There are some occasions etched into your memory forever. Moments in time that can never be changed or forgotten. They create a “before this” and “after this” effect. It brings a new normal to adjust to and a sense of deep grief; mourning the loss of the life you once knew. For me, this time of year is filled with these instances. A few weeks brought, many times, incidents that broke me to my very core.
This time of year brings the birth and death of my first daughter, Shannon. She lived for 3 beautiful days. It also brings the day I found out I had cancer and the events leading up to it. It carries my husband and I’s birthday and the fateful news that happened on those days. Then there was the day a doctor walked in my room to tell me my cancer had spread through my body and she would try and save my life. There is also my first chemo and the horrible side effects it brought. It’s filled to the brim with love, tragedy, suffering and slivers of hope.
Have you ever cried so hard that your eyes swelled shut? You know, that ugly cry that Hollywood never seems to be able to get just right. The cry makes your eyes so dry yet are constantly filled with tears. You cry so much that you can’t even imagine how you have any tears left to cry? The gentle skin below your eye because so sensitive to wiping that the tears burn as they flow. I can still feel that cry. I feel it on January 17th, when I remember my husband calling me to tell me my daughter would not live. I feel it on January 19th, when remembering how I held and kissed my daughter for the first and last time. I feel it on January 24th, when I remember looking at my beautiful baby girl in her casket as it was closed and buried deep in the cold snow covered ground. I feel it on January 22nd, when remembering my breast biopsy and the doctor telling me I likely had cancer. I feel it on January 25th, when I remember the call I received, on my husband’s birthday, telling me I had cancer. I feel it on January 27th, my birthday, when I had a double radical mastectomy in efforts to prolong my life. Then again on February 7th, a doctor walked into my hospital room to tell me that the cancer had spread through my body and that my prognosis was grim. I feel it on the days in between all those; recalling the “before this” and “after this” moments as every single memory and every emotion floods my brain like a tsunami. Not matter what I do, what I try to do, those feelings find me and escape the space in my head that I try to keep them suppressed every other month of the year. It’s been 12 years since my daughter was born and subsequently died. It’s been 6 years since I went in for breast examination that lead to a biopsy and then my diagnosis of breast cancer and told I likely wouldn’t live 18-24 months. And it’s been 3 years since I chose to have both breasts removed in an effort to live as long as I can. Although each situation different, there is one thing in common: grief.
Grief is a deep sorrow from loss, disappointment or other misfortune. I grieve the daughter I will never know. I grieve the fact that I have terminal cancer. I grieve not having breasts. I grieve my life before all of these things and I grieve normalcy, whatever that may look like. Grief isn’t just reserved for those that have loved and lost. Grief is an emotional response and it also has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, cultural, spiritual and philosophical dimensions. I compare grief to the ocean; the ocean is so vast, wide and deep. It is filled with beauty and danger. There is light and dark. It hasn’t even all been explored and we can all see and experience the ocean differently. Such is grief- vast and wide, frightening yet beautiful, brimming with light and dark, not completely understood and always experienced differently. Grief is the one thing that all humans have in common yet the one thing we criticize each other for quite often.
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I will never forget sitting in my family room, a couple days after my breast biopsy with an acquaintance that came to visit. It was only a few days after Shannon’s 6th birthday and the first time she had been at my house. She looked around and said to me “Aren’t you over Shannon’s death yet? You have stuff for her all over your house.” I felt a huge lump in my throat and didn’t even know how to answer. The only things I had out that people to see what a beautiful pencil sketch of Shannon and ladybug décor that reminded me of her. I started questioning myself after she left. Is this too much? Should I take everything down? Should I be “over this”? Am I not supposed to talk about it now? Am I not doing this right? When was this grief supposed to end then?
I have been asked that question a handful of other times and I know it is whispered behind my back. I am not quite sure what makes people think they can ask that. There is this pressure these people put on others to hurry up and be over whatever they may be grieving and yet they themselves know what grief feels like. My grief today isn’t as raw as it was in those first few days, months and early years but it’s definitely still here. I have learned, not even to cope, but to weave that grief into my every day life. I typically can keep all these emotions in check the other 11 months out of the year; but, for this one month, every year, unchecked feelings and tears still flow. I can’t help but relive these moments because they are literally, scientifically and unequivocally engrained into my very being. No amount of coping, therapy or ‘getting over it’ will stop it from existing in my life. It is a part of me. And the funny part is that you are the same way- maybe you grieve over the loss of a loved one, an accident, an illness, a surgery or a life altering event. And maybe every year around the time of this occurrence, you remember back, and your heart is sad or secret tears stream down your face. This grief is also now apart of you. Even God mourned his Son. Jesus wept. The disciples grieved their Savior’s death. God blesses those who mourn (Matthew 5:4). We all grieve.
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I mentioned above that I also feel love and hope amidst all of this grief around this time of year. And the truth is, I have felt tremendous love and hope in every one of these situations. Grief gets to also remind me of that. It brings me back to it each year and wraps me in affection and grounds me in faith. I don’t have many tangible items from the daughter I have never watched grow and memories fade; as I start to forget small details of her face or the way she smelled or how her skin felt on my lips. One thing I can never forget, however, is the love I felt and still feel for her. Even while I still remember the feeling of utter despair after my diagnosis, the grief that surrounds me now grounds me in faith. It reminds me of all I have been through and points out that my success rate of getting back up is 100%. So even though my grief to you may looks drawn out or over dramatized- to me, it is a token of all I have been through and gives me the strength and courage I need to face each new day.
Let’s stop trying to put a timeline on grief. Embrace it. Wear your grief like a battle scar; one that will remind you of where you have been, what you have faced, and what didn’t kill you even though you thought it would. Let it emphasize your strengths and weaknesses. Relish in all that it brings, friends. And never, ever, ever be afraid to feel it.