My husband and I recently had the opportunity to spend a weekend at Faith’s Lodge, a retreat center for grieving parents in northern Wisconsin. We had been desperately awaiting this weekend for months. We were craving the chance to surround ourselves with nature and devote time to healing, without the distractions that daily life places in front of us.
I used to be the type of person who thrived on a full schedule, who took pride in her myriad of obligations, who sought out “busy”. I felt important when constantly buzzing from one thing to the next. I enjoyed the adrenaline rush of being elbows-deep in many projects at once. But these tendencies came to a screeching halt after our daughter’s death, and I am that person no longer.
I long to feel whole again. I long to feel unencumbered by grief and pain. I long to feel bright and shiny and full of joy. The kind of joy that doesn’t require permission or have to be qualified. The kind of joy that is unaccompanied by guilt or confusion. The kind of joy that reaches every inch of your soul and is written all over your face.
My life before Willow was beautifully uneventful. Big milestones in my circle tended to be positive, ordinary ones - weddings and births and graduations. Any memoir of my life would have been a rather boring one. But everything I had ever known went up in flames when I watched my daughter die in my arms, and for the first time, I feel like someone with a story to tell.
On our baby girl’s first birthday one month ago, we felt like we had made it. We had survived the first year of life after loss, certainly no simple feat. Somehow we had found a way to breathe through our first summer, fall, winter, spring, our first holidays, birthdays, wedding anniversary, and all the ordinary days in between, without her. We thought the fog would surely lift, that we had escaped the suffocating clutch of early grief.
Shortly after Willow’s death, Andrew and I spoke to a therapist who specialized in child loss. I will never forget what she described to us regarding one’s mental state after trauma. She alleged that those in the midst of trauma experience a cognitive slowdown. She warned that we would likely find ourselves forgetting things, making mistakes, and generally not thinking clearly. Suddenly I understood why I had been experiencing such fogginess, why my brain couldn’t quite keep up.
I have glanced at my own reflection countless times since my daughter’s death just over a year ago. I am sure most people check their appearance at least daily. But how often do you really study your own face? How often do you stare into the mirror and take in each feature, one by one? Imagine doing this and not recognizing the person staring back at you.
To all of the broken souls who are reading this, the most important thing I can say to you is this. You don’t have to be strong. I wish someone had said this to me. Sometimes it is uplifting when people share their admiration for the strength they perceive, and it can serve as a reminder that you can survive whatever lies ahead. But when you are feeling the weakest, hearing people say you are strong can feel more like pressure than support, despite their loving intentions.