I knew this day was coming. I knew it in my bones, in my heart and in the very soul of who I am. Not as a widow. Not as a woman. As a mother. I just did not know when.
Here we are. When a father leaves a daughter- when a father commits suicide and leaves a daughter, the day will come when she will ask:
What could I have done to stop him?
She will say:
I wish I could have stopped him.
She will no longer look at her loss with the eyes of a child, but as a young woman. She will have the same questions all young women face, as well as the added layer of raw, biting complicated grief, when a father leaves in a way that is abrupt and brutal. Her loss is different than my loss. Her story is different than my story.
Yet, there are times when we both stop and look at each other with the same emptiness. Both trying to be stronger than the other-both still haunted by the same questions-as well as the answers. Both still finding moments of happiness in our various circles of school, life, friends-and both still very aware of how quiet a house can be when the layers of grief unravel. And here is the real kicker: Complicated grief does not announce its schedule. It comes on some of the worse days imaginable- just to remind us both, still new to the fresh hell of losing someone we loved to suicide- that grief creeps. So, on the very days I have gone non stop, have questioned my own sense of self, my daughter’s eyes will have that certain look, and I will hear in her voice, tight with tension trying to hold back tears, and I will stop whatever I am doing, and we will sit and sit and sit and talk and talk and talk. And she will cry. And when she goes to sleep, I will stay up longer and cry for her, for us, and for my husband.
My mother used to say she was as happy as her saddest child. And with four of us, those levels of both happiness and sadness had peaks and valleys. As I got older I could see the happiness on my mother’s face, and hear it in her voice when all her children were happy and in the groove of living our lives. I could also see the extreme sadness and pain when the one child was struggling, or questioning, or disappointed, or in the land of not knowing.
With my only, it is magnified. Her loss is and will always be worse than mine-and her loss will always be something I can never change. It is, and forever will be her greatest sadness-which by the very nature of being her mom, will be mine. It is my job to be here for her-to be mindful of the ways her loss will be triggered by different things than mine. As will her joys, her achievements, her sense of self, how she decides to tell her story.
For I am certain, she never planned to have to say to anyone:
My fathered committed suicide.
And she, for certain, never planned to carry the burden of asking:
Could I have stopped him?
I am grateful for the people who ask me how my daughter is doing.
It helps me tune in to the ways she is thriving. It helps me look at her as a teenager. It helps me know as together as we are, as mother and daughter, she is also her own person, and as much as she is my daughter, she is also her story and will figure this whole thing out in the ways that work for her. This is the part of grief we don’t talk about: the extended consequences,the timelines, the ways our children look at not only death, but the very promise of life.
One of my most profound moments of knowing this, of understanding the layers of my daughter, came at a time when we sat on the sofa, only three months into the after, and three nights before Christmas. I was in the spin of paperwork and all that goes with the after. She had been upset with me for not doing the traditional things we had always done as a family. It came down to the advent calendar- several year’s worn, and truth be told, mouse nibbled, goofy deer my mother had given her when she was younger. I had not hung it where it always went. She did not get to move the wooden star over to the red felt pocket marking the days. Here we were three days from Christmas and she made it clear she was angry.
I burst out crying. Sobbing. I had failed her.
We both started crying.
And with the innocence of a child and the knowing of an old soul, my only moved closer to me on the sofa and said.
We need to get on with the living.
At the time, I had no clue what this meant, but in that moment, we started just that. I crawled through the attic, opened the Rubbermaid box, pulled out the mouse nibbled deer head advent calendar and we marked the day. She moved the wooden star.
Just as we have ever since.
Not much of it has been easy. All of it has been in the living.