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.
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.)
We have all experienced loss this year. Loss of a loved one, a friendship, a normal routine, a business, the traditions and rituals that connect us, the list could go on and on. With loss comes grief.
Though we are all experiencing varying degrees of grief, it is collective and it is real.
In the 142 days I have been grieving Abigael, I have gleaned lessons that I simply had no access to prior to losing her. I had never experienced a loss that left me reeling and unsure of how to make sense of the world. A world that is no longer predictable or normal.
I anticipated that “special” days like holidays, the 22nd of each month, my birthday would be especially hard. So I steeled myself for them. I would mentally prepare myself with how I would get through those days. I would grit my teeth, let the adrenaline flow and get through them, with no more tears than a typical Tuesday (I cry every single day). I would climb into bed feeling relieved that a hurdle had been cleared.
BUT THEN, the next several days I experienced the worst completely unexpected emotional abyss. The desperation, pain, anxiety and despair set in with a ferocity that was almost insurmountable. An intense emotional hangover.
Those days, I still needed groceries or gas or to take my kids to appointments. Retiring to my bed is not an option for me. So I had to put myself out in the world. And the world would often respond in harsh ways. Emphatic middle fingers or horns as someone passed me because I hadn’t realized I was driving slow or was sitting at a red light, impatient shoppers muttering curses that I absolutely heard because I was bewildered trying to scan groceries.
Of course, these were tempered by the unbelievable love and kindness that rained on me. And these things sustained me, gave me the strength needed to wake up again to the enormous realization that my daughter was dead. Still. Again. Every morning. And I still had to walk through it.
And I am. So I share these feelings with the whole wide cyber world as a reminder. You never know what’s going on with other people. How many times have you laid on your horn and zoomed around someone driving 15 in a 45? Who knows what is happening with that driver? Did he just leave his Covid positive wife in the hospital? Close the doors to a business he spent his life building? Lose a child?
We are, as a community and a society, experiencing so much collective loss. Let’s try to soften the blows for each other. Let’s practice a little more grace, let’s practice a little more compassion, let’s listen more, let’s insult less, be patient, let’s be more kind. We can’t do much about the prickly, heated, uncertain, downright scary sometimes world we live in. We can choose how to BE in it.
September 22, 2020, the Autumnal Equinox, a day that marks the changing of the seasons; the abundance of summer being ushered out to make room for the season about changing, letting go and ultimately of natural endings, was the day of my 22 year old daughter’s memorial service. It was the most perfectly beautiful, crystalline fall day. Once Abigael’s body was found, I had the crushing realization that planning a memorial service for her was IT for me. There would be no wedding, or surprise birthday parties, or any parties or baby showers to be a part of. And so, I obsessed over the details of the day–the flowers, the guest book, the Covid-friendly bites being offered, the collection of photographs and mementos of her too short life, the music, all of it. As I painstakingly chose each detail, I asked myself “would Abigael like this”?
Right before the service, Garth and I were talking to the pastor who was officiating. We were steadying ourselves for what we were about to experience. Call it a memorial service, call it a celebration of life, call it a funeral. Nonetheless, it was marking a painful ending for us. All of a sudden, the owner of the venue came into the room explaining that an anonymous person had just dropped off a large box of painted rocks, and she handed me a letter. The artist wrote:
After reading Abigael’s obituary, I was so moved, I felt compelled to make these memory rocks. I did not have the pleasure of meeting Abigael. But your words spoke to me. I’ve tried to paint reflections of her life for others to share.
Thank you, a mom
In the days that followed the service, many friends sent me photos of the rock that they chose, and I was astonished! I was amazed at the sheer number of them; there had to have been hundreds, and at the detail and the beauty of these rocks. They were infused with memories from the social media posts I had shared about my daughter. This was an incredibly special gift, and a beautiful detail I had never considered could be such an impactful part of her service.
I wonder about the artist of these rocks. Has she done this sort of thing before? If the answer is yes, I would really like to meet and learn from this individual. How has she been so in tune with the heartbreak and suffering that happens around her? How has she been so dedicated to serving others (strangers, even!) by sharing her own unique gift? Have I been so wrapped up in being busy that I just haven’t seen? If the answer is no, I would really like to meet and learn from this individual. What sort of courage does it take to move beyond simply feeling sad for a tragic situation and making the conscious decision to use your unique gifts to serve someone in pain, in need? How much time and energy–our most valuable gifts–had she poured into this hurting family and community?
When was the last time I felt so moved that I decided to ACT, to do something motivated purely by love? Don’t get me wrong, in the “before” time, I did good things. I volunteered, I donated, I signed up to bring people meals, I always told people to have a wonderful day, and I meant it. But, when was the last time that I truly let LOVE shine through me? That I used my own unique gift to make some tiny little corner of this world a better place? Not when it was convenient or easy or expected, but because love for humanity was just so compelling.
Abigael would have loved that box of rocks. She would have loved the synchronicity and spontaneity of it appearing at the service. She would have loved her friends and family holding onto a beautiful piece of earth and thinking of her. She would have loved me grappling with the notion that maybe, just maybe, I have more to give.
The symbolism of rocks causing ripples is not lost on me. These rocks, and the life of my daughter who inspired them, have the ability to cause ripples. What if they cause just one person, or maybe two people, or maybe even two hundred people to, at least once in their life, figuratively paint their own box of rocks?