When Least Expected - Finding Life Inside Death
October 23, 2013 was a day that changed our family forever.
I was at work.
At home, there was a knock at the door. My eldest daughter (24) and my husband looked at each other and my husband went to answer the door. Two city police officers stood outside. They confirmed his identity and asked to come into the house.
By this time my daughter had wandered into the kitchen.
"We are sorry to inform you that your 21-year-old daughter was involved in a head-on collision last night near Edmonton, Alberta," they began. "She was killed instantly."
Shock. Utter shock. Disbelief. But ... no hysterics.
What followed was a brief discussion of the incidents surrounding the accident. It was a three-car accident. No, nobody else was killed. Yes, there were injuries, the others had been taken to the hospital. There would be a police investigation and an autopsy. Someone from Alberta would be contacting us. Very sorry for your loss.
After the officers left, my husband and daughter looked at each other in dismay. "One of us has to tell Mom," my daughter said. She knew I would be horribly upset.
My husband took a deep breath. "I'll do it."
My daughter was right. He led me up to the news so that I was prepared that there was bad news coming. But when he said she had been killed ... I felt like someone had kicked me in the gut. "Oh my GOD! OH MY GOD! My baby ... is DEAD!! OH MY GOD!!!!" It felt like I was shouting; I wanted to shout. But it came out as a breathless sob.
He asked me if I wanted him to come pick me up. "Uhhh, yes... yes that would be good. Ummm, okay, yes, come pick me up." I was babbling. "See you later ... drive safe..."
I hung up the phone, trembling.
As I was talking on the phone I was aware of a small crowd gathering around me, perhaps 3 or 4 people, my neighbors in our open-concept "cube farm" office.
When I hung up, in shock and shaking like a leaf in the breeze, it was like I was only vaguely conscious of my surroundings. Several people were around my desk. Arms hugged me. I babbled something about getting someone to water my plants. I would be gone over a week and they would need care. (My plants look after the quality of my air; I see them as my friends in a sense...) Someone offered to look after that for me; I wasn't to worry.
Gentle hands guided me to my manager's office and sat me down in a chair there, while someone closed the door behind us.
My manager hugged me, and started singing - a little off-key - "Come to the Water" ... a song I had learned and used to sing as a teen. She asked me if there was anyone she could call for me. "Yes," I stammered. "Uh, the church. Yeah, they will call who needs to be told." I gave her the number and she made the call.
I told her what little I knew. She looked me square in the eye and said, "I am so sorry, Judy. You don't need to worry about anything here. You just go and look after your family and let them look after you. And you don't need to worry about annual leave. You take what time you need. Period."
She and a couple of the team leaders, plus another lady who works with our unit, went with me to meet my husband at the door. One team leader took over the wheel of our van. My manager got in the front, where I usually sat, and let my husband and me sit together in the back seat. The other lady followed in her car. They drove us home and my manager came with me into the house to make sure we had gotten in safely.
This was only one instance of the kindness and the outpouring of love that we experienced over the course of the next few days and weeks.
People brought food ... people we hadn't spoken to in years in our own neighborhood pushed past their uncomfortable feelings and reached out to us.
Her friends ... oh my. Her friends extended their hearts and gathered us into their lives - willingly - those in their teens and twenties that have little or nothing in common with us. But she touched them. They posted tributes on her wall, sent us Facebook friend requests, tagged us in posts, and many of them instant-messaged, called, visited, and even participated in her funeral arrangements. Some were pall bearers, another - her best friend - worked on her photo story-board with me. And she and another of her friends sat as family with us at the funeral.
My birth family ... again, the unexpected. The morning after we heard the news, I called my mother. We'd been on the "outs" and I had not spoken to her for nearly two years. She was so very pleased to hear from me ... and when she heard why I was calling, she reacted in much the same way as I did. She wailed in grief. My brother, who is staying with her, took the phone and when he heard, he began to sob. Dividing walls melted into nothingness. Relationships were restored, renewed, healed in mere seconds.
Over and over and over, miracles happened as a direct result of this tragedy. We felt surrounded by and permeated in unconditional love. We didn't have to DO anything to merit it. It was freely offered and lavished upon us.
That love was the most unexpected of all. We had no idea that so many loved her, and we were even more amazed that so many loved US. We are basically not your people-person kind of people. So it astonished us how so many of the people we knew took that opportunity to show us how very much they cared about us.
