By Cynthia Prestidge
Grief teaches a mother lessons she never wanted to learn
My husband Brad came home to tell me what he had learned minutes earlier. Sarah is gone… Our Sarah-Grace. Our beautiful 24-year-old daughter. Dead. With three words and within mere seconds, I was shattered, gutted, disoriented. Any word that implies destruction, pain or confusion is relevant to that moment, but none alone, or combined, capture the devastation and confusion I felt after hearing those words.
Two years later, I’m trying not to evaluate a string of heavy days where my grief is so raw it feels frighteningly new. I remind myself that grief has nothing to do with functioning well or poorly, and the characteristics of it on any given day don’t mean much. Instead, I’ve learned that grief is my constant companion with a rhythm and intensity that’s unpredictable and often overwhelming.
Processing death, understanding grief
After Sarah died, I’d catch myself thinking that I’ll be relieved of this suffering because I’m trying so hard and I’m doing my best. The process of understanding that Sarah is dead, however, has been an agonizing and bizarre evolution.
First, there were the feelings of anticipation. Most days during the first year of grief, I’d tell myself, I can’t survive this. Then, Yes, I can. Just hold on. This will go away. When Sarah comes home. For a second, relief soothed my broken heart until truth slapped me in the face. No! That’s not true. These battles with reality went on for months. I don’t know what made them stop, but one day I simply noticed they had ended. ‘I’ve been defeated,’ I thought. ‘Truth and reality have won. I know the truth about Sarah will never change.’
In more grateful moments, I marvel at the way my psyche works to gently integrate this truth into my consciousness. When the words, Sarah can’t be gone, pop into my head, I recognize that my grief is changing. But it’s slow and subtle, and grief is still wildly and strangely independent of my other emotions, making any day unpredictable.
And these days, I have two kinds of days, OK/fine or bad/terrible. Both are unsettling. On the bad days, I wonder, will I be this way forever? On the OK days, I wonder, does this mean I’m over the trauma of Sarah’s death? I know the answer to both of those questions, but I’m new in this process and I don’t know what the future will bring, so I have to ask.
What I’ve learned about grief
All that I’ve learned as a grieving mother is only vaguely describable and not very teachable.
I remember in the early days being told that my grief will change. After two years, I can say that’s true, but I can’t really explain what’s changed other than, it’s different. Or, how it still feels painful, but in a different way. Or, what occurs to make that happen other than an excruciating breakdown of life and self, followed by the arduous rebuilding of everything. And that’s not very helpful.
So, when I read that people feel their child, or that they carry their child’s heart in their heart, I wonder how that came to be? What am I doing wrong that I don’t have that? Is it even true or possible? What does that even mean?
But I know there’s nothing of what I will come to understand about grieving and surviving the death of my daughter that can be fast-tracked or transferred from one person to another. I know I’ll find answers because parental grief is the most persistent and demanding teacher I’ve ever encountered. The insights are so painfully acquired.
Charting a path toward survival
I can’t imagine ever breathing easily when I think of or say the words Brad came home to deliver. I don’t even write them with ease.
I’m not innately wired to cope with the death of my child. Instead, I must consciously try not to fight against my grief and be, as is often said, present with it. That’s the second hardest thing about Sarah’s death — the daily decision to accept my grief and keep going. But I made a commitment to do just that on the day Sarah died.
That commitment was made during a desperate phone call to Brad’s brother Blaine as the two of us drove to the mortuary. Blaine and his wife, Cheryl, buried their only child, Kyle, 18 years and 5 months before we would bury Sarah. Brad and I had gone to the mortuary with them. We were broken-hearted for their loss and grateful we weren’t in their shoes.
“How do we do this, Blaine?” I sobbed. “How do we even survive?”
“You really have two choices,” he said. “You can either let it completely destroy you or you can try to keep living.”
Somehow, I got through the worst weeks of my life. Later, when time demanded a routine, I was unprepared for what was required of me to heed Blaine’s counsel. The seeming ease and comfort of giving up, rather than trying, has always been alluring.
So, I remind myself of the promise I made when Sarah died: That through every dark, gut-wrenching, lonely day, I will keep trying. I will slog through hell. What I learned in the conversation with Blaine still grounds me. Surprisingly, it’s not that he pointed out that we have a choice. Rather, it was the chilling summation of his advice, spoken with heavy, palpable sorrow. After giving us our two options, he added, “and I don’t have to tell you what I chose.”
I cry thinking about the price that was paid, so he could impart that wisdom.
Resolving to do it again
When Sarah died, I expected my grief and faith to be companions, but grief is lonely. At the end of the day, I’m alone with thoughts, questions and fears that make me an inhospitable environment for the whispers of spirituality. Yet, I still hold on to my faith, knowing a power beyond my own helps me through the minutes and hours.
And each day, I resolve to do it again, though it’s never an easy decision.
Doubt and dread can strike without warning. It’s a constant fight through pain and confusion. But, I want to keep trying, for those I love and for those who love me. And, missing Sarah as I do, I hope and pray that someday, somehow, I too will know what it means to carry her heart in my heart or feel her with me.
Sarah’s death on Nov. 7, 2016 brought devastation, pain and confusion to my life with a power that could have destroyed me, Brad, our two sons and youngest daughter. Today, one of the most important truths that keeps me going is Sarah wouldn’t want that to be her legacy. She doesn’t deserve it either.
So, to honor Sarah and her indelible place within our family, for Brad and our wonderful, grieving children, I do the hardest work I’ll ever do, even when it feels impossible.
I choose to try. To keep living.