Mental health awareness and living through grief with faith, marriage and children.
I’m a wife, nurse and mother of four girls. I am walking through the valley of the recent death of my 19 year old due to mental illness. I am using my passion for writing and photography along with prayer for healing for myself and others. I am in the process of learning about different outreach programs and research to help people suffering from depression or walking through similar life experiences. I also want to share parenting and life experiences to interested readers.
When were we programmed to be rescued? I thought about the concept recently when a guy my daughter went on a date with said he thought it wouldn’t work out because going on a date didn’t make him feel better. The comment bothered me, like why is it someone else’s responsibility to make us feel good about ourselves, fix our self-worth, heal our depression, entertain us, rescue us from our problems?
When we had our fourth daughter, I had dozens of people ask over the years if we were trying for a boy? My husband, Todd used to say, “we missed that class in Jr. High!” I really disliked this response because it implied, we should feel ashamed for having four, kids let alone girls. I told Todd to start telling people we wanted 6, we just couldn’t have anymore, and when people made terrible comments such as, “the planet is already overpopulated,” like while I was pregnant, I would respond, “better it’s me repopulating….”
The raising of daughters has significantly changed culturally, even since I have been a parent. My belief that you can do whatever you want to do (within your own physical limitations) has become a standard concept. Thirty years ago, when I was first entering the workforce, it was uncommon to see a female chief of surgery, a female orthopedic surgeon, and other largely male dominated positions in medicine. There is still a huge gap in female leadership in most careers, but the glass ceiling is slowly breaking. I say all that to say the idea that the female characters we grew up with being rescued by the prince is dead, or it should be. All the movies, books, records, toys, that paint the feminine role as the weak, helpless, damsel in distress need to be rewritten into current versions in my opinion.
What about our boys? They were raised to believe they had to grow up to rescue their fair maiden. It is no wonder that they think they should feel amazing when they do. They should meet the damsel and feel clouds part, bells ring, and angels sing right? If they don’t then it couldn’t be the right fair lady. What about the pressure of having to rescue someone? In this day of inflation, millennials can barely afford to take care of themselves let alone the burden of being “man enough” to be responsible for all the ladies’ problems also.
When I was raising my girls, I tried to project that a woman can wear a beautiful dress and still throw on a pair of combat boots and outshoot my competition. I tried to show that with hard work you can accomplish goals at any age. Did my husband sort of rescue me at age 23, when I was feeling lost? I always thought he kind of did but looking back I think we made a choice. He decided he could handle my amount of crazy, and I decided he was the rock I could tie my balloon to.
It is ok to lean on another person when you need someone to hold your head up. Then you are their person to lean on when they need support, but we need to stop teaching our little girls to wait to be recused by their version of the prince and our boys that their job is to rescue their future partner. That leaning on someone through a situation is one thing, letting someone lean on you indefinitely is enabling. That there are healthy boundaries and then there is codependency. Where is that fairy tale/life lesson Disney?
I listened to the Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) tell another bad Dad joke as I finished getting ready for our next surgery. I always wondered if his sometimes bad or dark humor, he vacillated between the two, was his natural personality or if the death of his brother many years ago flavored him like it does my own. Ever since a few years earlier when he had told me he had lost his brother in a tragic accident and that his mother had never fully recovered, I felt a weird kindred spirit to him because somehow he, John the CRNA just got it.
I was having a normal day. It wasn’t a day I regretted going to work, something that plagued me ever since the loss of my own daughter, I wasn’t lost in the sea of grief that day nor was inflamed with my weird autoimmune issues, and I was working with people I could stand so all and all a decent day. The thing was I always tell people to share their stories but how can people share their stories if we are afraid to ask them?
I have had the. worst short-term and even long-term memory loss since I lost Mikenna. I was afraid to ask something he might have told me before but I thought what the hell… “Hey John, did you lose your brother in a similar way I lost my daughter,” I asked. There are so many wrong ways to ask someone about suicide and I can tell you as a mom, don’t ask how, it’s not your business unless it’s part of their healing journey…anyway he says, “no it was on the way to climb Kilimanjaro.” Here was the little synopsis he gave.
