Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Ups and Downs of Life After Loss

Grief is such a strange beast.

I joined a grief support group shortly after my mom and uncle's car accident.  The group facilitator described grief as like being on a roller coaster.  With huge ups and downs.  Moments where you can feel completely fine, and then suddenly be in immense pain once again. Grief can sometimes be triggered by an anniversary, such as today, but sometimes by just a smell, or a glimpse of someone who looks like your loved one.  There may be dates that you anticipate will be hard, only to find that the day goes much more smoothly than you had expected.  And then there will be others that you hadn't thought would be hard, and then end up to be excruciating.  Often, with no rhyme or reason.  Our facilitator referred to these moments as grief attacks.

I remember people at the funeral telling me that although the waves between these grief attacks become more spaced out over time, the intensity of them can be as intense as they were the day of the accident, even 20 years later.

I didn't believe them. 

I did not know what grief is.

The period following the accident is such a blur. So, so much pain.  More pain that I would have ever imagined.  A depth of pain that words cannot describe.  If someone had described to me that this is what it would feel like to suddenly lose your mom and uncle, I would not have believed them. 

It is impossible to imagine what it feels like to suddenly have your sense of security in the world ripped from you, like a carpet from under your feet. To lose that naive believing that all is good in the world, that subconscious trust that these kinds of things only happen to other people.  To realize that your assumption that you and your loved ones are safe.... was wrong. 

I had no clue that you could suddenly feel like you were watching life go on around you, as a complete outsider.  As if you were watching a play, taking place in front of you, but from the sidelines.  It is the oddest feeling to be sitting in your car, in a complete blur, watching everyone else around you smiling and laughing, wondering how in the world everyone else can be going on with life when THIS has just happened to you.  And to doubt that there will come a day when you will be able to be like them again.  

Carefree.  Happy.  Secure. 

Thankfully, for me, the roller coaster of grief has very much stabilized over the past year.  The downs are much more infrequent, and I can often think of my mom and uncle with a smile on my face, instead of a pit in my heart.  I now feel like I am once again mostly one of those carefree people, laughing in the street.  But perhaps, with my innocence stripped off and with a new appreciation of life.  People had promised this to me, and, although I didn't believe them, I am mostly there.  In a place where my grief no longer rules my life, as it once did in the days following the accident.  My love for them and the pain of their loss is still there.  But I have adjusted to life without them.

But today is the 2nd crapiversary of the accident, and for me, that equals a ride on the roller coaster. Since yesterday morning, the events of the accident keep replaying themselves in my head.  Begging for some attention. I truly believe that it is important to climb on that roller coaster when it comes knocking on your door, rather than running away.  You have to make time to let yourself grieve, so that your grief will not rule you, in all sorts of other ways.

And so today, I grieve.  Again.

There are so many awful memories from that day.  October 18, 2014.  A date I will never forget.

Memories of suddenly shifting from getting out of the pool, chatting with a friend, as our kids ran around happily, to sobs that I did not know were inside of me.  Memories of the kind elderly stranger who, seeing me screaming and shaking outside on the phone, insisted he needed to see if there was anything to do to help. 

Memories of making the calls to my other family members.  You see, I was the first to call each of my immediate family members, except for my brother.  He had gotten a call from the police before me.  Mistakenly telling him that our father was dead and mom was injured.  

I was the first to announce to all but my brother that their uncle/brother-in-law was dead.  The first to announce that my mom was in critical condition and being airlifted to Ottawa.  The first to hear the gut-wrenching sobs of each and every one of them, as the reality of the hell on earth we were suddenly living was learned.  It is a task I would wish on no one.  Those memories will probably always be amongst my most painful memories.  No one wants to tell their father than his wife might die.

Memories of the nurse repeating again and again, "we'll talk to you when you get here", when I called to ask for an update on my mom's condition.  I hung up knowing that meant that she was dead.  My gut told me that they didn't want to tell me by phone, but that she was dead.  Memories of my brother-in-law picking up the phone when I called my sister right after.  Memories of her wailing in the background.  I knew immediately, before he had said a word, that my gut was right.  Memories of him saying to me, "Linds, I'm so sorry".  Him knowing that he was breaking my heart, but that there was no other way.  Memories of my other sister beeping in non-stop on the phone, as I spoke to him, confirming to me that she had also just learned that my mom had died.

Memories of the ditch littered with broken 60's rock and roll CDs, and empty diet Pepsi cans, unmistakably my uncle's.  Knowing all too well in seeing this debris that this I was not going to suddenly wake up from an awful nightmare...  That this was my new reality.  

Memories of the perfectly preserved Frozen dolls in the trunk of my uncle's car.  Gifts from my uncle for Chloe's 3rd birthday.  For the party they never made it to.  Memories of wondering over and over again how two dolls can survive an accident in perfect condition, but two people who are loved so dearly cannot.

Memories of that one, final hug with my sisters, standing outside of Philo's Restaurant in Cornwall.  A place where I had gone uncountable times with colleagues in my previous life. The life where everything felt carefree and easy.  Now the place where we had sat and cried until there was nothing left to do, but leave.  That hug in the parking lot, where we all just grabbed onto each other for dear life, crying our eyes out.  Wishing we could turn back the hands of time.  Wishing that we didn't all have to pull apart and drive our separate ways, hundreds of kilometers from one another, and retreat back into our solitude of grief, alone, at home.

The memories are harsh.  And just as someone promised me at the funeral, as painful today as they were on that day.  

The good news is that the roller coaster doesn't last nearly as long as it used to.  I used to have days when I wondered if I would ever be able to love life the way I once did.  I now know, without a shadow of a doubt, that joy will return shortly... as soon as the roller coaster has taken the route it needs to take.

In the meantime, I find comfort in looking back at memories of their lives and of everything that has been done to honour their memories, like the balloon release we did for both of them at my mom's school.

When I watch the above video now, I am shocked at how young the kids are.  At how much they have grown and changed since the accident.  At how much the kids have missed out on, not getting to know them better.  And at how much my mom and uncle have missed out on seeing in just two years... the birth of two additional grandchildren they never got the chance to meet, the soon-to-be birth of a third, and the upcoming wedding of my sister.  Time passes so quickly.  Life goes on... without them.

Memories of Lynda's song, written in my mom's honour, by the music teacher she worked with.  He performed this at the funeral with some of the other teachers from her school and it touched me profoundly.

Memories of the tree that was planted outside of my mom's school in her honour.  And a video of the dedication ceremony that was done by teachers and students:

And memories of the Lynda Baynton Library.  This one holds special significance for me, as my mom was an avid consumer of children's literature. Her classroom held ceiling to floor children's readers. Her colleagues joked to me that when they were looking for a book they couldn't find in the library, they would head on down to mom's classroom to look through her personal library. 

Lots and lots of memories.  

There's not much more that needs to be said.  She was a pretty special person.

My uncle was also such a pretty fantastic person.  Warm-hearted, funny (albeit sarcastic!), kind and generous.  He would drive the 6 hours to Montreal, often by himself, multiple times a year, to visit with us and the kids.  He happily joined in on trips to the Ecomuseum and the zoo, and snuggled up on the couch with the kids to watch kids movies that I'm sure he couldn't have been terribly interested in himself.  He would take them out for walks, to the park... whatever he could do to spend some quality time with them in the few days we had together. 

Today is a day to honour their memory.  I'm heading up north decked in head to toe pink and the kids will be wearing their grandma shirts.  And I'll drink a Diet Pepsi instead of a Diet Coke, just for you, Uncle Rob ;)

We miss you and we love you. Always.