This May 9 marks the 20th anniversary of my daughter Cameron’s death. It is also Mother’s Day. The overlap of Cameron’s anniversary and Mother’s Day happens every 5-7 years as the calendar cycle rolls around, and I have always liked this. I don’t need to be reminded that I am Cameron’s mother, of course, yet the extra affirmation from the wider world feels good.
This year it also feels like a much-needed poke from the universe to pause and wonder on how I am thinking and feeling about Cameron’s life and death. In my work, I get to listen to other people’s stories about their children and witness how they are holding and processing their grief. This has opened me up in deeply meaningful ways and I consider it a great privilege. I believe I have one of the best jobs possible. It is certainly the best job for me. Most days, I am thinking about other people’s experiences and the wisdom they have churned out of it. I am looking at photos of them with their beloved child. I am seeing their love at work. I am hearing their grief at work.
So … Where is my grief now? What does it look and sound like?
In this moment, as I write these words, I’m not sure. I’m groping around in the dark trying to find the contours of its shape and feel its weight. It seems amorphous and muted. Has my grief been softened like a pebble after years of the flowing stream? Or is it actually hiding from me?
I have been reminded recently of what fresh grief looks like. A couple my husband Charlie and I have become very close to are grieving their daughter’s death four months ago. They are working so hard, with such intention and courage. They, at this work, are exquisitely beautiful; and their grief work looks like art. Another mother in the CPN network is processing her grief following her infant son’s prognosis by writing poems for the first time in her life. When she speaks, she is articulate and astute about her feelings; when she crafts a poem, she actually shows with word magic what is going on in her mind and heart. These parents are examples of how to be fearless and sit with the pain with radical honesty and acceptance. Watching them do this work, I want to give them an award if such a thing were done — not because they are better than others, but because they — like all grieving parents — deserve recognition for such exhausting effort. They are each riding the bucking bronco full on, and they are not getting knocked off. They will not be brought down. When all is said and done, both the horse and the riders will still be here, tired, spent, and calm.
Maybe that’s what I am. Calm. And maybe that’s why I can’t grasp my grief. Because it’s gentle and quiet and peaceful. Maybe this is another example of just how astoundingly astute John O’Donohue was when he wrote his blessing For Grief:
When you lose someone you love,
Your life becomes strange,
The ground beneath you gets fragile,
Your thoughts make your eyes unsure;
And some dead echo drags your voice down
Where words have no confidence.
Your heart has grown heavy with loss;
And though this loss has wounded others too,
No one knows what has been taken from you
When the silence of absence deepens.
Flickers of guilt kindle regret
For all that was left unsaid or undone.
There are days when you wake up happy;
Again inside the fullness of life,
Until the moment breaks
And you are thrown back
Onto the black tide of loss.
Days when you have your heart back,
You are able to function well
Until in the middle of work or encounter,
Suddenly with no warning,
You are ambushed by grief.
It becomes hard to trust yourself.
All you can depend on now is that
Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.
More than you, it knows its way
And will find the right time
To pull and pull the rope of grief
Until that coiled hill of tears
Has reduced to its last drop.
Gradually, you will learn acquaintance
With the invisible form of your departed;
And, when the work of grief is done,
The wound of loss will heal
And you will have learned
To wean your eyes
From that gap in the air
And be able to enter the hearth
In your soul where your loved one
Has awaited your return
All the time.
Wow, wow, wow. Every verse here is true for me: it’s as if O’Donohue is chronicling year by year the evolution of how my sadness has felt and shown up.
As this milestone anniversary has approached, I have wondered – and yes, worried – if I have become cut off from my own grief experience as Cameron’s mother; if I have become hardened to it; or even worse, that the experiences of other families have smothered my own. But as I read this poem again and again, I choose to believe that it is precisely as he writes. I trust the form that Cameron has taken in my heart.
And just to be safe and sure, Charlie and I will wake at dawn to watch the sun rise and then do as we always do on May 9: spend the morning in bed reading letters people wrote us and looking at photographs. I will trust Cameron’s forever spirit and that whatever needs to come up and to me will come. And I will cradle it as what it is: a mother’s abiding love for her daughter these 20 years later.