Regrowth

I recently went to Bend, Oregon with a friend to a concert. It’s about 4 hours away depending how fast you drive. My walking partner, also my concert partner, couldn’t allow us to leave Bend without going on a short hike. At breakfast we asked some locals for advice on a small hike in the area and they pointed us in the direction of Double Falls.

You start the hike at Tumalo Falls. Since Tumalo falls can be driven up to, with only a few yards to walk to visualizing the falls, every local with the day off seemed to be trying to get one of the limited 30 parking spots. After wrangling one of the spots we started our pilgrimage towards Double Falls.

Watching streams of people, young and old, walking in single file up the path, I felt like it was some sort of Bend pilgrimage or some rite of passage the locals must accomplish. I was fighting off the start of a head cold, and of course always concerned about Covid anytime I have a sneeze, a tickle in my throat or a headache, even though I’m vaccinated and hardly wander from my house, it turned out to be a head cold. Needless to say I wasn’t feeling the hike if you know what I mean.

Not to mention, as grief works, it had hit me hard that morning, it has been over three years since I lost my daughter, but it can hit with a thought, a memory, an image. I had both visiting me that morning and I felt waves of immeasurable sadness hit my frontal lobe like a migraine. First was the lyrics from the concert we had gone to the night before. NEEDTOBREATHE, a Christian band Folksy with a bit of metal to it, who knew you could use a banjo and and then an electric guitar and it would sound so good?

I’ve never told anyone how I found the band because it sounds a bit metaphysical or just strange in general. When I first heard the news of my daughter’s passing and in the first couple of days I had many panic attacks. They mostly consisted of hyperventilating and then sobbing. I kept saying in my head, I need to breathe, I can’t breathe, I just need to breathe…

Months later I was texting with another grief mama, it’s what I call the other mothers who have lost children. I found they had no one to vent to, someone that wouldn’t tire of listening to them cry or ask why. I was telling the other mama that I had these words come to me, keep your eyes open. I can’t remember now if it was something I heard in a dream or heard in my head. It was somewhere in the blur of the first year where I can barely remember how I shuffled through it. I told her I felt like those words were significant. I decided to google the words and was surprised to see not only was it a song, Keep your eyes open, but it was written by NEEDTOBREATHE, a band I had never heard of, but words I had said to myself many times in those early days. I goggled the lyrics and felt the words sink in.

If you could soldier on
Headstrong into the storm
I’ll be here waiting on the other side
Don’t look back
The road is long
The first days of the war are gone
Take back your former throne and turn the tide’Cause if you never leave home, never let go
You’ll never make it to the great unknown till you
Keep your eyes open, my love
So tell me you’re strong, tell me you see
I need to hear it, can you promise me to
Keep your eyes open, my loveJust past the circumstance
The first light, a second chance
No child could ever dance the way you do, oh
Tear down the prison walls
Don’t start the curtain call
Your chains will never fall until you do’Cause if you never leave home, never let go
You’ll never make it to the great unknown till you
Keep your eyes open, my love
So show me your fire, show me your heart
You know I’ll never let you fall apart if you
Keep your eyes open, my loveOpen up
Open up
Open up your eyes
The weight is unbroken
Open up
Open up
Open up your eyes
Keep your eyes openDon’t let the night become the day
Don’t take the darkness to the grave
I know pain is just a place
The will has been broken
Don’t let the fear become the hate
Don’t take the sadness to the grave
I know the fight is on the way
When the sides have been chosen…

-Keep your eyes open, NEEDTOBREATHE

After sending my friend the lyrics, not sure if the words fell on her the way they did on me, I was then invited to this concert by another friend surprisingly, and then two years later a second friend, the one I was hiking with. The songs echoed in my head as we soldiered on up the trail.

The second memory that hit me on the trail was like a hazy dream. It was my daughter and her friend who lived in Bend along with her mom and I, dragging little ones in tow as the girls giggled and scurried ahead of us, leaning over the rail at the waterfall as we reprimand the girls to keep away from the edge. I can see the girls, braces gleaming, the sun shining off the water and then what feels like a frog builds up in my throat and I hug the memory while it slips away.

Along the path you can’t help notice that everywhere you look can be found burnt branches, and the remains of a previous fire. A quick google search tells me its a 2019 fire that most likely wiped the trail out for quite awhile. Someone had cut off all the damaged trees and branches and they lay in piles where they had been cleared. This way the path could once again be enjoyed and the falls observed.

I kept looking at the tiny small ferns, the new underbrush, trying to judge how long ago the devastation took place. Did it really matter? I then wondered was it a man-made fire or was it lightning? Whose fault was it? The though came to me again, Does it really matter?

The beauty and power of the falls was remarkable, but what caught my eye was the tiny growth of green plant life growing on the burnt, destroyed remains of a pine. To me that was the beauty, the growth among the darkness where nothing else seemed to be growing and it resonated with me. I felt a kindred spirit to the tiny patch of green.

Many days I feel like the tiny plant trying to pretend to being a giant pine, but I know I need to be thankful for the growth that I have somehow managed. I should be even a bit impressed with myself for surviving in an inhospitable environment one of destruction and sadness.

There are many days I feel like I’ll never be my old self again, and in truth I will never be the pine I once was. I get down on myself for not being able to accomplish what I think I should for that day, or week. I get down on myself for being unable to do all the things the other pines seem to be able to do, work, shop, raise kids, smile, laugh, love, play and dance. Like a large pine swaying in the sunlight, but I am not a large pine, I am the regrowth. I am the survivor. I also can dance a bit, I can grow. It will never be the same display as the mighty pine. But I am surviving in a place many cannot, and my tiny movements are big movements for me.

