Image credit to Mary Stephan Photography
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. This was my experience in the early months after losing my daughter. I would catch my reflection in the mirror and wonder, who is she? How did she get here? I would note the pain in her eyes and the way her lips turned down at the corners. The way her skin appeared dull and beyond her years. Her green eyes were lifeless and tired, underlined by dark rings. They no longer sparkled or lit up her face. She didn't always look like this. No, I could remember when she was bright and shiny, vibrant and full of life. This transformation was the result of a grief so deep it had taken a physical toll, even on my face. I didn’t recognize this person I had become.
One day, as I studied this foreign face, a second reflection appeared in the mirror next to my own. It was a man. A man who seemed familiar and yet unrecognizable. He, too, had new lines on his face and the physical evidence of a painful history. Hints of grey peppered his hair and beard. His eyes were bloodshot, his skin pallid. This man was my husband. The man I have loved for over a decade, who put a promise ring on my finger when I was only seventeen. The man who introduced me to cheesy humor and crunchy peanut butter, who could handily crush anyone in a Saved by the Bell trivia contest. The man who wrote the most beautiful wedding vows I have ever heard and delivered them with tears rolling down his face.
Personal growth is imminent over the course of a relationship. You wouldn’t expect your partner of many years to be the same person he was when you first met. We are human. We evolve, grow, change, adapt. Who we become is a result of the people with whom we have surrounded ourselves, the knowledge and experiences we have acquired, the events, objects, skills that claim space in our lives, the choices we have made that have led us to the present moment. But in moments of tragedy, we find ourselves transformed on a much swifter timeline than typical growth requires. We are left to pick up the broken pieces of our former selves, to carefully craft together a mosaic of what remains. It is a deeply intimate and personal process. You must come to rediscover who you are in this unpredictable, unfamiliar world. You must build a relationship with this new you and invest real, quality time in discovering who you are in this life after loss. You may just find that your truest self is revealed.
And meanwhile, your partner is doing the same. Two people, each remarkably different than they were the day before their child died, each rediscovering their new identities in this after, while also navigating a marriage with someone who feels much like a stranger. It is no simple task and certainly no mystery why relationships are known to crumble following a life-altering event. On the hardest days, there are hurt feelings and defensive words, often followed by deafening silence. Then apologies, tears, an embrace, and a mutual understanding that grief too often gets the best of us.
I want to make this abundantly clear. The relationship I share with my husband has a strong foundation - one based in mutual respect, built on genuine friendship, and adorned with profound love for one another. And so, in the year since our daughter died, we have been caught off guard by how alarmingly difficult it has become to nurture our marriage. But we remind ourselves that we vowed to love each other “for better or worse”, a phrase we have come to learn is not just weightless words proclaimed on wedding days. It is a choice. No one expects to wind up here, in a life that feels foreign and with a reflection that appears a stranger. But for us, “for better or worse” is a commitment to dig deep, to reconnect with the love we have shared for years, even when life has thrown us drastically off course.
As I studied our reflections in the mirror today, I noticed it. The familiar scar on his forehead, evidence of his rough-and-tumble childhood with two brothers. And there in my left eye, the fleck of brown in a sea of green. It has been there for as long as I can remember. So despite this newness, this journey of self discovery, this brokenness we bear, it is us after all. And it shall be us, for better or worse, for always.