Now, the part I have not really wanted to write about…
Countless people have asked me “What was the worst thing someone said to you?” In fact, in the first two weeks, I was probably asked this question more than any other question. I have hesitated to answer this because honestly, 99 percent of anything that has been said to me, that has been done for me, has been amazing, and so I have chosen to focus on that. But, that question still comes up eight months later. Not quite daily anymore, but certainly more than once a week.
I did not want to answer this because I wanted to focus on the positive. There was so much positive behavior to focus on, after all, and thank God for that. Also, I did not want to shame anyone. No one was intentionally hurtful. They just happened to stumble upon something that didn’t work for me.
But, finally, it occurred to me that people wanted to know so that THEY knew what to say, and what not to say. They wanted to know so that they could better identify what I found helpful, and because they wanted to help. So that they might be better prepared for the grief of another friend. It occurred to me that people were not asking out of cattiness, but out of respect. It occurred to me that we are so unbelievably inept at grief as a culture, that people honestly have no idea what to do in the face of a friend’s grief, much less their own.
In that spirit, I will share the things that I did not find helpful, with some caveats:
Caveat #1: These are things that I found difficult, or not helpful. I cannot possibly speak for any other grieving person.
Caveat #2: The folks that said things I found difficult, are not bad people. They are great people, who simply did not know what to say in a very grim situation. I do not blame them, judge them or wish them ill. They are beautiful people who did the best they could, and it simply was not something I personally found helpful.
OK. The first thing I found difficult was the “angel” talk. I heard things like, “Oh, Mama, it’s OK, she’s an angel,” or “God needed an angel so he took her,” or “She’s an angel now; you are OK. You are blessed.”
When folks would say things like that, in those first couple of weeks, I smiled, hugged them, and walked away. It rubbed me the wrong way, I can’t lie, but I immediately knew they meant well. I knew they wanted to help me, and themselves, deal with the senselessness of it all. I knew that they, of course, did not intend to rub me the wrong way. I did not feel the need to demonize people for not intuiting what would be helpful to me, and what would not. How were they supposed to know? That may very well be helpful to someone else.
When people would say the angel stuff, all I could think was, “Word on the street is that God is omnipotent. If he needs an angel, he can make an angel from scratch. I highly doubt he needs to swipe my innocent child to make an angel.” And, I don’t know, in the immediate shock of losing your child to unknown forces, the human assurance that your child is now an angel I found to be of very little comfort. I can see how others might, but I just couldn’t see it that way, at that time. And I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that no bereaved parent wants to be told “You are blessed” or “It’s OK,” because, you know, you aren’t, and it’s not. It is not OK to have a perfectly healthy child not wake up from a nap. I can get to a place where I can live with it, I mean, you HAVE to get to a place where you can live with it, but I guarantee you, few parents are going to be there in the first few days after the fact.
And besides, I never want to be told how to feel in the first place, but especially not a week after my child has died, thank you very much.
The second thing said to me that was difficult, and perhaps the worst of all things said to me, came my way on Thursday of that second week—only nine days after Alice died.
This was also the day I had to go retrieve Alice’s belongings from the school. That was hard. It was impossible not to envision her doing her usual morning walk in, saying “HIIIII!!!!” to everyone, waiting with her toes on the line of the kitchen area (no kids allowed in the kitchen, but she’d get as close as she could,) showing the cook her outfit and/or tattoos, waiting patiently for her cereal and juice. The big kids all ran up to me asking if Alice had died, the little kids all asked for her by name with quizzical looks on their faces, the teachers were all sobbing. I was surrounded, and I mean surrounded with the big, questioning eyes of so many little children. And I had no answers. None. Nada. Nothing.
I had to remove all of her things out of her cubbyhole. Things that were left there on a Monday, intended to be used on Tuesday, but never to be touched by her again. The teachers handed me the art projects she had completed the Monday before she died. How could she have created this piece one day, and be dead less than 24 hours later?? HOW???? HOW????
It was hard. No, it was agonizing. In any event, that was my morning, and then I came home to find her death certificate had come in the mail. Not the makings of a wonderful day, really.
