Tomorrow is the fifteenth anniversary of my daughter Mercy’s death, a death that felt like it killed me, too. I tried so hard to keep going, to prove to everyone, but especially myself, that I was going to conquer this, that I was strong enough to come out on the other side. But in the end, well, I wonder if the only difference between me and other people is that I am too honest to pretend.
I’ve said it before, and I think I will keep saying it again and again: I am broken. This broke me.
No, I don’t need you to tell me that I’m not broken. I need very much for you to accept that I am broken. And no, I don’t need you to help me heal, either. I’m “healing,” whatever that means, in my own way. I’ve come to the conclusion that, while people can offer suggestions or even suggest patterns, ultimately this is a journey you take alone. You find out a lot about yourself along the way, and it is not always pretty. I’ve seen the ugly in myself, the mean, the whiny, the angry, the vengeful, petty person that comes out of this. I became both better and worse, both more compassionate and more selfish.
I lived through this, even when I sometimes didn’t want to.
If I could have, I would never have left the hospital. I would have held onto Mercy’s body forever. I would have never gone back to the needs of my other children. I would never have written either of the parts of this book.
I wanted to do nothing. I wanted to be nothing.
But I didn’t get my first choice. Or maybe my second. This is what I made of my third choice.
I wasn’t a nice person during this time period. I was alternately distant, cruel, selfish, demanding, and just plain bitchy. It was like I had been wounded and there was a scar forming, but it itched all the time, and when I scratched, I made the wound open again and bleed and then I was angry at myself and at everyone else who wasn’t wounded and at the world that had wounded me.
I was trying so hard, but I wasn’t the person I had been. I wasn’t the person I would become. I was nowhere real yet, desperate for some purchase, hoping that this wouldn’t be as hard as I was starting to sense it would be, wanting to go backward and not forward into the unknown
I became this person because the new person could live through a child’s death and not still hate herself and not wish every moment of her waking life (and some of her sleeping life) that she was dead and did not have to carry the pain of not being a good enough mother or not being a good enough Mormon to pass the test.
I survived, but for people who think that you have to confess you’ve healed and aren’t broken anymore and that you’ve moved on, I say no. No, it’s not true.
Angry bitter people get things done.
Sometimes people who are most broken are most powerful, because they admit they are not healed.
So yes, I did more than survive, though I have not moved on.
I wrote. I created art. I used my pain to make sense of life. I don’t lash out at other people as much now because I understand my emotions better. I have chosen to take a look at the dark portion of the iceberg beneath the smaller, more visible top. I have chosen to share my pain with other people, a kind of vulnerability I’ve only recently learned. Unbroken people do not share like I’m sharing. They don’t need to.
I’m also trying to reclaim some of my choices after what I call “grief paralysis,” which lasted for a long time after Mercy’s death. For many years, it felt like life was happening to me and not me to it. It felt like I had no energy to make choices, and so I was just the victim of everything other people chose. That’s not a healthy way to see the world — or yourself. I need to do things now that are sometimes strange just because it helps me believe that I have power in the world again, that I can make choices that other people wouldn’t make. I’m reclaiming myself most of all.
For months after my daughter’s death, I felt profoundly dislocated from my community. I felt like I had to hide my real self away, and could only show up with a fake, happy, “right” self at church events afterwards.
For a time, I thought of this cardboard version of myself after Mercy’s death as what I called “Robot Mette.” Robot Mette could answer the phone. She could make her body show up and do what other people expected her to do. She did it for a long time, but there was a cost to it, and it was the destruction of the sense of authenticity in most of my relationships. I hated the people who believed that Robot Mette was real.
The only way to let go of that hate was to stop pretending all the time, but that had different costs associated with it, too. People started staying away from me because they didn’t like my anger, I think, because I made them depressed or sad or because they thought that I’d turned away from God. And I guess I had. The God I used to believe in, anyway. I was trying to figure out if there was a different God to believe in, though. And maybe a different me, too.
People tried so hard to help. But you can’t fix a loss like this. Instead of doing that, try sitting in silence more. Ask more questions. Be willing to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort.
Most of all, I would ask that you not be impatient with people grieving. Don’t have a timetable that you think they should follow. Whatever the model of grief you think is supposed to be “healthy,” throw it out. People do grief on their own terms. They may cycle back through various stages again and again. They may have a day years after the loss that’s worse than anything they faced at the beginning. They may not seem to be moving on at all. It’s not your right to call them out on this. All you get to do is to offer to sit with them, offer to help. Your judgment — nope, none of that. Even if you’ve been through something very similar, you don’t have a right to tell them they’re doing it wrong.
I think if I’ve learned one thing about grieving, it’s that you never get over it. You never move on. You just learn which people are safe to share it with and which people aren’t. Be one of the safe people, that’s what I’m saying.
Another thing I have to say is that after you have suffered a loss like this: other people will forget in what seems like ten seconds flat. They will not realize that something they think is completely ordinary will hurt you deeply. I’m sure that no one can prevent every opportunity for pain, but there are some that should be obvious. If you’ve lost a baby, it will be difficult for you to hear about other people’s babies. If you’ve lost a husband, you’re probably going to struggle to go to someone else’s wedding. Be aware of these situations and try to be kind to yourself or if you know of them, to others. Sometimes the strangest things will set me off and I can’t predict them at all. Other times, I think that people should just know better.
It’s so hard to be the person who sees pain everywhere, who is triggered by everything. But I became that person, despite all my attempts not to be. I suppose that the other side of this coin is being the person everyone treats as fragile, that they can’t say anything to for fear of saying “the wrong thing.” I’m not sure I really wanted to be that person, either.
Also, and I cannot stress this enough, grieving people are crazy. When I say that I mean that there are times when nothing you say is going to be the right thing to help them. Because nothing stops the pain. And if you can accept that, you’re going to be a lot better off. If you can see that it’s not you, it’s the grief, you can maybe be a little more resilient in these situations, accept that it’s not personal at all.
To those grieving today, I give you permission to be a crappy human for a while. You get to complain about stupid things. You get to slow down and be stupid for a little while. You get to not make sense of the world anymore. And you also get to tell people to mind their own business and that they don’t understand shit about what you’re going through.
Shut the door or slam down the phone.
Start books and don’t finish them.
Shout at the television.
Get too much sleep.
Drink and cry too much to make other people comfortable.
Live and hate that you’re still living.
I give myself permission not to be who I used to be and to not worry about other people’s feelings before my own. I give myself permission to be real about how bad I feel and how messed up my life is. I get to be hurt because people didn’t think about my pain. I get to get mad at people who go on with their lives and celebrate things I will never be able to celebrate. I get to be bitter and angry at God.
If you already sent a card and a casserole, maybe the last gift you can give someone grieving is the gift of grace. It’s a fucking wonderful gift to give, too. And you have to keep giving it, again and again and again.
They will never be the same.
I will never be the same.