In your ocean, I’m ankle deep
I feel the waves crashin’ on my feet
It’s like I know where I need to be
But I can’t figure out, yeah I can’t figure outJust how much air I will need to breathe
When your tide rushes over me
There’s only one way to figure out
Will ya let me drown, will ya let me drownHey now, this is my desire
Consume me like a fire, ’cause I just want something beautiful
To touch me, I know that I’m in reach
‘Cause I am down on my knees, I’m waiting for something beautiful
Oh, oh, ohh something beautiful…

-Something Beautiful, NEEDTOBREATHE

Ice, Ice, Baby

Have you ever realized you have lived all your life and just realized the proper use of a tool long after everyone else? I have those moments a lot in life. When I realized you can pop a top off a bottle with just about anything, I was say…30. Joining TikTok has made me realize many of the actual uses for tools that I somehow missed such as how to close a bag of bread correctly or whatever. TikTok also showed me that though my A.D.D. had me out to lunch most of my life, I definitely am not the lower bottom of the barrel of intelligence on the internet. Somehow that makes me feel better.

In High School we learned about the fight or flight response, our primitive ancestors used this response to stay alive. Their heart would beat faster, their breathing would increase and they would run faster. Then in nursing school I learned about the parasympathetic nervous system and how we have a system to regain homeostasis after stress, but I never put it all together.

Trying to always talk to my girls, checking in. They didn’t always say what was wrong. My kids all struggled with anxiety themselves. We went to therapy, yoga, I read books. I was grieving and dragging through therapy at 47 when I learned about cold therapy. Why had I not learned this simple trick until 47 for anxiety?

I used to tell my girls, do NOT walk up quietly behind me if I am chopping vegetables. My fear was I would jump and stab someone. I have always been jumpy, my fight or flight level being extremely high. Loud noises will send me through the ceiling. On a positive note, one of my dear friends told me recently I would most likely survive the zombie apocalypse and could be with her in the bunker, so that’s handy.

Somewhere in recent therapy my daughter was told to put ice on her face or stick her face in a bucket of water. I was a bit concerned we were seeing a wacky therapist. She explained ice to the face activated your vagus nerve which calms the fight or flight response. It can stop someone during a panic attack, it could help someone avoid self-harm, why hadn’t I ever put that together or heard about it?

The reaction your body has is called the mammalian dive reflex. The reaction to a mammal diving deep into cold water is a slowed heart rate, and decreased breathing. We trigger that response by putting our face in a bowl of ice water or by placing a cold pack on our face. You can also hold your breath and splash cold water on your face simulating a dive response. It calms your body to prepare for oxygen restriction.

When we feel intense emotions we often feel out of control. I finally understand why we tell people to splash some cold water on their face when they are upset. Maybe some of the old housewives tales actually are rooted in something after all. It seems like a skill that could be given with an ADHD diagnosis from a pediatrician but I’ll stop from getting on a rant of our broken mental health system.

The next time you feel extreme emotions coming over you, grab an ice pack or some ice water. To be clear you have to put the ice on your own face, though throwing ice water in the face of an annoying co-worker or patronizing boss may sound temping. I can’t personally recommend it.

To See or not To See

Grief is a murderous beast, yet silent as it stalks the living. I knew that the moment I found myself in it. That I had to survive it and somehow help my girls survive it also. It’s not really talked about in the mental health community and you cannot find a specific grief specialist to literally, save your life. In medical terms, I would say that I still “suffer” from it but I am in a kind of remission in the similar sense someone with certain viruses never are without the virus once they contract it, but they find ways for it to lay dormant only flaring up on occasions of stress or illness.

If you saw me yesterday, visiting the same eating disorder clinic I had wanted to send my daughter to, but ultimately was talked out of, you would not believe I was “in remission” of grief. Imagining how she might have been helped in her mental health struggles, before we lost her, was downright excruciatingly painful, but necessary to possibly help another daughter trying to survive Covid lockdown, grief and genetics.

I sat through the four hours of paperwork and questions and review. Sitting in the final stages of getting on the waitlist, I hear the doctor trying to cautiously make some sort of accusation as she reviews everything myopically. “Did you know your daughter keeps track of how old her sister would be now?” I can see she is bothered by this notion. She then adds, “do you know that she feels her sister reaches out to her?” I can also see clearly how my ways of helping my girls through grief have a different look to a black and white scientist. She is skimming the surface of wondering about schizophrenia and I have to explain these things are accepted and normal in my family.

The doctor I have known for many years, she treated my oldest. Still to this day I regard her as one of the smartest women that I have ever met. She spends hours going over health, medications, genetics, family histories, birth and development to help understand the best treatment options for your child. In that moment I realized there is no room for spiritualism, ritualism, and belief outside the world of atoms, cells and basic biology.

I explained that our family celebrates her birthday, with a walk in her honor. She would know how old her sister would be because of it. I mumbled something about our family having a small non-profit, an outreach for suicide prevention and depression awareness and we raise fund for AFSP during that birthday walk. She would know that her sister would be 22 right now. It was one of those moments I doubted myself, just for a second, but I have to hold true what I know. It has helped my family, walking, feeling the love and support, bringing the hidden feelings out into the light to talk about. Why has science not caught up yet?