John’s brother was into traveling, bucket-list kinds of things, and at the top of his list was Kilimanjaro. He traveled all the way to the other side of the world, packing, and all to Tanzania in Africa. He was on a travel bus, sightseeing with other tourists from different countries on a two-lane road. A short way down the road and around the bend a semi-truck in a hurry to get where he was going came across a herd of goats meandering across the road. The truck driver most likely going too fast to stop plowed through and massacred a group of goats. In Africa, the laws require the driver to pay for the damaged property to the owner and he now owed a large sum to whoever the owner was, most likely not too far off.
To avoid paying the large sum the semi-truck driver kept going speedily away from the scene of the goat crime. As he rounded the bend he hit the curve of the street too fast and swerved into the oncoming traffic hitting the tour bus and killing every person on the small tour bus except one man from Norway who lost his entire family traveling with him. John’s entire family flew out to Africa with the tragic news of the loss of their brother and son.
At this point in the story, I imagine the man from Norway, the phone calls being received for twenty other mothers, fathers sisters, and brothers. I remember my own, the sound of my husband’s voice, “Mikenna died.” the only words he croaked out to me over the phone as I stood in the tiny locker room of the Peruvian hospital. I heard a scream and later realized it was my own. I knew the mother’s vulnerability. To be thousands of miles away and feel helpless. Then John told me about their synchronicities and I knew I needed to hear the rest of the story.
The people in the part of Africa where the tour bus sat are very poor. To say they didn’t have much is an understatement. As soon as the bus sat there unattended, the personal belongings of the accident were looted. Everything that could be grabbed or used, sold, or repurposed was taken. The amazing part was John’s brother’s camera and SD card more specifically were left behind. All his travels and the beautiful pictures of his thrill-seeking adventures were saved and were a treasure to his family. The family resolutely set out to sprinkle the ashes of John’s brother atop Kilimanjaro.
Halfway to the top John’s mother, desperate to fulfill her son’s goal, came down with altitude sickness. She was not able to go on. John and the rest of his family had to go on without mom, who sadly waited now at the bottom expecting the ashes to spread without her. They made it to the top but didn’t want their mom to miss out on the experience so they chose to take the ashes back down with them and take their brother on Safari with them where they can all be together and release the ashes.
As they drove out on Safari they listened to the guide as he described each animal in the landscape and knew the area like he had taken groups on Safari many, maybe hundreds of times. The family found a time and area and decided to spread the ashes. As the ashes spread and before the silent reverence could fall the sound of thunder came from all around them. Wildebeests big, small, prehistoric-looking stampeded and dust flew as something out of Jurassic Park flashed before their eyes. 45 minutes they came and ran, back and forth. At that exact moment, they had released the ashes. The experienced tour guide explained in shock that had never happened before and never had that many Wildebeests for that long. I imagine mom smiling through tears and the knowing feeling that her son had wanted to give them one last adventure smiling back at them.
As I listened to the quick little story, I could see the stampede, I could see the dust, I could feel the awe of the group and I could feel the love and the knowledge, especially from the mamma. I heard the story and I knew there was another mamma out there that shared the pain 5, 10, and 15 years later of smiling and pretending they were fine so that her other children didn’t worry. I was guessing she also wanted to be ok for them but hurting sometimes for no reason at all. Like today I saw my daughter’s pillowcase and started to cry, but I then pictured the wildebeests, tried to visualize and imagine the sound that must have been deafening and my heart doesn’t hurt quite as bad.
This week, my friend asked me over text, what brings you Calm and Peace? Joy? What fills your cup? My first negative thought was nothing brings me Joy, do I have Joy? How can I have Joy ever again? I moved on to the next item on her list, Joy wasn’t easy to dissect. Calm? I have found some calmness and peace in different ways, the first advice I give to any newly grieving person, is to find a way to drown out the noise in your head. I found it by walking and moving, and it truly saved my life.
