Fixing Grief

It’s been 14 months and 3 days since my daughter died. Her 28th birthday is tomorrow. They say the first of anything is the hardest. I disagree. Sarah’s 27th birthday was only nine weeks after she died. Nothing seemed real those first few months. There have been a lot of firsts in the last year: The first of my son’s birthdays without his sister (just 2.5 weeks later), the first of her birthdays, the first Mother’s Day, the first Easter, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Summer, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, my birthday, Christmas, New Year…

The first anniversary of her death was by far the hardest and luckily, I’ll never have that first again. This second birthday without her though… it’s just so damn final. She still doesn’t answer when I call, and she still doesn’t respond to my texts. Yes, I really do still message and call her. She’s really gone. She really isn’t coming back.         

There is no “fixing” grief. People try so hard to get me to move on. They say nice things, they say meaningful things, they sometimes say insensitive things; for the most part, they truly are trying to be helpful. These people love me, but they don’t understand. I can only hope they’ll never understand. Understanding would mean their baby died too.

Someone extremely close to me said something to the effect of, “I don’t think you’re where you should be in grief. I just don’t understand.” Her words came out of love for me, I knew this. Instead of being compassionate with her at the time, I felt nothing but rage. I just wanted to scream, “There is not a 12-step grief program that will heal me!” The truth is nothing can heal me. I am not the same person I was fourteen months ago. How can I be?

Grief changes everything. I look different. Wrinkles are more pronounced, hair is greyer, I’ve lost weight, even my boobs are smaller. The change is far greater than just my looks. I feel different. There is always a heaviness in the background. The heaviness changes, it gets lighter, but it’s never gone. The panic attacks are fewer, down to about one every 5-10 days instead of daily or a few times daily. I’m finally at the point where I don’t feel guilt every time I smile or laugh.

My bullshit meter is on high alert. There are people I simply can’t be bothered to have a relationship with. Sometimes I bite my tongue. Other times I can’t devote energy into using a verbal filter. You’re not comfortable with my tears? Darn. You don’t like how I choose to deal with grief? Cool. You’d do it differently if your kid died? Super. Oh, your cat died and that was devastating? Awesome. Fuck off.

I’ve always been able to find the best in anyone. Truly. I still can – but only if I care enough to look deeper. Usually though, I just don’t. The thing is, there are all kinds of grief. I know this. I can’t even fathom my mother dying, yet I know at some point even she will go, and that too will be gutting and eternally life altering. We grieve all kinds of loss. A parent, a spouse, a sibling, a pet, a job, etc. I don’t want to wear this pain as a badge of honor, but there are times I simply can’t put on the fake smile to make you feel better about my loss. And that’s what it is, really; making other people feel better. People look at me differently. They walk on eggshells. They don’t mention her name because it may bring up hard emotions or memories. Trust this honey, there isn’t a single moment of my day that Sarah isn’t on my mind. I couldn’t forget her if I wanted to. Mentioning her name doesn’t remind me of her; it lets me know you care.

There are temporary feelings of relief, sometimes even happiness, but I’ve learned there is no cure. I’ve learned that you can’t drink it away, you can’t laugh it away, you can’t screw it away. You can’t even cry it away. It’s just always there, close to the surface. It does get slightly lighter over time. You don’t even realize it until you look back over the first year, and wonder, “Holy hell. How on Earth have I survived?”

I miss my Sarah. I miss her voice, her laugh, her sense of humor, her love of animals, her compassion… I miss having hope that she’d get better. I miss wishing good things for her. I miss comforting her, stroking her hair and her nose. I miss her dark eyes that looked straight into my soul. I miss being her Mommie.  I just… I miss loving the living Sarah.

I had a dark moment a few months ago. I started to change my will one night as the darkest of thoughts took over. I just couldn’t conceive feeling that amount of pain any longer. It was a Saturday night during a quick month-long trip back home to Seattle over the holidays. No one knew the struggle I was having but friends felt it was odd for me to miss a Saturday night out. Just then a friend called and several of us group-chatted about football, our beloved Seahawks, dating, etc. I laughed out loud. When we got off the phone, I couldn’t stop laughing. I went from the depths of hell to feeling immense joy in a single 20-minute phone call. This group of friends had no idea they were rescuing me. They didn’t just save me that night; they changed my grief. They unknowingly gave me the beautiful gift of JOY that I hadn’t felt in nearly a year. They gave me hope for better days.

Grief is agony but goddamn if it doesn’t make you savor each meaningful moment. Hug your people. Never miss an opportunity to tell them you love them. Don’t be afraid of saying how much you care. Risk your heart. Risk it all.

I started writing this as some kind of guide to other grieving parents. Through the therapeutic act of writing, I now realize this is for me. Someday I won’t be in survival mode. Someday I will read this again and look back at how far I’ve come. Someday I will heal.

~ Jen Troyer, 13 April 2020