After Marmee died, I expected to fall. I was confident that I would eventually be okay but that would come after some time in a mental health unit. In a very strange way I almost wished for the fall. I wished I could disassociate enough to not be present in my pain. When I didn’t have a mental health break down I began trying to understand why not. What makes some people break and others not? Was I ignoring my grief? Was I merely doing life but not really living it? Don’t get me wrong, there have been days and weeks where I barely functioned. Days where I have been just present enough to order take out for my kids and give them the passwords to their screens. But I was still functioning and wondered why my resiliency was winning?
I don’t think it was a surprise to a lot of people that I was surviving better than I thought I would. I’ve always been described as Strong, Resilient and Powerful, even as a young child. Alone those words sound like really positive attributes, and they are.. but they have often held double meanings.
Strong has also meant Hard
Resilient has also meant Volatile
Powerful has also meant Loud and Bossy
Over the years I’ve felt like I have needed to appologize for my hardness, but stay strong. Like I should be ashamed for how loud or bossy I come across, but still shine my resiliencey and be powerful. I’ve been at a loss for how to do that and wondered if I’ve even wanted to do that. These parts of me, the good and the messy, have served me well. They have guided me through unimaginably difficult times. They have protected me from hurt and helped me, quite literally, survive at times. That strength and resiliency kept myself, and those I loved, safe. Making quick decisions based on my emotions and what I though was my “gut” has served me well.
Anyone with trauma is going to have a well developed survival instinct and often that is what controls our reactions and decisions. Everone has it but it looks very different for everyone. As I continue to journey and become who I am, I’m realizing that I’ve mistaken that instinct as being my resiliency. Sometimes, my inner self, the part that holds my true resiliency matches up with that survival instinct. But often that instinct is reacting before I’ve had a chance to listen to my deeper emotions or logic that lies below all that protection.
Maybe this is also true for other trauma survivors. Maybe we are told we are so strong but hard or so resilient but volatile, because we actually have an over developed survival instinct working on overdrive. Maybe that resiliency is in all of us and it’s that survival instinct that is the wild card. That instinct is what looks hard, or messy or loud. Maybe we need to try and quiet her down so we can hear our deeper self. Listen to that inner being of who we were, and still are, before all that other stuff happened.
I’m learning to listen to myself more. I’m trying to be curious which part of me is guiding in any given moment and what I’m actually feeling, apart from all those protective impulses. After doing a whole lot of sheer survival in my life, this new way of thinking and processing IS HARD, especially with out my mom, but it’s getting easier.
Finding that place in my body that holds these different parts of me has been helpful and eye opening too. What I had mistakenly taken for my gut actually holds that resilient survival instinct. It’s kept me safe for so many years and sits just above my belly button. Often it bubbles up in to physical anxiety in my chest. I can look deeper though. Below my belly into my actual gut and behind the anxiety, into my heart. That is where my actual strength sits without the hardness, resiliency without volitility, and power without being loud and bossy.
My mom knew it was in me and described me as Scary Strong. She understood the dichotomy of what that meant inside me though. When she said it, she wasn’t trivializing the full scope of the my being. She knew what was deeper. She knew that the scary in me wasn’t the wall that people see but the overwhelming ability to make it through realities that should probably have made me crumble. She recognized the scary survival instinct, that was messy and uncomfortable, protected me time and time again. She had it herself, though it showed up differently. She also recognized the strong in me that was deeper and resilient and so powerful without any double meanings.
I don’t know if any of this makes sense… This is just some of my processing that that I’ve been doing lately. If you understand these ramblings I suspect you can relate and maybe this can help you recognize the Scary Strong in your own self or those around you. Maybe that awareness can create some empathy or curiousity for both of these incredible parts of our beings.
I’ve started this post about nine times in the past year but the words didn’t come. Like this post, I’m disjointed and my brain is jumbled. I don’t work like I used to but I needed to get it out of me so here I go…
We aren’t taught how to grieve. I wish we were. I wish there was a way to do it “properly”, a formula with a begining and an end. Knowing that this sadness had an end would be really nice. The truth is that this grief doesn’t have an end. It is a part of me now. It has overshadowed my whole self and I am changed. I miss Marmee with my everything and the reality of that has left me so desperately SAD. I like the explanation of grief touching every part of your life, every part of your being, and instead of the grief growing smaller with time, our lives grow bigger around it but the same amount of grief remains within us always. (You can check out a good explanation HERE)
Christmas is coming soon and it has always been a little extra special for my family. I’m not sure what it is exactly but I think it has to do with the chaos that we needed refuge from as kids and the peace that Christmas at home brought. I know that sounds a little cliche and if you know my family at all we aren’t very “peaceful” or quiet when we are together. But, when I talk about the peace at Christmas I mean Peace in the deepest sense of the word. I’m learning that my new reality of peace cohabitates with sadness. Joy comes with pain. I am finding my way with out Marmee and it is THE HARDEST thing I’ve ever had to do, but I am doing it with sadness and contentment.
For many years growing up we had to visit our birth father over Christmas, which was never a good experience. Despite rarely taking his visitation days through out the year, he always ensured he took us over Christmas and threw an ample amount of chaos in to our lives over the holiday. Because of this I learned to really embrace this time we had with our Mom early on. She was our safety and our calm after a stressful, often scary and sickness inducing visit with our father. We knew early on that Christmas wasn’t about the presents, because those often came with strings or where used as weapons from our father. What we wanted most at Christmas was time together at home with our Mom, in safety, peace and love. We cherished that time together and continue to make our Christmas’ center around those values. This year, it all seems to be even more prevalent…
What we want most is time together with our Mom.
