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DENIAL

Forty-five days before my sister died, twenty-six people – twenty small children and six adults – were shot and killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on the morning of my forty-fourth birthday.

The morning marked the ten-year anniversary of my mémère’s death, so I was already feeling melancholy, but when I turned on the television and saw first-graders being led out of buildings by police officers, my sorrow was replaced by something else.

It was a combination of disbelief and anger, but above all denial.

This. Could. Not. Be. Happening. This. Could. Not. Be. Happening. This. Could. Not. Be. Happening.

The words became my mantra and ran incessantly through my mind.

A close friend of my daughter had just passed away one week before in a tragic car accident. They were the same age, both nineteen, and though I had never met her, her death hit very close to home. All I could think about for days was this could have been my daughter.

After Sandy Hook, I couldn’t think, period. I couldn’t conceive of a world where first-graders would be gunned down in their classroom. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to bury my child with bullet wounds. I couldn’t imagine it because it was just too painful to face.

“Refusing to face what we are not yet ripe and ready to face can help us to live in the present.” – David Whyte Consolations

So for the next forty-five days after the shooting, that’s what I did. I refused to face the horror of what had happened. It was too painful to try and comprehend. I hugged my kids a little tighter, told people how much I loved them a little more often and tried harder every day to find beauty in the world, the beauty I too often took for granted, but appreciated nonetheless.

But when my sister died, that all changed. It was hard to feel grateful for anything any more. She was too young to die. She was too kind to die. She was too important to die. Her son, who was her entire life, had just married the love of his life only four months before. It was not possible that she be taken away from him just when he was starting his new life. A life that would never be the same without her.

She became pregnant with him when she was eighteen. It was a shock to our devoutly Catholic family, but we rallied around her and promised we would all be there to help. She would raise him entirely on her own. She would put herself through nursing school. She would buy a house for them to live in all on her own. And she would watch him walk down the aisle and send him to the Galapagos Islands to honeymoon with his new wife.

But she would be diagnosed with MS in her early thirties, and she would suffer more than she ever let on, never wanting to be a burden on anyone. She would organize fundraising walks, and be the first one across the finish line, often, towards the end of her life, needing the help of her cane. And she would cut off her security blanket before chemo could steal it from her.

She was the glue that held our family together. She always had been for as long as I can remember. Now that she was gone I worried we’d come apart at the seams.

The adage, time heals all wounds, felt like bullshit. This wound was deep and jagged and bleeding profusely and just when you thought it had knit itself together, albeit tenuously, it would split open again plunging you back under into your well of pain as if being waterboarded by grief.

If time was going to heal this wound, I had two choices: withdraw from the world and wait for enough time to pass until I felt safe to come back out, or do something with that time that would speed up the healing process.

Every morning when I would open my eyes, there would be a few sacred seconds where nothing had changed. My sister was still alive. Our family was still in one piece. My nephew still had his mother.

Then the tears would come, and I would wrap the blankets around me a little tighter as if cocooning myself would protect me from the truth.

I would emerge, eventually, and try and go about my day striving for some new normalcy, but nothing felt normal anymore. My sister, who I cherished, was dead, and try as I might I could not and would not accept it.

But my soul wasn’t having any of it.

“To understand the true nature of our reluctance through observing and then inhabiting our denial is to see directly into the soul’s wish to participate.” – David Whyte Consolations

I was directed to get up and look in the mirror and face it. To look past the pain distorting my face and into my heart – my soul, where I could intuit the answers I needed.

It directed me to leave the safety of my cocoon and participate in life again.

“Denial can be a prison if inhabited in too concrete and unmoving a way, but denial is also a stepping-stone and a compassionate foundation for viewing those unable to take the next courageous step.” – David Whyte Consolations

There were so many people around me whom I loved that were having a much harder time of it than I was, too afraid to take that next courageous step.

For many, it was just too great a shock to the system, and I knew they would need a longer time to recover. But for others the denial wasn’t just a prison, it was a sanctuary. It was a port in the storm, a place to hide away and if they had their wish, never be seen again.

The pain was too excruciating for them. They were even closer to my sister than I had been and you could see the emptiness they felt inside as plain as you could see a hole in a donut. There was a giant piece of them missing, and their puzzle would now forever be incomplete.

Knowing this only added to my pain but it also gave me something to do with this “time” that was supposed to heal us.

I found that despite it being the dead of winter and bitterly cold, spending even more time in nature felt like an embrace. Being surrounded by white light dispelled the darkness and being sandwiched between the snow and gray sky offered me much needed solitude and silence and brought me stillness and peace during the turbulence that was now my life.

I also found my pain being transmuted whenever I put myself out there in the service of others. Regardless of whether or not I was making a difference, though I certainly hoped that I was, the anguish and grief that had consumed me began to release me back into the world slowly, bit by bit until I felt myself morphing into something else.

I was made out of scar tissue now. Each one of my experiences with death had cracked me open so wide and so deep that when I eventually mended back together, I was stronger for it instead of weaker.

It still hurt like hell to be alive every day knowing that she was not, but each day I could feel myself gradually getting stronger. Like working a muscle, each time I tested that strength and pushed it past its limits, it grew larger and stronger allowing me to offer more of myself to others in an effort to lighten their load by taking on some of their pain.

I would still have my days. There were still many times when my resolve would falter, and I would drink until I was sufficiently numb enough to sleep. But taken on the whole I had more good days than bad, and with the passing of time, things did seem to be a bit more bearable.

Until just three weeks after my sister’s death, when I would be forced to attend yet another funeral.

 

PART II of III

NEXT WEEK: DESPAIR

 

About Amy

I am many things to many people. Daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, friend. I am a worshiper of nature on a journey inward, rewriting my story one word at a time.

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