My Journey Through Grief
My grief journey began in February 2014.
If you would like to read chronologically, see the archives menu.
If you would like to read chronologically, see the archives menu.
I hear the song from Fiddler on the Roof in my head with all the pomp and fanfare of the musical’s opening theme. Tradition! Tradition!
Fiddler on the Roof had it right. Traditions tell us who we are. At no time is that more true than during the holiday season. From October 31st all the way through to January, what we do (or not do)--food, music, decorations, activities--everything tells the story of our family, our roots, and what’s important to us. That is exactly why the loss of a loved one affects the holidays so keenly. The death of our daughter changed everything about our lives, but holidays most of all.
This year marks the 4th holiday season since Jeanette’s passing. It’s the first time we’ve felt any sense of normal—a new normal, to be sure, and unlike before, but at least, everything doesn’t feel quite so awry and out of sync. Our hearts don’t feel quite so heavy as in the years previous. Good memories of Christmases past are more apt to bring smiles. The memories are tender, and her presence, her smiles, her laughter, and all she contributed to making this season merry and bright is missed as much as ever. But, the sting is a little less sharp this time around.
We’re beginning to build a new set of holiday traditions, borne out of finding ourselves, of discovering who we are and what we’re about in our new state of things as a family. I’m fond of saying “life goes on,” but more accurately, I suppose I should say, “life evolves” through all its changing seasons.
I always cry at the end of Fiddler on the Roof. But, I love the story! Tradition. Identity. And, change. It's a poignant story of adapting to change and of enduring hope. It’s not about Christmas at all, but if you think about it, it makes a pretty good holiday movie.
Holiday season is upon us. It's the fourth time passing through this time of year without Jeanette. What strikes me most is how unpredictable it is. Having been through the holidays a few times now, I would have thought I'd know what to expect, but it seems no two years are the same as holidays approach.
In previous years, I've felt panic rising as the calendar turned towards fall. I must have a plan! I have to know well ahead of time what we're going to do. My peace of mind depended on it! This year, the plan for Thanksgiving was in place before September, and it felt really good. Back then. Now that Thanksgiving is next week, I'm not as excited about the plan as I expected. I'm astonished to discover what I'd most like to do this year is stay home and cook Thanksgiving dinner. I did not see that turn-about coming! Previously, the idea of being home for Thanksgiving was altogether unthinkable! Planning ahead for holidays is a good safety net, but now I'm learning to keep my options open. How I will feel in November and December is not as predictable as I think weeks or months ahead of time.
I'm still learning how to navigate this time of year. One thing is a sure fact, though. Planning, preparing for, and getting through the holiday season without Jeanette is still a chore. It's guaranteed to be emotional. It's guaranteed to have ups and downs. It's guaranteed that I will have good days and not-so-good days. But, so far, no two years have been the same. Is that a guarantee? Time will tell.
Thanksgiving 2017 Update:
We followed through with our plan and had an amazing Thanksgiving camping with friends. In Arizona, it's possible to do things like go camping on Thanksgiving, and have a traditional dinner with turkey and all the trimmings, and eat outdoors at picnic tables. The weather was perfect! I'm so thankful for friends, and thankful for God's hand in preparing the exact right plan for the holiday. He knows us best, and He knows what will bless us most. No two Thanksgivings have been the same, so far. I wonder what next year will bring?
As a writer, my natural instinct, after my daughter's death, was to pour my heart out in writing about it. I began with Facebook posts, simply to share with my friends how I was doing. I knew so many people who loved Jeanette, and they were shaken by her sudden death, too. We were grieving together, trying to absorb the shock of what happened, and wondering how we'd ever get through it. As I began posting encouraging words on Facebook, people would tell me how much it touched and blessed them. Soon, I realized I was writing for more than just myself and a few friends, so I began this blog about my journey through grief.
Two months ago I began an enormous task of editing, revising, and rewriting all that I've written, so far. In rewriting, I was careful not to change the essence of anything I'd originally said. It was important to stay true to the emotional place I was in when I first wrote it. The purpose of revision was to communicate more clearly and effectively. I feel I've done that while still retaining the heart of each entry.