I have some cleaning ladies that come on occasion. I had them come that Thursday because the house was destroyed from all the people and food that came through the house in the previous days. I have known one of them—cleaning lady #1—for many years, and she knew my children well. Both ladies adored my girls. The women arrived while I was outside or napping or something, and I found them crying, cleaning the girls’ room. I went in to hug them. Cleaning lady #2, asked me something in broken English, and when I tried to respond, she started to yell at me, “WHY YOU NO TAKE HER TO THE DOCTOR?! MAYBE SHE NO DIE! WHY YOU NO TAKE A BABY TO THE DOCTOR?!”
I am fairly certain steam released from the top of my head. I heard myself talk in a voice I have never heard come out of my body. In a low, slow, rumble that was nearly a growl, I heard myself say, “HOW……DARE………YOU…How DARE YOU come into my house and…” I tried to continue on, but cleaning lady #1, enveloped me in a bear hug and backed me out of the door, saying “There, there, it’s OK,” while patting my head. She led me into the arms of Caitlin, who had heard it all and who took me to the couch.
I felt awful. I had never had anything but kind words with either of these women. I felt guilty for talking to her like that. I still was completely racked with guilt over Alice’s death, and this had not helped one bit, but I still felt badly for not handling it well. I cried on Caitlin’s shoulder and kept saying, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” Caitlin, who is a sweet and mild-mannered gal, said, “Don’t you be sorry. I wanted to go in there and punch her.” I looked up in complete and total shock. Caitlin isn’t exactly the punching-type.
In the end, this scene turned out to be a gift. Because, I realized, when it came right down to it, when push came to shove, and someone other than myself blamed me for Alice’s death, I stood up for myself. The enormity of this was not lost on me. It was evidence that some small part of me, buried far beneath the crippling guilt, knew it was not my fault. This was the minute I knew: I will eventually be OK.
I knew that to get there, I had to feed the part that knew it was not my fault, and starve the side that wallowed in guilt. No easy task, but at least I saw a path to OK-ville now, and I made a conscious effort to starve the guilt. But the guilt was so, so very hungry.
So, despite becoming angry that day, cleaning lady #2 actually gave me an enormous gift: the ability to see that down deep, I believed in me, and my mothering. I will be forever grateful to her, and wish her nothing but the best.
Guilt still had a hold on me, a tight hold, but I was getting stronger, and I could tell it was loosening its grip on me.
The other things that proved difficult happened toward the end of the week. I attempted a public function for the first time. I was uneasy about it. I was having trouble with “public” still. I still felt out of step with the rest of the world. I say this not in a “woe-is-me” fashion, I simply, quite literally, felt out of step with the world, and this is very disorienting. I felt like I was moving in another time and dimension, to be honest, so being in public was difficult. Being around too many people, made me feel very anxious. I have no idea why, it just did, and I didn’t really have the wherewithal to fight it just yet.
My first attempt at “public” was mainly OK. One thing that was hard in those first few days was if well-meaning people came up to me with a huge smile and said, “HIIII!!!! How are you?! So nice to see you!” I just did not know what to do with that. What did they expect me to say? That “I’m great thanks, and you?” Again, they obviously meant well, and cared, so I did not hold anything against them, but it was hard for me to respond to a greeting that was generally used for joyous occasions. How was I? My kid just died for no apparent reason. Frankly, I’m not that great. Frankly, my therapist friend is impressed that I am not in bed with my head under the covers.
I don’t know, I guess I thought that type of greeting betrayed that the greeter assumed the greetee should be ready for cheery small talk just days after losing a child. I was not ready for superficial party greetings or pretending nothing was wrong. I did not need to talk about Alice’s death 24/7 or to be pitied, mind you, but I definitely did not need to feel that people expected me to be able to do cocktail talk after 10 days.
So, when confronted with the “HIIII!!!! How are you?! So nice to see you!” greetings, I smiled, hugged them and walked away. I did not blame them begrudge them or anything else, but I also could not be lead into a conversation that tone set. I wasn’t ready.
Someone asked me, “How are the grandparents?” I said that they were devastated. “Still?” the person asked.
Still? Still? Still devastated 10 days after the death of their darling granddaughter? Yes. And you know, I bet they will still be devastated 10 years from now too. A grandparent’s grief is double, really. They grieve the death of the grandchild, but they also grieve the fact that their child had to suffer such a loss. I fought the urge to say, “I know. Can you believe these pussies are still upset 10 days later?” because I am certain that this person meant no harm. I was certain that this is a kind person who had no idea what to say. And how could they? Still, it revealed the fact that this person felt that there was some timeline to healing, and frankly, their timeline was pretty damned quick. It showed me the fact that they were over the initial shock—and so imagined the family should be too. I knew I could not get healthy if I subjected myself to folks who expected me, or my family, to “be better” in any amount of time, much less 10 days later. So, I smiled, hugged them, and turned away.
