For the first time since Abigael died (good God, that will never get easier to think, say, or write) we spent the holidays with our family. Not that they didn’t want to in the previous years—they love us deeply. Their deep love and immense patience is what allowed us to simply retreat into our own cocoon, because these “perfect family togetherness” days were just so damn painful.
And, for the first time since Abigael died, these holidays, you were more likely to find me smiling than weeping. The Christmas memories with Abigael were so abundant and so vivid. And we shared them, collectively. She is so cherished, and in order to know that, to feel that, I had to take the protective walls I had built around those memories down and share her.
We rung in the New Year surrounded by people who love us. People who love Abigael. This is no small feat for a bereaved parent. Ushering in a year that your child will not experience, that she did not live in is an indescribable ache. And when I said “Happy New Year” to those people…I meant it. Not just that I wished for THEM to be happy, but that I could see that, in spite of the harrowing circumstances of my life, happy was still possible.
And I’m proud. I’m proud that I have chosen to relentlessly pursue happy. I’m proud that I have allowed the light and love of others to penetrate my carefully constructed, self-protective armor. I’m proud that I had the courage to shift, pivot and continue to learn.
I changed careers. I repaired relationships. I opened myself up again.
Because despite being broken hearted as a result of loving so deeply and fully, I know, without a doubt, that loving and being broken open by love is better than not allowing yourself to feel—feel it all—joy, disappointment, worry, elation, and fear.
HAPPY new year. May you find so many reasons to open yourself up in new ways to love.
During Abigael’s senior photos, in which I played the very important role of “stuff carrier” and “runner to the car for other stuff” and “oooooer and “ahhhhhhher”, Tina grabbed this shot as I was running back from the car with a very important thing, I’m sure.
I loved seeing this picture then. I thought it felt so symbolic of our evolving relationship. As she was preparing herself to leave our home, head to college, forge her own life, and walk her own path, she was on her own, standing independently. BUT, there I was, in the background, which she didn’t even realize. Without her conscious awareness, I was right behind her cheering for her, encouraging her, caring for her, urging her forward. Shouting with every thought and every prayer for her, in every mundane text or call that we shared “Hey, I LOVE YOU!”. I was just her very own force of love, willing her to live her most authentically beautiful life.
And now. There are days when getting out of my bed feels like a Herculean task, when every single part of me aches, the world feels like a sharp, poky, painful place, and cringe at the idea of having to “people” or “adult”. There are days when I question my ability to take even that single step out of bed. And there’s not much that can take that edge off.
But I think of this picture, except now I imagine our roles reversed. Here I am in the forefront, unsure of where this crazy path called life is taking me. And she is behind me, even though I can’t see her, urging me forward, cheering me on as I try to navigate it all, shouting with each little sign that comes my way “Hey, I still love you”. Pushing me towards seeing the beauty, and with that beauty, having the ability to truly live my most authentic life.
It’s not where I thought I’d be. But I wouldn’t be here without deep, consuming love. I wouldn’t be forced to walk this path of grief if I hadn’t gotten to love her with every ounce of me for 22 years. And love is never, ever wasted.
I still believe in her. I believe that I will feel her point me in the direction of love and light. I know she’s there behind me, just beyond the point where I am aware of her physical presence.
One year ago (before this blog existed) horror stricken from trauma and mired in the depths of my grief, I wrote the entry below on Facebook. One year ago, the air was charged with social and political unrest and neighbors were hurling hateful words across keyboards and screens towards each other. People were uncertain and scared and angry and it seems that we are back here again, or maybe we didn’t ever stop. Maybe we only paused in the face of tragedy.
It’s hard to not let this crazy world harden you. Trust me, I am angry, and hurt, and scared and I have no idea what is right and what is true and what I should believe. And I have every right to be, after the painful injustice of losing my daughter. But, the one thing I know is that Abigael’s legacy—the way she thought of people, and their ability to change the way they walk in this world—should not be lost in Facebook memories.
What if we were able to see past each other’s ideologies and see the bruises, scrapes, cuts and scars to truly SEE our neighbors? To once again, let tragedy (go ahead…pick one, there are plenty in our midst) bind us together? What if we displayed flags that said “Hey, we are in this thing together!” rather than flags that say “F*ck you if you voted for [insert name here]”? What if we could see one another the way that Abigael saw people? What if it truly was about, above all else, love? Love is the answer. I learned that from my daughter.