There is a science behind moving and mental health, but all I can say is that if you are in this place with me or you have a friend in grief, walk with them as much as possible, pull them out of their bed in the PJs if need be, and walk the neighborhood to start. Let them cry and walk, talk, or just be. It brings some calm. I have also found it with journaling, and by being on or near water of any kind. It calms the negative thoughts.
Laughter was something at first I never thought I would hear from my body again. I cried so much the first two years after my loss that I made my eyelid muscles weak. I had no idea you could even do that to yourself. I couldn’t even wear eye makeup for two years, there was no point. I found laughter though when my oldest daughter and I were gifted comedy tickets within the first year. At first, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. Two sad people at a comedy show? It ended up being a healing night, we laughed and cried and laughed again at Iliza Shlesinger and reminisced over the Britney Spears music playing before and after the show. I remember feeling relieved to laugh, and surprised that I could, I felt somewhat guilty for laughing. I found my laughter in comedy and even now if I’m feeling a bit grumpy I will search for stand-up. It’s a form of escapism, like reading, but sometimes not being in your sadness is ok. It’s also ok to be ok!
What fills my cup is easy, it’s also what drains my cup, but it’s doing things for others and if I do things in my daughter’s memory it mends my broken heart stitch by stitch. My absolutely insane primary care provider has this saying, “feeling nervous? Then acts of service!” A lot of the things she says make me mentally throw up, but she has a point with this one. Little things like collecting books as a memorial tribute since Mikenna loved to read, and donating them to a local charity that gives books to children in need, fills my cup. Driving around and passing out tins of turkey dinners to our local homeless in tents, (makes me nervous) but also fills my cup. Everyone deserves a hot turkey dinner on Thanksgiving.
What about Joy? Can you have Joy when there is an undercurrent of sadness? My oldest daughter graduated from college 6 months after she lost her sister. I was so proud and happy filled with Joy, but I was crying tears of sadness I would never see her sister graduate and her sister wasn’t there with her. It was the first time I considered if I would ever feel joy again. Would every special occasion be clouded with sadness, would I be able to feel happiness/joy and if I could, would I let myself feel it without feeling guilty?
I searched my memory for similar situations I had ever heard of. All I could come up with was the night before Jesus died. He had to be both joyful to be going home and sad to be leaving his closest friends. His disciples had to be feeling sad to know that they would not ever be sitting having a meal with him again, but joyful for the knowledge of prophesy he was fulfilling? Not that I know what anyone was feeling in those moments, but I am guessing there were conflicting emotions.
Michelle Obama, during her Becoming tour, talked about giving up her successful career so that she could support her husband’s path. That must have been difficult. She must have felt joyful and a part of her was sad to leave it. She had worked incredibly hard to get to where she was. Can we have two conflicting emotions at once?
I had the opportunity to possibly punish a person that was somewhat legally negligable in my daughter’s death. I needed somewhere to direct this sunami of rage I had welled up in me. The problem was I was also stating her non-profit, and it was filling my cup in a different way. I found on more than one occasion I could not live in both worlds, I could not be pursuing legal revenge at the same time I was trying to build her legacy. I chose to let it go, after 2 years of getting to where I could legally aim my anger at someone, I let, it, go.
This year, I have let myself have moments of joy. I have stopped feeling guilty for having them. I have swam in the ocean, I have laughed with my childhood BFF, and I have let myself experience moments of happiness. I have also sobbed on her grave, sobbed over her pictures, and mourned the fact I will not hold her children as her childhood friends are now getting engaged and some are having babies. If you live here with me, I want you to really hear me say, it really is ok to sometimes be ok.
I was told by a brilliant professor recently that we cannot really multitask. I was offended because I thought myself a professional multi-tasker. He informed me that we just move from one thing to the next quickly. There were studies to prove it. You actually cannot do two things at once. I believe it is the same with joy and sadness. We have to reconcile our loss. Reconcile means to live with both, it doesn’t mean we have to feel these emotions at the same time, but we need to be ok feeling joy, because trust me, sadness hasn’t left, it’s just waiting its turn.