I turned directly into another person who asked me how I was doing in a normal tone of voice, a tone that I could handle. I said I was having a hard time, but trying to adjust. This person asked me if I had been “helping out at the kids’ school in my time off?”
You know, as if I was on disability leave for a hangnail.
Again, I was shocked. I believe I said that no, “In my time off I have been deciding whether to bury or cremate my child. I have been trying to figure out a way to handle this with Grace in way that won’t screw her up for the rest of her life. I had held a wake, and a service, and received her ashes, and hosted housefuls of people, and tried to figure out what to do with Alice’s belongings. It hasn’t exactly been “time off” in the usual sense of the term.” I said it nicely, but in retrospect, I wished I had hugged this person, smiled, and walked away.
All of the aforementioned were parents themselves, strangely. I could only guess that they really wanted me to be “better” because they wanted to think that in my shoes, they would be “better” so quickly. Again, I do not begrudge these people their reactions. They are very good people. But, again, I could not handle that line of questioning. So, I smiled, hugged them, and walked away.
When I told one person that I’d be going back to work the following Monday, they said, “That’s good. You know that old adage, about throwing yourself into work when you have issues.” I replied that old adages knew nothing of holding your dead baby, and that she was certainly not an “issue.”
But, I should have smiled, hugged this person and walked away.
That was not the only person to recommend that I throw myself into my work to avoid my issues, mind you, but that was the last time I did anything other than let it go in one ear and out the other.
I suppose the common theme of what I found difficult was any indication that the person had a timeline they thought I should be upholding. I could see that they were, or were going to, judge the length of time it took me to be “better.” I knew that to get “better,” I could not subject myself to people who judged how/when I got better. Nor did I want to judge their reaction in return. They were in a pickle too, and I knew this. They had no idea what to say. And they had no reason to know what to say. But, I knew that to get better, I had to do so in a way that was true, and organic to me. And you cannot do this with someone that is judging you.
So, I smiled, hugged them, and walked away.
I decided I wasn’t quite ready for “Prime Time.” I wasn’t ripe enough for public consumption. I could tell I was going to have to just follow my urge to lay low for a while. I could deal with people one at a time, or even a few at a time, but crowds? Crowds were out of the question for the time being. Look, I have trouble with crowds on a good day. As I’ve aged, I have gotten better with them, but I have to REALLY REALLY want whatever the crowd is gathered for. You won’t find me in a random crowd just for kicks. I suppose the shock and grief just dialed up whatever sensitivities make me leery of crowds in the first place.
# # #
At some point in that week, I picked up one of the several books on grief that people had sent me. I have a stack of them, by the bed, all of them sent by different people. The house was finally quiet enough for me to think of reading something.
I opened the one on top, I do not recall which, and read a couple of pages. I just didn’t feel it at all. I flipped through the book looking at chapter titles and blurbs here and there, and thought, “I can’t.”
I tried a second.
I tried a third.
I am a studier, but I just couldn’t get into it, and I had no idea why. It suddenly dawned on me that being a studier was the problem. I could tell, right away, that I was going to read that book like a student. And then I would compare my experience to what the book said, and worse, likely alter my experience to reflect what the book suggested. I instinctively knew this was going to hinder me, personally. I could see how these books would be helpful to others, and how they would likely be helpful to me somewhere down the road, but I KNEW, I just knew from the very depths of my soul, that I was going to have to forge my own trail in the beginning of this crisis.
I do not always listen to my intuition without arguing, but when it is that strong, I do, for it is never, ever wrong.
So, I abandoned the grief books for the time being. I have yet to read one, honestly. Meleva, when she heard this, asked if I was on meds. I said that I was not. She said, “Ah, you are going to white-knuckle this, I see.” I did not feel like I was white-knuckled, however. I felt like I was allowing the emotions that came up for me, to go through me. I know from personal experience and from treating patients that this is the only way to REALLY get through things. The only way through it, is through it. It ain’t magic, folks.
