My daughter’s death anniversary is quickly approaching, in less than a week. It will be six years this August 3 that she died. They say that time heals all wounds, but I wonder sometimes if the person who coined that phrase or the people who parrot it when confronted with the harsh reality of grief ever lost a child. I would bet money that they didn’t.
Six years on, things are not a lot easier. It’s true that that first anniversary was probably the hardest, mostly because I had nothing to prepare me for it. I had no idea what to expect. I do remember wanting to die that day, of wanting to rush into the nearest body of water and never come back. Luckily, my husband was more level-headed than I was and kept me on land. It wasn’t the first or last time I wanted to die since my daughter passed away, but on these anniversary days the feelings tend to intensify. The hardest part is not really knowing how I will feel day to day, as the anniversary date approaches. Some years, I keep myself relatively busy until just a day or two before, stifling my emotions (although not consciously so) with busy-work and tasks and errands and shopping and television and food and all the consumerist distractions of our modern way of life. It’s easy to do, on many levels.
But I’m more in touch with myself and my feelings than most people, I think, and sooner or later, the crash comes. Sometimes it happens right before the anniversary day itself, sometimes it’s on the actual day (though more often the actual day is not as bad as the days leading up to or right afterwards), sometimes it happens a day or two after, when I think I’ve been spared, this year, with having to deal with the tidal wave of grief. But alas, that has never happened to me yet. I don’t expect it ever will.
I always take time off from work and from ‘normal’ life around the anniversary days. Around her birthday, I’ve gotten to the point where just a few days off will suffice. It’s a happier anniversary to remember and celebrate, and I usually have some kind of party for my daughter, since that’s what we would do if she were still here. Every year, these parties get smaller and smaller, but they are still meaningful to me.
But around her death anniversary, the emotions are darker, sadder, more intense. So I take more time off, usually a week, and try to give myself lots of space, try not to schedule much, during this time, to allow whatever needs to come up to arise. I’m fortunate in this way because I’m self-employed and can pretty much set my own schedule, and tell my colleagues far in advance that this one week I am not going to be available. This is the time for me to take care of myself and my husband, to remember and honor my daughter, and to do what I need to do in the moment, without worrying whether I’m flaking on someone or making them worry or shirking a responsibility.
A surviving day is one of those really hard days, one of the ‘crash’ days. I call them blue days or depressed days. It often starts with a sad feeling as soon as I wake up in the morning. I don’t feel like getting out of bed. The dog is sniffing at me and wanting me to take him for a walk but I don’t care. I may look at pictures of my daughter, which can usually make me feel better, a reminder that she was here, that my longing for her is normal and real and to be expected, but on the surviving days, they just make me cry.
Why did she have to go? Why isn’t she here? Why did this have to happen to us?
Those are some of the questions that go through my mind. Sometimes I ask my lovely husband these questions, as if he has an answer, as if he’s not struggling with the same questions, perhaps in a different way. Fortunately, he doesn’t sugarcoat things or minimize them either, so he just looks at me with the sadness pulling down the corners of his brown eyes and his mouth, and says, I don’t know.
On these surviving days, I often ask my husband to walk the dog for me, which he does with no questions asked. After six years, we know what we both need and how to take care of each other during these moments. It does get a little easier in that way. Although there are just as often the times when we are more snippy and short with each other, in the days leading up to her death anniversary, when we get on each other’s nerves more quickly, and we just can’t explain way. I’ve learned to give him more space around these times, more silence, to not demand that he verbally process everything with me—it’s not his way, though it is my way of making sense of things, to talk things through.
But sometimes despite our best efforts we lash out at each other, feel hurt by the other’s lack of attention or by each other’s grumpiness, and ultimately a meltdown occurs, a fight, shouting and tears and harsh words, until we somehow come back together as a team again. As the years go by, it does become a bit easier to come back together. Earlier on, there were times when I didn’t think we’d make it through, when I worried that I would lose my marriage on top of losing my child. But that hasn’t happened, thank goodness. I don’t know what I would do if it did.
Sigh. Oh, these surviving days. They are a pain in the f**king ass.
I call them surviving days because that’s all I can do on these days. I can’t work, or be expected to even cook or do something nice for myself. I cancel my appointments, order comfort food, sleep a lot, and maybe text some friends to let them know I could use some prayers and support. But mostly I just want to be alone. If I have any level of energy I try to go outside, to get out in nature. Sunshine and nature helps more than anything else. Humans, outside of my husband, sadly, often don’t help, are more often than not a drain on my already depleted energy. My dog helps. He sits next to me and licks my face and stares up at me with those innocent, purely present eyes. He can tell when I’m sad, always comes up to me and wants pets, and nudges my hand or arm or leg as if to say, Hey, it’s going to be okay.