•8.17.20• Abigael believed that people had an unlimited capacity for love. She recognized that capacity often got covered up by the bumps and bruises that people endured in their humanity. She was aware that those bumps and bruises manifested themselves in very human traits like insecurity, pettiness, ignorance, fear, and anger. She spoke with me often about it, and wanted to to do something about it.
In her tender age, within the past couple of years, she had the desire to help people people peel back the layers of hurt that the bumps and bruises of life created. Ultimately her goal, professionally, personally and spiritually was to give people a safe space to learn more about what caused their love and their light to dim. I believe she would have accomplished that here on Earth on a much larger scale had she been given more time.
In this world that appears to be pervaded with divisiveness and hate and uncertainty, with her loss, entire communities have simply stopped–the sides being taken, the politics, the right/wrong polarity, and they have poured love and light out–into our family, into her friends, into the community, and ultimately, into the world at large.
Community is sort of a big deal to me, and I would like to believe that I, at least in part, passed that on to her. I grew up in a military household and we moved frequently. Though you might not think that lifestyle would not support community, military families know how to take care of each other. I joined a sorority my freshman year of college, because I knew I needed a community of sisters to lean into, after the tight-knit feeling of growing up on a military base. I joined an online parenting group when the internet first started because I craved that community.
When we moved to Chambersburg from Pittsburgh, I found it difficult at first to find MY community. People in this little town have often walked beside each other since they left the maternity ward in their mama’s arms, and those circles are TIGHT. But, our girls have grown up here, and I, of course, managed to find my way and create my place in this town.
And now, I will never view community in the same way. My heart and soul has been immeasurably touched by the community that is walking this walk with me, and my loved ones. I am forever changed. I think I have always been kind, at least I strive to be. But, now I will never be so busy or distracted or uncomfortable that I am unable to be a part of community, whatever that looks like.
The latin root word of community is communis, which at least one translation suggests means shared by many. The community that has chosen to share this piercing pain with me has completely changed me–for the better. I am indebted to everyone walking beside me, in all the ways they are walking– the small, gentle gestures, the respectful silence, the outpouring of gifts, the businesses making our daily lives a tiny bit less challenging, the friends and neighbors simply doing without our asking, the communities from years ago and across the country, all of it.
It is a cosmic irony that Abigael’s passing has allowed so many people to increase their capacity to love and spread light, and it is simultaneously incredibly painful and beautiful to be in the midst of. She knew. She knew humans are better than face value.
One of Abigael’s best friends made and posted this video a couple of days ago, on July 22—one year from the date when, on a normal summer evening, Abigael entered the Willamette River and did not re-emerge.
I love the moments captured on the video—these pieces of her. They are not posed moments in time where she has stopped moving, stopped talking, stopped twirling or singing. They are flashes of her living, alive. It seems impossible that it has been a year since I have heard the melody of her laugh or watched her entire face erupt into a smile. Impossible, because it has felt interminably long sometimes, gritting my teeth and trying to stay upright just long enough to escape to my bed. But also, it feels like I JUST smelled her head and squeezed her—how could a whole year have gone by?
We spent the day in quiet reverence for the year that we survived without Abigael, tucked far into the woods she loved, doing what she loved, together as a family. But, this one year marker shattered me, again. I have spent the past year trying to pick up the pieces left of me and arrange them in some sort of way that felt recognizable and functional.
There have been moments, watching myself and my family navigate this incredibly difficult journey, that I have felt like the concoction of glue that I poured myself into creating—our deep family connection, counseling, support group, writing, close friends, book after book on grief, sharing my experience about loving Abigael—that concoction was working. The rest of my family was surviving. I was surviving. But, the realization that I had experienced Christmas, her birthday, Mother’s Day, her friends’ college graduations, her baby sister’s sweet 16, all without her the glue did not hold. I fell apart. I was taken back to the quiet of the morning hours after the police banged on our door to tell us she was missing. I relived the horror of recognizing that my daughter was dead. I wept and I wailed and I keened. I mourned. And I felt helpless staring at the rubble of pieces that I had carefully tried to put together over the past year.