As I stood to leave the small well-lit loft of the nearby community center, I felt somewhat convicted that I needed to do the one thing I never wanted to do. Publicly run a grief group. I looked around the room as people slowly trickled through the door, grabbing a cookie for the road that someone had graciously hand-made or ventured to the grocery store specifically for the intimate gathering. Could I run a similar group? Zoom? How vulnerable and raw would I have to be? Why do I feel called, compelled, pulled from my higher power to do so?
I watched each person go by, zipping and snapping up their recently retrieved winter garb for the November chill that had moved into the Northwest. “What if everyone wore their pain, their burden they carried in a way everyone could see it?” a wild thought rang in my head. The images of what each person potentially was carrying started to flash by me, heartache,loneliness, death, physical pain, worry. I saw what each looked like, heartache carried as heavy stone tablets carved with those that have wronged them, piles of handkerchiefs soaked in tears from loneliness that now continuously and unseeingly ran down a man’s cheeks, crushing loss as a large bolder chained to a leg draggedeverywhere the owner went, I envisioned shards of glass protruding from the painful legs the man slowly getting up near me, and large iron chains of worry dragging behind another man as he moved forward to hug me.
As I hugged him, I remember the first time I met the man carrying worry. I remember how annoying I found his cheerfulness. He never wavered from it, he gave it to everyone he saw, but it looked different on him tonight as I saw he handed his cheerfulness out, unbegrudgingly,with his one-hand shifting his constant worry over his shoulders, figuratively moving his feet with the weight of it. He then encourages me to run a group and reminds me he shares a similar loss as he steps back from the friendly embrace. Why did I not remember? Why could I not see it? I subliminally kicked my short-term memory loss from PTSD in the shins.
I pass by my own reflection in the darkening window as I reach for my coat, because my own grief is somewhat of a blindfold. I see it as plainly as the glass shards now oozing through the younger man’s jeans as he smiles and says his goodbyes. I see a shroud coving my face and though I carry my pain openly, it skews my view of those around me. The older man carrying his tear-soaked rags has now stuffed them in all of his pockets so that in my minds-eye, he looked like a child over-stuffed by his mother in his winter snow clothes, getting ready to brave the forces and build a snowman. He has stuffed the piles of rags anywhere he can so that he can still hold his Bible open and share with me a passage. He does not seem destressed by what he carries, he owns it regally and I am at first envious of his ability to carry such pain with such grace. He is steadfast in his purpose and he does not waver, I now see that about him.
Do we all have a purpose? I believe that we do, I believe it changes, but I believe that you can feel when you are moving in the direction of what your purpose is. Unfortunately, I don’t want the purpose I now feel called to do. I never asked to be a mother in grief. I never asked to speak to others about the most terrible moments of their lives or their vulnerabilities and then turn around and share mine.
When I was in college, my worst grade was public speaking, I would write a speech but I could not deliver it. In 7th grade my stage fright had me vomiting in the janitor’s closet before Jazz band performances and solo performances, even though at the time I held first chair. Here I am 4.5 years after the loss of my daughter, and I have now been recorded for a local television station for suicide prevention, I have started talking in front of high-schoolers about peer prevention, I had to speak at my daughter’s funeral of 200 guests, though I have no idea what I actually said.
Over the last few years, I have had many people ask me to talk to a loved one or friend about a terrible loss they have endured. Each time I hear their story my heart rips a little and I add a name to the load I carry. I didn’t ask for it, but if my own pain lightens the load someone else has to carry just a tiny bit, and I have to carry my own loss anyway, why would I not share it?
I know I have been given this vivid imageryto help move forward and to not be afraid to stand up and share my scars, my own still fresh wounds. I am not special in carrying this heartache. I tell myself, “the next time you are in a group imagine if we all were stripped of all our pretenses and you could see what each person carries with him or her everywhere they go. Sadness, anxiety, wariness, untrusting, resentful, anger, fear, regret, hope, faith, sincerity, honesty, empathy and so on”.