It's been eyeopening to walk through the entirety of my grief journey up to this point. I know the back stories a long the way. I know the battles I was fighting at each point. I know the well of brokenness from which every word flowed. Walking through the past three-and-a-half years, I'm amazed and astonished at all God has done. Only God can turn such devastation into victory and such heartache into a heart full of compassion.
I've shared my journey through writing, coming full-circle from the beginning to the present, and now it's time for a new step. I recently began leading a grief support group, reaching out to others who are grieving the loss of a loved one, whether a child, spouse, parent, sibling, or cherished friend. I'm walking in the footsteps of many mentors who have supported me. Now I'm pouring out of what I have received from them. My prayers to find purpose are being answered. This is my purpose--that I may comfort others with the comfort I have received. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4) And, so my journey continues, one step at a time, one day at a time, one foot in front of the other.
I'm not sure where the expression originated, and there are actually many types of clubs no one wants to join, but I'm referring to parents who have experienced the death of a child. It might have been through a miscarriage, stillbirth, child, teen, or adult, after a long illness, or from something sudden and unforeseen. Whatever happened, it was our induction into the club we most certainly never wanted to join. We are bereaved parents.
We speak of ourselves as belonging to a club, because we became insiders when our child died. No one outside the club truly knows or understands what it's like. Not that outsiders don't care--they do-- but unless you're in the club, you just can't imagine what it's like or what we're going through. I'm glad you can't imagine. I'm glad you don't know what it's like. Thank God you don't belong to this club! I pray you never will!
But, if you're in this club, no matter how different your journey is from mine, our hearts instinctively reach out to one another, because we know. We get it. We understand. We link arms in caring empathy, love, and support. That's why I write. We are not alone. YOU are not alone.
I see metaphors in everything (in case you hadn't noticed.) Combine that with a sense of humor and who knows what I'll come up with. A friend posted something on Facebook about a bouncy house, and my mind ran with it.
Life is like a bouncy house, full of ups and downs. We fall. We rise. Sometimes, we create our own ups and downs when our falling is due to our own missteps. Other times, it's just life. Doesn't it seem as if life is one long series of peaks and valleys? Or, is that just my life? No matter how many ups and downs we experience, the important thing is to keep on going. We fall. We rise. And, therein lies the whole point. It's about resilience. Bouncing back after a fall. The ability to get up and go on.
Although, it is possible to be injured in a bouncy house, the risk is relatively low, and kids can literally bounce off the walls safely. In real life, of course, the ups and downs can be painful--enormously, sometimes. Even so, the message is the same. Resilience. Bouncing back. Rising up. Going on.
My metaphor may be simplistic and a bit silly, but it provided me with some inspiration, so I'm passing it on. Find the humor, and don't over-analyze. Here's to all life's ups and downs!
Though the righteous fall, they will not be destroyed, for the Lord upholds them with his hand.
The godly may trip seven times, but they will get up again. Proverbs 24:16
The day that altered my life forever came unexpected, unforeseen, without warning. When my daughter and only child died, people wondered how I'd survive. I wondered, too. I would not have believed it possible to survive. And, yet, somehow, from somewhere inside me, a strength arose I had no idea I even possessed. Where did it come from--this ability to rise from the ashes like a phoenix? What's my secret? How can a mother not only survive, but thrive, after such an unimaginable loss? Four things are crucial for survival.
In spite of what happened, I expect good. I lean into Romans 8:28 until it's absorbed into my soul like healing ointment absorbed into a wound. I expect God to turn tragedy into triumph, no matter how horrible I feel, no matter how bleak everything appears. I expect good from the goodness of God's heart.
Hold On To Hope
Some days, it seems as if less than a smidgen of hope is all I have to hold on to. Yet, I cling to it like a drowning person clings to a life raft. I clench my hands around hope like a climber hanging by a thread on the side of a mountain. I hope for good. I hope for a future that's not as dismal as my fears project. Jeremiah 29:11 promises that my future will be good, and I hold God to his Word. I mix faith with words and speak of good, not evil. I project hope into the future.
