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Things That Saved My Life

Updated: Jan 10, 2020

Let me be clear—that title is not click bait.

The urge to rush headlong off the nearest cliff to be with my baby girl would come with such intensity and frequency in the year and half after her death, that I counted on the notion that I would lose the fight with myself one day. It was just a matter of when.

In the last several months, the call to die has quieted enough that I can conceive of a life fully lived, rather than one cut short by my own hand. I don't kid myself that it's entirely behind me. There is a crust of good that stands between me and the act, one that I began instinctively building in the first few weeks after Evelyn passed. One that has been thickened by many loving, generous hands along the way.

I want to live—for my surviving children, for Ev, for my husband, for myself. But a piece of me still longs to die. I know that piece is in there. I do what I can to keep building up the layers between myself and it. And I pray that another blow doesn't strike hard enough to break through them. I've had a couple along the way, secondary losses that threatened to undo all the hard work my family and I had done to keep me here, that sent me reeling back into the thick of suicidal ideation. But I survived them. Sometimes only by telling myself that if I could survive Evelyn's loss this far, I wouldn't disgrace her life by allowing something or someone else to become the thing that robbed me of mine. I wouldn't let that disappointment sting worse than the loss of her.

And I continued to lean on the things and the people that were, and still are, making all the difference. Of course, my children and my family go without saying, so this list will focus on those other things I bumped into in the dark and have held onto for dear life.

1. My dog. We got a puppy less than two months after Evelyn died. It was an impulsive, grief-driven decision made in the deep, primal part of my brain that still functioned when the rest of me had become a walking zombie—one that could have easily backfired. But it didn't. Our dog has taught us how to be a family again. We rally around her, letting her simple joy and untarnished light fill all the scooped out places within us. She has brought us the medicine of laughter over and over, every chuckle gently knitting something back together inside. And she has healed our relationship to our house, to the second story where Evelyn died, making it possible for us to go up there and feel something other than dread and horror and longing for what is lost. I never want to live without a dog again. And frankly, I don't think I should.

2. The Compassionate Friends. I found our local chapter of this support group organization two weeks after Ev passed. I can still remember stumbling in there, a shattered person, and straight into the waiting arms of a bereaved dad who was our chapter leader at the time. I will never forget that hug. The touch of someone who knows. That monthly meeting in the back hall of an empty church became my refuge. The only place I could go and be truly understood, where I could find validation instead of consolation. To this day, it is one of the few places where I still get to be Evelyn's mom, a gift more precious than any other.

3. Counseling. Not everyone responds to therapy the same way. I've heard some grieving parents say that it didn't help them. But I still see my grief counselor every month. And I don't know how we would have navigated this without her. To have someone with the training and the experience and the credibility look me in the eye and tell me that I was not crazy, that everything I was feeling and experiencing were perfectly normal, reasonable, and understandable at every juncture along the way has been invaluable to me and my family. Child loss is so isolating. People respond to it in terrible ways. Sometimes their heart is in the right place but they're just clumsy. Other times, they genuinely do and say unbelievably cruel things for reasons I will never fathom. Every grieving parent has stories like this. My counselor is one person I know who will always respond with compassion, without personal agenda, and with my best interest at the forefront of her mind. She reminds me that there is no separation between mental health and health.

4. The kindness and generosity of strangers. To be fair, many of these people weren't total strangers. They were acquaintances, clients, friends of friends, people we knew on social media, and so on. There was a connection, however weak, that was often already in place, but not always. Sometimes they were other bereaved parents who sent care packages, even as they shouldered the overwhelming burden of their own grief. Or clients who showed up with food and gifts and stories of their own. They sent books and money and meals and letters. I have gifts that I still don't know who they came from. They cried with me, or simply sat and let me cry. They checked in with texts and Facebook messages, with emails and cards. They offered and opened their hearts and their homes. They spent holidays and took off from work and invited us for vacation. They have been a small army of love and support that has slowly been restoring my faith in humanity even as loss has tried to erode it. In some cases, they were already good friends or family, who stepped up in a way that can never be repaid. In all cases, they were surprising. They were rarely the people we thought they would be. Many carry their own stories of devastating loss, their own suffering, that has made them more human and more compassionate. They are my warrior-healers, and I am grateful for every one.

5. Writing and stories. Stories are where we go to make sense of a senseless world. They are the place where we find meaning in the meaningless, where we see our growth reflected, where we can look into the mirror of our becoming and chart, like marks on a wall, how tall we've gotten. Stories are their own kind of magic, where we are reborn and remade in the image of our desires. I have long been a lover of books, of reading and writing them. In the beginning after Ev's death, I could do neither. It was as if this all-important limb I relied on to get me through the world had been amputated. I didn't know if it would grow back. When it did, it came in slow and underdeveloped, like an atrophied muscle. I had to work it, difficultly and frustratingly at first, until it gained strength.

When I couldn't read, I watched. I watched show after show, letting the stories of those characters replace the sad and colorless world I found myself in. The first fiction book I read was like a cold glass of water after a long hike in the desert. I was dehydrated. I vomited. I couldn't keep it down. But eventually, I got better at taking it in in the quantities I could consume.

This blog was my re-initiation into writing. Where I learned to form words around the soundless void of pain I carried inside. Every post I write allows me to see myself a little bit more after having my eyes gouged out. Writing helps me integrate Ev's loss into the story my life is becoming after her death. My character arc has changed drastically, and I would say my ending is likely to be more ambiguous than happy, but at least I can tell it now. At least I can live it, can embody it—something other than the chasm of screams I was for many months. Don't get me wrong, writing doesn't take it away. The chasm is still there. But I get to be something else now alongside it. I get a little bit of power back with every word.

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