Shortly after we returned home from Oregon, my best friend took me to a grief support group meeting. I ended up landing in a group of crafters. As we shared our stories, their knitting needles clacked away, they stitched together blankets, crocheted baby hats, created needlepoint and artisan greeting cards. I have none of those skills, but I was content to fumble my way through some feeble attempts. Because I had landed in a group that was so soft, and so warm. A group in which my ugly crying, my anger, my fears, my desolation was not shied away from. After months of meeting, one of the women offered to help me make quilts from Abigael’s clothing.
I didn’t know a single thing about quilts. I always found them so interesting, because they so often have a story to tell. The pattern or the colors or the fabrics. When she said we would make it “together”, it was a daunting thought, as I’m not naturally inclined in crafts beyond puffy painting t-shirts. The first step was to sort through Abigael’s clothing. All of it was unwashed, so it smelled her unique, earthy smell. There were tea and coffee spills on her robe and dirt from sitting on the ground, little holes from hot ashes. The clothes were pieces of her life.
After choosing the fabrics, my job was to take her whole clothes and cut them into uniform squares. It took me weeks to gather up the strength to cut into this fabric that was alive with her—walking in the woods, brewing tea to share with friends, laughing by a campfire. The first cut I made I couldn’t see through the blur of my tears—which might explain why I was so bad at even this basic first step…this sewing stuff is HARD. Taking the clothes from her closet, cutting them into little squares was acknowledging that she wasn’t making any more memories in them; it was a finality.
Next was choosing the fabrics to pair with Abigael’s clothing and as we walked through the process together, I was amazed at the way the fabrics worked together, some of them making the clothing squares stand out in bright contrast, and some almost just melting together at the edges. I thought about the rich, vibrant people in Abigael’s life—those whose arms wrapped her in those clothes, who bumped into her at a party, spilling liquid on her dress. The people that illuminated the nuances of her personality and her journey. Like the fabric surrounding her clothes, they complemented her perfectly, fitting around her edges and blending into the seam of her being.
At that pointed, the project was turned over to the expert, because I couldn’t even cut a straight square. I have known her for less time than Abigael has been gone, but this woman, who has suffered her own unfathomable loss, devoted many, many (I don’t know how many, but a LOT) hours just sewing. With love, sewing the scraps of my daughter’s clothing into an unbelievably beautiful portrait of Abigael.
She told me that as she continued to piece it all together and work with the fabrics, she felt like she got to know Abigael. Before I even saw the quilts—she made THREE, so each of her sisters could have their own,—I loved them. Because in the act of making them, this woman who had never met my bold, colorful, vivacious, infectious daughter felt her spirit, her aliveness so clearly that she brought that life to a new form. A form that is not only beautiful to just sit and admire, but a form to cover me, make me feel safe.
What a gift to be able to take pieces, just scraps really, and create an entirely new, uniquely perfect, refined form for those left behind bits. A beautiful table out of long abandoned barn wood, a mosaic from the shards of someone’s favorite coffee mug, a quilt from the clothing worn by a beloved young woman whose departure from this worl left a swath of broken hearts and broken people.
Learning to live after the death of my daughter feels a lot like this process. Standing back, looking at the pile of pieces, trying to figure out what in the world to DO with all of these pieces which contain her; how to weave them into the fabric of my own incredibly broken life so that what emerges is not a portrait of loss and longing. What comes from the pieces is whole and beautiful. It begs people to stop, to look closer, to see the tiny imperfections and the meticulous work it took to revision those scraps. It is a new way to see beyond the human knowledge of a life to experience an even deeper, more beautiful, significant one.
This has been my experience with grief so far. I was overwhelmed by the futility of the scraps of my daughter’s life. They simply aren’t enough. They do not add up to HER. So I have spent the past year trying to write them, sew them, collect and distribute them, share these pieces of her life, her aliveness, her spirit to create a new way of seeing and knowing my daughter. It is painful, this process of relearning. And sometimes all the pieces I’ve carefully arranged and constructed get swept away in a gust of unexpected emotion and I have to start over, changing the angles and my vantage point and my method.
But I know it is not in vain. Allowing all of the pieces of her to be rearranged in a new way, and being willing to see her beauty in a new light allows her story to continue to be told. It gives me the opportunity to rediscover and redefine my relationship with her. Because it’s not over. Love doesn’t end. Love IS. Abigael is.