I choose to be confident in the goodness and faithfulness of God. What happened was not God's fault. It wasn't because God failed. If I want to blame someone or something, I turn my anger on the devil. He is the one who comes to steal, kill, and destroy. But, God is the one who comforts me, strengthens me, helps me--daily, hourly, minute-by-minute. He keeps me putting one foot in front of the other. He is faithful and trustworthy to be my light in the darkness, my peace in the storm, and my comfort in sorrow.
I am thankful for how God has proven faithful amid this great loss. I'm thankful for all the daily miracles of his grace and blessings. I'm thankful for his tenderness and compassion, for giving me songs in the night, for the tears He sheds side-by-side with me, and for glimpses of the substantial reality of heaven and its glory. As I begin to give thanks, my eyes are opened to see that his blessings are more numerous than the sands on the seashore. But, I can walk blindly past his blessings without noticing if I'm not cultivating a thankful heart.
The ability to rise from the ashes of devastating loss in not innately in me. I didn't pull strength or hope out of a hat. I seriously would not have survived apart from God's grace and through cooperating with God in these four significant ways--expecting good, holding on to hope, trusting, and being thankful. Otherwise, I absolutely would crumble under the weight of sorrow. But, God is greater than tragedy, greater than loss, greater than sorrow. His greatness lives within me and causes me to triumph.
There's no escaping grief. I've been trying, but it's still here. Even when I push it away, put up a wall, thrust it aside, and try to avoid it, it is ever present. Grief never goes away, because as long as I live, every day of my life, I'll wake up, and she's not here.
It's not just the fact that she died and is no longer present in my life. It's more than that. It's all that will ever be missed--past, present and future. Memories I'm so thankful to have, yet they accentuate the emptiness. The past begins to be shrouded in a mist, and the future stretches into the fog.
I'm tired of grieving. I'm tired of tears. I'm tired of the emotional roller coaster. I find brief respites when I'm busy and distracted, but it always comes back. Grief doesn't stay away for very long. Grief is as endless as my love. That's the irony. Grief exists because love exists. It's an inexplicable paradox of coexisting love and grief. So, even though I get tired of grief, I'm thankful it's still here. It means love hasn't died.
What if no one remembers I was a mother? What if that entire portion of my life fades into the shadows of the past? What if my daughter is forgotten? What if I don't hear anyone speak her name again? This is what's really at stake on Mother's Day. I want my daughter, and the fact that I was her mother, to be remembered.
The importance of remembrance grows as the years pass. Life marches on, and the sands of time begin to bury her memory a little deeper year by year. Already, I meet people who never knew her, and I struggle to describe her in a meaningful enough way. For all my talk of Jeanette this and Jeanette that, and in spite of all the photographs I can show, she remains two-dimensional to those who didn't know her. But, to me? She's so much more than I can tell! How I wish you could have known her!
Mother's Day is one of the hardest days for a mother whose child is in heaven. Every day has its challenges, but Mother's Day requires extra-extra strength. Please, on this day, remember I was a mother, and a darn good one, too! But, most of all, remember my daughter. Don't be afraid to speak her name, "Jeanette," or "Jean," to some, and tell me of a memory you have of her. You're not reminding me that she died, you're remembering she lived. and what a blessing she was. And, I had the privilege of being her mother. Please don't forget.
Did you know there's a special day for honoring bereaved mothers? It's the first Sunday in May. Do you have any idea how many bereaved mothers there are? How many women do you know who have experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth, infant loss, child or teen loss, or adult child loss? Perhaps, more than you realize.
Bereaved Mother's Day is not only to honor mothers who have a child in heaven, it's also to raise awareness. It shouldn't be a taboo subject. Did you know one in four pregnancies end in a miscarriage? Did you know many women who have had an abortion experience grief later on? As women, we should be able to talk to each other about these things. We should be able to comfort each other. We shouldn't hide our scars, but share what we've experienced, and how we've survived.