The second point she made was a bit harder to explain. I believe in signs, I believe that God allows us to be comforted in whatever way He sees fit. If my daughter imagines her sister reaching out to her to tell her she loves her, why would I want to take that away from her. How can I explain that it takes someone with belief in a spiritual world first of all and that believing in that comfort is not potential schizophrenia, but a coping mechanism and of course, I also believe is a gift to help us not feel so alone.

The truth is, no one can understand the full extent of comfort a sign or message from our loved ones gives except the person it was meant for. When I read about other people’s signs I think it’s nice but the impact is lost on me. It is the same for when I get a feeling of comfort or sign. I know that others think, “isn’t that nice” and “whatever you need to tell yourself to cope”…. For example, last week was my birthday and I believe I was sent a Happy Birthday from my daughter. Birthdays are a big deal in our house. I’ve always made a fuss over them. It’s been awhile since I was given a sign and I remember thinking a few days before my birthday, “I wonder if I’ll get a sign from Mikenna?” I didn’t think about it on the actual day though. We were in an ice storm and without heat, a lot was going on. My oldest daughter was taking me wine tasting and I was looking forward to it. We sat down and the sommelier explained she had put together her own list for us to taste. These wines were of her own choosing. The first wine she brought out for the night was my sign, my birthday gift from my daughter. It was a wine called “Mamacita” actually not a wine, a sparkling champagne-like wine, a specialty bottle. In my daughter’s phone I was never mom, I was Mamacita, she would call me that usually in private with a giggle because even with years of Spanish she could not speak a word of it but somehow loved this one word. No one picking the wines could have known, and I cherished the moment and the bottle. I of course had to buy it.

No Dr. M, my daughter is not schizophrenic, we are a family that believes in signs, a family of faith and I believe it to be healing. If after my daughter died I had been left in a black and white world where there was only science, I’m not sure I would be doing as well as I am. Why do we dismiss the grief stricken? Why is there no real help for people barely hanging on to daily life? It ruins marriages, careers, families but we cannot easily explain it by science, there is no magic pill so we ignore it and hope somehow the grief stricken come out the other side. Cheers to signs.

Love,

Mamacita

Mamacita sparkling wine from Day Winery, Dundee, Oregon

Breaker Lane

If you’ve ever spent time in the ocean, trying to tread water in strong waves, you understand the analogy of how it feels to move through life with the reminder of grief and the cruelty of depression.

To be clear, grief and depression are not the same thing. Grief is the constant reminder of a loss you carry, where for me, depression is the feeling I carry of not being able to solve it or fix it or even prevent it (another loss) from happening again.

I watched the angry waves hit the rocky shore ruthlessly, smoothing their surface to a polished, slick edge. The hidden rip current beneath the surface a stronger force than the breaking waves upon the shore.

I was reminded of a time on my anniversary trip to Maui with my husband when we went snorkeling everywhere we went. I loved the world just out of sight of ours, so colorful and magical. On one of our trips we went off the lava rock shore to find an area that promised diverse fish not far out in the small bay. We had been snorkeling all week so my husband went first and swam out to the point in front of me. Eager to join him I quickly put my fin on one foot and rushed to throw my other on when my bare foot slid across the sharp lave rock. It sliced the side of my foot like butter. Ignoring it I put on my mask and jumped in. As soon as I swam a few yards, I was reminded that I was not an olympic swimmer or a decent swimmer. I could swim, ish, I mean I could swim a pool and tread water. Swimming against the waves was more difficult in this rocky bay. I was trying to catch up to my husband and in my rush my mask was filling with water. I was unable to see clearly. Instantly I became aware that my foot was in a lot of pain and it was now stinging in the salt water and definitely not helping me tread water while I adjusted my mask. The large waves kept smacking me in the face as I tried to put my mask back on and I took in water. For a brief moment, I felt the fear that I could drown only a few yards from my husband, and panic started to sink in. He was completely unaware of my difficulties. I somehow managed to ignore the pain in my foot and fix my mask enough to bee-line to him.

Staring at the Oregon shore I felt a similar feeling to that day in Maui. The pain of my daughter’s death like the sliced foot as I try and swim, the constant angry waves are the waves of forces beyond my control that keep hitting me in the face. Another daughter with depression, the loss of direction with my career, finances, college tuition, Covid, my mother’s cancer, just daily over and over without any reprieve.

I am not alone in my situation. Unfortunately, genetics can often be at the center of this tragic play and grief the script. Many families know this feeling of helplessness, losing a loved one to depression and maybe having it themselves or having another family member with it as well. Major depression is genetic and messy. Affecting more than one family member most times and sometimes the underlying cause of a loss. It often times is tangled up with addiction, poor decision making, and complicated relationships. Then the loss in the family leaves no stone left unturned, no person left unaffected. It bulldozes every person in the family leaving them unable to help their other surviving family members. Each person trying to tread water injured in a sea of grief.

As difficult as it is, we cannot do it alone. It’s easier emotionally to swim with others that our in our own pool, so to speak, (understand our situation) but we also have to find support outside our own pool and for me at least that changes through the seasons of grief. I have come to realize I cannot support everyone in my family, keeping them afloat myself. I have to rely on others and I have to encourage my family to take support themselves. Currently my support comes in the form of a few friends. They drag me out to walk, they listen as I talk and they do not see me as the shell of myself that I feel that I am. For my other daughters I encourage them to reach out and find their own support groups and people that can give them good counsel. The truth is I dread reaching out to these support groups myself, I feel broken vulnerable and weak but talking and working with others is the only way to make progress forward or at least not sink. Every day I have to try again, I have to keep swimming as Dori said. These words just came into my head, so I share them with you. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:9). It’s ok to be weak and sharing our weakness with others makes us stronger even if we can’t see it through our salt water filled goggles.