The four of us desperately needed a change of scenery. Getting through the daily grind while emotionally struggling is exhausting. So, we snuck away to the beach as soon as the school year ended, as we have done as a family of five for many years.
For so many years, I would carefully make lists, pack games and crafts, travel activities and every snack imaginable, and arrive to our beach house, exhausted, frazzled and frustrated and deeply questioning WHY I would put myself through so much headache and work for the kids to play in a giant sandbox for a week. I recognize now the foundation we were building. By taking that time and pouring that energy into those annual beach trips, our three girls recognized the need for our little party of five to separate from our mundane routine for the sole purpose of being together, united in truly enjoying this world, this gift of life. We were teaching that the moments matter—that first step onto the hot sand, the sun kissed skin, the PBJ’s that taste like magic after playing in the surf, the buckets full of tiny sea critters, the walks down the beach to nowhere.
On this most recent trip, the four of us had some beautiful moments, joyful moments, hilarious moments. We had dance parties, vicious games of Uno, quiet reflective conversations sitting in the surf. We don’t take a single moment for granted. All of those wonderful family moments still occur, just as they did in previous years, only now they are commingled with the grief that still feels raw and consuming. We look like any other laughing, happy family at the beach. We have other beachgoers tell us what a beautiful family we are. And we ARE—we have a deep love and connection and reverence for the importance of family moments. We laugh. We smile. We enjoy the beautiful earth around us and marvel at our existence in it. We really cherish spending time together, even the moments when we bicker and fight because…what would a family vacation be without THAT?!
While we are creating these wonderful memories together, we are acutely aware that these moments don’t include Abigael and that truth hurts. Eventually our stockpile of collected moments will contain more memories without her than with her. All of the happiness, laughter, joy, pride, and love in our family can not ease the knowledge that one is missing in our midst. Four is not five.
We live with the constant presence of absence. And yet, we chase down light, we seek out joy, we carve out time and space to feel less burdened by the mundane. We relentlessly pursue and protect love in our midst. We are broken people in a broken circle, yet somehow we continue to be knitted even more tightly together. I can only attribute that weaving and strengthening to Abigael. Her love for us, and our love for her is a force strong enough to keep us together, even when we feel like we are individually falling apart.
Four is not five; and nothing will ever be the same for us, even vacations. But, perhaps that recognition is another gift from Abigael. Because of her life and her death, the foundation of moments that we built has been fortified so that it will never be diminished. Because of Abigael, her presence and now absence in our lives, we are constantly reminded that moments matter. Life is fleeting and unpredictable and tenuous, and the moments that live on in our hearts are a gift, never to be taken for granted.
This Sunday, the first Sunday in May, is International Bereaved Mother’s Day. Oh wait, you didn’t know? No signs in the store imploring that you “Don’t Forget the Bereaved Mom”; no “Bereaved Mother’s Day” card sections in the Hallmark store (I am not sure Hallmark stores actually still exist, but the point is still valid). I didn’t know it existed, either. It began in 2010, ten years before the death of my beautiful, vivacious daughter. I don’t know exactly how it happened. I know that a woman from Australia, Carly Marie, who suffered the loss of a stillborn son started the movement to ensure that all mothers felt supported and celebrated, whether their children were present to do so or not.
When I first heard of this day, I immediately bristled. My first thought was “I am still a mother. I do not need an alternate Mother’s Day, because I am A MOTHER.” Grief, in its very nature, is isolating. This “special” day would only stand to mark me even further as different. An anomaly. That minuscule chance that the most terrifying, horrific thing that you dare not even imagine, has happened. And observing this day meant acknowledging that I have to live for the rest of my life with a poor substitute for my daughter’s presence in my life. The consolation prize. Sorry….no heartfelt words of love, acknowledgement, appreciation from your daughter…but don’t worry, you get YOUR OWN DAYto remember exactly what you are missing.
But, as Mother’s Day approaches and I find myself dreading the adrenaline it will take to push me through that day, and then the emotional hangover that will certainly follow, as evidenced by every holiday and “first” so far this year, I am understanding this quiet, relatively unknown day for a population of wounded people who will likely mark it in quiet reverence.
With every thing I do, every thought I have, I am loving my daughter. I want to talk about her, still. Just like I talk about my other two daughters. I cry, often. At random times in random places. I have been devastated. I can’t think of a single person that I see with any regularity who hasn’t witnessed my heartbreak. It’s uncomfortable, bearing witness to that depth of pain; watching someone undergo a transformation by the fire of grief. It’s hard to watch.