I think altruistically or as a humanitarian, I wonder if more people actually did what they felt called to do even if it was for just that moment or season, what kind of world we would live in. Then the opposite thought comes to mind, what if most people ignored what they felt called to do? I know that you cannot spend a life-time pointing fingers and telling everyone else what they should be doing. I did not ask to be the mother of grief. I did not ask to stand up and speak about loss, pain and sadness, but I am a broken vessel that has been sauntered withtears and made into something new.
I mentally flip my black lace shroud up over my head as I descend the stairs. I am now decidedly thankful for the vivid images I have been given knowing that each of us has been given unique gifts, that we each bring and carry different burdens to the table and that we have our own calling, if and when we decide to do something with it.
Standing in the kitchen eating the entire thawed holiday loaf of ginger bread tears clouded my eyes. I had reasons to feel depressed but that wasn’t at the forefront of my mind this morning. Why did I feel so lethargic? Was it the worry of my daughter in college moving out and not being able to continue school, was it the worry of the direction of my youngest, was it the worry of my oldest daughter’s health or the fear of losing connection with my husband as we become empty nesters? No, these were worries but not the reason for the feel of draining complete tiredness.
No this was just plain depression, it had reared its ugly head throughout my life, post-partum and other times but not like this. I wasn’t feeling overwhelmed with grief today, but I felt utterly noodle-like. Why? The gift my daughter that left me was this. She left me with the full feeling of what it really felt like and a glimpse of what that battle might have felt like. In truth I never understood, I made it out of the horrors of young adult hood so I assumed my children could. This was a gift of understanding that it was a daily battle, one maybe she could have continued fighting, but she wasn’t in the place to do so.
Looking at the chores looming around the house all I could feel was a lack of motivation, a desire to go back to bed. The feeling that everything was pointless and that I had not a pinky toe of energy to start. How to fight a battle like this? I remembered a class I took on ADHD where I learned that it had to be hit from many sides as a parent. The only hope in battling this kind of heavy fog was to hit it from everywhere. Were the beginnings of menopause making it worse? Wear the dumb patch. Would the anti-depressant help? Maybe if you actually took it consistently. Would prayer and meditation help? Undoubtedly if I actually sat still long enough. Would having things to look forward to make me leave my house? Probably. I had a knack for making plans and then the day the plans arrived I wanted to do absolutely nothing, once out though I found it to be exactly what I needed.
How do I teach survival and hopefully the ability to flourish despite overwhelming sadness to others? I was going to have to find effort somewhere in the depths of my being. Fake it until you make it, I have said. Force the smile, the outing, the walk the laundry and the feelings, that one little serotonin cell will clap for joy in accomplishment. I don’t want to waste this gift of understanding. I’ll make the bed, I’ll go on the outing, I will spend some quiet time, I will take the medication, wear the patch and hopefully each day will knock down this wall that was built up in side me.
I always loved when someone’s advice when I was in an autoimmune flare was to go exercise. I would think to myself, “my feet are cement, my body on fire but sure, I’ll get right on that!” It about that level of difficulty when fighting your own wall of sadness let alone trying to help others feeling that way. Stone feet but I will make them move inch by bloody inch.
I have been asked about the need to share such deep information, especially on a public platform. I write things I don’t even say aloud. It is simple my daughter died she lost her battle. If I could help one person not feel so alone with their thoughts then sharing my deep inner thoughts is worth it. Sending love today for all the people fighting their own wall today and if you were able to move one inch, it was one crack of many cracks to soon pull your own wall down.
On my mission trip in Mexico at first glance the area seems just dirty, hot and miserable. I couldn’t find any reason to want to live in the rubble besides it being the only option the people were given. Then slowly I noticed the beautiful, almost hidden plants outside many of the small cubicles called homes. They were vibrant planted amongst the rocks and sand. They required little water or anything special to survive. These were each homes crack in their harsh world, a sign of hope and beauty against all odds. I’m sure I appeared a bit off my rocker running from fenced yard and skirting flee-filled dogs to snap a quick picture of the beautiful flowers, but they filled me with a feeling of hope and one I hope I was able to capture.