When a child dies, it's awkward to know what to say. So, be a good listener. Don't try to have all the answers. No one does. Don't try to take away the pain. No one can. Even though words fall short, you can show you care. Be a friend. Allow us to talk as much, or as little, as we want. Allow us to be real. Allow us to change, and allow us the time it takes to figure out our new life, and the new us. And, please understand, we don't just "get over it."
Please say our child's name. If you knew our child, share memories when they come to mind. The most important thing is not to let the memory of our child die. We are still our child's mother, and we always will be, whether our child is here or in heaven. For all these reasons and more, there is a Bereaved Mother's Day. Do you know a bereaved mother? What can you do for her today?
I have pictures to prove our backyard didn't always look so dreadful! Once upon a time we had a nice patch of green grass and a really pretty koi pond. But, this being Arizona, it only took one season of neglect for all of it to be gone. When we first moved to Arizona, I thought it was so fun to see tumbleweed tumbling in the wind. "Just like in the movies!" I'd laugh with delight. Until I learned how prickly and messy it is. The sorry condition of our backyard is more than just wind, dry heat, and a few stray tumbleweeds. I'm sorry to say it's neglect. Not intentional, but does it matter? The result is the same, and it's a sad, sorry mess.
I'd given up on it. I stopped going out there. Not ever. Which didn't help its condition one iota. And that's how my backyard became the epitome of hopelessness. That's how it was until a friend of mine came over for a visit. I had just been over at her house oohing and aahing over her lovely patio. Every niche was a colorful, whimsical, artsy delight and a garden of spinning ornaments decorated her yard! It was beautiful! Then, she came over to my house and I took her out to see my backyard.
I love that she didn't judge. I don't know what she might have been thinking, but nothing negative showed on her face. It wasn't so much what she said as seeing possibilities and potential through her eyes. I captured her vision of what it could be.
A few days later, I began to work on it, and amazingly, the task was not nearly as impossible as I feared. And, I knew as I worked, a deeper lesson was taking root in my mind and heart, a lesson about tackling hopeless situations and seeing potential in the impossible, a lesson about defying discouragement. Honestly, don't we all have things in our lives that we've given up hope on? Even if the fix is not as simple as a little cleaning and decluttering, the principle remains the same. See it through new eyes and see the possibilities. Change your perspective. Believe it doesn't always have to be as it is. Dare to hope again. And, tackle it. Do what needs doing to make it better.
"Smile and the world smiles with you," my 6th grade teacher wrote to me. I still have her note in a box of childhood memorabilia. "Don't ever lose your smile," she said.
Cheerfulness, positivity, optimism, and humor are personality traits evident in me as a child. But, depression is also in my family, and at various times, I've battled it too. Especially as a teen and young adult, I was dogged by depressive tendencies, my potential crippled by many phobias. I'm acquainted with the darkness of worry, fear, and pessimism, and I've even been called "Eeyore" a time or two. Although my innate personality tended toward cheerfulness and optimism, I fought a battle with pessimism and depressive tendencies. I could have easily continued on that path, if not for a crossroad that changed my course. I learned the power of choice.
Don't misunderstand. I am not implying depression is merely a matter of choice. I understand the clinical side of it, too. But, I'm talking about garden variety glass-is-half-empty or glass-is-half-full outlook on life. We can choose our perspective. I made a choice about which side of my personality I would allow to dominate. I rediscovered the cheerful young girl my 6th grade teacher recognized. I wanted to be that girl, again. So, I began intentionally feeding the positive and starving the negative by changing my thinking (i.e., renewing my mind.)
People often comment on my cheerful, sunny disposition and compliment my smile. I love using smiling emoji. Smiley faces are the emblem of who I am. It's why my email address is writingsmiles, even though it's a mouthful to spell out. It's why my closing signature is Smiles, Sara. And, it's why the name of my website is Sunshine for the Journey. Sunshine and smiley faces define who I am by conscious, deliberate choice.