I was not convinced that the meds or the books were going to help me let those emotions go through me, so I didn’t utilize them. If I come to a point where I think I could benefit, or if I get to a point where I can tell I am stifling my emotions, or having trouble functioning, or feel unsupported, I will reconsider.
I still don’t consider it “white-knuckling it.” I consider it more “free-balling” it. White-knuckling it seems to imply that one is bracing oneself through “it.” I didn’t, and still don’t, feel that way. I see it more as grabbing a scythe, heading down an incredibly overgrown path, and weed-whacking my way through it where necessary. Hey, it’s not for everyone, but I know with every fiber of my being that it is the way for me.
In hindsight, I felt like, I dunno, I felt like I gave into “it.” It seemed so much bigger than me, and I guess I just went, “OK, I get it. I am not in control.” I felt like riding the wave of this tragedy was going to be the way to survive it. Or, at the very least, I have tried not to fight it.
I have always been a researcher, a studier, in short, a geek. But this did not seem to be the path to my salvation in my case. I could devote myself to finding a cause, and possibly a cure for what happened to Alice. There are people that do that, and it is a noble and good thing to do. I just knew it was not something I could do right then, for the attempt to do so in those early days had massive negative effects on my psyche, and I will elaborate on this in a bit. I had to decide that maintaining my will to go on had to come first right now. I could be of no good to anyone, including myself, if I were walking around like a zombie, animated, but not really alive. My first priority was Grace, really, but to do that well, I had to put on my own oxygen mask first.
I must move ahead. I must move ahead. I must move ahead.
And I must do it by my own clock.
# # #
I had tried reading about SUDC the week before, and that was a colossal mistake for me. It sent me into a nose-dive. I was a total wreck within seconds. It sent my guilt trip into high gear. It was bad. Really bad. I could not read about SUDC at that point and still continue to feel like I could move ahead. It wasn’t time, for me.
It occurred to me what I REALLY wanted to know anyway, what was had happened to her SOUL. No one knew what happened to her body, and I was warned we would likely never know. I felt like spending my energy there was akin to spinning my wheels, and my wheels were spinning enough on their own, thank you very much. There was no logic to her death, so I returned to my motto of “When logic leaves the room, that leaves the woo-woo.” I needed to know what happened to her soul. Her earthly Mama needed to figure out a way to know if her child was OK in spirit. Your maternal instinct doesn’t just shut off when the coroner comes to collect your child, as it turns out. I still harbored every protective instinct that I had before she died, after she died. I didn’t TRY to do so. I just did.
And so would you. And that is why losing a child seems so unthinkable.
I needed to know, I desperately needed to know, what Alice had become when she shed her body her on earth.
I began to nose around in various religious texts for descriptions of the afterlife. Some were helpful, some were not so helpful, but none of them caused me to nose dive, so I decided to continue this approach, a little each day. I also decided that if I got to a place where it felt like “too much” I would step away from the studying, and just be. I could JUST BE.
Around this time, two different people sent me info on a psychic medium. I had asked no one for any such referral, and neither of these women knew each other, but they both recommended the same person. I took it as a sign. I wrote the medium requesting an appointment. I was warned she had a yearlong waiting list at times, and that she would not see you until three months after a loved one died anyway. She felt it was too soon. I was granted an appointment for a little more than three months after she died. In the meantime, she suggested I read a book called “The Survival of the Soul.” She said it would give me some idea of how she worked and may answer some of the questions I might have been grappling with.
Oddly, most grief support groups do not recommend that you start group until three months after the loss of the loved one because you are “too fresh.” I found it interesting that the psychic and the psychologist were on the exact same page regarding this issue, but it didn’t really hamper my progress, because the thought of going to a grief group made me want to get into the fetal position on the floor. It did not help my urge to move ahead at all. Look, I am not a fan of group therapy in the first place. I am sure it helps others, but my first experience with it was so intensely bad, all I could do was sit there and fight the urge to scream out, “Holy Toledo, I. AM. CURED! I really am. I hear these people talking, and I do not want to be like any of them. I will do whatever you say I need to do in order to not need group therapy ever again.”
In short, group therapy was effective, in that I got better, but it did not work how it hoped to work. It worked because I loathed it with a passion so intense I would do anything necessary to avoid it in the future. I am thrilled that it works for some people, but I did not love it for me, to say the very least.