But, don’t look away. Because if you have a relationship with me now, it is a genuine, honest connection, because I just don’t have room for anything else. Don’t look away. Because maybe from the experience of learning to love my daughter differently, you might be open to learning to love your kids or your friends or your family differently. Don’t look away because people need each other. I imagine the load of my sorrow will eventually change. Not go away. I will grieve the loss of Abigael for the rest of my days. I will always long for her. But in nine months, it has changed. I have changed. And maybe someday, I will be the one to simply be with another human who is figuring out how to bear their own, unique sorrows.
So, a Bereaved Mother’s Day is a day for the vulnerable to wear that vulnerability on their sleeve in hopes that it will spur on compassion. That someone will think to share a memory, to bring a dandelion bouquet, to speak her name, to not look away. That someone will, for a day, for a moment, give you the gift of your child’s life.
In the 271 days since my daughter has been gone, I have been told that my strength was admirable hundreds of times. At first, I was bewildered because I certainly didn’t feel strong. I felt wounded and raw and terrified.
Losing your child means facing down your deepest fear. It breaks down all the walls you’ve built up around you to protect yourself. It means being stripped to a soul level where there is no hiding from the things we most try to avoid—pain and sorrow. It makes you completely and totally vulnerable, the opposite of what is typically lauded as strength.
But I am realizing that those people were right in seeing that strength in me in this most vulnerable time in my life. But that strength isn’t because of my fortitude, like I was uniquely cut out to handle this role of grieving mother. It isn’t because of the things I have done in her honor.
It is love. Love is the single greatest force on earth. Love overcomes even death, because it does not end. My love for my daughter will continue forever and even death can not take that from me. The force of my love for my daughter is what you see when you look at me and see strength. Bereaved parents take the force of their love and they lobby for new laws, they create foundations and become activists. Because love demands action, it demands to be poured out the way you have poured it out since the day your child was born. Love turns loss into a legacy.
We celebrated Abigael’s birthday on April 12, the first one without her here. Taken back through the years from the first moment she was placed into my arms through her childhood years of themed birthday celebrations made me acutely aware of all of the celebrations we would be missing out on—her milestone birthdays like her 30th, the birthdays of her future children. But it also made me realize just how much losing her, and the soul searching and vulnerability that comes with that, has deepened my capacity to feel …everything. Suffering and anguish, but also amazing beauty.
So, when a butterfly lands in my children’s hands or a double rainbow lights up the horizon, the joy and wonder I feel is deep and vibrant and the beauty is felt in every ounce of my being. And in those moments of joy, I feel myself brimming over with the force of love—love that has to go somewhere, that has to do something, that has to be expressed and poured out.
So when you look at me and you see strength, I guess you are right. I have been stripped down to my most vulnerable self, and it is in this state of complete brokenness that the most powerful force on the planet has been able to move through me in a way I didn’t know I was capable of. It is love—transformative love. And our love will never die. Ever.
I didn’t know I was lost until I lost my daughter.
If someone had asked me one year ago how I was doing, I would have confidently replied that I was “FINE!”. All three of my daughters were under my roof, the five of us living, interacting, loving and learning together as a family. We were healthy and whole. My husband and I both have fulfilling professional lives. Living the American Dream. I was teaching yoga, for heavens sake! What says balance and stability more than a yoga instructor?!
The truth is that I was FINE—that glossed over, laminate shell of a word. Working, paying bills, shuttling kids from point A to point B, showing up for my obligations, making grocery lists, girls night with friends every so often, trying to squeeze in family time. But it was FINE. I was FINE. We were all healthy and even though we dealt with a lot of complex dynamics within our family, let downs and setbacks of varying degrees, all the boxes were getting ticked. Fine it was.
Abigael was staying with us to save up money for her next adventures, traveling to New Mexico to live and work on a farm, learning about propagating plans. From there she planned to travel to Costa Rica again. Covid-19 threw a wrench in her international plans, but she kept the adventure going by returning to the west coast, without any sort of real plan.
