Yesterday was the 12th anniversary of my daughter’s death. Twelve years without hearing her voice, being able to touch her, or being able to celebrate special days with her. Sean and I spent it this year as an ordinary day, which is kind of a miracle considering how it used to flatten all of us. We talked, we laughed, and we watched a movie we hadn’t seen in ages. We ate a meal together. I only cried once, and that was because my little sister reached out to me in a message. She had just found out about my cancer. We are estranged, so it was emotional for me to formulate a reply.
I’m not a cold person. I’m just a person who has had enough damage that I build walls quickly. I shut people out. I try to protect myself. As I told my son, I know he lost his only sibling and can’t imagine shutting one out who is still alive, but he also hasn’t been hurt by them like I have. Very often, family can hurt you in ways that are deep and lasting. They know you well enough to know what a deep cut looks like. They know where there are gaps in your armor. In the case of my youngest sibling, she took advantage of my kindness toward her to try and use it to further her own needs. The other sibling I’m estranged from has said horrible things about me behind my back, and I suppose he doesn’t know that I am aware of it (or maybe he doesn’t care, because he thinks he is always right). At nearly 59 years old, I’m tired of it all and have turned my focus to my friends and my work, and especially to my son. That’s where my heart lies now. Sometimes you just have to shut it all down in order to live.
It’s Easter. This is the time of year that hurts the most. Not only is it Stephanie’s death day, but this is often Easter week. When I arranged her memorial service at the church in 2009, the sanctuary was full of Easter lilies and purple draping. We had her memorial service on a Wednesday, because of course the sanctuary was preparing for Good Friday and Easter Sunday. If I had had my wits about me, I would have postponed the service until a later time. Stephanie was cremated, per her wishes, so there was really no rush. But all I could do was put one foot in front of the other. I couldn’t see beyond the day I was in. I felt that I had to do it all quickly so that I could keep going. Many people from work came to the service. My whole team was there. Many people who knew Stephanie from AA were there, and they shared their stories about her. One man dedicated his sobriety to her, since she had been so helpful to him. I was grateful for them all.
The intervening years have been a blur. So much has happened. So many days were spent in bed, crying. But now, the pain has lessened. I no longer pray for my heart to stop. In fact, it’s just the opposite. These days I pray for the strength to keep going. I want to be around for Sean. I want to be here if he marries and has children (or even if he doesn’t). I want to be Nana to his kids and spend time telling them stories and playing in the backyard with them. I want to teach them to cook and knit and read. I picture my life in the future. I want to retire and spend time writing my own books, painting, knitting, and simply being. I want to buy an RV and meet up with my friends in far places.
Easter is the day we celebrate that the Lord rose from the dead and appeared to his loved ones. Stephanie has appeared to me in many ways, but never visibly in my waking life. She is there in my dreams, but she comes less and less. I picture her out there living another life or doing great work in the afterlife. I picture her standing beside us in our times of need or in our times of great joy. She is a part of us forever.
When your grief lessens, you feel scared and somewhat traitorous. How could you possibly laugh or experience joy when your loved one — your child — is dead? How can you breathe when they can’t? I’ve had people tell me what Stephanie would want me to do. “Stephanie wouldn’t want you to cry.” Really? How do you know? People mean well. They want to comfort you, because your grief makes them uncomfortable. But I tell you, grieve your child for as long as you need to. There will come a day when the grief begins to make room for all the love. Suddenly, or perhaps not so suddenly, you will feel lighter. You will forget the pain and experience the warm sensation of their love. That’s the best way for me to explain it. You will feel their love all around you, as though they were right next to you. You will remember those happy moments you had with them, when you were each learning a different life lesson. You will remember their first April Fool’s joke that worked! You will remember the time they fell asleep with their new kitten wrapped in their arms. And then you’ll realize that the hardest work of grief is done.
I will never stop missing my daughter, but I honor her by living. Someday she will appear to me again as I start to make my own transition to the afterlife. I’m in no hurry for that to happen, but I will also accept it when it comes, knowing I’ll be with her once more.
Have a blessed Easter, my friends. I take comfort in knowing that God Himself knew the grief of watching His child die. He truly showed us that there isn’t a human emotion he doesn’t understand. May you feel His compassion today.