So, it seemed unlikely I was going to seek out group therapy right away anyway. I still find it interesting that psychologists and psychics alike seemed to agree on the three-month thing. It seemed like for three months, everyone agreed that winging it, with your hand held by family, friends, and private therapy, was the way to go.
So, I spent that week trying to nail down my “mental and spiritual health team.” I needed a therapist for myself and one for Grace. I wanted to try the medium, and I also made an appointment to see a spiritual teacher I consult from time to time. I had been sent all manner of referrals for all of the aforementioned, and I weeded through them, a little at a time, as I could.
I had a therapist in the past that I absolutely adore, Erik, but his office is a long drive for me, and I could not imagine taking three hours for a one-hour appointment every week. Also, I was going to have to try to do it on the cheap, with so much therapy seeming necessary for a long time to come.
Through two different friends, I found a therapist for myself that specializes in bereaved parents and made an appointment for the next week. In the end, I would end up switching therapists, through no fault of the therapist’s. My needs simply changed. In any event, that is one hell of a specialty. It takes a very special person to devote one’s life to something most people cannot even ponder for a moment without dissolving into tears.
# # #
As I mentioned, guilt was still my primary demon at this point. I was also struggling to just simply wrap my head around how Alice’s death had so instantly changed my life, and my family structure. I would occasionally just freeze in the middle of some mundane task, completely gob smacked by the notion that my eldest child, was now also my youngest child. Whoa. I was sickened when I realized that I suddenly, in the blink of an eye, had no children in diapers anymore. No more naps. No more double school drops. No more need for a stroller. Just suddenly, no more baby carriers. I know this all seems obvious, but it really does not sink in in that particular way right away. I remember saying, over and over again, “I CANNOT BELIEVE that I am a parent that lost a child. I just cannot get over the fact that this is part of my life’s story. I DID NOT see that coming. AT ALL.” Yesterday, I had a family of four. Now, I have a family of three. What?
I just could not get my head around it.
All of this started me on a hideous guilt loop about complaining about naps (I was a mom who saw naps as more of a monolith in the day I had to try to fit everything around, rather than a time I could get something done, mainly, because I so rarely was able to accomplish anything of note during the nap.) I mean, I could turn ANYTHING into a guilt tip in those early days.
Despite feeling like I was “done” after having Alice, in those early weeks after Alice died, I did wonder if I should try for another. Grace asked for another baby almost daily. I had not shared with my four-year-old my thoughts on having another, so I guess we were both looking to fill the hole in our family at that time. Clearly, we both felt that immense sense of incompleteness. She asked if I was going to make another baby in my tummy. At one point she thought I should “make another girl and call her Alice.” At another point, she requested a boy. It was heartbreaking.
But I am no spring chicken, mind you. I’m the age where you start to be put out to pasture. But the feeling of incompleteness with regard with my family was so very strong, that I did consider trying. I made appointments for my first mammogram, and to see my OB/GYN. I wasn’t sure if I would pursue pregnancy in the end or not, but since time was not my friend in this matter, so I thought I’d better get checked out just to see how my parts were faring.
Grace was processing her sister’s death by this point, and doing a rather good job of it, I must say. She cried a little in the mornings, when she would wake up. She’s would run through a litany of things she missed about Alice, and asked a lot of questions about death, and just a bunch of general existential questions in rapid-fire succession. I was able to handle it as they came, but by the end of a day, I was pretty damn drained.
That Thursday, Grace came running up to me to tell me she had made a drawing she wanted me to see. I walked in to her “office.” Most kids call their playroom their playroom, but Grace calls it her office, and I suppose it is. In any event, she has one of those tables that have a roll of paper that can be spread across it. Grace had filled the entire, long paper with an intricate drawing, including the names of everyone in our family. I had no idea she could spell and write all of our names (she was four, after all), and no one had helped her, to my knowledge. She went in there and did it all by herself.
Grace took me on a “tour,” if you will, of the picture. “That’s Mama (mamamamama) there at the top, and below is your computer, because you love your computer (um, not exactly.) Over there is Grace (in pencil) and in the middle is the stairs, because I like to play on the stairs now. Under Gracie’s name I drew Sammy and Clarence (the cats.) There is the garage and bikes because adults like to get things out of the garage (hilarious.) Over here (bottom right) is Alice. This is watermelon because Alice loved watermelon (it was, in fact, her last meal) and under that is Alice ‘when she was died on her bed,’ and next to her, the chair (there was a wooden chair, with slats in it, next to the bed at the wake.) All the way over here, I write (sic) all the names of the family, (including Caitlin, who was still here, and whom I am guessing must have helped with the spelling of her name) and Alice ‘when she was died on her bed.’ “
WOW. I mean, wow.
