This is the 11th year without my daughter Helen. I still miss her, still love her, and still remember her. But I’m worried. When I try to imagine Helen’s face in my mind, the image isn’t as clear as it used to be, and I don’t think of her as often. I have a fear of forgetting her.
On February 23, 2007 Helen died from the injuries she received in a car crash. Two days later my father-in-law died. Two months later my brother, and only sibling, died. In the fall, the twins’ father died from the injuries he received in another car crash. The court appointed my husband and me as the twins’ guardians/caregivers.
Ever since Helen died I’ve prepared myself for the anniversary of her death. My preparations included self-talk (nobody can be tougher on me than me), activities to divert my mind, and connecting with other bereaved parents. When the month of February was near, I said to myself, “It’s time to get ready. You can do it.”
But the 23rd day of the month came and went and I never thought of Helen. Not even once. I didn’t realize this until the next day and it made me feel awful. “Guess I’m a terrible mother,” I admitted to my husband. How could I have forgotten the anniversary of Helen’s death? Answering this question has taken months and lots of introspection. The simple answer: Life got busy.
I do my grief work. While grief work has similarities, each person’s work is different. We recover from grief in our own way and in our own time. In my experience, grief work is ongoing and never ends. No matter how old I am, or what I’m doing, I will always be a bereaved mother.
I have a new life. In 2013 my husband’s aorta dissected and I became his caregiver the night I drove him to the hospital. He had three emergency operations, spent a month in intensive care, and six months in therapy. Finally, he was dismissed to my care. I’m his primary caregiver. Most of this role is devoted to his care, and I’m devoted to him.
I am healing. Having the twins move in with us helped us to heal. Seeing life through teenage eyes was interesting, exciting, and challenging. I savored the experience and, years later, can see the results. Today, my grandson is finishing his second year at The Mayo Clinic School of Medicine, and my granddaughter is mothering three foster children. She is also an independent photographer.
I grew into grief. Alice J. Wisler, a bereaved parent and author, expands on this point in her article, “Growing into Your Grief.” Wisler thinks grief shapes us and time tests us. “Over the years, you have worked hard. Now you have a time-tested grief,” she explains. No doubt about it, multiple losses tested me again and again. I didn’t just grow into grief, I grew from grief.
I make good things from grief. This idea comes from psychotherapist Judy Tatelbaum. Unless we learn from grief and use it, Tatelbaum thinks grief is useless. As she notes in The Courage to Grieve, “Making our grief meaningful is the antidote to despair and suffering.” The minute I read this sentence I vowed to make good from grief. I’ve written hundreds of grief articles, eight books about grief recovery, and developed webinars.
Although I forgot Helen for a day, I didn’t forget her forever. To keep Helen’s spirit alive I tell stories about her, use her kitchen tools, donate to the food bank in her memory, and give grief healing workshops. My relationship with my daughter doesn’t hinge on a date. Helen is in my heart and always will be.