Behind the Grief Curtain: A day in the life of a grieving mother.
A friend of mine said something today that really made me think about how my life must look from the outside; from the viewpoint of mothers who cannot comprehend my loss. She said to me "I just can’t even begin to put myself in your shoes, but I do think of you often and am amazed that you get out of bed at all." My gut response was an internal commentary on how I don't know how I get out of bed each day. Somehow, almost six months has gone by since we lost Vail. Six months. 179 days to be exact. That's how long it has been since we have held our sweet baby's warm, happy, healthy little body. 179 days since we have heard her laugh, seen her smile. It feels like an eternity. It also feels impossible. How can it be possible that it has been six months? How did we survive 179 days without her?
These are questions that I ask myself every day. In one way or another. So, for those of you who have no idea (or are just plain curious) what it is like to survive a single day of child-loss grief, here is a glimpse behind the veiled curtain. It is raw and real, no pretense or make-up here. Literally, I don't wear make-up.
5-6am: Aspen wakes up, ready to play. Mommy and Daddy can't handle it. So one of us peels ourselves out of bed and sets her up with her morning necessities. Then we crawl back into the warm bed and drift in and out of sleep. Most days it feels impossible to get out of bed. Half of the battle is facing the sheer exhaustion. Lack of quality sleep coupled with the emotional stressors weighs our bodies down.
6-7am: Aspen has had enough of waiting. She creeps into the dark master bedroom and slinks up to Daddy, kisses him on the lips (or arm) and quiet says "its morning Daddy." This is our cue. The bed summons us into its safe abyss, but the morning joy of a 4 year old reaches in and pulls us out. She is at 100% now, so we immediately have to get our game faces on.
7-8am: This time of day is particularly difficult for me. It is a time that would have been spent tending to Vail. Snuggling her while she ate her favorite pre-breakfast Z-bar. Then changing her diaper and getting her real breakfast together. Aspen used to be low maintenance at this time of day. That is no longer the case. She demands our full attention now. Breakfast must be presented, despite the fact that she barely eats any of it. We must be prepared to play princesses, which includes getting her dressed in her princess outfits, complete with crowns and shoes. Steve typically handles the laundry and I manage the beasts (pets). The day has officially begun.
About a month ago, Steve and I realized just how far down the rabbit hole we have slipped. Or crawled. We have aged at least 5 years in the last 6 months. Wrinkles and greys abound. Plus, we have both gained weight. Depression, grief, pain, and emptiness will do that. So we have forced ourselves to begin working out again. Exercise is something we have both always made a part of our daily lives. But when your child dies, everything...and I mean everything becomes less important. Sure, I know some bereaved parents who are running marathons 5 months out from their loss. Others haven't exercised in 5 years. We just didn't care anymore. About ourselves. But even grieving parents cannot avoid the mirror forever. And we cannot deny the damage reflected back at us. So, 7:30am has become workout time. 30 minutes of Beachbody on Demand to start the day. It sucks. We hate it. But, it has gotten easier and it does help.
8-9am: A few days a week this is the time frame in which we take Aspen to school. Simple enough, get her dressed, fix her super long hair, load her up and drop her off. School is only 2 miles away. But there are triggers lurking around even the most innocuous of corners. One of Aspen's classmates has a younger sister who is just over 2 years old. She is small for her age. She has big brown eyes and brown hair. She reminds us of Vail. Not because they look similar; there are many differences to be sure. But it's enough. Enough to trigger all the questions. Is that what she would be doing now? Is that what her smile would look like? It's too close to home for me. I can barely look at her. Steve, well, he handles seeing this little girl much differently than I do. He forces himself to engage her, even touch her. I don't know how he does it. He told me the other day that he didn't want to let his fear control him, that he wouldn't be afraid of a sweet little girl. He would let the ways she reminded him of Vail be a blessing, not a curse. I can barely look at her. Touching her or talking to her is out of the question. But I watch Steve do it and I'm so very proud of him. Usually these encounters end with hot tears flowing down my face. I try to hide them behind my sunglasses.
9-10am: We start our work day. Vail Industries, despite being a start-up, keeps us very busy. We are constantly in web meetings with product development or on calls with potential investors. Writing business plans or honing our elevator pitch. I always have something to attend to with The Vail Project or The SUDC Coalition. Trying to raise awareness can be a full time job. Some days Steve drives out to the tiny house he has been contracted to build and works there. Other days he cannot bear to be separated from us. We are literally day to day. Moment to moment. Even now, after 179 days.
We just try to get through the moments. Survive the day.
10-11am: Continue work. Try to breathe. Don't let the walls close in. The quiet sneaks up on me. No Vail to keep the silence from weighing me down. Cry out all my tears, before it is time to go get Aspen.