Survival of the Pitiest

As a child and through young adulthood I’ve never knew what to say when I was lavished with gifts out of the norm, I would feel awkward, somehow underserving and it made me uncomfortable. That is how I felt with sympathy somehow. It makes me feel like I need to say something in return, it makes me uncomfortable for the person offering it and it makes me feel like I need to make the person who is offering their sympathy feel better. I remember saying “It’s ok” to multiple people at the funeral and hugging people more for them than myself. Since then I’ve become some sort of a grief advocate. I say my daughter’s name when something relevant comes up, just as I would if she was alive. I don’t care if I make others “uncomfortable” life and death are uncomfortable.

Walk around the river my daughter loved

Tomorrow is the anniversary of my daughter’s death, the anniversary of loosing a piece of myself, loosing part of my family, and the anniversary of this day changing the trajectory of each of her sisters and her parents, family and friends forever. I took the day off of work. I decided to be open about the date. It is my daughter’s Angel date as I call it. Where I believe her to be in a better place, and I have no concern to debate it with anyone who feels otherwise. I know it makes my managers feel uncomfortable to hear me say multiple times, as I was asked if I was working that day multiple times, “it is the anniversary of my daughter’s death, I will not be there”.

At some point, at first for my other daughter’s and then for myself, I decided I was not going to let grief consume me. It easily could have. The most important lesson I have learned is that it NEVER goes away. There are moments it overwhelms me, and I feel it, observe it and I let it pass. I think setting aside a day for grief is a novel concept. On her birthday I celebrate her, her ideals, the non-profit in her name, he life and beauty. On holidays I remember her. But on this day I grieve her loss and I encourage my daughters to take the day off from responsibilities for that time.

I believe it gives grief a place to reside. A day or a place. A time to light a candle, plant a tree or bulbs, read a favorite book, go on a quiet walk, or as my family as adopted, spreading rose petals either at a place she loved or someplace she would have loved to see.

I recently read some poetry by Caitlyn Siehl, and these words stood out to me, “Do not fall in love with people like me.
I will take you to museums, and parks, and monuments, and kiss you in every beautiful place, so that you can never go back to them without tasting me like blood in your mouth.
I will destroy you in the most beautiful way possible. And when I leave you will finally understand, why storms are named after people.” To me that describes loss.

It made me then wonder why storms were names after people, the words that hit home with a little internet search were these, “Meteorologists long ago learned that naming tropical storms helps us remember, communicate about them more effectively, and so to stay safer” earthsky.org

Why would grief then be so different? It is a hurricane that threatens to level your life, it deserves to be acknowledged, to be named for the damage and chaos it brought to your life. I think about Katrina. I visited NewOrleans a year after I lost my daughter. I didn’t know the words then, but I recognize the sisterhood I felt with the city. It was a city rebuilding, a city that was loved and still loved, it was a city that would never be the same, but it does not hide in shame of its destruction. It rebuilds, scarred, determined, beautiful but never the same.

Pitiest: (archaic) Second-person singular simple present form of pity. https://www.yourdictionary.com/

Angelic Hands

The other day I was driving home, thinking about how we are given more signs it seems right after our loved one pass, but as the time goes on, you seem to be given less and less. It make sense, when you first lose a child or a spouse or a parent you cannot even believe it is your new reality. Honestly if I hear “new normal” one more time I might gag.

I have been contemplating my career during these Covid times, I decided I wanted to go back to school to get my Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner degree a few months ago, and I have been wading through the grueling admission process and trying to talk my husband into believing it’s a good idea, (not a goal I have achieved yet), ever since. Since I was taken out of the role of Charge nurse or Head nurse for putting in missed breaks all at one time for a year, when I learned from my union a break isn’t a break if you are eating your lunch on the toilet with the desk phone, I have been re-evaluating my career life choices.

For eight years I was used to the chaos of the role, and I found myself looking to find my new work identity. Lately, I found myself really disliking my limited time with patients and limited interactions with other employees since now I was in the operating room every day with my patient asleep for the most part. The only communication you have with your patients awake, is about five minutes of their time before surgery and about five minutes after they have opened their eyes as a surgical nurse. Not to say the job isn’t interesting or important, (but to be honest, there are days it doesn’t feel either).

There are some days your five minutes are cut even shorter, like when your nurse checking in the patient hasn’t had a chance to check the patient in earlier, so as a surgical nurse you might listen in, ask three to five questions and leave getting a report from the other nurse when he/she is finished.

I was having one of those days. We were moving ahead of schedule, faster than the check in process could keep up. I popped my head in to see if I could introduce myself and the other nurse let me jump in. I asked my few safety questions and before I was about to leave and looked down at her hand and saw a large glass ring.