There’s only one thing to do on these surviving days. The obvious. Just survive. Just breathe, from one moment to the next. Drink water. Eat some food. Don’t harm yourself. Don’t drink alcohol or do any real drugs, they won’t help the pain, only give you the illusion of helping. Take care of your body and spirit. Let yourself cry. Just get through the f**king day and hope the next day is better. Hint: it usually is.
So as Naima’s angel day approaches this year, I find myself tearing up more often. It gets harder to look at her pictures, harder to talk about her without getting very sad. I just want her back, just want my old, happy life back. Just want what I can’t have. I sense a surviving day coming on and I no longer brace against it, I just wait for it, and take my vitamins, and do as much as I can while I still feel like doing it, until I can’t do it anymore.
There’s no way to make sense of losing a baby who seemed to be perfect, whose cheeks were flush with pink and liveliness, whose smile could make a whole room of grown-up light up with joy, whose simple being brought more delight to the world than I ever thought possible. And then, in an instant, she was gone. There is no answer to this, only grief and remembrance and heartache and the joy of knowing that we had the privilege of knowing and caring for her in the short time that she was here.
And knowing that on those hard days, those special days, that surviving all of this is all I can ask myself to do.
I’m still reeling, as I know many people are, from the horrific, heartbreaking massacare of 49 people in Orlando, Florida last weekend. Many others have written and spoken more eloquently and knowledgeably than I ever could about the tragedy and how it’s affecting and will continue to affect the people who directly involved, as well as their friends, family and community. My heart in particular goes out to LGBTQQI everywhere, though I can’t understand the heartache and fear and pain this brings to you, but know that I stand with you and will do all I can to end homophobia in all its forms.
The #OrlandoShooting has spawned a whole new set of bereaved parents, siblings, lovers, partners, friends, spouses, grandparents, cousins and other extended family of those killed. Losing a loved one to murderous violence brings a particularly intense and lasting kind of trauma and grief. And with this new reality, more people who will need to learn how to cope and (eventually) move forward with their lives now that their beloved ones are gone.
Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries—these special days and milestones can be particularly hard for bereaved people. In March of this year, my daughter Naima would have turned five years old, and in August we will honor her on the 5th anniversary of her death. Five years. I can still hardly believe it’s been that long since I held my child in my arms. Sometimes it feels like yesterday, others it feels like a lifetime away.
We have also just passed Mother’s Day and are about to celebrate Father’s Day in the US tomorrow. While my husband and I and many other bereaved parents and parents with no living children (like us) have our own special traditions and rituals for these holidays, they really just frickin’ suck. There’s really no other word for it. Over the last four years, I’ve learned how to survive all the different holidays and special days, but it’s not easy. This past year for the winter holidays, my husband and I faced another challenge on top of the usual holiday stuff, as we had to live in temporary housing while we waited to move into our new house, and the stress of the renovations and such around that time had gotten me very near my breaking point right around Christmas.
On days when things get really hard, when I have a bunch of house stuff to do and my Christmas shopping isn’t done and I haven’t been eating well because I’m too busy, it’s hard to get up out of bed and do everything, because all I want to do is lay in bed and cry.
Because if my daughter were still here—playing at my feet or nagging me for a snack or talking my ear off—I feel like all of this stress would be just a little more bearable, that all of this would feel like it had some kind of purpose.
Instead, it can feel like just a load of shit to have to get through because I have to, for some reason, even if I wish I could just hire someone else to do all my work for a week and go cry and remember my babies and take care of myself. Or better yet, I wish I could just have my babies back so that I could feel like my life had some real meaning again.
On days like that, I try to remind myself that it’s okay to ‘just’ survive sometimes, that I don’t have to be perfect, that I can’t be perfect, that if something falls off my plate because I just can’t do it, then so be it. My mental health is more important than my ego (though my ego often wins).