The Stages of Grief
Before talking about the generally accepted "stages" of grief, let me say that there is NO "right" or "wrong" way to grieve. And the stages (even though they are called that) are not really discrete from each other. They overlap and jump around, and there is no time limit. Some parts of the process may last seconds; others may last years. It depends on the depth of the relationship that has been lost. (Which reminds me ... these same stages apply to any loss, including divorce or the ending of a friendship or romantic relationship), as well as to the news that someone we love has a terminal illness.
Isolation and Denial
This is the body's natural reaction to the trauma of loss. It shuts down and numbs you, protects you from the full sting of losing someone. It serves the purpose of getting the grief-stricken family members through the funeral and burial arrangements, but it also gives ample opportunity to reflect and absorb the shock. There may be a period (however brief) of "this isn't happening to me! My loved one is still alive - this is all just a bad dream..." It's normal to feel this way. And after a period of prolonged grief, it may recur. So don't be alarmed if it does. You're not "losing it." You're processing it.
As the numbness wears off and cold reality kicks in, in varying degrees and most likely in waves, anger rises up and must be expressed, or it will fester. The anger may be against the doctor who made the diagnosis, at the police officers who delivered the news, at the other people involved in the situation, at yourself, or even at the lost loved one himself or herself. The important thing is to not deny those feelings, to admit they exist, and to express them in safe ways: safe for yourself AND for others.
This is all normal. The anger needs to be acknowledged and accepted. If stuck there, it can become unhealthy, but it is a natural response to the feeling of something having been stolen from you. It is death that is the enemy, not the one who has died. Even if the person was murdered, it is all right to be angry that such an atrocity happened, but prolonged anger that develops into hatred is self-destructive. At this point, if one is stuck here, it might be wise to seek grief counseling to work through those anger issues.
You bargain with God for the life of the one who is still alive but handed the death sentence of a diagnosis of terminal illness. After someone you love has died, this might take the form of the expression, "If only." If only I had been more attentive. If only I had gone out there and insisted that she come home with me. If only I hadn't given her that last money transfer, she wouldn't have been traveling that road at that time of night. If only I hadn't let her leave.
It's normal to feel those feelings, to work it out in your own mind and figure out that it might not have mattered if you had done that "if only." It might have happened anyway. And even if it was something that you COULD have done "if only you had known" ... you couldn't have known that this was going to happen. And you did what you thought was best at the time. Beating yourself up over it is not going to do a bit of good. What is done is done. The person made the choice he or she made and there is no going back. There is no do-over.
It just is.
The sadness of loss can be excruciating. It is horrible and it goes deep. Losing a child is especially difficult, particularly if you had always believed that your "children came first." It is normal to experience profound sadness.
Most doctors will tell you that if you have been very sad to the point of losing sleep, losing your appetite, and being unable to concentrate or to remember things for a period of more than two weeks, that you should consult a doctor.
In most cases that would be a good idea. However, in the case of grief, the sadness can last for much longer. And - truth be told - it never completely goes away. It might diminish in intensity, but the sense of loss, of missing the person, of incompleteness without that person there, never leaves.
However, if it is constant and interfering with your functioning, it might be time to seek professional help. Or at the very least, look after yourself (and let your loved ones look after you) until you are better able to cope.
The nightmares after our belle passed away, reliving my imaginations of the moment of the crash, lasted for at least a month. Every night, I'd wake in a panic around 1:30 am, having just "seen" that head-on impact and torturing myself with what she must have experienced in those awful last moments: terror, pain .... And then the waking dreams would intrude on me at the most inopportune times. One of my work colleagues suggested that I see a doctor to at least get some sleep. I took the spirit of what she said and started taking an over-the-counter sleep aid that is non-habit-forming. Getting the sleep I needed helped me to be able to handle the waves of sadness that - truth be told - still wash over me.
Knowing that the sadness is normal, that it would be unhealthy for me to not feel it, helps me to get through the waves when they happen. They've gotten fewer and don't last as long when they do come, but they still do come. Not running from it has helped me to cope better, and being honest with people, even saying, "I have good days and bad days. Today's not a good day," can alert people to the fact that I need more gentle treatment.
Sadly, not everyone gets to experience full acceptance. Some may find some measure of it, and some may find none. The process might take years, or hours. It depends and it is different for each loss, so you can't go by "what happened when Uncle Danny passed away."