During that time when she was home, a regular discussion and source of tension was our discomfort with her lack of a plan for her future. She had lots of big ideas—permaculture farming, raw, vegan food to crossover to mainstream culture, Ayurvedic menu planning, plant based cosmetics, sacred circles of women learning and sharing together, creating a space for people to peel back the layers of protection they built around themselves to deal with the bumps and bruises of being human. But, as her parents, her big ideas sounded less stable than simply finishing her schooling, and getting a job—that traditional, less winding path to grown up-ness. After a particularly frustrating conversation in our kitchen (where 99 percent of our family discussions occur), I remember feeling very stung by Abigael exclaiming “I don’t want your life! I don’t want my life to look anything like yours! You’re trapped! You’re miserable! Work to pay your bills and that’s IT?! No thanks. There’s so much else. I don’t want what you have.” She didn’t want fine.
We were at a point in our lives where the exuberant idealism we embraced in our younger years had been replaced, out of necessity, by pragmatic “resultism”. Instead of wanting to change the world, we were complacent in maintaining the results needed to manage our micro world. But it hurt that Abigael perceived our middle class life as so repugnant. We both apologized later for the hurtful words slung around that kitchen. And I believed someday, she and I would be in her kitchen, maybe with a couple of her own children running around and she would be deciding between a minivan or a small SUV and we would chuckle at those sort of moments.
But, it stuck with me, just there in the back of my head, gnawing at me during the long stretches of isolation that came with Covid-19. What did she see that I couldn’t? When she looked at the veneer of my carefully planned and executed life, what cracks did she notice? What was missing that made the state of my life repel her?
And then, she died. And it was so sudden, so tragic, so unexpected. In that moment, everything changed. My beautiful, perfectly imperfect family was broken. And I was completely shattered.
In the days and weeks immediately following her death, everything was unrecognizable. I would get lost driving to the store I have been going to for 15 years. My body, flexible and pliable from almost 20 years of yoga, suddenly felt like it was made of glass and the smallest of stretches or reaches would hurt and fatigue me. Reading, practicing yoga, cooking—activities that I used to enjoy weren’t possible anymore. The words on a page would swim around and my eyes couldn’t focus. I burnt rice, repeatedly. And I simply couldn’t move my body except to put one foot in front of the other. I didn’t know who my friends were that could handle, and would even want to handle this new unraveled, unfiltered, raw Tressa.
I felt completely bewildered in this foreign place. I went from being FINE to being in pieces. I remember a moment trying to take an address from an email (that took me 20 minutes to find) to the Maps app on my phone. Somehow, in the chaos of my life, all my apps had been moved around on my phone and the Maps app had simply disappeared. I sat and wept, realizing the metaphor it was for my life.
I never did get to my destination that day. But in the days to come, I realized I could simply install the Maps app again. I could find my way to the places I wanted to go.
I started writing. Sometimes just a word, or a phrase, or a quote. Then those one or two words started forming into sentences and paragraphs and this broad, deep exploration occurred with every emotion I excavated, every memory that I was able to hold close, examine and extrapolate a little nugget of truth or wisdom from.
I started walking, regularly. One foot in front of the other. Sometimes I would rail against the inequity of my loss. Sometimes I would let the breeze be my only companion, hearing Abigael’s voice running through my head. I cried, a lot, on those walks. I had people that I couldn’t have expected join me on those walks, one foot in front of the other, with no expectations, just letting me decide the direction to take.
Those walks gave me the strength to start practicing yoga again. I had to start from the very beginning, completely relearning the topography of myself—physically and emotionally. Last weekend, as my family milled about the kitchen, looking for breakfast, planning out errands and schedules, I walked into my room, locked the door and got on my mat. I was sitting in contemplation after my practice when I realized that in almost 20 years of yoga, that was the first time I had done that. The first time I had protected time that I craved, that I needed, that was all mine, selfishly. And I didn’t feel guilty about it. I felt empowered.
It was during that practice that I had the thought “I didn’t know I was lost until I lost her”. I realized that what Abigael saw in my life that she simply couldn’t accept was the lack of seeking. I had grown so comfortable with the recognizable manageability of my life that the fire of craving more—more authenticity, more depth, more love, more adventure, more knowledge, more of what truly makes me ALIVE—had burnt down to embers. Abigael, in her youthful idealism, had the wisdom to see the hollowness and complacency that had made its home in me.
