I have a love/hate relationship with Bob Marley’s quote, "You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice." Maybe it’s not so much his quote, as it is that I sometimes get really annoyed that I have to be so strong at all. And, besides that … what does “being strong” really mean?
After the horrific events of 2012 - my heart was forever broken at the loss of my beautiful daughter Jane, the death of my dad and the end of a marriage. Since then, there have been many people who kindly shared their admiration of my strength. Quite frankly, I had no intention of being strong … I just intended to survive. I had two little girls who needed me, a daughter in heaven that I didn’t want to disappoint, and eventually I realized I had a beautiful life to live.
The question of strength has been on my mind a lot this week. Last Saturday morning my grandma died, later that same morning I attended the funeral of a young man who unexpectedly lost his life. And, from a mom who buried her daughter and nearly four years later was watching yet more parents grieve the death of their child, Michael’s ceremony was the epitome of a beautiful Celebration of Life. The strength of a family shaken by a tragic loss, the strength of a community of friends and family who came to show their support and the strength of classmates and close friends who shared their unbelievable, God-given talents to honor a beloved friend. It was the epitome of bittersweet beauty. I was so moved that I re-watched part of the service on The Cube. Not to relive the tragedy, rather to absorb the inspiration of not only Michael’s friends and family, but a desire to be more like Michael … non-judgmental, compassionate, strong and a good friend to many.
So what does “being strong” really mean? I may be biased, but for any parent who has needed to plan the funeral of their child (whether their child hadn’t yet had the privilege of being born or if the child was 8, 18, 25 or 65 when they died) I think that automatically makes the parents ubberly strong and should place them in the Parenting Hall of Fame. Just like the death of your child is automatic entry into a club you never wanted to be a part of, acceptance into this Hall of Fame is not by choice either.
I can tell you from experience, some days it’s easy to be strong. Life cuts you some slack and you see the world from an optimistic perspective, if you will - a lemonade from lemons, rose-colored glasses perspective. Other days, the days that it takes everything in your power to get out of bed and you want to chuck those lemons and glasses into the trash compactor, those days it’s tough, really tough to be, or for that matter, even want to be strong. It’s those days I think strength is defined as just putting one foot in front of the other, living the day hour by hour - or even minute by minute, just doing what you need to do to survive the day and trying to find the beauty in even the smallest of things.
The grief journey is tough and as I mature as a bereaved momma, there are a few things that I have learned along the way:
The importance of calling a loved ones by name. For anyone who has lost a loved one - a child, a spouse, a sibling, a parent or a dear friend - it makes our heart feel good and swell with pride when we hear their name spoken out loud, or see their name in writing. There is nothing more special than to hear someone speak highly of someone we love. Regardless if it is one of my children here on earth, or my sweet Jane in heaven, I love to hear stories about my children. I love to hear them called by name. It makes me feel proud. Our name is one of the first gifts we are given as a baby, and it’s proof of an everlasting legacy to hear the names of our loved ones after their death.
Losing a child is out of order and challenges our sense of safety. Just because my child died, it doesn’t mean it's contagious and that yours will die too. In a community where too many children have died in recent years, the fear of losing a child has to be on the minds of many of our parents. Despite that, please don’t let that stop you from reaching out to other parents with a kindness, a hug or a word of affirmation. Take a lesson from one of my favorite young boys, Chad. Every time he sees me he tells me he misses Jane. Chad didn’t know Jane long, and he didn’t know her well, but she impacted his young heart and he graces me with his kindness every time he sees me. Sometimes, I am even lucky enough to hear a funny story about her. Please don’t think that if you share a sunset, a kind word about Jane or a memory that you will bring back sad feelings. Rest assured, I think about her all the time - you are not going to say something that I am not constantly thinking about already. Yes, it may evoke tears … but tears, like memories, are a fond reminder of a life lived.
We don’t forget our children. This was my fear from Day 1. And, before she died, Jane (in her own artistic way) told me this was her fear too. But the further away I am from September 6,2012, and the more parents I meet that have lost their child decades ago, I am reassured that Jane will be a part of my life forever. And, just because it seems like everyone around us goes on with their lives - our void, the empty spot in our heart will always remain. But, I think if we let it, the hole in our heart can be filled with blossoms of love and memories.
