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.)
I am forever shaped by the tragedies of 2020. I am changed by the staggering amount of pain and anguish that I was forced to confront head-on.
I have been transformed by not having to face any of it alone. The force of love behind my family this year is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It is so, so beautiful.
I have been given such a gift of relationships. Relationships with unlikely friends who have stepped into the void to hold me up or let me crumble or let me just be ME. Relationships with family took that word and put it into action. Relationships with Abigael’s inner circle, who let me continue to know her. Relationships with a community that I feel so embraced by. My loves—my husband and my children—my vision of their intrinsic value will never be blurred again by the chaos of the mundane.
And now I am beginning a year that Abigael is not in this world. I will not make any memories with my daughter this year.
That realization sucks. It hurts. And it’s not happy or good or merry or bright.
But I know I will survive it. There is no easy way through this season of firsts. But I know I will not be forced to bear it alone.
I continue to learn and grow from being Abby’s mom. Now I know that life is hard and screwed up and terrifying and painful. But now I know I am loved so much that others are willing to try, in any way possible, to bear some of my burden for me. I know that love is the only force stronger than death. I will never stop loving and missing and lamenting Abigael’s physical presence.
But, I feel like she gave me this gift. This gift of a quilt of love that is continually wrapped tight around me, made of the fabric of those in my life that she led to me in my darkest hour. And when it starts to slip down, and I sit shivering, somehow that quilt gets settled around me again.
I will not squander this gift from her. It’s all I have left. The love. The light.
And maybe, that’s all we really have. We have no control over our circumstances. Really, all we have are the people, the relationships that we cling to. We all embark on strange, new, often frightening journeys. Maybe what is defining about those journeys are who we took them with.