It has been four years, three months, and three days since the day that changed everything: the day my daughter, Ellie, died. Today I cried the entire way home from church. You see, a young mother brought her baby girl to our Sunday School class. Hearing that baby girl cry was all it took to set off a chain reaction of thoughts and emotions that were carefully hidden behind a disguise of a woman who appears to be much stronger than she was years ago.
In the weeks following Ellie’s death, I channeled my energy into “healing” from my loss, searching for the perfect book or instruction manual that would lead me towards feeling “back to normal” again. I clung tightly to those beautifully written sympathy cards: if “time heals all wounds,” then I just needed to keep clawing my way towards that fictitious moment in the future when I had conquered grief.
Before Ellie, I had never known a loss this profound. My naivety had sheltered me from the pain of experiencing a hurt that cut deep enough to take my breath away. Although I had walked with others through suffering and loss, I was just far enough removed to not truly understand the depth of this kind of pain.
Despite my wishful thinking and honest efforts, I soon learned that grief has no endpoint. There’s no milestone or finale where you can say that you’re “finished”grieving; that’s because grief is never ending. It becomes intertwined with every fiber of your being and there is no separating from it; it’s now part of you.
The me of four years ago would have been horrified and discouraged to hear this, because those early days after loss carried not only an emotional sting, but also a physical one. The toll that grief took on my body was undeniable. I was too heartbroken to eat, and despite spending most of my day sleeping, the dark circles under my eyes told a different story. Grief had made me physically ill and I wanted nothing more than to escape the uncomfortable feeling that accompanied my loss. I thank God that the grief I felt then is different than what it is like today.
What does grief look like years later? The one thing that has lightened is the physical pain. Most days my body feels “normal” by all definitions. Every now and then grief sneaks in suddenly and I can feel that familiar gnawing in my stomach that I felt as Ellie died in my arms. It’s the feeling of entrapment and panic, like you you’re the main character in a scary movie and you can’t escape whatever is chasing you. That’s the same feeling I felt today as I searched for ways to politely excuse myself from the crying baby, but I couldn’t, so I simply sat in silence as I felt adrenaline take over my body. This feeling now subsides more quickly than it did in those early days.
Today’s grief is a flood of the “secondary losses;” the reminders of missed moments because she’s not here. It’s seeing two sisters holding hands and feeling the heartbreak of never having my girls together in one place. It’s celebrating a child’s birthday, something we never had the chance to do with Ellie. It’s hanging a Christmas stocking on the mantle that you know will remain empty. Or it’s hearing a baby cry when yours was never strong enough to make a sound. These thoughts and images float through my mind every day, and some days they feel heavier than others. Other days my mind wanders and I feel a sense of peace as I imagine what life would have been like with her here.
I can assure you wholeheartedly that I have not conquered grief, nor am I over my loss. I simply stopped fighting the grief and the pain that comes with it and allowed it to integrate into the new version of me. I am not defined by my loss, yet my loss morphed me into a version of myself that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. Who I am today is the result of a profound love that transverses heaven and earth.
If you’re reading this and you’re in the throes of new grief: don’t give up. You will always feel your loss, but it won’t always hurt the way it does right now. The edges soften as the years pass, and the physical rawness of those early days won’t last forever. What is left unchanged is the love in your heart for the one whose memory you cherish.
So the next time you think about putting hope in the sentiments of a Hallmark card: don’t. Because those who have lost someone special know that time actually doesn’t heal all wounds. And you know what? I’m becoming more okay with that.