But what is surviving, really? It’s different for different people, and on different days. Surviving can be:
- Just laying in bed and watching TV
- Calling in sick to work and doing something that you find nurturing and healing
- Cancelling all of your appointments and going to the movies instead
- “Faking it” as much as you can at work, school, etc. until you get home and burst into tears
- Calling a friend and asking for help with housework, or to bring you food or something else comforting (though the further we get from or losses the less I feel people are willing to do this)
- Eating comfort food that you know is bad for you (in moderation if possible) just for a day or two
- Taking a mental health day and going to the beach or somewhere else beautiful in nature
The common denominator is at the end of this, you are still alive, still here to fight another day, and that you did whatever you needed to do to get through this one. And sometimes, that’s all you can really do.
Depression sucks. It’s not fun. There’s social stigma around it, even in this day and age, and lots of medications (prescription and over the counter) that you can take that claim to ease if not erase the often dull, persistent, lethargy-inducing life-killer that is depression.
I took medication (Setraline, the generic name for Zoloft) for depression for several months a couple years ago, about a year and a half after my daughter died. I had resisted taking it for a long time, which I’ll go into in another post—but one of the main reasons was that I felt like there must be a more ‘natural’ way to deal with something that was a completely normal reaction to suddenly and unexpectedly losing one’s beautiful, healthy baby. On a spiritual level, taking a Western drug that was made in some lab just didn’t seem like it could solve what was an intractable problem of grief and loss. Though anti-depressant pharmaceuticals are now very commonly prescribed, and many people had told me when I would tell them about my depression that they were currently or had been on anti-depressants and would suggest that I take them, I still felt like there had to be more than just popping a pill. I also felt like it was too much of a ‘quick fix’ and that these people were probably just tired of hearing me talk about my grief, which made me resent their good intentions of trying to get me to take anti-depressants. I was in a dark place in my life, probably the darkest place I’d ever been.
My depression at this time was deep and had lasted for more than a year, and was so frightening to my husband, friends and therapist, that I did open myself to at least considering medication. I also wanted to get better. So I did the research to find a psychiatrist who was open to trying alternative, non-pharmaceutical therapies if he felt like they would work just as well. Therapies like meditation, exercise, nature, etc. For me, if I was even going to think about taking drugs for depression, I wanted to make sure that I was going to get them from someone who didn’t seem them as the primary or only way for me to get better, who saw them as part of a toolbox rather than a panacea for my suffering. Of course, this being the Bay Area, I found someone who fit the bill (in Berkeley, of course. ;))
The result of these sessions with this highly gifted and kind psychiatrist (PM me if you’re in the Bay Area and would like a referral to him) is that I did end up agreeing to take Setraline after resisting the exact same suggestion from my primary care physician as well as my therapist. This psychiatrist explained the pros and cons to me, was patient with my questions, explained that I could taper off of the drug eventually (I was very concerned about getting addicted, which also happens to some people) and was quite gentle and not pushy about the whole thing, which made me feel at ease. I walked out of his office with a prescription for setraline and a more positive feeling about taking medication to help me through this hard time.
Less than a week later, I was on the lowest dose of the drug and felt great. This was right around the winter holidays, an especially tough time for me and my husband since losing our daughter. I was able to host a Christmas party at our house for the first time since Naima’s death, and I had a good time, enjoyed my friends’ company and was not (ta-DAH!) depressed. I was so happy I had taken Setraline, and wondered why I’d waited so long to take it. I stayed on the drug for about five months, until I realized I felt well enough to try life without it (a story for another time).
But Setraline didn’t ‘cure’ my depression. I was still sad, I still grieved for my daughter, I still cried. The grief was dulled a bit, and I did not sink into the low depths of not-getting-out-of-bed-and-crying-all-day that I had before I had started taking it. Setraline gave me an energetic and emotional boost which helped me get up and out of the house everyday, and start doing things that I loved again, the things that truly and would (over the long term) help ‘cure’ my depression: dancing, getting out into nature, hiking, spending time with friends, cooking healthy food. I was fortunate, too, that although I did suffer some tough withdrawal symptoms when I tapered off the Setraline, I found a great naturopath who was able to help mitigate those symptoms and use more natural therapies to both stay off the drug and stave off depression. I’ll talk in my next post about my natural anti-depressant medicine chest, but suffice it to say that I do not regret taking Setraline for my depression when I did. It most likely saved my life.
In the end, the decision to take anti-depressants or not is a very personal one. Timing, the relationship you have with your doctor, your mentality going into it, what kind of support you have to be able to get off the medication eventually, etc. all factor in. Do your homework if you are thinking about taking anti-depressants, and don’t let your doctor rush or push you into taking them if you don’t feel like they’re right for you. At the same time, be open to what could be a life-saving gift of medicine.