Walking along the old Hood River highway, I drank in the prehistoric beauty of the Columbia River Gorge. The deep ancient carved rocks whispering stories of sharp brutal winds and rising turbulent waters from the Columbia River. The early morning was unusually warm and sunny unlike most days where fog and precipitation blanketed the sleepy vacation community. Wind surfers and morning exercise enthusiasts could already be seen dotting the waters edge as I slowly moved by the houses. Most of the rustic houses sported newly painted siding, manicured lawns and not so randomly placed wildflowers along the edge of the road welcoming the traveler to their vacation home.
I carried my borrowed mug of Folgers coffee and meandered down the hill towards the train station. During the weekdays the train brings Portlanders around the mountain or tourists to experience the fruit loop, the local breweries, wineries or for the braver sort, to try their luck at kite boarding or wind surfing. The deserted train station looked ominous with outdoor buildings missing walls. Instead of walking down the sidewalk I decided to take the trail through the train yard. In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have been walking alone through the woods but it appeared like a shortcut to the cafe and a much needed morning espresso. A few steps down the path brought stairs that marked “The Ruins” it seemed a bit dark being only a stones throw from the souvenir shop at the train station. A few more yards brought another rustic wood sign on a tree announcing a school. Where was the school? I soon found myself daydreaming about a portal similar to Hogwarts where the ruins lead to the infamous school for the secret society found only among the trees behind the abandoned cars. Stringed lights were hung across the partially standing roofless walls at a desperate attempt to dress up the platform as an outdoor BOHO, Shabby Chic gathering spot. It all seemed strange as I popped out from the wooded path onto the busy sidewalk where the cafe proclaimed caffeine and my life’s blood.
After obtaining my espresso and overpriced hot water I wandered back along the bridge to observe the mighty Columbia River and gain some perspective on my own meager existence comparatively. Years ago I had found beauty in bridges, the design, and their differences in size, shape, materials and structure. I stopped to take in the wild beauty of the river and the contrast of the man-made metal above it. I stopped here and contemplated water. People underestimated the power of water. They underestimated the currents that flowed beneath it and if not careful were harmed by it. I compared it to my own life. People can not empathize with what they could not see, what they could not feel or had not felt. I myself have been guilty of not giving enough grace to those I could not understand. My sweet relative who lost pregnancy after pregnancy never to have a child, my friend who lost her son in second grade to a virus, my grandmother who lost a child soon after it was born, I did not know of the wild currents beneath the surface, I could not understand.
My own grief drives me in ways not understood by many. One minute I am moving in one direction and the next minute I am swirling and swelling towards another. I am trying to first and foremost care for my surviving children who themselves are also survivors, as well as stay true to my daughter’s legacy and honor all the while keeping my own head above water, sometimes only being able to float.
Lost in thought, I find myself at the end of the street so I turn to walk back the direction I came, heading back to my still sleeping husband and friends. Walking on the other side of the overpass I again observe the Columbia now from the west instead of the east noticing the slight differences in the lighting, the curvature of the water’s edge, the angles of the bridge now visible. The river and bridge perspective changed. It brings me to thinking about personal perspectives and how they vary looking at the same thing. Many relationships do not survive the death of a child. One reason is the vast difference in grief’s toll between a couple. It can be night and day, but it is the same. Two sides of the same coin. For me I could not contain it, I screamed, I pulled out my hair, I beat my fists against the wall. My husband went in, he went away, he buried it inside himself as it burned. Somehow even without understanding, we gave each other grace to move in our own way. I am not even sure how we stumbled through it, and still stumbling through it.
I picked up the borrowed coffee mug I had hidden along the path earlier, glad I hadn’t lost it and walked up the hill back to the rental. One day at a time, the song and the saying says, Oh how it used to sound so cliche.
