Our precious youngest daughter had her birthday last week. She turned nine years old. It’s a hard number for me. Our eldest daughter was nine when her Dad passed away, and there’s something in my soul that just wants to run away from the number nine. If we could skip nine and go straight to ten, I would. Trauma lives in the number nine. As it does in the number forty. The age Nathan and I both were when his life ended, and life as I knew it had a full stop land hard and heavy. All of my friends who have turned forty in the last twenty-one months – I haven’t been able to show up for them. At all. Trauma lives in the number forty.
Nathan and I always made a big deal of birthdays. They were not small events in our household. They were celebrated, loudly, because another year of sharing life with the ones we loved was worth it. And so now, our daughters expect this same level of joy, and laughter, and spoiling, and fun. But how do I do this, without my co-conspirator by my side? The one who drew out different parts of our daughter’s personalities, saw them through a different set of eyes, loved them intensely, and worked with me to create memories that would last a lifetime.
I do my best. I bring what I can. But, when what I bring is shadowed by pain, heartache, great missing and grief, it doesn’t feel like enough. As time has moved on, I’ve seen the outside world understand grief in the significant moments – the death anniversary, his birthday, Father’s Day, Christmases without him – special days highlight the empty seat at the table. But more than that, grief exists in the small, quiet, everyday moments. I don’t think it is well understood that grief co-exists with every single experience we now share as a family. All the moments we celebrate, we are acutely aware that Nathan isn’t here to celebrate with us. I carry grief for myself, for my daughters, and for him in those moments. In the moments when the girls learn a new trick on the trampoline, and he isn’t here to see it. When something in the house needs fixing, and he isn’t here to fix it. When I get a letter in the mail addressed to him, and he isn’t here to open it. When I see his beers still in the fridge that he never got to drink. When I see families post their weekend adventures on Facebook and I don’t have the energy to bring the same energy to my own family. When we find an “I love you” note hidden in the box of lego, that Nathan hid months before he died. When I’m up at midnight with our daughter who can’t sleep because of the emotional trauma she carries, and he isn’t here to lighten the load. When I see photos of friends in the snow (snow is now a place of trauma). When I open the cupboard to the camping gear, and wonder if it will ever get used again. When I’m crying alone at night in my bed, with no comforting arms to love me.
Seen or unseen, grief exists in our souls, every minute of every day. It’s a hard reality to carry – that this is the new me. The new ‘us’. Now, and into the future. Joy and Pain, carried side by side. Meshing together, intimately.
Five months after Nathan died, I penned these words to try to explain the day to day movement of grief:
A snapshot into our day-to-day right now? This is what my last week has looked like:
* My baby girl crying herself to sleep every night missing her beloved daddy, begging him to come back from heaven because 'living without him is too hard'. My mother's heart... this weight is too heavy.
*Booking a weekend away for 2 adults and 2 kids, and then realising... no no. 1 adult and 2 kids.
*Reaching for my phone to text him to share some news.... oh no. Don't do that.
*Crying at Service NSW when I'm changing the car regos out of his name and into mine. How many times do I need to look at that death certificate and delete his name out of our lives?
*Crying in the green grocer buying his favourite fruit.
*Dishing up dinner to four plates, instead of three.
*Struggling even to slap some peanut butter on some bread for lunch let alone meal plan for the family.
*Driving into the cinema carpark with the girls and a friend to see a movie and driving out sobbing 5 minutes later because I couldn't walk into the building, remembering the last date we had together.
*Having a meltdown when my dishwasher broke down and leaked all over my floor (twice in one day) because of the screaming in my head that our Captain Awesome isn't here to save the day.
When a person loses a piece of their soul, they are never the same. It is true, that the expression of grief morphs and changes with time. We rebuild, find strength, forge a new life, slowly discover and shape a new existence. I am growing into a person with a richer, deeper understanding of myself, and the experience of life. And I embrace who I am now becoming. There is much, much hope in knowing that life still holds beauty and wonder and love and undiscovered joy. But what is also true is that loss is carried, always. In the big, significant moments – but also in the small, everyday, ordinary moments.
And so please, love your grieving person. Try not to make assumptions when you see a smiling face, or even a sad one. Ask questions. Extend grace. Extend low expectations. Be willing to be present to the real, lived experience of sudden loss and trauma and the far-reaching consequences of that. If you can be that person, even whilst stumbling and making mistakes, you will give them the greatest gift of all. Companionship. Real, human connection. It is the true richness of life.
Thinking of those in pain today, I’m holding space and love for you.