Twenty-two years of grief changes a lot of things. I am a new person every day. I never expected to survive my daughter’s death. For months after, I prayed to die. More than once, I considered taking my own life, though I could not leave all I love here.
There is no good way or time to lose a child. When someone you love dies, everything unnecessary falls away. I have learned to see grief as a spiritual practice, and it has taught me to see life in new ways.
TRUTH: telling it and living it
My daughter Hannah died of cancer at the age of three. This is the first true moment in my human story. Everything I am begins with this. The truth of Hannah’s death is fierce and unrelenting. I cannot change it, but I can change the way I live with it.
When Hannah died, my life entered a ‘no bull sh*t, no drama’ zone. I only had time and energy for the few things that mattered. I lost my politeness and learned to tell the truth. I let the phone ring and stopped reading fiction.
Pretending not to grieve does not make our children less dead. When tears are not seen as weakness, sorrow becomes a wise teacher. I also see now that truth is mutable. Truth changes as we change, and it waits until we are ready to see it.
JOY: Finding it in the darkest places
For a long time after Hannah’s death, I was afraid to laugh or smile. I didn’t want to betray her suffering by feeling happy. As time passed, this feeling lifted. I smiled more and cried less. I noticed signs and synchronicities that reminded me of Hannah.
Joy is fleeting when grief makes a home in your life. I learned to find it in the darkest places. Saying ‘yes’ at the moment reveals unexpected happiness. I rarely make plans ahead of time now, as I can’t be certain how I will feel. This way of seeing allows us to release the need for everything to be perfect. Joy is the possibility of happiness in every moment, the feeling that we are right where we need to be.
FAITH: from “my will be done” to “thy will be done”
Three months after Hannah’s death, I stood by the side of a road, prepared to take my own life. I was not afraid of death; no matter what happens Hannah is already there. As a truck approached, I suddenly became aware of my lungs breathing. I forgot about the truck and focused on my breath. I realized that something in me is still choosing life. I stayed alive to find out why.
There are no words to describe the space left absent when a child dies. The love you feel has nowhere to go. The longer your child is gone, the more you miss them. This missing becomes a part of you. In my grief, I began to explore other religions and belief systems, hungry for validation of life after death. The God I believe in now is not the God that I grew up with. Though Christianity remains the first language of my faith, I now see threads of truth connecting many understandings. For me, God is a force of a thousand names and one love. Hannah’s spirit lives on as part of everything.
Strange comfort this holding of everything in one place. Yet I see an intelligence beyond imagining which orchestrates life and nature. While it is painful to accept Hannah’s death, I also see her life making a difference in this world. Someone once described the Earth as the planet for slow-learners. Faith trusts and breathes when it’s all we can do.
COMPASSION: from specialness to belonging
I do not know why Hannah died and other children didn’t. At first, I felt a sense of specialness. No one could know the depth of my pain. For a while, I didn’t want to speak with anyone unless they had lost a child. Gradually, I began to connect with other people.
Forgiveness is key throughout the journey of grief: forgiveness of those who live and of those who die. As I learn to forgive myself, I find it easier to forgive others. Our intent in harnessing grief makes transformation possible. ‘Grief ’ shares the same root as ‘grave,’ ‘gravity,’ and ‘gravitation.’ It is a force with weight. Once engaged, it can be redirected.
When Hannah was first diagnosed, one of her doctors gave us good advice. He said, “Remember, no matter what happens, make the best decision you can with the information you have AT THAT TIME.” Of course, we would change things if we knew then what we know now.
There is no solace in blaming ourselves and others for not knowing.
Although I sometimes have less patience for other people and their problems, I see each of us is a unique lens in a shared experience. Compassion softens our gaze and allows us to appreciate new perspectives.
When we reach beyond our specialness, we realize we are not alone.
WONDER: from needing to know to letting go
There was a house in our little town which was painted pink from top to bottom. Hannah loved this house. In the last year of her life, each time we passed it, she would say, “That’s where I am going to live!”
A year and a half after Hannah’s death, my daughter Madelaine was born. One day, when Madelaine was almost three-years-old, we were driving to the grocery store. Suddenly Madelaine started shrieking from the back seat, I turned to see what was happening and saw her pointing to the pink house. “Mommy,” she exclaimed, “That’s the house where Hannah and I played in heaven before I was born!”
I had no idea how she knew, and in that moment I didn’t need to. Hannah’s death opened me to realms I never knew existed. Having watched my Father and my daughter take their last breaths, I remember a peaceful presence entering the room. This energy called life is where I feel our children’s presence is, and their spirits still make themselves known.
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