After Olivia died, my chest hurt and I felt heavy all over, as if my body was made of substances more substantial than flesh, bone, and sinew. I questioned myself torturously, second-guessing everything I had done before and during her illness. I had many regrets, and some were deep. I questioned whether we should have adopted another child after Olivia, and even regretted the accidental conception of our twins. All I could think about during the first few weeks was “what if” and “if only.”
I was also grateful. I felt as overwhelmed by gratitude as I was by grief, thanking God daily that we’d been able to have Olivia at all. I was surprised to discover that I would accept Olivia back at any price, even in a coma, even as a child needing total care. I longed to see her live body again, to feel her hand in mind, to smell the smell of her.
Though we had anticipated and planned Olivia’s death, we hadn’t planned for what life without Olivia would be like; this was unimaginable. We all went through life in slow motion, those first few months after her death. Everyone else in the world seemed happy, sane, and successful. We suffered. I could not tell whether it was sorrow or guilt that felt so heavy in my body.
For months after Olivia’s death, I was terrified of losing another child.
I read Kaddish, Leon Wiesenhalter’s book about his grief the year after his father’s death. Wiesenhalter was a mostly unobservant Jew whose grief compelled him to observe his religion’s rituals of mourning, daily attending synagogue to recite the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayers of mourning. The reading was sometimes slow going because of all the rabbinical teachings; but it was compelling and a very good read. I found myself enraged with Martin Luther for the Protestant Reformation, because before the Reformation, the early Christian church followed many Jewish customs. We had lost these thanks to Martin Luther, Zwingli, and other Reformers, and although I had been a practicing Protestant for most of my Christian life, I found myself deeply regretting the devastating loss of rituals within the Christian church, particularly those for mourning. The modern Christian was supposed to bury a child and then return to the world of the living and be normal. I reflected that a new mother has as many as six weeks of maternity leave or tender care following a child’s birth; after surgery, one is prescribed a set amount of time for recuperating. But when death comes, there is nothing.
For months after my daughter died, every day I woke up feeling heaviness and chest pain. Tears dithered behind my eyes constantly. Some people-even family members and old friends-avoided us. It seemed that we were allowed a week or two of grace period, after which we were expected to return to our normal strength. Death had birthed us into a caste of undesirables, and our isolation was great sometimes.
I constantly felt a tender ache of longing for my missing child. The finality of death was stunning and cruel, something I hadn’t expected to experience so bitterly, because I was a Christian with every hope in an afterlife.
I expected to see my daughter here and there, and felt sometimes that she might be just in the next room.
I wasn’t myself mentally. I had taken a break from work on my master of arts in literature, and one day received a paper back that I could not remember writing at all. And yet, there it was in my hand, marked “A,” and dated two weeks after my daughter’s death. I sat there dumbly, looking at the red “A,” feeling crazy.
My children had dreams in which their sister was a glorious, light-filled being; I dreamed of Olivia ill, and dying. We took her bed apart two months after she died, and I cried for hours afterward. By the end of the second month after Olivia’s death, I was carrying a million wonderful things about her, ten bad things, and ten million regrets.
I joined a grief support group at a local church three or four months after Olivia’s death. It was facilitated by a social worker who had lost her only son in Viet Nam, and whose husband had died of cancer. The facilitator badgered people, particularly those who were recently bereaved. She seemed to have an inner scale for weighing grief, allotting more tolerance to those whose losses were large, and less to those who, in her eyes, were being too sentimental. She could have been a poster child for professionals whose own unresolved problems are projected onto clients. After six weeks, I left the group and asked a local analyst to help me with this stage of my grief, which felt too intensely private to handle elsewhere. I hadn’t the mental or emotional strength to hold that social worker accountable, but I will never forget her. She taught me that I had the strength to protect myself and to keep looking for help until I found what I needed, something I didn’t know with such clarity before Olivia died. I had never experienced such a big loss; I had no idea how I would react in bereavement. Now I knew I would still be, in part, my true self, even during great suffering.
Life went on, and there was something soothing and grounding about schedules and routines. Eight months after Olivia’s death, her birthday came around. I made a photo album of my favorite photographs for her birth mother, and mailed it to her. My heart hurt for hours afterward, and I felt as though I couldn’t breathe, as if the grief would crush me. I felt constant pain, constant guilt, constant relief: pain of missing my Olivia, relief from her constant care, and guilt over feeling relief. How did I do it while she was living? When I looked back, I couldn’t understand how I’d done it, in much the same way that I look at the remains of my daughter’s car after her accident last week and don’t know how they survived.
The one-year anniversary of Olivia’s death came and went, but not easily. For all the years I had taught and talked about anniversary reactions, I had never understood their power. All of the same feelings I had during the 24 hours of my daughter’s dying and death returned. Later, I looked back and could see how God had carried and sustained me. I was not bitter, and I wasn’t full of self-pity; I hadn’t used Olivia’s death as a weapon or a shield. Olivia’s life had always challenged and often revealed other people’s neurotic leanings; her death had only magnified this effect. It challenged me in my deepest emotional, psychological and spiritual selves, and I had come through refined.
Tomorrow, I’ll write about the dross of this refining experience.