Many of us have experienced an event that so dissects our lives that we measure time in terms of “before it happened” and “after it happened.” For us, that event occurred in the pre-dawn hours of May 11, 2015, when our little family’s perfect snow globe of a world was pitched to the humid floor of a Caribbean hotel and shattered forever. On that day, while I was in Jamaica preparing to do a live radio broadcast with our radio team to 80 winners seated sleepily in a dimly-lit ballroom and hundreds of thousands more back in Toronto, my husband took a phone call in the lobby and learned that our precious only child had died in her sleep.
Herself a broadcaster in Ottawa, Lauren was only 24 years old and had marked her first Mother’s Day – and my last – just a few hours earlier. Her husband’s gentle shaking and baby son’s hungry cries didn’t awaken her that dark Monday morning; her heart had stopped in the night from what we believe was an interaction with Motillium (or domperidone) a drug she was prescribed by her doctor to help her to produce breast milk – a drug that is banned in the U.S., prescribed with caution in the U.K., yet recommended by breastfeeding gurus and clinics across Canada.
Despite the coroner’s arduous efforts, we may never know for sure what caused our sweet, passionate, funny and accomplished girl to die. Still, in the past nearly five years since that darkest day, we have been enlightened by many experiences and observations. It was my honour to share them with readers of the #1 National Bestseller, Mourning Has Broken: Love, Loss and Reclaiming Joy (HarperCollins Canada) released earlier this year in soft-cover version as well. Here are some of those lessons:
There is No Comparing Grief
Whether it’s a child, a spouse, a job or a pet, nearly everyone suffers a major loss in their lives and each of us is touched in a different way. There is no blue ribbon awarded for Worst Pain although as humans it may be in our nature to ask “Do you have other children?” or “Will you remarry?” No one grieves the same and we don’t “get over” a loss of great magnitude; we simply get through it.
We are Not Meant to Grieve Alone
Through the compassion and care of listeners who emailed me and sent snail mail and cards in the aftermath of losing Lauren, Rob and I were wrapped in a cloak of compassion that warms us still. We sought out professionals like doctors and meditation experts, as well as fellow bereaved parents to help guide us through the dark, turbulent waters of our immense loss. In opening our hearts and talking with others about grief, we learned that joy shared is multiplied, but pain shared is divided. Talking about their grief helped ease ours as much as anything. We experienced the revelation that a shattered heart, no matter how it tries to mend itself, is more open than ever before to accept and give compassion and even joy, which imbued us with the strength to keep going and even to try to help more people who would navigate these waters behind us.
Grief Does Not Come with a How-To Manual
In this age where Siri has all of the answers and our GPS guides us to wherever we need to be, there’s no clear path on the way to recovery from loss and grief. While Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross helpfully outlined the famous Stages of Grief, those stages are meant for the person who is dying, not for those of us left behind in the dark shadows of their departure. And if you do subscribe to those stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance as a guideline, know that you do not visit them in order or for any particular period of time. There will even be some that you do not experience them at all. Just know that grief is a rollercoaster: you’re up, you’re down, you’re speeding through one day and crawling through the next. Just put your hands up – and out – and say, “I need help.”
Vulnerability is the trait that will help you most in seeking and receiving the assistance that you most need, when you need it. You’d be amazed, as Rob and I were, at the vast number of people who want to help you as you stumble along this rocky and unfamiliar path. Be open to that assistance and be brave enough to ask for and take it when it’s offered to you, in whatever form that may be: therapy, books, group talks, correspondence with friends and strangers alike. We are of a tribe that used to tell our stories around the fire – don’t feel like you have to walk through those flames by yourself. You simply do not.
Say Their Name
One of the hardest things to impress upon people who haven’t suffered the loss of a loved one is how important it is for them to remember the person who is gone. So often as time passes, the frequency of the number of times our dear departed are talked about, or even mentioned, diminishes. Are people afraid that if they bring up our daughter’s name that we’ll suddenly remember she is gone? Impossible! Her absence is like a tattoo on our hearts. It will always be there, just as she is within us. It is for that reason that I included in Mourning Has Broken this poem that I wrote the night of Lauren’s son’s first birthday. We’d had a small gathering to celebrate Lauren and Colin’s milestone and when it was over, I was heartbroken to reflect upon the fact that no one had mentioned his mother. Was that my job as her mother? I wasn’t sure. But it prompted me to write this:
Speak her name, please…for our sakes, speak her name.
We know that she’s gone. That our lives aren’t the same.
We cannot ache more than we already do,
So, remembering her is a kindness. It’s true.
We sense you tread softly, as you skirt the abyss
But it helps us, you see, when you do reminisce.
Do you worry of adding to our pain, and our strife
By reminding us that she is gone from our life?
Our daughter has died. This is now who we are.
But memories prevent her from drifting too far.
Your silence – it adds to the rumbling pain
When we long to know she’s in your thoughts once again.
Let your words paint a picture of laughter and joy:
Of her music, her childhood, her husband and boy.
Speak of her wedding, how she laughed and showed grace
And the love and pure joy on that beautiful face!
Tell us something she said that will always ring true
And simply remind us what she meant to you.
Keep her alive in your heart with words spoken
That ours will stay whole – just a little less broken.
Oh, speak her name, please, that her life will go on.
As this love will forever – for our Lauren Dawn.
You see, remembering our loved ones doesn’t tear off a scab that is starting to heal, it’s more like kissing a scar. You’re letting us know that you understand we’re hurting and that you are aware that there are no words that can ease our pain, but by simply joining us in that space of remembrance you provide comfort, compassion and understanding beyond words. Talking about the person who is gone with laughter or fondness is a gift to us that we get to reopen every time we hear our loved one’s name. It tells us that she is in your heart, too. And that means the world.
Embrace Joy in All Its Forms
There comes a time that you laugh again and it feels downright strange – wrong, even – when you realize that you can laugh again. But it’s all right! No one gets to judge the way that you work through your grief: the how or the when. You have to do what is right for you and if laughing and dipping your toes back into the richness of your life is how you choose to cope and to heal, then you do it! And that includes finding other ways to express the love you had for the one who is no longer there. As Jamie Anderson so beautifully said, “Grief is just love with no place to go.”
When our daughter’s husband remarried a few years after Lauren’s death, we were grateful that he had found someone with whom he could share his life, someone who would in turn love him and his and Lauren’s son. A fractured family was healing and once again there was going to be room for happiness to bloom (as it did last September with addition of a beautiful baby girl whom Colin adores). As my husband and I know all too well, life can be brutally short. And while many of us are forced to endure suffering, no one says we have to dwell in it or let it take us under.
Yes, there are the days when we are paralyzed by the depths of our loss. But it is in those times that we remember that how we react to what has happened to us is entirely our choice. We can stay in our sunken place of darkest grief or we can choose, as the writer Anne Lamott so perfectly puts it, to “dance with a limp”.
May you find peace with every passing day and reasons to laugh, to dance and to rejoice once more. That is our wish for us all.