As humans, to say that all of us grieve differently when faced with the loss of a loved one would be a fair statement. To try to compare your loss with someone else’s loss would be a disservice to both; yet often we seem to gravitate towards people who are experiencing a similar loss. That’s primarily due to us knowing that someone else might understand how we feel, likening our personal reactions to grief. In other cases, though, we may compare how we are falling into the rabbit hole.
In my lifelong journey of understanding my reactions to personal grief and helping those who are struggling from a personal loss, I have realized there is no such thing as a perfect griever — just as there is no such thing as a perfect parent. We all do the best we can while relying on family, friends, and the knowledge of others who have had a similar journey. When faced with the sudden loss of my husband when I was 31, I found very few people who had experienced a similar situation. Although I had numerous older widows helping me to find comfort each day, my real concern centered on my then 2-year-old daughter. While I read everything in sight, spoke to counselors and observed perceived changes of behavior, I was mostly distraught from my own point of view rather than my daughter’s. For instance, I had panic attacks of who would walk her down the aisle, knowing she was only two years old. I wondered if she needed more male influence in her life and questioned why she called everyone “daddy.” I felt as though being a first time mom was magnified by my own inabilities to understand my capabilities and insights about being a first time mom-and-dad.
The years slowly moved along as we rebuilt our lives, singing Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here with our favorite lyrics “… two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl year after year.” I found that I continued to try to wrap my arms around what this little girl could be thinking and feeling regarding the death of her daddy. How, why and what does this loss mean to our tiny family? While searching for answers, I observed her behavior and wondered if she was just being a normal little girl or if she was struggling with where her father was and why he left. We talked often about Rod, allowing her to formulate her own opinion of death while struggling with the physical disappearance of a man she loved so much. She spent a month climbing up on the couch to look out the window, repeating “Daddy out running. Daddy home soon.” — which added fuel to my fire that she struggled to understand.
Fast-forward a few years and for the first time, when she was 8 years old, she participated in the annual summer pilgrimage to hike Twin Sisters mountain in Estes Park, CO to visit her father’s resting place overlooking Long’s Peak. She had her pint-size backpack on her back filled with snacks, water and a gift for “Daddy Rod.” The hike was strenuous and I was emotionally overwhelmed, watching from behind with her red GAP shorts and her little sneakers as she hopped over the rocks to reach a destination that she could only try to imagine what it meant. Along the way, family members tried desperately to remind me to breathe as I began questioning my decision of allowing her to be exposed to such a significant and unfamiliar situation. My continued self-doubt of parenting a grieving child accompanied us our entire hike.
We arrived almost 3 hours later to a special cove where we had assembled Rod’s ashes under a rock 6 years earlier. Gretchen and I climbed into the cove moving several small rocks exposing his ashes. I sat back observing her behavior as she just stared down asking no questions and showing no facial expressions. We talked a bit but I observed no reaction from her regarding the ashes. We had our lunch, shared Rod stories and as we packed up to leave I witnessed her placing some of Rod’s ashes in her short’s pocket. Carefully I inquired why she did that. She denied that she had placed anything in her pocket. I shared how we are not supposed to lie to our mommies, yet she still denied she took anything. I was overwhelmed with what significant emotional reaction led her to bring a part of her daddy back home with her. What would she do with the ashes? After the longest minute in my life since being told that my husband passed away, I found the emotional courage to ask her what she thought about seeing the ashes and why she wanted to bring some home with her. Nothing could have prepared me for the answer: “Mom, we are studying bones and skeletons in Ms. Myden’s science class and I wanted to show the class what bones and skeletons look like.” There wasn’t much to say after that. Kudos to her for being 8 years old and wanting to share her father in a unique “bring your dad to class today;” but shame on me for always going down the rabbit hole. We were on this journey together and I needed to look at it with greater awareness that while sad, life continues to have a positive beat.
As we drove back to Denver, I contemplated how I reacted to her emotional behaviors as anxiety created by loss rather than life just having a new beat. I finally asked her if she could remember why she called Uncle Greg “daddy” when she was younger. Her answer was just as simple as studying bones and skeletons: because cousin Kyle and Jake call him daddy.
So my years of questioning whether I over-parented or under-parented during an extremely fragile and emotional time in my life will never be resolved. However, the take away from my experience is that all of us who have experienced a significant loss will always struggle with how and what the journey should look like. There are many gifts of our grief, including a remarriage and adoption –- so that when the time is right Gretchen will be escorted down the isle. My biggest take away, though, is being able to share that we all go down the rabbit hole but find our way back to the sun, grass and abundance of life.
Rachel Kodanaz is an author, speaker and consultant who provides encouragement to those who are suffering a loss or setback. She is the author of Living with Loss, One Day at a Time, available at www.rachelkodanaz.com or www.amazon.com.