I have deep connections with those I love and those relationships help to make me who I am. They became the whole of my identity. I had worked so hard and extended myself so much to cover others with what they needed that my time with and for myself was an afterthought. It was something I apologized for and felt guilty about. And it happened so slowly, over time and with more kids and more responsibilities that I didn’t recognize what was happening. I didn’t know my fire was slowly going out. I didn’t know I was lost. That I needed to find my way back to Tressa again.
When my daughter died, it completely shattered my sense of identity. The story I had been telling myself about who I was, even though it wasn’t a conscious narrative, was completely upended. In its place an emptiness, an abyss was left, an Abigael shaped abyss that simply was unable to be filled by what I wanted—and that was her.
So here I am, at 45 years old, finding myself, stoking that fire of craving. Seeking. Searching. Greedily carving space to peel back my own layers, to explore this new landscape—a world my daughter doesn’t live in. I can’t have my daughter back. But I can find purpose and meaning in this life in the years that she will not be here with me. I can seek out beauty—in the natural world, in other people, in poignant moments and in the gifts that Abigael has given me. Even this final gift of rebuilding from the shattered mess, a nudge from her, from somewhere. I could cry and wail and gnash my teeth at the pain of missing her for my whole life. Or I can let the jagged edges of the pain make me uncomfortable enough to seek more. More understanding, more compassion, more love. I can demand more than FINE for myself. She changed my identity when she came into this world. She changed it again when that river took her from my world.
It’s up to me to stoke my newly rekindled fire and determine the directions. I’m charting my own map, and I don’t know where it will take me, but I know, without question, that what I have learned from Abigael’s too short years is that I won’t lose myself on the journey. I will do the work to go beyond fine.
Abigael was intensely focused on and passionate about food—they way it was grown, produced, prepared, eaten and then processed in the body. Our text messages are filled with photos of food we had each crafted, questions and tips for each other, and of course, plenty of admonishments from her about my use of products with GMO’s, or from the dreaded Monsanto. I loved seeing how she would light up as she educated me, especially on vegan fare. Her pleasure at putting together a meal that she was proud of was palpable and contagious.
She had always enjoyed and admired the way that I cooked. But, it was when she struck out on her and was forced to cultivate her own culinary experiences that the change from passive consumer to passionate creator occurred. In one of our many conversations centered around food, she squealed with delight, gave herself a little hug and exclaimed that “the alchemy of food is just fascinating”!
While I found her excitement endearing, I didn’t pay much attention to the framework of alchemy that she referred to. Since she died, I have had to sort through her possessions and I discovered the last book I bought her, before her last flight from our home, “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho. It was a bit tattered, the cover torn off, pages written on and marked by folded down corners. It obviously was an impactful book for her, as I had hoped it would be.
These discoveries, windows into her inner most workings, affect me in such a powerful way. It is simultaneously a beautiful gift and a painful reminder to see the bits and pieces that marked significant points in her transformation. She died at 22 years old, an age of such enormous growth and change, and she never backed away from the often uncomfortable, or downright painful process of transforming. She allowed herself to be consumed by each experience, like moving across the country with no other plan than to learn by living; and then would emerge with new insight and wisdom, evolving into her most true self, with each decision to follow her heart on her own unique journey.
“When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he has never dreamed of when he first made the decision.”
Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
And I have no doubt that her journey didn’t end when the current pulled her under those cold waters. But her earthly ending marked the beginning of a new journey for me. For the first time since Abigael had been placed in my arms, I felt completely paralyzed. I KNEW how to be a mother, because over 22 years and three children, I stood in the flames of experience, being purified by the learning, to emerge better and stronger. But, I knew nothing about being bereaved.
I remember thinking at various points in my 22 years of parenting that if anything ever happened to one of my children, I would simply shrivel up and blow away, dust in the wind. I would read stories on social media or the news about families enduring tragedies that I thought would end me. Yet, here I am. It has been 6 months since Abigael drowned in the Willamette River. And I am still here.
This grief is still so fresh and so raw. The flames of it sometimes are flickering around my ankles, a low steady burn. And sometimes the flames are an inferno, completely engulfing me, roaring in my ears and blinding me with the pain. But, the flames of grief and sorrow have not ceased since that fateful day.
An alchemist, loosely defined, aims to transform the ordinary into something into a superior form, often by the use of heat. There is no denying that the magic of alchemy that Abigael admired in her life continues on through her death. The alchemy of grief has changed the very landscape of my soul.
