My mood mimics this transition to darker days and longer nights. A draining of color. A dearth of energy. I, too, grow weary and withered. I know it's coming and yet I'm powerless to stop it.
It seems fitting that Autumn is the beginning of what my husband calls my "dark months." It begins in earnest today, whether I want it to or not. It begins today because today is where my daughter's life began. It's her birthday. She would have been 14 today. She's been gone 11 years. ELEVEN YEARS. How has it been that long already?
After celebrating her twin brother's birthday this morning, I went to the cemetery, Tinker Bell balloon and new Tink wand in my hand, to give my deceased little girl her birthday gifts. I sang "Happy Bird Day" to her through the tears. I twirled around, imagining she was dancing with me, laughing. I found myself laughing out loud. It would be so fun to do that again...
I watched the leaves fall to the ground as the wind kicked up and felt my spirits fall with them. My heart literally grew heavier. She's not going to twirl with me ever again. It's so wrong. It makes me mad. It makes me sad. I miss her.
You'd think after 11 years of this exact same experience, the pain of this day would lessen. Or at least last only a day. But of course, that's not how grief works. That's certainly not how the grief of a bereaved parent works. Sure, I could stuff it, or ignore it, or distract myself. Does that really serve me or her memory, though?
The overall pain of her death has changed. It's not as sharp as it once was. I've integrated it into who I am and all that I do. That does not mean I've forgotten her, how much it hurt to lose her, or that I don't feel those sharp pangs of loss like I did the day she died. It just means most of the time, it's not sharp. I still miss her every bit as much as I did the day she died. I still love her every ounce as much as I did then.
That's why it's so hard.
For me, the time period between Meghan's birthday and her death day (December 18) is always a difficult season. Perhaps because the holidays are fast on the heels of her birth day. It's my grief season. Silly, really, because grief knows no seasons. Grief is now embedded into who I am. I am a bereaved parent and I will always be a bereaved parent. I will never forget her life, nor her death. Most days, I am able to function like most other people. Of course I think of her every single day. I miss her every single day. Yet, I'm able to balance that with the joys and demands of daily life. Most of the time...
The dark months are not dark every day, although some days are certainly harder than others, like today. Yet as the holiday season approaches, the way I choose to function, the way I need to function, increasingly diverts from the way I function the rest of the year. .
There is a palpable progression to my mood, my emotional lability, and capacity to function. As the anticipatory grief that surrounds her death day builds, I increasingly lose sight of the color in my life. I feel as raw as the now naked trees must without their leaves to warm them.
As the days and weeks inch closer to her angelversary, my ability to tolerate even the most minor of "issues" all but disappears. My memory worsens. I forget things more and more. My mood becomes more depressed. I withdraw. I dial waaaaay back on social things. I change my habits. I lose my appetite. I'm tired all the time. I have no energy. I don't want to go to work. I don't want to have to listen to anyone else's "problems." I don't want to party or celebrate. I am much more likely to cry at the drop of a hat. My "give a crap" meter is pretty much at zero. I just want it to be over.
But of course, it's never going to be over. Because she's not coming back.
So why now? Why is October the start of my dark season? Why is it different than any other day? Aside from the fact today is her birth day, and because she was a twin, I forever see one where two should be?
It's mostly because of the rush of the holiday season. You see, I can't stand going in the stores after Halloween. I go out of my way to avoid it. If I have to, I'm an irritable, tearful, exhausted mess. Why? Because the reminders and triggers are too great. The holiday music. The decorations. The music. The cheerful shoppers. Parents who have their children, especially little blonde girls around the age of 3. The pretty little girl outfits. Those can drain the energy right out of me in a matter of seconds every time. I'll never get to buy her one. I'll never Christmas shop for her again. All the dreams and plans I had for her will never be realized. Nothing drives that home more than this time of year.
Christmas just doesn't hold the same magic and joy it once did. How could it? I buried my daughter 3 days before Christmas 11 years ago. It will NEVER be the same.
I know the triggers are there, I just choose to avoid them as best I can. Why subject myself to the emotional torture? I can't stop how I feel. I can't change how I feel. I deserve to be able to honor my feelings. And so, well, let's just say I'm grateful for Amazon prime. It has made me a much more efficient holiday shopper.
