Twenty-six years ago today our precious girl Alexis died at just 13 months and five days old.  It never gets easier to face a day without her and this day is no different.

But I have learned some strategies over the years on how to best approach the day that marks our forever changed family.  They aren’t 100% reliable, but certainly things like spending time with family/friends, having a “plan” for how we will share that time, and indulging in a little pampering like getting a massage and enjoying a good meal usually help me through this season.

Part of my survival strategy this year, included making a date to break bread with one of my dearest friends.  We met many years ago, through our boys who were schoolmates.  Alexis and Emmanuel had already died, but I was actively reeling in the chaos of the pain.

So often around this time of year when kids were going back to school, leaves were starting to drift from tree to ground and the air got a little crisper, I found my grief was further exacerbated because it reminded me of this anniversary on 9/15 of losing Alexis.  I turned repeatedly to the kindness of my dear friend for support.  She always listened.

Years later this friend would lose her own son unexpectedly.  He was 18 years old when he died just over five years ago.  I abhor her now “firsthand” understanding of the complex emotions I tried to put into words over more than two decades of friendship.  Grieving is like being in a club no one wants to belong to, but it’s a big one.  As moms without our children, we now traverse our unique paths of healing alone, but together.

We chose outdoor restaurant seating for our dinner date, and indulged in a delicious meal as we basked in the crisp Fall air and the rapid drop in temperature.  We caught up on everything as girlfriends do, including what’s happening with our our children, both living and deceased.  In reflecting on our grief, she expressed something I have myself experienced, and also recognized in many other grieving folks, but never talked about with her.

It’s the realization that after the death of a loved one, we see the world through “pre-death” and “post-death” lenses.  This recognition reveals something to us.  It illustrates that anyone in deep grief whom we may’ve tried to comfort in the past, before we ourselves survived profound loss, received a version of our compassion that was transactional.

Before we ourselves, experienced the degree of pain worthy of a descriptor like “profound” our limited understanding of grief was that it was a “process” with a beginning and an end.  We saw grief as something that has always happened to people over “there.”  And we could tell when the grief process was “over” for them because the person who was grieving now appeared to be fine. (Ha!)

But once our own hearts have been decimated, that all changes.  When we have been broken beyond repair, we respond to devastating pain with sincere and careful support, and not transactional compassion.  We are intentional with our support.  We know that it is not a process with an eventual conclusion.  We know the truth and feel compelled to bring others into it gently.

I have heard this understanding expressed in various ways, such as:

Wow.  Before my (fill-in-the-blank) died I thought grief was just a thing people went through when someone died, and that the process eventually ended.  I didn’t realize that grief is ongoing. I had no idea. 

“…I wish I could have been more supportive for others when they needed it.  I always sent (flowers…food…cards) to their homes and maybe went to a funeral if I had time.  But I thought that was the end of the grief story. 

And as we ate dinner, my friend expressed her own, similar encounter.  She mentioned that until her son died, she’d always thought grief was just some kind of process people went through but eventually got over.  Maybe it was unfortunate, tragic even, but she assumed that was all there was to it.  She shared her experience of supporting a friend from many years ago who’d endured profound loss, before she herself had been run over by it.  You could call it the “pre-death” lense:

I knew it was very sad when (the loss) happened…

”…But now I know it didn’t “happen” to her onceIt happens to her every day.

“…It happens to us every day.”

And there they were:  Six simple words that reverberated with my insides as if my gut had been the exact place of their origin.  It was a short sentence.  It was vague without context.  But in the context of my own losses, it rocked me.

Once we surrender to the reality that our pain and our love are one in the same, and that they do not, and usually cannot, exist without the other, we are released into the miracle that is our ability to accept the birth and death of all things.  When we grasp the cyclical nature of existence, we feel less victimized.  We conclude that we must have gotten our personal dose of shit early in life and we have to stop what we thought we were doing and pay attention.  Or it will keep coming until we do.  (And sometimes it does anyway.)

But the idea that we will “take some time to process” the death of an important person in our lives, and then “return” to our routines as they existed “pre-death” is a fallacy.  We don’t have to contemplate whether or not we should try to “return” to our lives because it is not even possible.  We are changed.  We are cracked open.  We can tape the cracks and paint over them, but the foundation will never be the same.  The pain is now built in.  This is the “truth” I referred to earlier.  Once we know this type of sorrow, we can’t “un-know” it.

So I agree with the six revolutionary words my dear friend put together.  Grief doesn’t start and stop.  It happens to us every day.  Some days are harder than others, for certain.  But we don’t forget about someone we love just because they died.  And when I am not despairing, I am so very grateful for that.

Hearing these six words made a small crack at the armor I have built up around my grief, and myself.  The isolation of feeling like no one can possibly understand is our pain is one of the most insidious aspects of grief.   When we feel alone, there is no place to drop an anchor.  Without an anchor we get thrown around by whatever is happening.

But once in a while, someone says something that reminds us we ARE the anchor.  For a quick moment, we remember how much love we are still capable of cultivating.  And we try to allow ourselves to do so.

If we stay present long enough, eventually we realize that a positive indicator of our own healing is an increased ability to be present for others.  This ability is reinforced by what we have learned, and should not be squandered.  When the world seems apathetic to our pain, we might find ourselves at the beginning of a dangerous emotional spiral that worsens as it deepens.  The only antidote I know of is connection.

Connection with others reminds us that while “It happens to us every day” we don’t have to travel solo.

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