The ring was very unusual, it looked like blown glass, colorful and smooth, slightly large for a ring. Besides her hospital gown, that was all she was wearing. I said, “Oh, I see you still have a ring on.” She said, “the ring is very important to me, I never take it off.” I noticed it was glass, so I wasn’t worried about it being metal and interfering with anything. I said, “well your hand can swell during surgery and I also would hate for it to get lost.” I looked at her face and she had tears in her eyes that were about to spill over. It is not uncommon for patients to be anxious before surgery, but this patient had not showed any signs of anxiety earlier, she had no history of mental health issues listed or that were reported to me. I waited a few heartbeats for her to explain.

She said, “this ring was my twin sister’s ring. My identical twin sister. She died, and you see I never take it off because I feel like I am bringing her with me”. I immediately felt a lump in my throat form and I quickly said, “your surgery is only twenty minutes long, and we are working nowhere near your hand, we can tape your ring, so it doesn’t move or fall off.” Most people that know me at work, know I am a stickler for the rules, there are exceptions, of course, but I like to follow them and I am constantly trying to keep up with the policies as they ebb and flow.

She was so grateful, the tears now threatening to fall. She said without prodding, and to be honest I felt the words coming before they tumbled out of her mouth, “it was suicide.”I was thankful no one was standing near me, I felt my own eyes well up. I held her hand with the ring. “I lost my own daughter,” I said, “the same way.” She looked into my eyes and felt the common bond between us that no words can describe. I reached over with her other hand to hold mine. She told me how losing her twin had been like loosing half of herself as she imagined losing a child might be. She then asked me if I knew any good grief therapists. She was still struggling she said. Again somehow knowing she lived near me, I asked, “what city do you live in?” and she answered a city near mine. I told her I was going to get her room ready but I would give her some information about local groups. Before I ran off, she told me how we were meant to meet.

In the operating room I heard the surgeon mention to his resident how our patient had gone through the tragedy of her sisters suicide. I wondered how this one surgeon didn’t know my story, I had thought they all did. As the years go on though, I realize people forget, and new surgeons come and people tend to say things at work or in life around me now they don’t realize still makes me internally cringe. It seems so often people say things like, “I would ki** myself if that happened to me, or just sh**t me in the head why don’t you.” These dumb idioms or whatever they are, make the minority of us grief-walkers just wring our hands and clench our jaw while walking away.

After surgery, I usually only have a couple minutes to report off to the recovery nurse and go see my next patient. This just happened to be my last case of the day and we were done early. I stood next to her ask she became fully awake. I told her everything went well and I had put the info for her in her bag. I noticed her ring was off and I asked, “where is your ring?” I had a moment of panic as I looked down at her blankets. She said, “it was uncomfortable taped and I didn’t want to lose it, besides I know my sister was with me because of you and I think my sister and your daughter brought us together.” For the second time that day, I felt a lump in my throat. She talked a little more to me, and at one point I asked her what year her sister passed. Again somehow I knew we would have another common bond as she said 2018. I agreed with her as I told her to take care while , I was meant to be her nurse today. It doesn’t matter if I am head nurse or not, maybe we are used where we are at in life, and though I hope to have a different path in my career in the future, hopefully as a PMHNP, for now I am ok where I am at.

Will There Be Joy?

Will there be joy again? It was a question I asked myself as I watched my oldest daughter graduate from college six months after the death of her sister. I took stock of my emotions, I was “happy” for her, I was proud of her, but it came with ache I would never see my daughter Mikenna graduate from university. The last two Holidays came and went and I felt the same emotions, I was thankful to be with my family and sad that part of it will forever be missing. I came up with ways to endure Holidays and special occasions, I created new traditions and I made sure to make plans on days that I new would be hard. But where was JOY?

I remember just months after I lost my daughter one of my doctor friends asked if we could all go out, to cheer me up. My old group of work friends kept asking me for dates and times to go. It sounded horrible. It sounded like a lot of me trying to act like I was fine. The truth was I am a social creature, but being around a lot of people, at least during the first couple years drained me. I knew at the time I was asked that someday that invitation might sound nice, but at that time It was the last thing I wanted to do. Two and a half years went by and now I might like the occasional invite, though many of the invites have stopped coming. Then the world went into a pandemic. How rude!

It made me realize that we do move away from people that seem like drama, they have something always going on or they might be emotional, it’s our natural instinct to move away from them. How often before my daughter passed did I not call or text someone because I felt uncomfortable with what they had going on in their life? It’s funny how life experiences change your perspective. At one point in my life, I learned to avoid people that might drag me into any unhealthy relationships, but as I matured I learned that you can also have healthy boundaries with your friends and their drama. Most people have messy lives, and you can still have relationships without taking on everyone’s issues.

My core people are still around me, some live far or I only see them once in awhile, but the main people that supported me at work, at home or online are still around. They still ask me to get coffee, have a bonfire, go for a walk, or send a text here and there, even if I don’t take them up on it. That’s what you find when you go through something terrible, you find your people. I am luckier than most people I know online dealing with loss, I have a larger support group than most, even two years later, they still send a message here and there to make sure I have left my house beyond work once in awhile. If you are reading this, and you know someone like me or my family, keep reaching out. It might seem like it’s been a very long time and we should be “back to normal” but we aren’t, our social energy as I call it, has changed. We don’t think about calling or texting most days but we still need you in our lives! To us two years or four years seems like five minutes ago and we get lost as days float by without even knowing it.

