Bob and I visit our daughter Carolyn’s grave whenever we are in the Chicago area. We do that every time we go to Chicago. A Jewish tradition is to leave a stone on the marker of the grave you visit. We are always surprised to find many stones at Carolyn’s grave. We do not know who leaves them but it pleases us to know that those who cared for her still remember her.
Whenever I go to the grave, I go through the half dozen feet of dirt, past the coffin, seeing Carolyn in the renaissance costume she loved, with her hands down by her sides, her beautiful curly hair falling around her face and down past her shoulders, her eyes closed. She is at rest, at peace. Her limbs have been stilled much too early. Her mind shut down far from its potential. Carolyn is dead. She is not coming back. And I continue to have a hard time saying good-bye. There is so much I still wanted to do with her, so much love I wanted to convey to her, so much time I wanted to spend with her. I always thought I’d have the time but life doesn’t always cooperate. It moved on when I least expected it.
I am reminded of my own father dying when I was 3½. How I wish I could have had time with him, how much I have wanted to know him. Now I am sandwiched between the generations, wanting more from both sides, knowing that what I want can never be.
When someone dies that you love, you do go through stages of grief but not in the linear fashion that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross talked about with dying patients. I did not pass through the stages in a sequential fashion, I experienced them at different times with varying intensity. There was the cry of pain in the awareness of this devastating loss. This pain remains but it has become more like an enveloping mist of sadness that mingles with the joys of life.
I passed through and continue to pass through longing which reflects a pervasive loneliness that comes from missing Carolyn. I try to keep her as an integral part of my life but I know she is not here as I would like her to be. Sometimes my thoughts feel devastating and then I feel so alone. Living with her loss the first couple of years was overwhelming and I had wanted to die too. I prayed to be taken so I wouldn’t have to endure the hell of not having her with me. At one point I went through a period of time when I wanted to find a medium that would talk to her and answer some questions I had.
I felt the need for supportive love and still do.
It arrives out of the extreme sense of vulnerability I felt with the sudden loss of Carolyn. I have found it nearly impossible to have this supportive love. I wanted to be embraced in the arms of love, as a parent embraces a child who needs to be held. I wanted to talk about this loss with family and friends but conversations have been stilted. It is not easy for someone to listen to my pain and it has been easier for me to suppress it. I have wanted someone to just be there for me, listening to me, being very present.
I try to find meaning in her loss. I try to understand what I have learned since she died. I do know that I really thought I understood loss from a therapeutic point of view before Carolyn died. I had helped several clients through some of their grief. But what I thought I understood didn’t hold a candle to what I learned. There was a depth of experience that I lacked. I was very humbled when I came to terms with this fact.
I have asked “why” many times. I have chided myself in not pushing her to go see her cardiologist. She didn’t want to and I do not know if it would have made a difference but I always wish I had tried harder.
I have thought about the kind of mother I had been to her. At first I could only see the times I had failed her, or so I thought I had failed her. But I knew there was more I could have done: I could have listened to her more, I could have been more involved with her, I could have let what I thought was important slide and make her more important. I have felt guilt at not being the best I could have been. I have felt selfish and unmotherly.
Fortunately these moments are countered with those where I had been the kind of mother I wanted to be, where I had been there for her, where I had put her first.
Bob and I do not grieve the same way, nor do we mourn together. In the beginning I expected us to feel the same pain and react to it the same, perhaps at the same time, even though I knew that each of us would grieve differently. Our society believes the grieving process should be private and brief. Our society also believes that within a few months a person’s grief should be ended, and certainly within a year. Bob was not as vocal about his grief as I was. And he could not speak of it as easily as I would. That caused me some pain as I again felt alone in my grief. It took us awhile to navigate our separate experiences and to be mindful of where each of us were. Bob expresses his grief more easily through music and writing a song in her memory. I tended to journal. Now we each seem to have our own moments of time when we suffer over her loss and it is no longer judged by either of us. We have our rituals of going to the cemetery, celebrating her birth as well as her death. I believe she lives on; Bob doesn’t.
Carolyn was a happy person, easy going, and had lots of great friendships. She easily gave and received love. She was small, somewhat fragile, with many obstacles to overcome. She had open-heart surgery at a year old when she was only 11 pounds. We took lots of pictures of her as we didn’t know if she would survive. But she did, growing into a young woman who was undaunted by her size, who overcame her self-doubts, and insecurities. She lived a life of great determination. She was a high achiever in high school and college, and gave her all as a teacher of drama. Her students loved her and related to the “kid” in her. She loved Shakespeare, Mickey Mouse, The Lion King, and roller coasters. She was so proud to have completed the Avon 60-mile breast cancer walk.
She was on the go, burning the candle at both ends. I worried about that. It was almost as if she was trying to fit everything in, as though she knew she wouldn’t have long to live. She died on top of her game, on a characteristically good day. She was enjoying the present of being a teacher, owning her condo, and looking forward to getting married. On the day she died, she came home from school, felt fluish, and unusual for her, took a nap. Hours later, Carolyn’s heart gave out.
My memories of her always take in her lively spirit, her humor, her smile; mixing up Thanksgiving stuffing, primping in new clothes or shoes, sitting cross-legged on the couch, expressing wisdom that I couldn’t believe came out of her; and her 4’8” height that required that I needed to bend down to hug her.
I think I’ve come to reasonable peace losing her but mourning her is never-ending.