She went through this entire thing completely matter-of-factly. And she was quite proud, as she should have been. I was not only proud that she wrote and spelled all of that, but that she had begun to process something so incredibly life-changing, so well already.
Atta girl, Gracie Girl.
She did another one in a similar fashion, but not quite as detailed. Again, it had all the names of the family, including the names Clarence and Sammy, as well as a drawing of a house, the cats, and “Alice, when she was died on the bed.” She also made Alice a “card” for “Alice’s 2 Birthday.” She wrote “Alice 2” at the top, then a couple of hearts, “Alice, when she was died on your bed,” the chair again, and then a list of numbers all the way to 21. I asked Grace what the other numbers indicated.
“This says, Alice, I really liked your 2 party, and I’m sorry that you are never going to be 3, or 4, or 5……..” and so on, until she got to twenty-one.
I was blown away.
Her utter fearlessness in the face of all of this made me very happy with the decision to let her view the body if she chose to do so. I think it really helped her get her head around the fact that her sister had died, and what death meant (as much as any of us can really “get” what death means.) I have no doubt that Grace would have had a far more difficult time with this, if she had just waved goodbye to her sister one seemingly normal day, and then never saw her again, and did not see what death entailed. Prior to Alice, the only death Grace had ever witnessed was a dying bee. She had seen dead plants too. But that’s it. Dead bee, to dead sister. That is quite a leap. I’m not sure the potential of human death had even occurred to four-year-old Grace yet.
It was a helluva way to learn, poor girl.
And. It. Breaks. My. Heart. Into. A. Jillion. Pieces.
Grace was supposed to have been at her Spanish Camp this week, as well as the week that followed. We had kept her home primarily because Caitlin was here, and we wanted her to have time with her Auntie. I was not sure what to do about the next week. The Spanish camp was for the kids slated to attend the charter school we had helped to found, which is a Spanish immersion school. The camp was a low-cost way to get the kids used to speaking Spanish all day before the start of school. Grace would not attend until 2014, but she was still old enough to go to the camp, and we all were very excited about it.
In the wake of her sister’s death, I wasn’t sure if I should throw my textbook “slow-to-to-warm-up child” in a new environment with kids she barely knew. Her regular school was open, so she could go there if Spanish Camp was going to prove to be too much. In the end, I left it up to her. She wanted to go to Spanish Camp the next week. I was a bit surprised, and not convinced that she wouldn’t change her mind minutes before the start on Monday, but I called and told them to expect her the following week.
Grace was, and remains, pretty damn indomitable through this entire ordeal.
# # #
Friday morning, Caitlin left. We all cried. Grace was devastated. Caitlin had a hard time leaving and we had a hard time watching her roll out in the cab. I will be forever grateful to her for changing all of her plans to be with us at that time.
It was a somber day. My friend Kim Grant came by that day to be with me so I would not be alone. Kim is an old friend, and a music promoter, and had dedicated her weekly radio show to Alice during this week. I am deeply appreciative of what she did for me. Some other friends came by too, but mainly, without family here, we were on our own with our intense loss and devastating grief.
On Saturday, Grace had her dance class. She had obviously missed the previous Saturday, having attended her sister’s memorial. After the events of Friday, I just could not go into that class. The kids all go into the classroom, and the parents all watch through windows in the lobby. Parents also chat, and wrangle their younger children while class happens. Alice used to go with me from time to time, and everyone knew and loved her. No one from that class knew yet, to my knowledge. I knew that I could not handle standing there with them all for an hour after they found out that Alice had died. I couldn’t even think about it.
So, Stacy bravely offered to take Grace, and to let all of the other parents know, so that when I did go back, I didn’t have to take in the mass shock and sorrow. I will forever be indebted to Stacy for doing this for me. It was a massive help. I was so relieved.