The key to achieving at least some measure of acceptance is, even though it is difficult to experience, seems to be letting the grief happen.
Feel the feelings. Embrace the loss, face it, and be willing to be sad. See grief as 'the price we pay for love.' (Queen Elizabeth II)
Part of the outpouring of love that we experienced when we lost our baby girl was the hundreds of messages that her friends posted on Facebook. Here are just a few:
Can't believe what's happening right now , I've never been more devastated in my entire life . You were my best friend , you helped me through so many hard times when I found out I was pregnant. Dancing in the car with the music full blast dancing like idiots not caring what anyone thought. I can't believe you're gone. You were more like a sister to me than anything. I'll never forget all the memories we had. I love you so much and will miss you every day. Rest in paradise, you have no idea how much I'm going to miss your goofy laugh and the way you could always make my day better. I love you forever best friend, xoxo
This is a true example of say what you mean and mean what you say...only thing to be thankful for is that we both said I love you before you dropped me off that morning...I can feel your presence with me so I can talk to you in my prayers every night ..you seen me through the worst point in my life and watched me striving towards being my best...through thick and thin you were always there and I miss you so much already ...too many emotions running through me right now I just wanna tell you how much I love you
I can't bring myself to believe that this actually happened!! You were such an amazing girl, inside and out!! You had the biggest heart, best personality and were hilarious!! You always made people feel wanted. I remember on my bad days you would say whatever it took to make my smile or laugh, even if it was pure stupid shit, you always changed my mood. One of the funniest moments I can remember is walking down the hall with Kayla saying "You big head, little body" to everybody and we would be pissing our pants laughing, or you shaking your body saying" I know you want all this" in your seductive voice hahahha. OMG I love you soo much!!! Only the good die young. You were taken way too early in this life, but I guess everything happens for a reason. Always remember you are loved and will be missed dearly!!!! RIP beautiful girl. I'll see you again someday. Save a seat for me in paradise, until we meet again <3
Sorry it took so long to write something for you but last night was the first time I had the courage to go on your profile I scrolled through and read all the wonderful things that everyone had to say about such an amazing person like yourself I'm glad I had the opportunity to meet you and to become one of your many best friends I'm very thankful to have had you in my life there was never a dull moment that's for sure I've never met anyone like you and never will you had the ability to take the worst situations and turn them into the best of times the memory's I have will never be forgotten like the time you were coming to see me at the hospital after my accident last year and popped your tire on the curb I just so happened to be out for a smoke and saw it all we all laughed so hard point is when I was going through that you were there trying to get me out of my house laughing and just showing me that there is a brighter side to things it's just the person you are a happy loving caring peace keeper who thought of everyone before yourself R.I.P.
One big universe and I had the privilege of meeting you.
We heard of miracle after miracle. One person - a self-admitted addict - she was there for, through thick and thin, and today he is still clean and sober. He talks about wanting to "make her proud" ... and we know he'll make it.
The love that poured out to us actually healed one person of multiple chemical sensitivities: me!! I've not had one scent-related migraine since we got the news - and there was plenty of opportunity for me to have had reactions: the funeral home, the funeral, church services, the gatherings since. Not one.
More than one person has told me that he or she felt the presence of God so very strongly since our baby went to Heaven. At the funeral, when the pastor said to close our eyes and say a special goodbye to her, one of her friends felt arms slide around his waist like she used to do when she gave him a hug (because she was so much shorter than he was). He opened his eyes, startled, but nobody was there. Another young man (who was with her when she had the accident) told me that when he "came to" in the vehicle that night, he reached over and shook her and said that they had to get out of the car. And such a feeling of peace and serenity came over him in that moment that he knew it was "her going to Heaven. It had to be. How could a three-car wreck be peaceful?!" There were other, similar incidents. And none of them were reported by "religious" people.
Her story has changed and is still changing people, impacting lives. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak at a women's group at our church. The fact that I did it at all was miracle enough but ... I have a real problem with groups of women, so for me to even go to one of these functions was a testament to how much losing her has helped me to grow, and to realize how deeply I am loved. Don't get me wrong, it has been excruciating at times. But so much has happened that is positive that I recognize how even this tragedy has opened doors and allowed me and my family to be there for others - and for them to be there for us.
For a family of introverts (and she was the only extrovert!) that is absolutely astounding.