After eleven long hours of pain, there she was─chestnut brown hair, vivid blue eyes, cute pug nose, round face and full lips. She was so beautiful. It was instant love. I knew in that moment that my life would never be the same again.

The circle of life had begun.

The year was 1970, and her name was Erika. She was my only child. I was a happy, contented mother. Erika was everything to me─my meaning and purpose in life. We traveled through our lives together, never taking our gift of love for granted.

Thirty years had flown by, and Erika had grown into a beautiful and caring woman. As we busily prepared for her wedding, we were bubbling with excitement. I was so proud of who she was. But it was not to be. Sometimes life simply has its own plans. So it was in our case. As we listened in utter disbelief, we heard the diagnosis: Erika had a rare form of sinus cancer.

Our circle of life had been assaulted.

If prayers could save a person’s life, then Erika would have lived forever. We learned that not all prayers are answered in just the way they are asked. In May 2002, as we surrounded and enfolded Erika with our bodies and encouraged her with our love, I once again gazed into her beautiful blue eyes, as this time she took her last breath. I could not believe what my eyes and broken heart told me were true.

After eleven long months of pain, there she was─chestnut brown hair, vivid blue eyes, cute pug nose, round face and full lips. She would forever remain as beautiful. I knew in that moment that my life would never be the same again.

The circle of life had been broken.

I will forever be Erika’s mother. Nothing changes that. As the days move forward and I continue my journey of life without Erika, I miss everything about her: her laugh, smile, smell, beauty, creativity, her loving and giving ways, her giggle, advice, disagreements, long phone calls, our meals together, shopping, vacations, being called “mom,” and the way she made me feel about myself as a person, mother and friend.

No one can tell another how to grieve. Grieving the loss of a child does not come with a “how to” manual. Our individual ways of grieving are as different as our genes, and grief is not a linear process. At first, I’d wished myself dead; I couldn’t eat or sleep. Everything hurt─even the radiant color of a flower. I had lost all meaning and purpose in life.

I was learning to accept that this was not something I would ever just “get over.” Just yesterday, in fact, I found myself curled up in a ball, sobbing uncontrollably over the pain, and yet, today is okay. As the minutes, hours, days and weeks evolve, life begins to feel worth living again. I realize finally that the only wrong way to grieve is not to grieve at all.

Just as the scars on a precious antique are markers of the life it has led, so too do my scars of loss mark out my grief. What keeps me going day after day is the undying love and support of those who promised to stick by me without placing a time limit on my sadness.

The pain may not abate completely, not after one year, or five or ten. It softens around the edges with lots of hard work and a never-ending commitment to this process of rebuilding life without Erika. To others, such periods might seem sufficient for healing and closure, but for grieving parents, a year is a mere blink of an eye.

Hope is the only true magic word for me, for with hope I can endure the heart-wrenching reality of Erika’s absence; hope that it will get easier with hard work and time; hope that I will go on to live a meaningful life, as others have done; and hope that my indescribable loss will lead to help for others traveling this unwanted path of grief.

In that spirit of hope, we have come full circle.

Susan Whitmore 2011

Susan Whitmore

Susan Whitmore

Susan Whitmore lost her daughter, Erika Whitmore Godwin, in 2002 and started griefHaven.org. She is also a grief specialist and leads groups and provides private counseling in Los Angeles, California.

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