Later that morning, my brother’s wife’s parents happened to be in town and wanted to come by with something for Grace. Mary and Dave are wonderful people, and have always taken an interest in my girls, so it was wonderful to see them. They took us to lunch at El Cholo, a family favorite. It was my first meal out of the house, and I was glad it was lunch, because I was not sure I was up for a dinner crowd. I was still having a hard time with crowds or people I didn’t know well. The girls loved going to El Cholo and there were a couple of employees that really made a fuss over them. As I walked up, I realized that they might be there. I panicked. Oh my God, I was not sure I could handle the reaction of someone who did not know what happened. It all just seemed like too much.
They weren’t there thank God. Grace and I had a lovely lunch with Mary and Dave, and they brought Grace a whole bag of new clothes that she loved. It was a lovely day with lovely people, and I was so very grateful that they made the effort to trek to our place.
We were also supposed to attend the birthday party of Alice’s beloved friend Aria that day. But I just couldn’t do it. I love Aria with all my heart. I adore her parents too. But her second birthday was just too close to my baby’s second birthday, and WAY too close to my child’s last day. I wanted to be able to go, but I knew I would not make it through without crying, and I didn’t want to spoil their party, so I stayed away. I prayed that they would understand.
Sunday was slated to be a big day. We were supposed to go to Grace’s friend Elizabeth’s birthday party. Elizabeth is one of Grace’s best friends, and her parents (Catie and Grant) were one set of Alice’s godparents. Elizabeth and Grace go to different schools, so I was not going to know anyone there save Catie’s family. Although I know that family would have been very kind and supportive, I know the kind of small talk that comes up at these parties. “Do you have other children?” etc. I could not answer that question without feeling like I was going to die, so I felt it better for me to stay away. Teresa and Sal, who had been caretakers for all of the Ferguson and Langston children, were going, so we asked them to take Grace. I couldn’t go, but I didn’t want Grace to miss it. The events of Friday made me fully aware that I just was not ready to do small talk with strangers yet.
Grace went, and had a wonderful time, and I was very grateful to Sal and Teresa for taking her.
Later that day we were invited to Melissa and Bob’s for a swim party. They had invited only close friends, so I felt I could do it, and knew Grace would have a great time. Melissa’s sister Joy was going to be there with her three girls, as well as Bubba, Rey, and our friends Katie and Jason. I knew Grace would have a ball with Joy’s girls, and I knew all of the adults and felt safe with them. A day in the sun would be an easy trip out of the house.
Melissa and Bob are consummate hosts, and have a gorgeous pool and outdoor space. Breathtaking, even. We had drinks, and lunch, and swam, and hot tubbed, and some folks even napped. Grace played with the girls, but was mainly taken with Jason, who was a total trooper and let her order him around for hours. Oh, and the adults had a chicken fight too, as you do. My combo won, and I can’t lie, I felt pretty damn good about that.
It was a lovely day, and just before dinnertime, Joy gave Grace a beautiful gift. Joy is very close to her sister, and is raising three girls of her own, so knows the importance of sisterhood. In that spirit, she had a beautiful silver ID bracelet made for Grace that had “Grace” on the outside and “Alice” on the inside. I was touched beyond words. As was Grace. On special occasions, Grace gets it out, and puts it on all by herself. She knows it is special.
We were invited to stay for dinner, so we stayed. We ate outside but the fireplace, and played music and just had a really lovely, relaxing time with our friends. It was the most relaxed I had been since Alice had died, and I just cannot thank all of those folks enough for creating that kind of a day for us.
# # #
Monday was my first day back to work, and Grace’s first day back to school, or rather, this week, Spanish Camp. I cannot tell a lie, I was dreading this day. I just was not sure how I would do. It was only 13 days after Alice had died. Going back to work meant going back to “normal” and that felt like a betrayal of her somehow. I know, of course, that is absurd, but the feeling was there nonetheless.
I also was having trouble with small talk, and the reactions of people. Again, the overwhelming majority of folks were more than kind, but it was hard to see their face change when they saw me. I knew that I had become “the woman whose child died.” I knew that would be the first thing that came to people’s minds anytime they saw me now, and maybe for always. It was very clear Alice’s death had drastically altered the public perception of me, of my identity, and that is a whole thing to process in and of itself. I suppose my dread was more related to that, than it was to the work itself.
On the way to Camp, Grace said, “Mama, I am so sad that Alice will never be able to go to Spanish Camp with me. I am sorry that she will not be able to go to the school we made together with me. I am sad she won’t be in the baby class at my school anymore” and on and on. I cried. I said that I was very sad about all of those things too. I could see her studying me, and my reaction, intently.