Life is not all sunshine and smiley faces. The darkest time in my life was when my daughter died, and no amount of smiling emoji can fix that. There isn't enough sunshine anywhere on the planet to make that darkness go away. But I persist. Through the rain of tears, through the storms of turbulent emotions, through the dark days, I choose to believe in sunshine. I choose to believe life can still be good, that God's not finished with me yet, that there's purpose in me still being here. I stick a smiley face on the very thing that makes me weep in defiance of its power over me. And, that's how i survive. That's my secret. That's my strength.
During the first year, I felt barely alive. Seriously. I didn't know how I'd survive. In the second year, like winter slowly melting into spring, encouraging signs of new life began to appear. As I approach the third anniversary of Jeanette's heaven-going, life has stabilized more than I ever thought possible. Life is different now, and I'm a different person than I used to be. Many chapters in my life came to an end, but new chapters have opened. I am astonished to discover much that is good. Here are some things I've learned or things that are different.
Grief journeys take many twists and turns, uphill, downhill, and every which way. There are days when I'm fine, skies are sunny, and it's almost as if nothing has changed. But, around the next bend, the sun disappears, and suddenly I'm in a dark gray funk.
Dark days are always triggered by something, even as small as scent or a hearing a snatch of a song. Sometimes, I'm not sure what the trigger is, but my brain caught it. The grayness that settles over me is involuntary. I can't stop it or prevent it, and it's often an ambush that I didn't even see coming.
It feels like passing through a tunnel. Some tunnels are longer or shorter than others. Some are darker and colder. But, a tunnel is not a dead end. It always leads back to sunlight, if I just keep walking.
How can a mother forget the day of her child's birth--the day she came into the world, the day we first glimpsed her sweet, precious face? I am so blessed to have been Jeanette's mother! How empty and barren our lives would have been without her presence! Though absent now, the blessing of her life remains. I will always celebrate her birthday, because I'm so grateful she was here. But, as her birthday approaches, I miss her more than ever. On a special day like her birthday, there ought to be a party, but I can't. I want to, but I just can't.
Some people have a birthday party, or do a balloon release, or light candles, or plant a tree, or donate to a charity or a cause, or simply remember and reflect. How to honor a birthday of a loved one is personal. To be meaningful it has to be specific to their personality, their memory and the relationship. I've figured out what I'm going to do for Jeanette's birthday. This will only make sense if you knew Jeanette, and if you knew her, it makes perfect sense. We're going to go outside and blow bubbles! It's going to be a lot of fun. It will make us laugh, and she's going to laugh with us, I'm sure! Because, this is not a day to be somber, in spite of missing her so terribly much. Thirty-nine years ago she was born into this world, and she lived, and she made a difference, and the world is better for her having been here. We love you, Jeanette, and you will never be forgotten as long as I live.
The pinnacle of our year has always been Christmas. Filled with laughter and love, surprises and wonder, all things joyful, Jesus's birth and nativity scenes, Christmas cookies, Christmas plays and Christmas concerts, Christmas movies, decorations, lights, candles, snowflakes, presents, Santa...the whole shebang!
But, it's different now. Christmas feels odd, awry, askew, like a picture on the wall that hangs crooked and can't be straightened no matter what you do. Because, it's not the picture. The wall is all out of kilter. It's the wall, the house, the whole world. Everything. And, that's why the picture can't be straightened.
It's a peculiar thing to realize Christmas (indeed, the whole month of December!) will never be the same again! I cling to our happy traditions, even though they feel sort of hollow now. I fight to accept that things are different, and it's all right to change traditions. The point is I don't want to change. I feel guilty leaving things out we used to do. Letting go feels wrong. I fight for normalcy. I fight to straighten the picture of what Christmas is supposed to look like. Its a losing battle, though. The picture, the walls, the house, the world, it's all awry.
"I will enjoy Christmas anyway!" I shout defiantly. Just give me a moment to grieve Christmases past that will never come again. Although some people give up celebrating holidays after the death of a loved one, I will not relinquish my Christmas. I'll find a way. I'll figure it out. If I can't straighten the picture, I'll paint some shepherds and wisemen on the slope. And, add some twinkly lights. Because, I will have my Christmas!
Sara Faith Nelson
Dedicated to my daughter, Jeanette Marie,