Progress in Grief: Five Years Out
I still don't understand how this is my life.
I've had five years to adapt to what some would term my "new normal" since Evelyn, our eighteen-year-old daughter, died suddenly in her sleep, though there's nothing normal about it. And while I have definitely made peace and progress with elements of this journey I never asked to go on, the truth is, I still don't know how I got here. I'm not sure that horrible morning in August that ruptured our world will ever make sense, that I'll ever have an answer to what happened or how, that this new reality will ever truly sink in. But I am expected to carry on. Despite the enormous uncertainty, the trail of questions, the agonizing longing. And that's precisely what I'm doing. Carrying on. Putting one foot in front of the other down a path I can't reason with but must accept. Every. Single. Day.
I don't really have words for how it feels to wake up every day in a world you don't recognize. I know, five years later, where I am. I just don't know where that is. I think that's one of the hardest aspects of child loss. It's so fucking inconceivable that your mind can't fully process it. Reality ceases to be solid. It becomes this amorphous thing, like jello, forever bending out of shape, refusing to adhere to the rules. Other losses, in my experience, just aren't like that. They're hard and they're sad and they're unfortunate. But they fit into the world. They don't break your brain.
Despite the surrealness of this life, I've learned to love aspects of it again. It has taken time, of course, to get there. To not drown in guilt every time I found a shred of pleasure. To allow myself an ounce of joy. To teach myself how to hold gratitude. To believe I deserve beauty. I don't get these right all the time. The guilt still surfaces. The rage. The horror. That's to be expected. But I think what is striking is that despite how decimated Ev's loss left me, how full of pain and betrayal—for I believed the whole world betrayed me in that moment—whatever was left behind has grown. Against all odds, she's grown. And in that growth was space. Enough space to hold love beside the sorrow, and joy beside the grief, and desire beside the devastation.
Sometimes, that other life we lived and loved feels very far away. And the distance is excruciating, but also functional. As the view behind me grows smaller, I find I must keep my eyes on the step ahead, stop craning to stare over my shoulder at what was and cannot be again. Other times, that life is a breath at my back, so fresh and present that I think if I just knew how I could reach through time and touch it, maybe pull it toward me, taste it again. You might expect that nearness would bring comfort, but it usually brings the opposite—more pain, more confusion, more wondering and wishing and what-if-ing.
I've asked myself more than once what I would tell another parent just finding themselves on this brutal journey. What could I offer that might give them something to cling to, to believe in when the days drag long and weary and unbearably hard? What can I possibly say in the wake of their agonizing loss? But I find it easier to determine what I won't say.
If you're reading this and you're a month, or a year, or a couple of years down this road, stumbling in the dark, missing your child, I won't tell you it gets easier. I won't tell you you'll get stronger. I won't tell you it hurts less, or that a day will come when you don't pine for them and miss their smile, their smell, the sound of their voice. But I will tell you that like anything else in this universe, it changes. It evolves with you. It moves and morphs and rolls through its own trajectory like a comet streaking through the atmosphere. At times, you'll see grace and awe in the comet's sparkling tail. At others, it will burn like all nine levels of hell at once. You will love the comet. And you will hate the comet. But the comet will be with you forever now. Take what you can from that wholly useless metaphor because nothing accurately describes the experience you're living in.
People love a transformation story. And they'll no doubt read this and think I've overcome some terrible obstacle and now my story is complete. But that's not what it's like at all. Evelyn's death has not left me, not even for a moment. It grieves me every step of the way. All of the difficult but natural things I felt that day and every day since are still right here with me. They don't disappear. But my capacity to carry them and still have room for other things has continued to shift and change. I feel all the bad, terrible things about her death still. But I feel so many good, beautiful things now too. In the early days of the After, that just wasn't possible. But the human heart is a strange and wonderful beast, luminous and resilient if given the chance to be. If I deny it nothing, it obliges me in kind.
In other words, by allowing the painful feelings when necessary, I have allowed the pleasant ones right alongside them. Whatever progress I've made hasn't come from repressing my grief, but embracing it.
I often think that is exactly how Ev would want it.