The length of life does not define the socially acceptable pain or grief timeline. Just because our loved one may have lived “a long life” it doesn’t make their death, their absence from our lives, any less painful. Your mom, even if she is 93, is still your mom and it’s going to be hard to wake up and remember that you can’t just pick up the phone or swing up to her home and say hi anymore. The absence of our loved ones is painful despite their age, or the length of time we have known them.
Life doesn’t necessarily get easier as life goes on. I am generally a bleeding optimist and I would like to tell you that life gets easier the farther away you get from death, but from my perspective that would be a great big lie. Yes, it’s true that the feelings may not be so intense, the feeling of loss may not hit you like a brick as often, but the void, the obvious absence of a loved one, still hurts.The fact that you wake up another day without them and have to be strong quite frankly sucks.
Life goes on. This one seems to sting the most, at least for me. My daughter is never coming back and sometimes my life seems stalled in that moment. My daughter will forever be 8 years old, yet her classmates, her siblings and her friends are all getting older. There are sporting events, choir concerts, Prairie Fire plays … for other kids, for her sisters… but, for Jane, it’s lost opportunities and missed experiences. And, as much as it hurts to watch others move on, I know it's part of life. I know that I too move on. We all do.
It’s okay to be pissed off. Cancer stole my daughter from me, age defeated my grandma and accidents have claimed the lives of my friends children. All of that makes me angry and pissed off. I could wallow in the pissy juice (and sometimes I do), but I have learned that if I don’t learn to shut off my crabby, poor me, attitude, I miss out on the beauty of life. And, for as much as turning the volume down on the crap and the pain is hard to do, I know I need to be stronger than my weakest moments.
People will surprise you. There will be people who embrace you at the time of death, only to disappear later when you need them. And, there will be others who surprise you by supporting you on the darkest days, they will be there for you weeks...months … and even years later. It’s a part of life. As they say, some people come into your life for a reason, some for a season and some for a lifetime. Life is easier if we treasure each of them for the gift of time we are given with them and not resent them for moving on without us.
Celebrations of Life (also traditionally known as funerals) are some of the most blessed events that I am honored to attend. To see a community of people come together to celebrate, among the tears, the life of a loved one is amazing to me. This week, I had the privilege of attending the Celebration of Life for a 25-year-old man, and later in the week celebrated my grandmother’s 93 years of life at a Catholic church in Bluffton, MN. They were both special ceremonies and both have special moments etched in my heart forever.
The next days can be the hardest. The days following the funeral, or milestones are some of the hardest days to get through. A funeral, a holiday or our loved ones birthday … those days are all hard. But, if you are lucky, they will be filled with an outpouring of memories from friends and family. It’s the next days, when our guard goes down and the messages begin to cease, that the pain seems to increase. It’s in these next days when there is a noticeable absence and the numbness wears off and we feel the pain. And, I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t feel the pain, feeling the pain is a healthy part of the grieving process, I’m just suggesting that we should all brace for the following days. The days when the quiet seems loud, the absence is especially noticeable and the phrase “this really SUCKS” takes on a special significance and a renewed definition and understanding.
Be compassionate. Most importantly, I am an advocate for compassion. At the time of writing this, it is day #1415 since Jane’s death. I have NEVER experienced day #1415 before and I don’t know what it will bring, what emotions will overwhelm me or how I will respond. Similarly, I know that those around me have never experienced day #1415 with me and just like I don’t know how I will handle the flood, the tsunami or the drought of emotions - neither do I expect you to know how to stand beside me. But, what I do know is that, with compassion, we can be strong together. I have have witnessed that strength between friends and family is magnified when it's multiplied.
Whether we choose to deny or embrace it, sometimes we have to suck it up and be strong. It’s a part of life. And, just as the Jamaican reggae singer-songwriting legend Bob Marley eloquently said … sometimes being strong IS the only choice we have.