I keep trying to move forward with my life as a bereaved parent, to accept (if not embrace) my new identity.
It's a process of trial and error, a journey filled with multiple regressions. Just when I think I'm okay, something happens and I'm not. This summer is a good example of what I mean by regression. It's the third summer without Ana. She was 15 when she died in 2017.
Part of my identity is trapped at the exact moment of her death. I am eternally 46-years old. Ana is eternally 15. She’s slipping away right in front of me. I am stuck at a point of critical trauma — seeing her die.
Ana’s death is seared into my memory so completely that part of my psyche is unable to move past it. She could not move forward and so part of me stayed behind with her.
As time goes by, this has created a fracture in my understanding of myself which is becoming increasingly difficult to manage. I am depressed. I feel separate from friends and family. I keep trying to move forward, but it’s like I’m a train on an uneven track — my movements are clumsy and I’m prone to derailing.
After several months of battling feelings of hopelessness and despair, I realized I needed help.
I started therapy again. I’d gone to therapy from the time Ana was diagnosed with cancer in 2012 until about a year after she died.
I stopped going over a year ago when I realized I was rehashing the same stories over and over again. I’d felt emotionally ready. It had been a year since my daughter had died, after all. Shouldn’t I start living my life again?
If only it were that easy.
The trauma of losing a child to cancer is often complicated by years of managing the illness. We lived through countless traumas that went hand in hand with the brutal treatment required to keep Ana alive.
There was the year she had to spend her 12th birthday in the hospital because she was in liver failure.
There was the time she had surgery a week before Christmas and could barely move on Christmas morning (but at least she was home).
There were those first few harrowing months after diagnosis, when her hair fell out and she missed a good chunk of 6th grade.
Once, her mouth filled with sores and her lips swelled — a condition called mucositis — which is a side effect of chemotherapy. She sobbed, insisting this was the worst symptom yet. She couldn’t eat, speak or swallow without pain.
Another time she took a bath using a scented bath bomb and had an incredibly painful skin reaction that caused her to scream for an hour. I'm still not quite sure what caused this except for the fact that her skin was extra sensitive after weeks of chemotherapy.
It was Ana, not me, that went through these horrors, though I wished with all my heart that I could somehow transfer the illness from her body to mine.
I was always worried, always waiting for the next shoe to drop. A simple fever could send us to the hospital. A new tumor could appear at any time. And, during the last few months of her life, I lived with the terrifying prospect of not being able to control her pain.
There was also Ana’s own awareness of dying. She didn’t talk about it much — not to me or her friends or her cousins. She went through it alone.
You can’t alleviate someone’s fear of dying, can’t take that burden on for them, not even when it’s your own child. