our painful, irreversible, incomprehensible reality sets in. THIS IS REAL. Our children are not coming home. They will never hug us again. They will never sit under our Christmas tree again. We will NEVER wake from this Hell. THIS IS OUR LIFE. And this is why it’s even harder. We begin to be unable to live in a fantasy that somehow this isn’t real. And it drains you. You realize all you have are memories…and photographs. And you will not get anymore. And it eats you up. You realize that you will never again be whole.
And as all this time passes….your expectations for yourself begin to nag at you. The unrealistic idea that society places upon grievers that you must begin to function again…you must integrate back into polite society and stuff down your sad. Tuck your grief into a neat little box with a bow and save it for only the times society deems acceptable to mourn…the holidays…birthdays…the anniversaries. Other than that we must be like Elsa in Maddi’s favorite movie “Frozen”…we must conceal…not feel. So when we can’t…when the pain pours out like water from a faucet….when we are asked how we are and we feel compelled to answer honestly rather than providing the innocent asker with a more comfortable lie… we begin to feel crazy…weak…like a burden.
And as all this time passes….the world around us desperately wants us to move on. They want to hear we are okay. That it’s easier now. That it’s only really the “big” days that bother us now. They tell us to get on with it. They called us the first year….sent messages of love and support all the time….but the second year…there is less acknowledgement…then the third even less…good friends don’t even send you a quick text to say they are thinking of you on the anniversary…they don’t acknowledge our child’s birthday… I mean “how long will we have to keep remembering this?” ….the first year you get a pass from friends and family. If you don’t want to come…If you don’t want to stay…If you cry the whole time…everyone “understands.” But the years following that first year….the love and patience and support and empathy begins to wane dramatically. They don’t say it but we can see it in their eyes…”Is it going to be like this every year?”….”I don’t really feel like feeling sad today”….
So let me say this loud and clear…for every broken, sad, aching person….for every griever who feels the pressure to get up and go on. For every griever who knows the truth that the first year is not always the worst….and that in many ways the following years are harder. YOU ARE STILL ALLOWED TO GRIEVE. You are allowed to turn down party invitations…you are allowed to forgo the Christmas tree if that is what you want even if it’s been many, many years. You are allowed to have eyes that swim with tears and a face that is stained with them too. If you love someone who is grieving….even if that grief is years long…understand as much as you can. EACH year there are unknowns….NOT just the first year. Understand that we are turning down our invitation because we are taking care of ourselves….we are giving ourselves permission to not be okay…we are giving ourselves permission to feel. If you acknowledged our loss the first year please continue to do so….your support is a gift that you cannot wrap up with pretty paper and ribbon but it has more value than any such gift. Tell us your favorite memory even if you told us a hundred times. We don’t get new memories….so we cling to the old ones.
We must stop telling people it will get easier. It’s just not that simple. You DO learn to carry your loss. You DO learn to live in two worlds….to feel every emotion that a human can experience all at once….you DO learn to allow grief and sorrow to share space with joy and happiness. But NONE of this is easy and some days it is downright impossible…even YEARS later.
And even though I may be “out of the fog” and even though reality has sunk in like cold sinks into the bones on a bitter Winters day…. I still look for her. I still wake up and for a second I don’t know….I still listen for the pitter patter of her feet on our floor. That will never change…I think it’s the only reason we can, as parents of children who have gone before us, continue to move forward. I will end my long winded post with a favorite quote….It’s how I feel about grief…how I feel about still looking for Maddi…how I feel about loving someone in Heaven.
“After all this time?” “Always.”