December. Well. I’m glad that’s over. It’s taken me awhile to get back in this seat at my computer where I do my writing. I really didn’t have the strength while I was living it and also thought I wouldn’t completely be able to process everything until I had gotten through it.
After all, I was in survival mode.
December 12th of this past year marked two years of my youngest daughter Lucy’s passing. And I’ve already shared that for me, last year was dramatically different then the first year of grieving. It was distinctive in a positive way, less raw then the first.
But man, did I underestimate the range of my grief. Looking back I’ve realized I was even a bit overconfident heading into the month, thinking that it wasn’t going to be so bad. I was hugely mistaken.
Without warning, one day in early December heartache set up occupancy inside my soul. But it didn’t bother to call or text first. No, heartache left me to figure out on my own that it had dropped in for a visit.
It arrived first in the form of pain and anxiety. Physical pain in my body. This was pain that seemed to come out of nowhere. Same with the anxiety. What should have been an ordinary Thursday was disrupted with butterflies in my stomach and an overall uneasiness.
I found myself relying on my “just get to the car” strategy quite a few times that day.
“Just get the students to lunch and get back to the empty classroom. “
“Just make it to the car.”
“Just make it to the shower.”
“Just breathe deeply and try to fall asleep.”
At the end of the work day, I arrived safely home, in my refuge, and it was time to meet my oldest daughter getting off the school bus. Like a deflating balloon, the pain and anxiety gave way to sheer exhaustion. This is the type of fatigue that you feel all over your body, a heaviness. We were supposed run a few errands before dinner and in a moment of clarity I scrapped those plans.
I think to myself, “I remember this feeling”. And I know that I am going to have to survive now, one day at a time until the calendar flips to the next year. This evening is first. I know it is time to take it easy on myself.
I turn on the Christmas tree lights and light the fire. I put a Christmas show on TV for V. I lie on the couch and just sort of gaze at the lights on our tree.
After some time my mind wanders back and I try to reflect on the day. I’m trying to put into words what I’ve just experienced that first dark day in December.
I write four words on a post it note (pretty sophisticated note taking system, I know):
pain, anxiety, exhaustion, anticipation.
Those four feelings had hijacked my day.
I draw a line down the middle of the note and try to think of the opposite of each thing that I felt that day: joy, contentment, rested, presence.
Then I remember I didn’t sleep well the night before. I had trouble falling asleep and then tossed and turned all night, only to doze off moments before I had to wake up. For me, rest will be most important this month. I’ll work on that after dinner and a little time with V.
In that moment though, I needed to relax and unwind. Do I normally allow TV before dinner on a school night? No. Do I normally order take out on a weeknight? No. But Dad is working late and as of today, I am officially in survival mode.
So while someone else was making and delivering our dinner, we changed into the coziest clothes we had and enjoyed the magic of winter for a few hours. By the end of the night Violet was running around in her underwear with reindeer antlers on singing (screaming) Rudolph the red nosed reindeer. And I enjoyed every second of it.
After getting V tucked into bed, my thinking was, that if I can do my best to stay well rested and present, then the pain and anticipation will subside. And I will throw out my expectations. For everything. Until December is over.
Survival mode for me means avoiding things that may drain my emotional reserves. Sometimes it means saying no to invitations. Other times it means showing up with a smile on my face. It means a few glasses of wine, brownies, or a marathon of horrible TV on BRAVO. It means putting on the gym clothes and heading to the gym when I can, and not beating myself up about it when I don’t.
Survival mode means calling someone that I know will listen and sending a call to voicemail when it is not the right time for me. It’s about crying in the shower or my pillow or wherever I am as often as I need to. It’s about asking for help and taking naps. It is not even about picking battles, it is about becoming a pacifist.
This year was a harsh reminder that this part of our journey is always going to painful. The anniversary of Lucy’s passing and Christmas without her will always hurt. Like my dear friend said to me, “December is not your month”. And she’s exactly right. And I have to both accept and remember that.
This past December was another cruel reminder that time eases the frequency of the pain but that the pain will never go away. And some days or weeks or maybe longer will be more difficult than others.
These days, the most difficult ones, shine a spotlight on my grief.
The agony feels like no other again. The spotlight is on the pain and torment of our reality that Lucy’s not here. And she should be. And there is nothing that we can do to make that happen. Ever.
And it’s not just Lucy’s birthday or the anniversary of her passing or Christmas day that are difficult. For me, it is often the days leading up to those that are the most trying. Then sometimes it’s the days after. Or it can be a seemingly random moment where I stare at the empty swing next to Violet while she is playing in the yard. And it all feels unbearable again.
I’m happy that I’ve stepped out of the spotlight for now. I know it will shine on my grief again but I also know that I have my survival skills to make it through. And with those survival skills, I can also experience the joy of new memories with my family in December. Joy and pain side by side is all I know on this journey. And I’m grateful for that.
How do you survive when grief shines its spotlight on your pain?
My name is Lou and I am a mom of two girls living outside of Chicago. I never would have imagined this, but our oldest daughter is at home and our youngest is not. She will be in our hearts forever. Lucy was an amazing soul and we continue to learn lessons from her today.