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.”
“I don’t know how you are doing this.” It’s a phrase I have heard variations of from so many people. The “this” has changed since this all started, of course, from interviews pleading for help locating our daughter to getting up every morning not knowing, and then to knowing, and still getting up every morning. And then, planning a memorial service and sifting through her belongings, the tiniest shards of her being. Starting a scholarship fund in her memory, and trying to raise funds for it. Writing through my feelings, exposing my heart, on social media and eventually this blog.
I think it might be a common response to grief to turn inwards, to retreat from the world and to protect yourself from the things that might intensify or add to the pain thats already gnawing at you. I have this newfound penchant for incredibly soft socks. I need this extra level of physical comfort surrounding me. I can at least control how my nerve endings feel, not my feelings, but certainly the nerve endings. It’s this innate need to protect and shelter myself, because really, how much pain can one person take? But, I haven’t retreated from the world. I have even been criticized for that, for oversharing. I have continued to speak, even though it feels like I am speaking a whole new language.
I have led hundreds, maybe thousands of yoga classes over the years. It is familiar enough to me at this point that I joke that I could do it in my sleep. After losing Abby, I couldn’t even bring myself to practice. I would break down. Practicing yoga was something she and I shared; it was the language we spoke when nothing else seemed to be getting through to each other. I wasn’t sure if I would ever get on the mat again. But, I was given this really wonderful opportunity to lead a yoga class at an event to raise funds for the scholarship fund. And without knowing if I actually had the grit in me to fight through the sobs and the heartbreak, I said yes to that opportunity.
And this was an EVENT. This venue is top notch, there was an outpouring of donations from community businesses for raffles and silent auctions. It sold out and the reality struck that this community was coming together to hear ME lead them through a practice, a practice of healing. ME, the most broken person I know. I often find myself questioning “damn it, Tressa, what did you get yourself into THIS TIME?!” This was one of those moments. I even gave myself a backup plan and had another yoga teacher at the ready if I simply could not get through it. But, what an opportunity, which is why I always find myself in those situations to begin with. I always tell people in yoga that growth happens when we are “comfortably uncomfortable”. It’s like I have been preparing myself for this time, when I am uncomfortable always; and regularly desperately seeking out my comfy socks.
So, I opened myself up to sharing that practice, again. I was completely honest, again. I was vulnerable, again. I shared my baby steps back to the mat, and with that shared my baby steps toward finding out how to speak this new language that has been thrust upon me. I was comfortably uncomfortable. Uncomfortable baring my grief, but comfortable speaking to others, sharing my story, finding the right words. It feels important to give voice to these huge shifts inside of me, to honor them with words that sometimes cause discomfort.
Grief, sorrow, trauma and pain are key players in so many people’s stories. Since I have lost my daughter, and I guess as a result of that loss, I can not count the number of times people have shared their own pain or loss with me, and it has stunned me that I NEVER knew how many people were experiencing traumas on so many levels. People walking around in pain, but smiling and offering encouragement! All around me, every day. But, I didn’t know. Maybe it was blissful ignorance. Maybe I just wasn’t a very good listener. Maybe we don’t become acutely aware of the need for empathy until it is our very own need. Maybe we have stopped allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, and sharing the messy, uncomfortable things with each other because we are so busy sharing the highlight reels of our lives.
Don’t get me wrong, I love to celebrate. I mean, we even celebrated leap year when it happened (frog themed, don’t ask), and yes, I totally plaster it all over social media. But when there is the hard stuff, the messy, unpleasant, scary, the stuff one prays to never have to deal with, things like tragic death, they so often gets relegated to hushed conversations in corners. These are the stories I want to know, the difficult ones, the ones that people often want to look away from. These are the things that shape and change and transform people. These vulnerabilities, these stories of resiliency and strength and overcoming are the stories that remind us the life is HARD but life is beautiful. These are the stories that liberate us from shame at our own pain and pain response. These are the stories that bind us together as a bunch of broken people, filling in each other’s fractures. The stories survivors tell, as we are all clinging to the same life raft. These are the stories that give people the strength to live out their purpose.
I don’t know if it is the right or wrong way to grieve and to feel, the way I am doing it–by laying my heart open, and exposing all of the feelings, by “oversharing”. But it’s the only way I know, because every time I think “damn it Tressa, what have you gotten yourself into THIS TIME?!”; those are the times that I grow the most. I get myself all comfortably uncomfortable and something changes inside of me. I break apart a little and something new sprouts in the fault line left behind. Maybe someone will be helped from hearing my story. Maybe someone will share their own experience without fear of judgement. Maybe we, as a society can become more empathetic because we become a little more comfortable being uncomfortable. I don’t know, but I know I am not done oversharing. My voice and my story have a purpose. I’m speaking.