Still, she seemed excited to get to camp. She continued to list all of the things she missed about Alice, and things she wished Alice could do with her as we walked in. Some parents overheard and cried. Some parents, deep in conversation with each other, stopped mid sentence when they saw us and looked at me with what I could only guess was a look of shock, sadness and pity. Other parents hugged me silently.
It was hard.
No, it was grueling.
I stayed a few minutes to make sure Grace was going to be OK, and she was. I was pretty shocked, I can’t lie. But I was relieved that she seemed OK, and I was very, very proud of her that she was braving a new situation so soon after sister died.
I went off to work. My first client was Janet, and she announced that we would just be walking that day. So, I was getting paid to walk. Janet is perfectly capable of walking on her own, so this was really just a gift. A gift I will forever appreciate, for it allowed me to ease back into work, instead of having to go in and be “on” right away. It also saved me from having to deal with seeing all the people from the studio where we usually work out. I had a few hours off before my big night shift. I rested a bit. It was my first day alone in the house. It was strange to be there alone. In part, I was relived, but in part, I was terrified. I made some audiotapes. I tried to take a nap. I tried to clean. I didn’t get far.
My first big shift back that night went better than anticipated. The owner had contacted me a few days after Alice died to see if I was coming back to work or if she should rent the space. I was a bit shocked, to be honest, but I assured her I was coming back. I was dreading it, but I had to go back. The bills keep coming even when your child dies and your life is ripped apart.
My acupuncture office is inside a Pilates studio and I know all of the teachers pretty well. They all got quiet when I walked in, and most cried. They all hugged me. I got there early in case it was emotional, and I was glad I did. But, once working, I was into it. It was actually a relief to be presented some problems I could solve. “Knee pain? No problem, I know just what to do, and if you do what I say, you’ll be good as new in no time.” “Insomnia, no problem. Neck pain? A breeze.” Here was some shit I could solve, and it was a nice change from the overwhelming problem that I could not solve.
By the end of my shift, however, I was a level of exhausted I did not know could even exist. I was knackered. Just completely wiped out. I could barely move. Simply shutting my eyes seemed like too much exertion. I was very happy I had decided to go back just every other day to start. I would be able to rest on Tuesday.
# # #
I had spent much of that week imagining what Alice would be doing at any given time. While I made breakfast, I would recall her usual routine. I remembered her trying to get her “gogurt” and blueberries out of the fridge by herself. I recalled how she would crack up when I made my protein shake in the blender. She found this hilarious EVERY SINGLE DAY. It never failed to make her laugh. In the weeks before her death, when she was just absolutely attached to me at the hip, she would sit on the counter while I prepared my shake. She would laugh, and place her hand on the device to feel the vibration. She would look at it with a sense of wonder I will never forget.
I recalled how she’d get ready for school, how she would enter the school, how she would greet me at pick up, how she would ask me to sit with her at dinner “Sit, MAMA, SIT!!” I recalled the feel of her chubby thighs, the weight of her head on my shoulder, the smoothness of her skin.
I recalled our nighttime routine. How she would laugh at her books and demand I read the “punch-line pages” again and again. How she would remind me to turn on her star lamp and sound machine. How she would wave at those stars when I sang Twinkle Twinkle to her. How she would rest her head on the blankie on my shoulder and pat my back ever so lightly while I sang to her. How she would put the corner of the blankie in her eye when she was sleepy. How she had just started to say “Wub you, Mama.”
This gutted me.
In those early days, I still went in to her room at her bedtime and sang to her. I rarely made it through the whole song without dissolving into tears, but I felt the need to try just the same. And so I did it through the tears. I was still her Mama, after all.
Although her absence was so painfully obvious in those early days, it was somewhat softened by the extreme changes to our daily routine. In those early days, there was always a guest, or a dinner drop off, or something that deviated from our regular routine. This was a blessing. But it also dialed up for me the fear that I would forget what it was to have her in our life on a daily basis.
This fear was so big, so deep, and so intense, I don’t think I really even realized I harbored it at that time. So, I just went through my day, imagining what Alice would be doing if Alice was here.
But she wasn’t. And she never will be again. I had experienced all the time with her I would ever get.
And this is officially the worst feeling I have ever felt.