Deep grief does terrible things to you. It’s like an earthquake deep in your soul: everything tumbles and falls out of place. You are literally broken. There are about as many responses to this as there are people who grieve. Somehow, once the dust settles and you can see a little more clearly, you have to set about putting the pieces back together. You may be good at this, or you might completely suck at it. You might become whole again, or there could be gaping holes and cracks in the foundation. These cracks and holes are not always visible on the outside. Some of the most solid looking people have the most questionable rebuilding project going on inside them.
I think I fall in that category. People are always talking about how strong I am, but that is just the facade. It is the face I put on not only for the world, but for myself as well. On November 19, 1988, my nine year old daughter was kidnapped, the victim of a witnessed stranger abduction. Now kidnapping is a little different. It starts out less with grief and more with a combination of horror, dread, hope and determination. Having a missing child is also a lot of work. There are interviews to be done, because the media is the best hope of finding a missing child. There are flyers to be printed and posted, there are mailings and social media campaigns to be tended. There are police officers coming and going, and each time you hope they are bringing good news, even though they really just want more information, or more stuff for prints, DNA, evidence. In our case there was a constant stream of people coming and going to our house, picking up flyers, bringing condolences, telling us their dreams and visions. And all these things are ever so helpful, as they keep your mind and hands busy, so in those first most awful days you don’t dwell quite as deeply as you would on your loss, or even worse, on what your child might be enduring at that very moment.
I know many women whose children have died. I know a woman whose daughter was born with a condition incompatible with life. She gave birth and held her little girl for just a short time as she slowly slipped away. This is a recent loss, and I can’t look at that mother’s face without seeing, and feeling, the pain etched into it. I know many women whose children’s lives have been lost to accident, illness, or overdose. I know women who have experienced miscarriage, and have grieved deeply the loss of their babies and it mattered not whether they ever got to see them or hold them. In all these cases, these mothers have faced a huge emptiness. In my case, I could stand at the door and look down the street, hoping to see my daughter’s shiny blonde head bobbing towards home after the kidnapper listened to our televised pleas and dropped her off on the corner. In the most difficult of times, I was able to hope that it wasn’t real after all. These other mothers had no hope. They had only the yawning black hole of endless, bottomless, incurable grief before them. What do they do in those days, I wonder? Do they yell, scream, cry? Do they fall into bed and remain there, immobile? And if so, what do they do with their minds that are endlessly calling their child’s name?
For me, the emptiness of Michaela’s absence was intolerable. I could not even stand to look into it. I wanted to fill it. I wanted to turn my back on it. I hated it, hated it. Its attempts to swallow me made me angry. Once the activity had ceased and the crowds had gone home, I just did not know what to do with myself or with this pain. So I did my best to deny it, distract myself from it, to kill it. But when you succeed even partially in killing your pain, you pay a price.
“I feel dead inside,” I told my therapist a few years after Michaela was kidnapped. “Well how did you feel when you were feeling?” she asked me. “Like hell,” I replied. “Well, when you feel bad enough for long enough,” she answered, “sometimes you just stop feeling.”
That is the ditch I ended up in for quite awhile. Even those I continued to love, I loved through a veil, my heart set up to defend itself against the next blow. “What is the worst thing that could happen?” I was always asking myself as a way of coping with my fears. And I would imagine myself surviving that worst thing, what I would do, how I would cope. In my mind, I learned to wander the streets alone.
I don’t know if I ever would have come back were it not for the fact that I got pregnant five years after Michaela was kidnapped. I wasn’t really aware of what was happening at the time. I was happy, but scared, about the baby. Yet every day I would get into the shower and sob. I’m not a cryer, people, so this was a big thing. I’d look up and wait for the sky to fall. Then one day I realized it already had. I’d taken a nap on the couch, and I’d dreamed that I was wandering around town telling people about my daughter who had been kidnapped. As I was telling people about her, I was sobbing. It was so vivid I began actually physically sobbing so that it began to wake me up. I was filled with this grief, but at the moment I reached full consciousness, I felt a gate literally slam down on my emotions.
It was only then that I realized how much I had been denying my feelings of loss. I knew them in my head, but my heart had shut down and refused to connect to them. The process of pregnancy, however, had required my heart to open again to a new love, and with it the floodgates of all the feelings I’d kept locked inside came pouring out.
Since that time, I have come to see that while grief has its black darkness, around that darkness it paints the most beautiful designs, watercolors dripping with sorrow’s tears. In the end, this is what makes love so precious. The very word precious doesn’t simply mean cute. It means something that is of cost beyond measure. And that is love. It has its cute, adorable, fun, enthralling side, but love is always costly. It always hurts, in large or small ways, some near or far day. We all hurt each other, and deeply. We all eventually die. When you choose to love, you choose to hurt.
Man! In the face of that, why should we keep choosing love? Well, that’s easy. It’s because if you don’t love in the first place, you have already lost. You have already brought what you fear upon you. If you don’t get involved in a relationship, what are you fearing? That the relationship will end? Well you have ended it yourself by not getting involved. Does it hurt a little less? Mmm maybe, especially if you have built the giant wall around your heart that is required to make that decision. But you also lost out on all the happy and beautiful things.
Experiencing deep grief will affect how you see love. Either you will shut down to it, or you will open up to it, and see it with brand new eyes in all its glory and splendor. It’s hard, yes. You know it will one day end in loss, for one if not both of you, and you know that will hurt like hell. But with your new eyes you learn to look at each minute in time and say, “this is a perfect moment.” It is not the pain of yesterday. It is not the imagined pain of tomorrow. It is now, a moment enriched in a heart that swells and beats more deeply from the lessons it has learned, and it is good.
It’s scary, maybe. But it’s life.