The question still hung over my head? Will I ever feel pure JOY again? Have I felt any joy since the tragedy? I replayed the last couple of years in my mind. Maybe I had to redefine what Joy would be. A year after the tragedy I was given tickets for my oldest daughter and I to go to a comedy show. I felt so awkward going out. It was like I forgot how to be in public. Once the show started though, I found myself laughing hysterically I would consider that joy. Another time that comes to mind is the trip I took to Ireland with my oldest daughter for a graduation present. We still shed many tears knowing that we were in a place her sister would have loved, but we had moments of joy as we took castle crypt tours, tromped through farming fields to view the cliffs and visited local pubs in every town we came across.

Then last month I was invited to a 50th birthday party with just a few people I already carpool with to work. I wasn’t sure why they wanted a “kill joy” with them, but I decided to go. Only two very strong cocktails was all I needed to be ready for bed, but we were at the coast so I kept myself from dozing off. My friend was laying on the rocks and watching the meteor shower, so I joined her. Looking up and seeing the stars so clear was amazing and I would say, that was contentment. For whatever reason, that moment was void of anything but looking up at the shooting stars.

Two days ago, one of my closest friends asked if I wanted to make dinner with her and double the recipe, to be honest I almost bailed, but I ended up going anyway. We cooked and had a glass of wine and talked about both of our own trips to Ireland. I was there for just a couple of hours but it was enjoyable to laugh and be with someone I am comfortable with. Besides my “people” one of my other loves in my life are my kitties. It might be because my daughter that passed also loved them. I was never an animal person when I was younger, but now when my little fluff ball curls up in my lap, (Tonks who is supposed to be a warrior kitty), it makes my heart feel like it is getting a little hug. What I am realizing, is that I didn’t have a ton of experiences over the last couple years of pure JOY, but I did have them. I am redefining my definition of Joy.

For me, I am finding joy in laughter. In those moments you are laughing you are not focused on anything else. I also find my joy in discovery and travel. (Now if we weren’t in a pandemic that would be nice!) I find joy in effortless friendship, where I can be myself, where we can cook, craft, travel, play games or laugh. I find joy in the unconditional love of animals, the way my Puggle follows me everywhere and sleeps practically on top of me. If you have had tragedy, loss, or trauma, you will not experience happiness and joy the same way you had before, for instance I will never have all my girls here on Christmas morning and that kind of joy is now a fond memory unable to be had again. Find the little things that give you even a moment of contentment, no matter what it is. Identify these things so that you can redefine your JOY and put a little bit of it back into your life.

JOY, Twirling in Extravagance

To Thine Own Self Be True

To Thine Own Self Be True….Shakespeare uses this line in Hamlet, and this phrase has multiple meanings. The first meaning is that someone can better judge himself if he has done what he should or could have done. The second meaning is that one must be honest in his ways and relations. The third meaning is that one must always do the right thing. ‘True’ can also mean beneficial; therefore, his advice to his son meant that he must think of his own benefit first. https://literarydevices.net/to-thine-own-self-be-true/

These words came to me as I read over and over again, in different online groups, mother’s and father’s being ostracized for the way they deal with their grief of loosing their child. Why? “Get over it, You need to move on, you need to get rid of those clothes,” and many other harmful words aimed at the grieving person. I had a pretty good idea why, but I decided to double check my Psychology degree. With just a quick search in Psychology Today, I found what I was looking for, I call it the mirror effect.

When we criticize someone, it is because we see ourselves in the reflection of the criticism. It is a form of ego defense it is not because we disagree with the behavior. We feel devalued by the behavior. http://www.Psycholgytoday.com The way we as grieving people deal with our loss makes some people feel personally insulted and it makes them feel very uncomfortable.

I remember when I decided to have a third child and then a fourth. I had a close girlfriend who was actually disgusted in my choice. She had one child and I know somehow she felt it reflected on her choice to only have one child that she could never imagine making my choice. The truth is we all do this to some extent, just know that you might have your own ego involved when you criticize.

The truth is, each of your lives, whoever you are grieving, matters. Your might be grieving your child, your niece, your grandchild, your husband, or sister. To Thine Own Self Be True, is posted in one blog I read as self serving, and in a way it is. You are valuing your own life, you are doing what you need to do to survive, to go on. You might need to hike the Pacific Coast Trail, spread your loved ones ashes at the Pirates of the Caribbean, or Grand Canyon, make their clothes into quilts or teddy bears, make scented candles, form an organization, write a book, plant a tree, built a garden, a plaque where they loved, frame their pictures, create art, scream in an empty field, leave their room the way it is, leave their clothes in the closet, post a picture every day, try acupuncture, therapy, walk or run, medication, prayer, or have days where you hide under the covers and sob.

In nursing school I remember being taught about pain. Margo McCaffery’s, the pioneer of pain management definition of pain, “It’s whatever the experiencing person says it is, existing whenever and wherever the person says it does.” Her words have become a touchstone for clinicians addressing and treating patients in pain. https://voice.ons.org/ The widely used 0-10 pain scale assessment tool came from this definition. Today, patient self-report is the standard of care for evaluating pain.

Many times when I am reading about different people’s grief, or responding to a question about what they should do in a situation, I think about pain as something hard to assess such as grief, it is whatever people say it is and for that person it will be different than my own. I remember one of the first questions I read was about burial verses cremation. I knew instantly what I needed for my child. It was different than many other grieving parents. Newly in my loss I remember thinking I could never choose their choice, but then it occurred to me, their choice was not wrong, it was just different.

To Thine own self be true, do what you need to do to take care of you. You have many people around you or even people you have not met yet that need you. I remember one online friend who was a single mother that lost her only child, she moves on to help other people in similar situations because only she knows that kind of pain and her pain is different than my own.