11-Noon: This is the Aspen pick up window. 11:30. I focus on making sure not to forget things when I pick her up. Bring her drink and a snack for the car. Don't leave her book bag behind at school. I forget the little things these days. Grief brain is a real thing. If you think baby brain is bad....you don't know grief brain. It is like an out of body experience. My brain is out of my body. I forget everything, at varying intervals. It is impossible not to. I try not to beat myself up too much. Steve is ultra-supportive despite the fact that I am sure it is very frustrating to repeat himself all the time. He must be exhausted at reminding me to do things or not to forget "x-y-z." I'm not myself. Which is an understatement. I'm a fraction of the mother and wife I used to be. I am trying to do my best. My best just isn't anywhere near what it used to be.
Noon-3: I struggle to play with Aspen, I can't access my imagination or pretend to enjoy playtime. Of course, I force myself to try, but I'm sure she is constantly disappointed in my inability to go with her into her imaginary worlds. Steve and I try to structure her afternoons to avoid this. Reading time. Practicing her letters. Arts and crafts. Ride bikes. Get through the day. Get through the hour. Make the minutes pass by.
3-5pm: This is afternoon activity time for Aspen. Dance and gymnastics this time of year. We load up and head out. Again I try not to forget the essentials. Aspen watches her iPad on the drive. I try not to miss Vail's sweet smile in the rear-view mirror. At this, I always fail. Then I sit and listen to the other moms and their idle chatter for an hour while Aspen dances her little heart out or walks the balance beam and perfects her forward rolls. It is in these moments I desperately miss Vail. She was my little tag along. Happy to be with me wherever we needed to go. She was a quiet, calming presence. She was my little barnacle, never straying far from Mommy. I was never alone. Now, the 'aloneness' is my constant companion.
5-7pm: The dinner and bedtime routine at our house has always been a favorite. Aspen and Vail would happily eat dinner while Steve and I watched the news. Bath time was both the height of the day and the wind down period the girls needed to prep for bed. I hate this time of day now. Not only is the time of day we last saw our sweet angel, but it reminds me even more of her absence. Any parent who has put two children to bed knows how much more demanding it is than putting down only one. The big challenge lately is that Aspen is lonely in the bathtub. She has been crying, always missing her sister. It was such a special time for them, laughing, splashing and playing together. So, now, Steve and I rotate getting in the tub with her. It means the world to her. She will relax and play and enjoy her bath with one of us there. Anything to keep her from the constant pain of missing her sister. The grief routine continues to develop, each and every day.
7-9pm. The witching hour. The worst time of the day. This is when we lost Vail. This is when the PTSD likes to rear its ugly head the most. It wants to steal our sleep, our peace, our sanity. Never far, never leaving us be, it is our constant companion. Plus, we have to pretend to not fear every minute Aspen sleeps. We check on her every few minutes, either on the camera in her room or by going in and checking on her. I hold my breath when I enter her room, praying to hear her breathe. Hoping she will move. Willing her body to be warm when I kiss her forehead. Every. Single. Night. 179 nights. Steve and I usually lay in bed and talk about our feelings during the witching hour. It is both the most scary and the most safe time, simultaneously. Nothing sounds unreasonable during these hours. No fears too unfounded. No tears unjustified. We take our melatonin and watch tv until sleep comes to find us. Steve welcomes it before I do, 99% of the time. Sleep evades me.
9-11pm. I lay awake, some nights watching tv, others in pure darkness. I try to think of nothing. But usually that kind of luck isn't possible. Mostly, I try to avoid thinking of that night. Of how my perfect little girl is not sleeping soundly in the next room. Asking myself how any of this is reality. Not acknowledging that I won't hold her in the morning. Willing myself to clear my mind and welcome sleep. Most nights I can get there. Some nights I cannot. No matter what, I always get up one last time, right before sleep comes for me...to check on Aspen. Sometimes that is 11pm, others it is 3am. Sneaking into her room, holding my breath once again, praying she is alive. Trying not to imagine her lifeless. Failing. Every. Single. Night. Knowing this routine, this new normal, is forever.
Midnight: wake up because I hear Aspen calling for me, only to find out it isn’t her. She is sound asleep. Kiss her once more. Try to go back to sleep.
3:30am: Wake up again. This time I hear Vail calling for me. I sit up sweating and my chest pounding like a freight train. Tear the covers off and run down the hall. Remind myself that her room is empty. But I’m up, so I go check on Aspen again. Still breathing. Back to bed. Again.
As with almost everyone, some days are good and some days are bad. Good and bad are relative terms. Especially for the grieving. A good day may mean I only cry 10 times. Or maybe I don't cry at all. Some days are a success when I can stay focused on work for half the day or I take a shower. Getting a shower is life victory now, as it requires both the energy and the give-a-shit that I often cannot summon. Other days, well they are less. Less in every way. On those days, I am thankful if I can feed my family and do more than sit on the couch. Every day is its own entity. Living in the moment is all that we have. One minute, one hour, one day at a time. I cannot express how that really feels. Most people talk about living that way, how it is the only way to live. Now I know what it truly means. In a way that only the mother (or father) of an angel child can know. What it truly means to know that the next day isn't promised. That each day may be our last. I try my best to make each day a happy one for Aspen. I hope my husband knows how much he means to me. Even though I surely fail to make him feel that most days. Vail wouldn't want us to waste days being sad. She was always happy. That is what she would want. Happiness. If only it were that simple.