I walk with another bereaved mother, and I was trying to find the right words to explain specifically WHY the holidays were so hard for me, when she stopped me and said “I get it. Once you experience that sort of loss, it’s like all of a sudden you see everything so clearly. Everything is the same for everyone, except you. Because you are not the same.” I am not the same. And part of that change means I have less energy to socialize, or that I’m sad or withdrawn at times when I would normally be my exuberant, cheery self. Part of that change demands that I spend more time on introspection and reflection. That change means less patience for the irrelevant and frivolous pursuits that used to demand my attention.
As much as this transformation hurts, I know that there is no way through this process except THROUGH it. So as I allow myself to feel the anguish and heartbreak of dreams that will be unfulfilled, I am also allowing myself to seek purpose in loss and love. Material needs weave in and out of fashion, and surviving a traumatic loss has defined for me what is truly essential to my happiness. I have such a renewed reverence for the gift of love, and what it takes to nurture that gift, keeping it alive and well. Never again will I take for granted the moments—small and large—that are shared in love. Preparing a meal together, an inconvenient traffic jam that brings about an impromptu jam session, quiet conversations in the car, handwritten notes, looking someone in the eyes as they speak.
“When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.”
Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
The alchemy of grief has changed me in the most profound of ways. I know with every fiber of my being that the love that Abigael and I share is not dead. Even though her physical presence is gone, love and life go on, and that love is manifesting in ways I could not have imagined. The beauty that my eyes are now open to is overwhelming and just as consuming as the pain of missing her. In the face of loss, the alchemy is that my capacity for love has not diminished, but has been magnified.
The love between the two of us was life-changing for me, as it is for most parents. And how fortunate I am to have had the gift of reveling in that love for 22 years. A love with that much power doesn’t simply fade away. It demands to still be acted on. So I stand in the flames of grief, and I allow them to morph and transform that love into something new to pour out into the world. Love that multiplies, wild and unfettered. Love that changes people, that gives them courage to truly chase down their dreams. Because life is scary and hard and unpredictable and heartbreaking. But love, love is worth it all.
“This is what we call love. When you are loved, you can do anything in creation. When you are loved, there’s no need at all to understand what’s happening, because everything happens within you.”
Abigael had this unique little habit that just always made me smile inwardly, at minimum. Often it would make me grin widely, maybe even giggle. When she would get really, really excited about something she would wrap her arms around herself, giving herself the tighest squeeze, ears all the way up to her shoulders, and cheeks rosy little apples. I found it so endearing to see her enthusiasm and zest for life bubble over to the point that she just needed to hug those good vibes and savor that feeling. She did that her whole life. Not something she was taught, just her own little funny quirk.
I realized that I don’t think I ever told her how happy it made me to see her hug herself out of sheer amazement at the beauty in the world. How much I loved her happy Ab to Ab hug. I wish I would have told her how her innate reaction made me feel more buoyant, more open, more free to seek out the things that made me feel like bubbling over with joy. It was just one of the countless unique Ab behaviors that were as recognizable to me as my own hand.
I regret not pointing out to her that thing I loved about her. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not beating myself up over that. But, thinking about how she would have laughed as I told her how cute she was when she hugged herself makes me regret not vocalizing it.
We need more people in this world who are so present in the moment, and who honestly don’t care if they look cool or not, because they’re just too busy spontaneously being thrilled by this crazy life, that they simply must hug themselves.
As I have said, regret is not an emotion to tamp down to fester and grow into guilt. Regret allows me to adjust and change.
So, this week, as I struggle through grief, anxiety and the irritability that accompanies it, I’m going to try something new. In unexpected moments, I’m going to share with people that I care about something I love about them—some little tiny behavior that is uniquely their own, one they may not even be aware of.
I don’t know….what would the world look like if there were more people pointing out our unique, intricate habits and behaviors that make us individuals? Would we start walking taller, less afraid of showing our authentic selves? Would those affirmations snowball so that more people were told all the little quirks and nuances that made them unique, beautiful individuals?
Thanks Ab, for continuing to guide me towards being better, doing better, spreading better around. Now, as my coffee brews, I’m going to give myself a big hug. ⬇️ (this pic is not her hugging herself, but it still makes me grin.)