On the day my 21-year-old daughter Emily died, my heart split right open. There is an open-heartedness in grief. Everything seems trivial compared to such an enormous loss. If grief does nothing else, it gives you a sense of how fleeting life is—all this busyness that consumes us really amounts to nothing.
Eventually, even after the worst heartbreak, the world comes calling. Time to get back to work; clean the house; pay the bills—insignificant tasks when you know, I mean really know for certain that life ends. Depression follows those of us grieving like our own personal dark cloud, hovering over our heads and threatening a lightning strike of sorrow at a moment’s notice.
Then, without ever truly believing you could even be capable of it again, you smile. Somewhere down the line, you laugh. But the sadness remains. How can this be? How can someone be so full of sorrow, yet joy still finds a way to creep in?
Over the last three years, I have found that while tears are only a thought away, so is laughter and that you can truly hold both totally incompatible emotions in your heart at the same time. There is the joy in reliving memories of Emily’s life; her sweet voice, her unquenchable curiosity, and her undeterred enthusiasm to experience each moment to the fullest. When I look at one of her paintings, my heart not only fills with the emptiness of missing her but also the joy that I still have these beautiful, unique pieces of her that she left behind.
At times it can seem impossible to get unstuck from the muck of grief. Darkness can descend upon me out of nowhere and its grip feels like a life sentence. Then a ray of light penetrates the blackness and my heart feels a bit lighter. It can come from something as simple as the sound of a bird chirping or my puppy’s soft nudges with her wet nose, asking me to play. It rarely comes from the things we typically think will make us happy, such as acquiring a new possession.
While everyone is jumping on the mindfulness bandwagon, to me all it really means is that we are aware of our emotions and we let ourselves experience them—even the painful ones—without judgment. Then we remember to breathe and take in the world around us at that moment. If I can stop my mind from living in the past when my daughter was alive and from jumping into a future without her and what could have been, I am okay. I am okay in the moment. There is no other moment than right now anyway.
With 223 overdose deaths every single day in this country, there are many other parents walking alongside me on this grief journey. I don’t have any earth-shattering advice on how to survive the death of a child. I just know you can only do it one moment at a time. In some of those moments, you will feel as if you want to die too. But if you can just breathe, you will make it to the next moment and it may contain a small nugget of joy. Hold onto that promise. There is no betrayal of the one we lost by allowing ourselves to smile or laugh again. No one whom we loved so deeply would ever want us to go through the rest of our days in anguish. It doesn’t mean we forget our loss and move on. It just means we make a little room in a heart burdened by grief for beauty and lightness.
Faith, Hope & Courage,