Exactly one year ago today, I awoke in a state of confusion amidst what seemed like a bluish ice toned world around me. The air was still and cool. I was observing myself lying down, but I was outside of my body. The physical body itself was separate from me. And it was reluctant to move as I’d poured excessive wine and food into it for most of the prior evening.
Yesterday, 2021 had been the second Sunday in December. We’d participated in yet another annual memorial candle lighting service with the support group for parents who have lost their children called Compassionate Friends. The candle lighting is an International wave of memorial candles that is initiated at 7pm local time, until the light has made its way around the world. Lovely concept.
Only, I didn’t feel lovely. Instead, I felt the rising of a numbing wave carrying familiar pain and regret that I’d been wrestling with since I was in my teen years. I was only 17 years old when brutal murder and suicide took two of my peers/friends in separate situations. The waves of pain and regret which overran me as a young person promised to be temporary. But they were here to stay. They were actually just part of the foundation that would later become my way of life.
Returning to a year ago, I wasn’t hovering over my body looking down on it, as I have done many times before when trying to dissociate from something painful that was happening. On this day it was more like I was sitting there on the bed, next to a motionless, exhausted body that was horizontal and fully depleted. I felt intense compassion for the woman she’d become, while developing a knowing that she was in a different kind of danger this time. Running from grief finally paralyzed me and my marathon trained body which was listless and cool to the touch.
There was a decision to be made. No bullshit. The choice was this: Would I allow the then disjointed, compartmentalized person I’d become grow so loud and strong as if to take over and decimate my literal being? And would that allowance result in an end to my life and hers? Or alternatively, could I let go of that person I’d become, have love and compassion for her, and allow that specific part of my life to dissipate without taking me down with it?
I’d spent decades of trying to heal from the deaths of my children. I yearned to make a way for myself in a culture where we don’t do death, we don’t do grief and we certainly don’t do dead babies. So whether I was becoming a PICU nurse in service to my grief experience, or I was trying to get cost-prohibitive, exorbitant, and pre-digested food into Zach’s tiny body for his survival, or sitting with friends who were accompanied by their growing, thriving progeny, I never fit anywhere. I felt as though I’d given it a hell of a run. But after all this time, I still felt like a misfit and I had nothing left to give.
After my daughter Alexis (1996-97) died and my son Emmanuel (2002) died at birth I tried to outrun my devastation. I was in an alien existence as a mother without her babies, bereft and in shock. I was proactive, and tried not to be reactive. I thought if I ran enough marathons, was kind enough to all medical providers and caregivers, purchased my dream house, built and ran companies, made more and more money and kept advocating for Zach, my grief would dissolve over time. But the grief never budged. The only thing that dissolved was me. Or the person I took myself to be.
In the absence of locating examples of actual people who had been through something like this and still had some quality of life after their loss, I was left to my own devices of figuring it out. So that’s what I tried to do. For 25 years. And for all of that time I was a pretty good sport. Or at least I tried to be. I participated in life, felt true Joy for others who were raising healthy children and educated myself to continually rise professionally first as a Pediatric ICU nurse, then in legal nurse consulting, and over the last decade evolving into the best corporate sales leader I knew how to be.
And on this December morning in 2021, five months after retiring from the corporate world, I was led here, watching my body finally resign. I was completely detached from the 51-year-old female in the supine position, who took slow, shallow breaths while stretched horizontally next to me, as I sat with a straight spine next to her, knowing something was different but not yet knowing if she and I would be safe. I looked dead to myself. Peaceful, but without life energy. The woman lying next to me had lost the fight, and her will to live. She had an exit strategy to make it stop, and to rest. It wasn’t a cry for help, it was a plan to end her life.
Mercifully and by the Grace of God my partner Ernest, my family and my therapist, acted quickly. They too, could see that something was different and I was in grave danger. They came to my side in an instant. And when they did, there was no longer a decision to be made. I knew that in order to survive, I would have to surrender to the full experience of the profound sadness and loneliness I’d experienced since I first became a mom. That meant I would have to stop running. I didn’t know how to do that.
Surrendering to my full experience meant I would have to feel my losses and be willing to integrate them instead of working so hard to suffocate them. I am not referring to the grief we let others see, and I am not referring to the public persona we create when we are in grief bunker hiding mode. I am talking about the essence of the pain, the feelings we’ve never shared with anyone. This was the experience of helplessness and terror at the moment I learned I couldn’t save my children and how that impotence has impacted me every moment since they died.
Until December 2021, I’d employed a different, more socially acceptable strategy and that was to make the best of things dammit, and keep moving. I played that role well, until it trampled me. And now the proverbial fork in the road was one of survival: Would the worn, depressed, once enthusiastic woman who tried so hard to play nice, but couldn’t soothe her wounds tap out and finally get to lay herself to rest? Or would I (my essence, the one sitting on the bed with a straight spine) survive and allow the hollow woman, the listless one who is tired of playing nice, exit into final rest?
I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the decision before me. A few days later with the love of people around me, I voluntarily checked myself into the hospital where I would be safe, and get the help I needed. If my essence was going to survive, it needed a factory reset.
And we got one. After 10 days in the hospital and another two plus weeks in an outpatient program a new possibility arose. That was the possibility for living another way. Since last December I have been arming myself with information and tools to integrate my pain, instead of cutting myself off from it. I spent most of this year getting to know myself again and maybe for the first time, through yoga, racquet ball, meditation, hiking, therapy, coaching, writing and spending time with Zachary.
Every day brings its unique challenges, and I still grieve for my children and lost loved ones. But each day also brings something else: Possibility.
The point of today’s post is simply this: If we check out of our lives (partially or fully) we close the door to anything else being possible. We don’t always know what the possibilities may be, how the circumstances of our lives, our work, our relationships can evolve into something else. But what we do know, is that there are no possibilities once we check out.
I am grateful for the days and weeks I was able to allow myself to ask for help, and to receive it last year. It was no easy decision for me to share this experience publicly, but mustering up the courage to do so strengthens my resolve. I no longer wonder if I can “handle it.” I know there are still possibilities and through one or some of them, I might just be able to handle anything.
Ask for help. Keep the possibilities open. And have compassion for all of the parts of you. There is no road map of survival, but there are travelers next to, in front of, and behind you. Decide to engage. You’ll never know what can happen next without the existence of possibility.