The tricky part can be grief in a family related to roles. My grief as a mother is different than my daughter’s grief of loosing her sister and my mother’s to loosing her grand-daughter. Sometimes it can be hard to understand each of their grief, so I listen when they want me to. Loss is a grenade who’s shrapnel hits all it can reach. We have to give each other grace. Give each other a little room to have a different relationship with it. I think of a grenade going off, and one person losing a leg, one an arm, another an eye. One person is partially blind, one cannot walk, the other cannot swim, they all experience pain. What we all need to remember is their prothesis device, used to individually navigate their world, is fit specifically only to that one person and no two are the same.

Do What You Can Do

Chaos was what I was born into, I was born from two creative 60’s parents, both amazing artists and musicians. They were barely out of their teens when Vietnam hit. Their parents were WWII pilots and heros that had lived through the depression before there was maternity leave, birth control, or anything related to mental health care. After Vietnam the short love affair they had was gone and the reality of the harsh world set in. My mother and I lived alone for a few years as she worked at anything she could, leaving her amazing talents to the curb for practicality and I secretly loved every moment we had alone together. She soon married her best friend who had a career and a soon a home. My two sweet sisters were born ten years after me and I learned the care taking role. Addiction though plagued my family tree, and friction was a part of every day.

I joined the military at 18 and left the minute I graduated. The lesson I am focused on today, is the one I have been fighting against my entire life. You can only control your choices in life but you cannot control all the other factors of your choice or other people’s choices. I chose the military, for opportunity, and a sense of control over my life. Just months after I finished basic training, I was shipped off to a war torn country. (Excuse me, that’s not what I signed up for!). In that situation all I could control were my choices for that day, who I would spend my time with, the words that would come out of my mouth, the way I would act, my attitude. For some reason at 19, I had less of a problem with that in 1991 than I do now. I was not anxious, I was not overly sad. I think because I knew all I could do was what I could do. Why has that been so hard since then?

I tried to finish college but I lacked support in all ways. I married a few years later and had two kids back to back, a four year gap and another set of Irish twins making a busy house of 6. I finished school and went on to go to nursing school, able to do so with the support and stability I needed. But life still had a lot of curveballs and line drives to the forehead awaiting me.

I remember the first one being an ADHD diagnosis with one of my daughters, and another curveball with another daughter having an extremely high IQ. I thought ok, I’ll learn all about this and do all the things I need to do. I moved the kids to a school more equipped to deal with both. I even helped start the talented and gifted program at the new school. A few years later another child was diagnosed with a very rare learning disability, that affects anything spatial. I threw myself into years of research, IEP meetings and honestly still I am trying to learn and teach people about it. It took years, but I finally learned that I had to teach my daughter about her disability and how to advocate for herself because I couldn’t be in her pocket for ever.

In 2014 we hit the wall with depression and eating disorder behavior with one child and my husband and I threw everything we had at. I never could wrap my head around what we could have done wrong. Our children had everything they needed, they had love, and education, activities, pets, faith. (Ah, but you cannot outrun genetics, and depression is genetically linked to addiction, eating disorders, OCD, ADHD. They are all cut from the same cloth). In remission, she came out the other side but her sister soon followed and in 2018 she lost the battle with her depression before we could even get a handle on what was going on.

The loss rippled through my family like a grenade. It left shrapnel inside the rest of us that we have been adapting to for over two years. My remaining three girls each fighting their own battle that I could not fight for them. The part of the story most outsiders are unknowing, the devastation didn’t stop with the loss of my daughter. My oldest a year later, December 2019, lost the person she planned to start her life with, to untreated bipolar depression and moved home a couple months later the pandemic hit. All I could do then and still do, is to hold her and remind her of all the talent and beauty that still lives inside of her. I remind her daily.

My middle child, broke-up with her three year boyfriend that spiraled her into facing her the loss of her sister also, the realization that people you love can leave without warning and again I couldn’t fix it, she had to fight her way through it, learn to control her own actions and claw her way out of the pit she was in while loosing every friend around her. Going from the most popular, to being ridiculed, her property vandalized, being cyber bullied and deserted my friends instead of supported by those around her. From my observation, people just back away from anything they don’t understand and look for the easiest explanation instead of taking a closer look and sitting down in the mess with someone. I can honestly say I am so proud of her for literally putting a crown on her head at her senior parade and managing to still keep her scholarship. She is day by day moving forward in this Covid world at college. All I could do during those darker days was make accommodations for her the last few months of school, encourage her to talk and to keep moving forward one day at a time.

Today my youngest battles her own major depression, with learning challenges she has always battled some, but in a similar fashion to her sister, the recent loss of her year-long relationship with the one person she trusted more than anything, knocked her depression into turbo gear and brought the loss of her sister even more to the forefront. Learning that you have no control over people leaving, can bring everything you know to a complete halt. I wish I could fix it, but the words of my mother come to mind. “People do only what people can do.”

She told me this on the day of my wedding, when the turmoil of having my husband’s west coast family members and my Ohio family member all together in one building had me stressed and crying. Basically she was trying to tell me to not focus on things out of my control, you do what you can. People do only what they can. Focus on those things. As my youngest works through her depression currently in militant-like therapy center all I can do is be her cheer-leader. I can advocate for her and support her in any way I can through it, but the up-hill battle is hers and I am proud of her because she has always had to work twice as hard as anyone else in the room, though she rarely gives up. I am proud of all my girls for pulling themself up, without a lot of outside support to cheer them on.