I look back at the last year and wonder how we actually did it. How did we get through it all? How am I actually still standing? I didn’t write about it here because I think I was already numb, just surviving. The words couldn’t come. I’m just starting to find them again actually. Three weeks after my Mom died, before we had even come up for air, Jon’s brother Jeremy died. Last Christmas was a blur. I actually don’t remember much of it at all. This year, I can take the time to actually feel all the feelings and not just survive through them. This year feels more like the first Christmas without her.
How has this past year without her been? Devastating and Beautiful at the same time. Before cancer I didn’t know two such opposing realities could exist together. Neither one pulls more than the other but they live and breathe simutaneously.
We’ve had A LOT of hard stuff happen this year. Jon’s brother died 3 weeks after Marmee and our beloved angel dog, Aura, died 5 months later. She had never been healthy but we were not expecting her to go so quickly. Our own bodies kind of gave up and we had numerous visits to different doctors offices and went to the ER countless times for various and seemingly debilitating illness that led to respiratory issues, dehydration, numerous antibiotics and interupted vacations. The biggest and most scary hospital stay was in August when Jon and I were called home from our anniversary weekend in Victoria. Sofie’s underestimated eye infection reached dangerous levels very quickly. She had to be put on 2 heavy duty IV antibitocs every 8 hours to help rid her of the infection and keep it from entering her central nervous system. Apart from that we also recieved an unexpected dual diagnosis for Sofie of ADHD, with a probability of Autism as well. The official autism assessment will come in the new year though. As the new school year started, our bodies healed and we got to experience the wonders of the ADHD medication for Sofie. We have been able to start finding our new normal.
I know Marmee would be amazed of how well we are all doing through it all. She’d be so proud of how my sisters and I have come together, gotten through any grief-induced sister pettiness that pops up and risen to the challenge of taking care of each other and staying unified. My sister Maggy, with Down Syndrome, is living with Vanessa and Josh and THRIVING. Liz started a new job working in the same office as my husband with the government in the community living field. Apparently working with and for the differently abled is a family legacy our Mom has passed down to all three of us girls. I’m sure she is smiling because of it.
Her grandbabies are doing really well too. Her biggest regret with leaving to soon was not getting to see them grow up. That reality is the most painful part for me and creeps up at Christmas concerts, milestone moments and those mundane family giggle nights. I can’t even think about it without crying still.
Livi did an amazing job in her first community theater performance, the one she auditioned for on the day that Marmee died. She’s had a hard first term with friends at school, because her best friend moved and switched schools, but she is finding her groove and excited about her next stage preformance in the spring! Sofie is flourishing in school this year, medicated and with a new teacher and EA. She is finally learning to write her name and preformed a memorized poem in front of an audience! Evelyn is loving Kindergarten, as we all knew she would. She is the fastest girl runner in her class most days and loves playing hard both with her imagination and body!
With the passing of the one year mark and the magic of Christmas here, I really do feel like I can start to breathe again. It’s a heavier breath but it’s there. I’m not sure that’s true for everyone. For me though, I feel like I got through this year, a year where I thought I’d fall apart but I’m still standing and still feeling, so I know I can do the rest of this life thing with out her. With every groan in my soul, I wish I didn’t have to though.
Everything has changed but life keeps calling. I’m learning to process life in a different way. It’s been really difficult. I’m a verbal processor and I have lost the person I process everything with. The person I would talk to about everything. The person who had the patience and interest to listen to the swirling circles of insignificant and all-encompasing frustrations, joys, questions, fears, judgements and insights that go on in my head every day. We would talk and debrief our day almost every day. Without her, my world doesn’t make sense the way it used to and I’m needing to figure it out with completely different tools than I’m used to using. In case you are wondering where my husband fits in here – I love my husband completely but he isn’t that person for me and that’s okay. Our brains work too differently, which is one of the things that keeps our relationship so strong. Our personalities compliment eachother but verbal processing is not his strong suit just as internal processing is not mine. He tries hard and I’ve had to learn. I have had to become more introverted and introspective. I am more quiet and keep things to myself more. Maybe that’s not a bad thing but it really sucks being forced in to it.
After Marmee died last year a friend told me she thought Marmee had left me with her peace and I have really felt that. I feel her calm inside me, inexplicably holding me those first few months especially. I still feel it, keeping my anxiety in line and managing it better with this new gift of peace.
Marmee told a different friend of mine that I was “scary strong“, meaning she believed I could get through anything, and I can. Marmee did not see herself as strong though, or resilient, but she was. Brene Brown says “We cannot give our children what we do not have.” My mom gave me so much. She was the strongest, most resilient person I know and she gave that to me, and to my sisters. She taught me how to be a mother and then got to walk alongside me while I became one myself. I can do this all because of her.
My children are a big part of why I survived this year as well. They kept me present as only children can do. I had to allow myself to feel all the sadness and to see the beauty in my life in order to stay present with them. Their joy kept me going and their sorrow gave me perspective. They lost their Marmee too so we helped each other.
Early on, I was driving my girls to school wondering how I was going to do this. Tears and self doubt streamed down my face every car ride at that point. Then Livi’s voice broke through my thoughts. She was singing passionately along to Pink in the back seat…
"This is my rally cry I know it's hard, we have to try This is a battle I must win To want my share is not a sin
There's not enough rope to tie me down There's not enough tape to shut this mouth The stones you throw can make me bleed But I won't stop until we're free Wild hearts can't be broken No, wild hearts can't be broken"
This became my anthem for this part of the journey. I smiled and started laughing because I knew I would be okay. Grief is always going to call to me, just like Life will always call and I will continue to live as long as I answer both.