Did I tell you that in the first year after my daughter's passing, the grief felt weirdly like being in love? Like the first stages of falling, falling, falling in love. The constant ache for the other. Feeling both the nearness of the beloved and the absence of the beloved pulling you in different directions, equally pungent in the body. As if your skin is in constant motion. As if a smoldering melancholic breeze is pushing each hair follicle this way and that, and will not let you be.
There is no peace for lovers and grievers, because we cherish our sweet agony.
I did not take antidepressants but settled into caffeine overdosing and a temporary lapse into cigarette smoking off and on that first year, grateful for the numbness it brought to my body and psyche. For me, going through the agony eyes wide open was the only way. And yet, I saw myself coveting the pain, leaning over it, cuddling it, petting it and cooing... and even when I recognized myself as Gollum in Lord of the Rings—obsessed—I could not or did not stop because the precious pain felt like all I had to connect with my beloved daughter who still feels both so present and yet so utterly gone.
Forces of Will
But all obsessions must end, and I knew that if I was to create a worthy ending to it, I would have to gather up a nearly superhuman force of will to loosen my grip on the precious pearl of pain. I began to convince myself that grieving, and missing her, could still go on without so much hurting. I gave myself permission to endure my grieving process exactly as long as I needed it. If you asked me for advice, I would beg you to cry for your losses. To recognize that time must be taken. It doesn't matter how many years, truly, but know that you do have an end goal and that is to free yourself to live more fully than ever. Your beloved's life mattered. Now make the loss of your beloved matter. Heal.
What tightens our grip on the pearl of pain is that the soul, I believe, feels everything that ever happened at once, as if it were in a mural and not in linear time. I would argue that to the soul, all events are still in motion, however small, however pronounced.
Earlier this year, one of my best friends told me he thought I was suffering from a level of trauma along with my grief. First, I had to get over the surprise and a bit of ego resistance to the idea that something was "wrong" with me. But I am, at heart, an investigator, and as I read about trauma-complicated grief, I recognized myself, in particular in Van der Kolk’s book, “The Body Keeps the Score.”
That was then, this is now
This spring, I went through a half-dozen sessions of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy. One of the main tenants of your learning is to begin to understand that "that was then, and this is now." People who haven’t been lost in the throes of grief and trauma won't understand how helpful it is to begin to tell yourself over and over: that was then; this is now. The moment of first hearing that horrible news, what you saw and heard, can be over. The shock waves of the events don’t have to keep slamming me up against a wall each time I long for my daughter.
Holding the Grieving Mother
As the therapist and I work past the layers of trauma into the core of the grief, he asks, “So, aside from those things, now what would you say is the worst part?"
And I answer: Missing her.
My salvation these past four years has centered around working with concepts in Richard Schwartz’s books on Internal Family Systems Therapy and seeing myself as a composite of different parts. I had to find a way to extricate myself from the grieving mother, because she is all-encompassing. For the grieving mother, there is absolutely no relief, because the grieving mother wants one thing and one thing only: the child returned to her arms. Frankly, the only way I was able to draw breath from moment to moment these past four years was to keep working to locate some approximation of a higher self, an integrated and wiser self, who can wrap her arms around that grief-stricken mother and let her weep in peace. Let her wail and rant for as long as she needs to. And return again and again whenever I hear her cry out.
Why I Host the Grief Circle
This blog post marks the first time I have publicly talked about losing my daughter since the stupid car wreck four years ago. All of my feelings went underground because there were too many of them hammering around inside of me constantly. I soldiered on, as most of us do. And this is why I host a grief circle: because I hold a firm conviction that the world would be a better place if more people stopped what they were doing in this very instant and simply wept.
June 6, 2013 is when we lost Corey. That July, utterly lost, I stumbled into the Wild Goose Festival for the first time, and those people, those strangers, held me like I have never been held before. Wild Goose, I learned, is a camping festival driven by music, story and art, for people of all ages, colors and persuasions, grounded in faith-inspired social justice, held right here at the Hot Springs, NC campground. Two years later, I became a presenter along with Lyndon Harris on grief and forgiveness.
Lyndon and I will present again this year by the river at 11 am, Friday, July 14.
Here’s our event in the 2017 program: http://wildgoosefestival.org/sessions17-91/
Grief is how love honors what it misses. To forgive is to save a life and realize that that life is yours.
Reflections from a grief dula to help others navigate the waters of grief. Blog posts here are copyrighted and are part of an upcoming book. Please quote with attribution. Sheridan Hill