Updated: Jul 7, 2021
I'm used to pain. When it comes to emotional agony, I have become a consummate professional. I keep a stash of tissue on hand at all times. I know where to find the lonely corners in any given building to duck into when the tears come hot and fast. And I know the words to say inside my mind to shut them off. Sometimes, I have to repeat those words a few times. It's not always a one-shot fix. When those words fail me, I have others at the ready. I keep a straight face when I say her name to most people. I can talk about her death with the calmness of an unattached bystander. As if it were not me in that room. As if she were not mine. As if I do not bleed. Still. Every day.
Some people might consider this unhealthy. It may sound like repression or denial—ugly words that imply I'm not doing my emotional duty. I'm not doing "the work" of grief. But those people haven't lost a child. They haven't stood over their daughter's empty body and run their finger across the fine, soft hairs of her eyebrows, even as her skin is so, so cold, committing the feel of her to memory. They do not know that I grieve with every breath and every blink. That every act and move and word and gesture is for her.
When your child dies, grief is not a place you go to visit. It's not an hour in the bath having a good cry. It's not a buffet after a funeral with jolly friends. It's not a toast and a drink to that old so-and-so. It's not a year of firsts to get through. It's everything. Everywhere. All the time. There is no distinction between your life and your grief. You live your grief or you die.
So for me, for the last three years and eleven months, there are two primary things. There is pain. And there is living. And I have learned to do both, at the same time, extraordinarily well.
What I have not mastered is celebration. Joyfulness. Trust. Faith. Understanding. Laughter. Release.
I know how to give until I am a nub, worn smooth as sea glass. I do not know how to receive.
I am told it is a way I punish myself. I am asked when I will stop. But I think I will always be paying for her death. Always giving more of myself. Until I run out completely. Maybe that is the goal. To run out of me.
Bad things strike like lightning. They boom and clap with the force of thunder. They shake your roof and rattle your foundations and leave you breathless, rapt with fear. Bad things come without warning. Bad things rip you up.
Good things are no better. Not when you're like me, standing on the other side of the worst thing ever. Good things make demands and blast a hole through your routine. They cup you inside a jar and shake you hard and dump you out into a different world. Good things wear you down.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that I expect bad things now. Maybe I believe I deserve them. Maybe it's the PTSD. Always anticipating the next explosion. And I'm used to that expectation. I'm used to carrying it around with me, draped across my shoulders, weighty and unapproving.
I'm unused to good things. And lately, good things have been on the move. They've been showing up like uninvited house guests, camping out in the game room, eating all the snacks. They drop on me like falling stars. Light me up. Make me burn. Expect me to smile.
I'm not ungrateful. This isn't about gratitude, and that may be hard for some people to understand. This is about how it feels to be given the world when your world has already crumbled. It's about opening presents on the worst day of your life. It's about eating cake when your stomach is raw with ulcers. It's about unfolding. Not like a flower, but like a fist. Fighting that muscle memory to clamp down, tighten up, resist.
It's about what comes when the storm passes. And the sun returns. And everyone wants to go to the goddamned beach. And you're still trying to hold your eyes open against the glare of it all.
I have to take my good in bites, just like the bad. Chew it slow and long. Let it sit on my tongue until the urge to retch passes. Swallow it piece by painstaking piece. Adjust. Adjust. Adjust.
I have to tell myself she would want this. Do it for her, I say. Just like breathing. All for her. Sometimes, that makes it easier. Sometimes not.
But here's what I'm learning. There is as much opportunity to suffer in the good as there is the bad. There is as much growth. We always say the bad things make us stronger. But I have never felt so weak since that day as I do now. In the face of all this good, all this godforsaken blessing. I don't want it to go away. Not really. I just want it to sit with me while I do the slow work of integration, make it mine, make it real. I want it to stand quietly beside me when I cry in those dark corners because I'm experiencing it when she is not. And I want it to understand when I need to hit myself in the face just to know I'm still alive because for me, for the last three years and eleven months, there have been only two primary things—pain and living. And those have become synonymous.