The fall also brings Thanksgiving and the religious holidays, for us, Christmas. It's a time when family and friends gather and celebrate. For a bereaved parent, it's a harsh reminder of who is missing and why. I'm jealous of families that don't know my pain. Why me? Why not them? They can't fathom my pain. I can't tolerate their joy for very long. It hurts. It just.... hurts.
Family and friends can wrap you in love and understanding and there are wonderful ways to integrate your loved ones who have died into your holiday celebrations, and we do many of them. Yet nothing takes away the fact they are gone. No one feels that pain more acutely than that child's parents. Unless you've lost a child too, there is just no way you can understand it. Still, those who reach out, say they are thinking of me, say her name or share a story about her, gosh, I love that!
One of the things that I lose sight of during these dark days is the impact it has on my family. Aside from the fact I'm more irritable, less attentive to the household duties, and tend to let things slide (back to the "give a crap" meter), I'm emotionally less available to my family.
My husband struggles with this, in part because he's very empathetic. It's impossible for him to know what kind of day, or even hour, it is for me emotionally. He wants to help. He wants to "make it better." Of course he can't fix it. He does a wonderful job supporting me, letting me know I am loved, and helping as much as he can. He is not Meghan's biological father, so he has a different perspective. His pain is more so from the loss of his wife emotionally than it is the pain of a bereaved parent. He never had the chance to know and parent her when she was alive. He has said to me it's as if he loses his wife for 2 months every year. He doesn't know how to cope with that, even though he understands why and it happens every year.. Now, he dreads the dark season almost as much as I do. He grieves for my loss and the impact it has on me. He grieves the change in our relationship and family dynamic for this brief period of time. This is an often overlooked aspect of grief on those who support the bereaved.
So how does one navigate the dark days, whatever they may be? It could be one day, a week, a season, or even an entire year, especially that first year after a loved one dies.
I think honoring your feelings is the most important thing. Don't be afraid of what you feel. You feel what you feel, and that's okay. At the same time, don't hold it all inside. Share how you are feeling. Share why you are feeling it. Seek support from family, friends, or professional counselors. Join or attend a support group for the bereaved. The Compassionate Friends is a great resource for bereaved parents, grandparents, and siblings.
Take time to nurture yourself. Take a day off. Go for a walk outside. Connect with nature. Perhaps schedule a massage, Reiki, a pedicure, or some other body work. Let yourself be cared for. I plan for a massage at least monthly and more often if I can, especially during November and December.
Develop a ritual of remembrance. Today is made easier for me because we've developed new ways of celebrating the birthday. I always bring her a balloon and a little trinket to the cemetery - I go alone and spend however much time I need. As a family, we later (or before, depending on the timing of the day) put a number candle in a suet cake and sing "happy bird day", run around silly singing "Tinker Bell all the way" like she used to, and then we have a little cupcake picnic right there in front of her stone. We decorate a pumpkin with a kitty face because she loved kitties. This year her twin brother gave it a birthday hat. We donate items to the local animal shelter, too, in her memory. If I'm lucky, I see a heart cloud, an orb in a photo, or some other sign. Today, it was a nice heart of blue sky among the clouds.
We've created similar rituals around the holidays with candles and pictures and attendance at candle lighting and memorial services. There is a new ornament every year in her stocking for the tree. We buy gifts she would like and donate them to charity every year. We visit the animal shelter kitty room named in her honor. I teach a safety class in her honor every year. I share her story, in the hopes others will be spared her fate.
Know that although you may have dark days, weeks, and months, recognizing them and what is driving how you feel is important to how you cope. Where my dark months used to be nearly pitch black every day, they are now more of a light misty gray. Sort of like cloudy days among the sunny ones.
For me, it's not that every day is a bad one. Most days in fact, are pretty good, peppered with waves of sadness, anger, or tears. Certain days are of course, worse than others, and I now know what days are likely to be the worst and can plan for them, by choosing to take the day off or say no to social events. I literally schedule time in my calendar to nurture my memory and my soul.
I truly believe that the best way to heal is to be honest about how you are feeling with those around you. Even if you don't understand what you are feeling or why. We needn't walk alone. But we have to let others know we'd like the company and support along the way.
How do you cope with your dark days?