I sit this morning with fires raging in my county ten miles away, with a pandemic still silently threatening, smoke filling the city streets making the sky like a scene from Twilight. I debate if airing my family struggles in my blog is helpful or damaging, but ultimately I believe talking about mental health is more important than any negative opinion lobbed my way. It is therapeutic for me to write and maybe someone will read it this and see they are not alone.

I can only control, what I can control. Today I can slowly work on cleaning up my office space, organize some of my non-profit, http://www.mikennavanekproject.org paperwork and maybe brainstorm ways our non-profit could help those affected by the fires or pandemic. I can try and figure out how to use my new air fryer and make something new or different in it, I can open up one of the games I love to play tonight and play a game with my husband and daughters. Instead of focusing on the fact I can’t breathe outside, and that I can’t socialize or travel, I will focus on what I can do and that’s all I can do.

Permanent

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Permanence, until now I never realized the full gravity of something being permanent.  We use a permanent marker to write our names on our children’s clothing aa they head off to summer camp.  Of course you can also scratch out the name, tear out a tag. You can cover it up with another name, make one name into part of another’s name.  What is permanent?

Right now our country is debating the national monuments, what do they represent?   I am sure that when Mount Rushmore was carved, by artist Gutzon Borglum, he considered his art would be permanent.  Carved into the granite mountainside in 1927, it was to be left for future generations to appreciate.  Granite, though slow to erode, does erode over time and the political climate and views could someday lead to the removal of this monument.  My point being, that even things we perceive as permanent, aren’t alway so.

Since I moved into my house thirteen years ago, I have debated with my husband the blue spruce tree at the end of the side of our driveway.  The blue spruce was the last tree in a beautiful hedge that graced the side of our driveway.  I only knew of its existence by black and white photos found from the city zoning department.  Across the driveway, in my yard were two giant oak trees.   The November before my daughter passed, we had a wind storm and lost one of the giant oaks.

That day I will never forget.  One of the few videos I still have on my phone, is her fake freaking out, standing in the wind storm.  30 minutes later we heard a terrible crack and the oak tree laid across our lawn and the street.  In that moment I realized my youngest daughter was missing.   Her and a friend had gone for a walk around the block in the wind storm.   I yelled for Genae and Mikenna, her two sisters living at home still, to look for their youngest sister with me.  I screamed her name outside.  For 30 seconds I was terrified at the tiniest possibility she was under the large disastrous mess in the street until she came walking in the door clueless to the cortisol racing through my body.

The blue spruce tree, searching for sun, leaned away from the large expanding branches of the remaining oak tree. It stood bent at a thirty degree angle, so not visually appealing.  I had to trim the lower pine branches to keep from scratching the neighbors car since the previous owner put a driveway next to ours, on the other side of the pine tree.  At Christmas I would use the low lying branches to make a large wreath, the smell of pine filling my living room, and hiding the fact my Christmas tree is made of plastic.

Last week I lost the battle of the blue spruce as our tree guy, who was tending to the oaks, determined that it should also come down. Et tu, Brute?  To add insult to injury, the city decided, almost at the same time, that our power line was connected to one of those oak trees in my yard and we needed a telephone pole to be up to code.  So where did they put it? Four feet from the pine tree the day before it came down.  Now I’m left with the eye sore of a telephone pole instead.  When I saw my beautiful blue spruce in a pile, I cried.   I now tell my carpool when they pull up, to pay homage to the totem pole. (it has yet to have power attached to it, so its just a pole)

I don’t really understand my connection and hurt over the tree, I know it somehow has been made worse since the loss of my daughter.  It is another loss?  It is a feeling of a loss of control?   Is is the fact that trees outlive us or the feeling of destroying something living?   I am not sure, but most likely when my children own this house, long after I have past, the telephone pole will still be there.

The point I am leading up to, is that most people do not truly understand what permanent feels like.  The only thing I had to relate to before my daughter Mikenna passed was my grandmother.  It was sad, and I still think of her often, but it was the natural progression of life.   As the years went by it has been easier.  It is not the same when you loose someone in a tragedy or unexpectedly.  As the months and years tick by, you slowly start to feel what permanent is.  The initial shock is gone, but the pain never leaves.  At first we cannot even fathom it.   I cannot image an entire lifetime without her.  Still two years later, I have some understanding of the fact I will never see her face again, see her wedding or children, hear her voice, but I still do not understand the true, complete, and full weight of it and may never until the day I meet her again.

This newfound understanding somewhat explains the lack of empathy of others to my grief or the grief of others in this same club.   If I can barely understand the magnitude of the permanence of my loss, then how can I expect others around me to empathize?   When they relate to me by using the loss of their pet, or a grandparent, all I can say is, that it isn’t the same kind of feeling, at all.  In everything I do, I am reminded of that someone who is missing.  In every joy, I am given a pinch of sorrow.   Every celebration brings some sadness.   All I can say to my loved ones is that though it may feel uncomfortable, that two, five, ten or twenty years might have gone by yes we are still sad, or have moments of uncontrollable sadness.  Sit in the awkward silence with us, say our loved ones name, don’t try and fix it or tell your experience of loosing Fluffy.  Just be there, and be forever thankful, that your Mt. Rushmore has not been torn down to the ground.

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