I heard the sound coming from somewhere close, swelling from the deepest part of my being. I was almost startled when I felt it resonate through my body, felt the vibration, lungs rising and falling to keep up with the demand of my spirit.  How long had it been since I had felt laughter?

The noise was both familiar and startling.  The overwhelming sense of loss that guarded the gate to my soul must have been on a lunch break.  Loss and I had made an agreement after my daughter died that I could never be happy again.  But now, before my conscious mind could react, it had already happened; happiness had bubbled up through me, spilling up over the sides of myself. How could I have let this happen? How could I feel happiness without my daughter!

I had been holding on for so long. Weeks had turned into months, the pit in my stomach grew, my heart had been stretched to its capacity.  The moment my daughter took her very last breath, all the joy, love and sense of fulfillment was sucked out, leaving me with a sagging sense of loss.  I knew there would never be a time that I would feel happiness again.  How could I when my child was gone?

Slowly, over time, I recovered some semblance of interest in actively participating in my life again. Little sparks of interest for life were catching fire.  One day, I woke up with the goal to get dressed before noon. I started to pay attention to the details; what I was eating, how I was spending my time.

It happened bit by bit; the process back to living was painfully slow and full of self-judgment. When the antidepressants didn’t seem to work, I marched into the kitchen to whip up a batch of vanilla frosting, eating until the top of my head tingled and I could take a full breath again.

The world was still too bright; people’s concern felt suffocating and I found myself back in bed pulling the covers over my head, snuggled in my cocoon of loneliness, my thoughts circling through the last months of my daughter’s life. I spent hours in bed with my “Magical Thinking.” I changed her ending; there was no cancer, Madison’s legs weren’t bowed, her long shiny hair reflected the sunlight as we walked hand and hand to the beach.

Over time I was able to stop the obsession of what Madison’s life could have been, should have been.  My focus shifted to internal matters; I began to find little parts of myself that I had thought were lost forever.  My interest was caught in a dark theatre; hooked by movies like “American Beauty,”  “Shakespeare in Love,” “A Map of the World,” themes that dealt with love and loss.

The athleticism that I had grown up with was found on a trail in the forest of my childhood.  The trail still there, waiting for me to soak in the colors of fall, as I pushed my body up hill, muscles burning, every pore crying, hair wet, my heart pounding.

Spontaneity was discovered in the bottle of wine I drank with friends at a dinner.  After we got home, I stripped myself of clothes, lit by the stars of evening, and washed the car while naked.  I don’t remember the name on that bottle, just that it left me reckless.  The unspoken rule of washing cars with clothes on had been broken, I was free.

I found lust  and possibility in a kiss, one that transported me to another universe where I could be exposed, vulnerable and loved anyway.

The process of reclaiming pieces of myself after my daughter died was daunting. I was paralyzed by dread, guilt and lack of ambition.  How could I possibly live without her?  I didn’t have a lot to hold onto; Madison was our first and only child. Was I still a mother even though my child was gone?  Was I still a friend even though I never returned calls?  Was I still a wife when every part of me wanted to move away and start over?

How could I live with so much anger and confusion…and yet I did.  But really, I wasn’t living, I was merely existing.  I was flying below the radar of my life, doing just enough to get by, and all the while medicating myself with food and antidepressants so I wouldn’t  draw too much attention.   I stifled my creativity, painting my life with small strokes, tentatively dipping my brush back into the washed-out color. Where was the bright bold palate I had worked so hard for?

And then it happened; I don’t remember the circumstances.  I don’t know who was with me, or what it was about.  But what I do know is that it was the moment I found myself again. It was there in the midst of  a full blown belly laugh, mouth agape,  trying to catch my breath, tears streaming down the sides of my cheeks.

I was both surprised and elated!  It was a pure expression of happiness and it bubbled from deep within me,  the person who never thought she would ever be able to feel something as magnificent as happiness again. My laugh didn’t turn into a cry.  My eyes filled with tears but didn’t sting, there wasn’t a lump in my throat, my chest wasn’t tight, and my mouth wasn’t forming into a little square.  It was my first real emotional leap; the ground felt solid under the weight of my emotion and  I let it hold all of me. I laughed so hard I peed, which made me laugh even harder.

Over the years I have continued to find pieces of myself, some that have waited a long time for sunlight, and I embrace them like a long lost friend.  Sorrow used to rule the roost of my emotions, spreading itself out like it owned the joint.  It is still part of what I feel, but now it is squeezed over by joy, hope, excitement and love.

Bitterness is still sometimes very bossy but gratitude just offers it a hug.  Willingness slides in, slapping bitterness on the arm.  Longing is there, flanked by understanding. Acceptance remains tough for me; I don’t yet have the courage to let it in. The best I can do is accept that I am not ready for acceptance.  So it stands outside my consciousness, respectfully waiting for an invitation.

After many years I have a spectrum of hard-won emotions.  More recently, I have discovered the subtle difference between pain and suffering, and I have made a choice not to suffer. What I find most encouraging is discovering the richness that my life’s experiences have brought and feeling like I made the right choice when I decided to really live again, and remembering that it all started with a laugh.

Lisa Buell is a parent advocate, writer, and coordinator for Sharing Wisdom. Reach her at www.PartnershipforParents.Org, or at lisa@PartnershipforParents.org.

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Lisa Buell

Lisa Buell is a writer, activist, mother of three and parent of two. She works with Children’s Hospice and Palliative Care Coalition, Partnership for Parents, as a parent advocate bringing a parent’s perspective to the development of palliative care programs and policies. A published author, Lisa is writing her first book, entitled “Call Button,” a collection of essays about the continuation of life in the face of treatment, navigating the waters of grief, celebrating communities and the clinicians who care.

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