Finding compassion and resilience in grief

The year after my daughter Abby died, a collaborator asked how I was doing. Wanting to play it cool, I said, “I’m okay, thanks. Life goes on.” She replied, “Oh, so you’re over it then?” Without hesitating, I said, “Oh, I don’t think this is the kind of thing I’ll ever get over. It’s part of my life, but I’m still alive and have to keep living.”

From this exchange, grief experts might think of me in a “recovery” grief pattern. Meaning, I slowly recouped after experiencing intense suffering, but still hurt. And I refer to grief as a forever loss that I don’t need to get over. Depending on the day, I could also fall in “prolonged” or “resilience” grief patterns. Experts know nobody fits neatly into categories.

I suspect to others, I look resilient. Indeed, it’s how I feel most often. Sorrowful and resilient. Notice that sorrow still comes first? It’s because this isn’t a fresh start to my life. Instead, each day I feel like I start on empty, yet, tethered to a nearly unbearable weight. This invisible weight feels obvious to me, as if I have a giant “A” for Abby emblazoned on my chest that I want everyone to see.

Why do I feel resilient? How do I keep going and find joy again?

My simple answer is, that’s what I decide to do every day because I realized that my perspective is the only thing in my control. My daughter will never be alive again, and I’ll never stop loving her. Simplicity isn’t easy.  I found relief, however, in the idea that grief wasn’t something to work through, then peace through mourning, and resilience in self-compassion. Meditation and Buddhist philosophy also helped me deal with what I can’t change and rethink what it means for a life to end.

I mourned daily during the first year, most often by looking at our pictures and telling that day’s story in a journal for Abby. I did this privately for fear of what others might think: Oh, she’s still wallowing? I barely cared what others thought. I knew this was what I needed, because, at a time when nothing felt good or right, it brought peace, joy and sorrow. I no longer need to do it daily, and, importantly, feel no need to keep it private.

I’m not alone in my wish to stay present for a time in the past. Joan Didion’s poignant memoir, “Blue Nights,” about grieving for her daughter, Quintana, describes her desire to “live in the time in between.” The year after Quintana died, Joan opened a play that included scenes from Quintana’s life before Joan knew it would be cut short.

Staying with Quintana in this time in between wasn’t denial. It was, for a time, a space to be together without the ending no loving parent wants. Why wouldn’t we want to spend more time here?

Along with self-compassion, I needed patience. I’m not a patient person. Did I expect time to be magic? I tried to keep pace with time’s relentlessness, thinking that it would propel me forward.

But, time isn’t magic. It doesn’t make things easier. It hasn’t dampened my ever-present yearning to hold my daughter.

As time moved forward and began to blur, it gave me space to breathe. Focusing on my breath provided time to think, and to stop thinking long enough to see that each emotion or thought isn’t bound to one angle.

With my view skewed as the fog of grief enveloped me, I saw my emotions as a prism, with complex angles and many surfaces. If I shift the prism one way, only red light emits, if I go another way, it’s blue and pink – and yet, a rainbow is always possible. Incredibly, perhaps my foggy grief view helped me see more clearly.

Now I think of grief as a symbol for my ongoing relationship with Abby. Her death wasn’t a failure of her life, or even an absolute end to it. Instead, her life is mine to carry as I carry myself forward. My job as her mother, keeping her safe and alive, feels harder and more imperative now. I’m resilient and ready for the challenge.

“The fear is for what is still to be lost.

You may see nothing still to be lost.

Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her.”

– Excerpt from “Blue Nights” by Joan Didion

-By Jill Oliver Robinson, M.A., research manager in the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine

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