The deepest darkness of grief is the discouraging reality that since our love for our son will never change, the agony of his loss will not either.
It has been 4 months since I have been able to write.
Like innumerable days before, today is an empty day. My spirit is brittle and harsh and gray. It has been 21 months and 2 weeks and 6 days since our son died. The tsunami of grief and words that once consumed me has now exiled me in a wasteland of depression and anxiety. On many days I am "fine" and can do my life in a way that keeps most people from recognizing that I am just going through the motions. I barely visit his grave or listen to his songs or look at his photos because it is just too painful. Instead, I sit numbing and flipping and scrolling and eating and stuck. I am mute and cannot write. The weight of depression is manageable enough to barely function and heavy enough that I don't feel like I can breathe.
Everything I read, the conversations with the other broken mothers I know -- they all said the second year of grief was worse, but who can possibly believe that when you are barely surviving year one??
I think now of an older mom who once gave me a wise, knowing grin while I juggled 4 small children. “Enjoy these days! It only gets harder!” she quipped at the grocery store or the fast-food playland, meaning to be encouraging. I wanted to hit her with my diaper bag. Now, twenty-two years into mothering I can see what she meant. But, then -- pregnant and caring for a 9, 7, 5, and 2 year old -- who could imagine!!!!
The first year of grief was a forest fire, a raging inferno. It completely absorbed the landscape of my life. It flattened me with its intensity and power. For the last few months I have lived in the devastation left by the fire. I navigate a barren landscape on most days. Everything feels dead. Even the scientific knowledge that a forest fire brings regeneration and new life feels hollow. As of yet there is no apparent growth in the charred debris.
The first year of grief was a tidal wave. It crashed in, all momentum and motion. I was instantly swept away and could barely breathe as I surrendered to its churning power. It engulfed me and altered everything about life as I knew it. But, there was activity and there were decisions to make and there was mourning to do; the months were shrouded in a dismal vibrancy that was tragic but had a progression: the first year was an arc of survival from the day we lost him until the anniversary of that terrible day. And somehow there were words. Words flowed from me bringing purpose and healing and the promise of meaning and significance from the dark days.
But then the darkness grew doubly dark. A flat, hopeless depression arrived in year two. It is stillness but without peace. I miss the passion of the forest fire and the tsunami -- they were destructive but at least they felt alive. They forced me to react and respond. This is instead an endless expanse of emptiness without purpose or promise. The deepest darkness is the discouraging reality that since our love for our son will never change, the agony of his loss will not either.
This all may sound a bit dramatic; I would probably have thought so before it became my life. But I don’t want to be afraid to tell the truth. Grief’s impact slammed into me. It had a trajectory that led me to rage. And here, after rage, the place I find myself is full of edgy anxiety on the loud days, bottomless sorrow on the quiet days, and on the worst days, despair.
I think most people in my day to day life will find this all a bit surprising. I assure you, I don’t hide deliberately. I value honesty and authenticity in relationships more than most people, but frankly, grief is tiresome and most often I am tiresome to myself. As much as I need support and understanding, in order to survive, I need to just pretend to be normal sometimes. Many times, “fake it till you make it” works and I enjoy hours or days of relief from the wasteland and find peace and contentment and even joy in my life and with my family. And there is much to be joyful for -- two extraordinary weddings, launching one daughter to a new city and venture, the many unpredictable and ordinary miracles that I am privileged to share with our nine other children and my beloved husband.
But part of the heaviness of Year Two is the growing realization that the weight of loss I carry is not in fact going to get easier or smaller or ever go away. I know it will change. I know I will change. One benefit is that my depression demands isolation and this is helping me process and accept the reality of just how drastically my heart and the landscape of my life have changed. Forever. And to grieve that too.
It occurs to me that there is a line between healthy and un-healthy depression and anxiety around grief. I move across that line regularly, but I am hopeful that being able to finally put words to the darkness will illuminate it enough to keep me on the bright side a little longer each day. There is a rhythm to be found as I integrate grief even more fully into my life. Depression and anxiety invite me to self-compassion and radical acceptance of my own story. I can practice not judging myself for how much it still hurts or for how little I get done. My faith convicts me that I am never alone, even in the bleakest moments, and that hope is always the anchor of my soul.
It is still a surprise that John Paul Raphael feels as alive to me as the day he was born. I thought maybe his memory would fade like the festive intensity of Ralph’s and my wedding reception. So naïve.
I feel him here breathing on my chest. I hope someday that brings me comfort and agony, not just agony. I trust that my sweetest baby lives with the Lord and that in ways I cannot see or understand, our love for each other transcends all boundaries and thus lives on; that the magnitude of my grief comes from the enormity of that love; and that with God’s grace these charred sufferings will some day birth a new forest within me.
I miss you, baby. Let yourself be loved.