You Survive … If You Choose To

I would love to say that I’ve learned and grown since losing my 25-year-old daughter Jessica on November 10, 2013, but the truth is all I have managed since is to survive for the sake of my older daughter, Sarah. I would like to tell you that I have remained for the sake of my husband and others who love me, but the reality is not even their love could have kept me here, so great is the pain of this terrible loss. I’d like to tell you that my faith in a benevolent Being has seen me through this tragic horror, and that I take comfort in knowing we will all share eternity together. But, once again, that would be a lie. I’m more disconnected and alone than ever before, and I question everything: my present reality, my past and the notion of eternity. But I still live and breathe and hope for answers and peace and perhaps even a hint of joy someday. I still use humor to lighten others’ moods. I still work for justice. Even with this huge hole in my heart, I do my best, but I do not pretend to be who I was before losing my child, for that would be a lie.

When the thing you fear most actually happens, how do you go on? All my life, I lived in constant anxiety over my fear of losing my children. One night, just two days after burying my mother, I received a phone call informing me that my 25-year-old daughter, Jessica — whom I had just seen the day before — had been found dead in bed that morning. The horror of that phone call still reverberates throughout my body and heart almost six years later. I remember the shocked disbelief, near paralysis followed by uncontrolled shaking, my wailing in the front yard when the reality couldn’t be denied and mumbling to my older daughter over and over, “I can’t do this, I can’t do this …” to which she wisely replied, “Mom, you’re doing it.”

Jess at age 10 or younger wearing a short sleeve white dress looking up at her mom. Bernie is holding Jess' hands and wearing a cap sleeve blue, purple and black dress.

I’m still here. I’m not “over” Jessie’s death nor will I ever be, but I’m functional. I continue to work my stressful job, handle my small farm responsibilities and participate in relationships with my husband, family and friends. I’ll never be the person I was before that phone call, but I’ve survived, and on the surface anyway, prospered. Tip #1 — You do survive if you choose to.

However, at the time, I knew I couldn’t stay in that horrific state of agony so I reached out to whatever and whoever I thought could possible help me. Tip #2 — Find help, whatever it takes. During the first month of debilitating grief, I went to my medical doctor and got mild anxiety meds to help me sleep. I didn’t want anything stronger because I didn’t want to disconnect from my grief, just to be able to bear it. I went to therapy, specifically a grief counselor. I went to a hypnotist. I went to spiritual mediums and anyone who could help me see through the pain. I worked out physically and attempted to meditate although I couldn’t still my mind for more than a single minute. And I attended Bereaved Parents support groups because those were the only people I felt could understand my pain, and I needed advice from subject matter experts, not folks who hadn’t gone through my nightmare. One of the most beneficial things I did was go to a talk presented by a doctor studying the effects of bereavement on the brain. I learned that I was literally “brain damaged”, which, surprisingly came as a great relief because the doctor assured us that the brain could heal itself and that the incredible forgetfulness, adrenalin-producing anxiety, shaking, insomnia and all the other ways our bodies were misbehaving were temporary.

Jess wearing a black tank top and carnelian colored stone on a short necklace looking at the camera. She has brown hair parted on the left side

Everyone grieves differently, and my grief wasn’t very pretty. I’ve never had a problem expressing anger or sadness, but the rage and sorrow I felt were overwhelming … and often loud. Tip #3 — Feel your feelings, whatever they are. You can’t bury your natural responses to loss and expect that they will miraculously disappear or heal. The only way through grief is through it. You have a right to your anger and sadness and despair. Just try not to harm anyone, including yourself, when expressing these powerful emotions. But feel them, and find a safe place and people with whom to express them.

You’ll soon realize that some people offer you platitudes because everyone really wants you to return to the old Bernie or the old Ted or the old Kylie. But you can’t, and more importantly, unless you really find a platitude that you want to cling to, you have every right to reject them and tell folks that those simple words aren’t helpful. Tip #4 — Don’t let other people create a box for you and your grief. I had some religious friends explain to me that God had allowed my daughter to die because I’m such a strong person, and I could handle it! To my logical brain, that meant I was penalized for being a strong person while all the weaker individuals got to keep their kids. I learned to say, “I don’t share your concept of God” (well, sometimes I wasn’t quite that pleasant …). Aside from platitudes, people can try to push their grief timeline onto you. “Oh, you’re still upset?” (four months after my daughter died …). Guess what? I hit the Reject button on that one, too. We all grieve in our own ways, in our own time and simple solutions seldom solve complex issues such as grief.

Jess wearing an olive green jacket and red and white striped blouse opening a present sitting on a brocade red and gold easy chair

Really though, the single reason I’m still here six years later is my other beautiful daughter, the one assuring me that I was “doing it,” who had already suffered the loss of her sister and didn’t deserve to lose her mother as well. For me, Sarah was and is my reason. Tip #5 — Find your reason. If you don’t have another child or a spouse, mother, father or best friend, it helps to find your reason and cling to that. And if you can’t find a reason, then turn to the people who love you and let them cling to you. Share your despair, and indeed, thoughts of checking out if you have them (many of us do). Find your people or your purpose and hold on, literally, for dear life. This is a terrible journey, but you won’t remain in the starting point of horror forever. Grief changes and becomes part of who we are. We adapt, survive and sometimes even prosper.

Jess in a black and white model picture wearing a short black tank dress. Her right foot is forward and she's looking over her right shoulder away from the camera. Her hair is cut into page boy length

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