Leaving work I contemplated muscle memory and how the body and subconscious remember dates long before our conscious mind does. I think of the hippocampus and wonder how my body feeling sore and achy remembered the last day I saw my daughter before I realized the date. I’ve been trying to get my near 50-year-old brain to remember how to learn since I recently took the plunge to go back to school to be a mental health nurse practitioner. Some people say I’m brave, but they don’t know it’s out of necessity. If I leave this earth and have not done all I could do, both in Mikenna’s name and to prevent at least one other family from going through this darkness, then I’ve failed.
Rain pelting me I jogged into the nearest grocery store to grab roses. I debated which flowers to get. It seemed silly to be picking out which roses I would tear all the petals off and scatter around my daughter’s memorial bench but I pondered it anyway. Should I go with all red like last year or find a more colorful bouquet? Three colorful bunches of roses in my arms I dodge the rain and head back in my car towards her grave to chat with her and leave five roses, one for each of her immediate family members left behind, for the deer to have for dinner.
Driving towards the cemetery I was about to pass home and decided to Siri my husband to see if he wanted to join me, as I sent the message a car with her initials on the plates pulled out in front of me. At the light, I snapped a picture and sent it to my husband. He was still busy so I turned up the hill and found my second car same MV initials on the plates.
Grabbing my car blanket, her hat I had in my car, and my roses I decide I am going to camp out for a while. It was drizzling but nothing a PNW girl couldn’t handle. I think of all those cold, wet field trips I took the girls on. It was always outside as the crunchy granola charter school I took them to always utilized any learning that could be done on the inexpensive side and that usually meant outdoors.
I placed the roses in the holder, instantly piercing my hand on a thorn, and settled my blanket on top of where I imagined you to be. I started talking to my daughter about the night she passed, how I was I was on a mission in Peru, how I wish I had known how depressed she was, and felt a pelt of snow hit my face. I looked around and saw no one in the football size stadium cemetery.
Ice and snow hail balls pelted my body as I lay there. Being from Ohio and living in Oregon I knew hail storms were always short-lived. I couldn’t remember one lasting more than a minute.
I lay there determined to keep talking and to wait out the hail. The funny thing was it didn’t stop. I lay there laugh-crying, and my sobbing stopped. Through three layers I was soaked to the bone. I somehow knew the minute I opened my door the snow/ice would stop. Covered in a layer of ice balls that filled my knock-off Uggs, I grabbed the saturated thick blanket and headed to my car. I opened the door. Immediately there was nothing but blue skies. I drove slowly out of the gate and I thought about the two MV license plates driving up the hill to the cemetery, I turned the corner heading down the hill and found MV plated car in front of me, then as I turned toward my street, totally four MV plates, on my two-mile round trip to visit her grave.
It’s hard to put into words a sign from Heaven when you get it. I had been sad that it had been so long since I had any signs or strong spiritual feelings and I was considering reading some of my older blogs to remember the feeling of getting one. The only way I can describe it is to say it is a knowing, that something is meant for you, that it is beyond coincidence. It feels like a gentle hug from Heaven saying something like “Yes I know, have peace.”
I know I looked deranged as I walked by my daughter studying in her room. She wasn’t aware of any snow or hail just the drizzle that had been knocking on her window. She briefly looked me up and down covered in snowballs and soaked through. At this point, she is used to her odd mother and went back to her studies.
I peeled off the saturated layers at home as I hopped into a warm shower. My hair semi-frozen. I was thankful for the moment, the sign, it stopped me right in my tracks of deep pain envisioning that night. What I have to remember is that sometimes the days surrounding an important date can be worse than the date itself and even if we aren’t consciously aware of it our body and our subconscious remembers.
P.S. After I wrote this I remember one of my later blogs talked about using ice or cold water to the face, as an evidence-based treatment during strong emotions, panic attacks, or anxiety. Well touche, well done.
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…
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.
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.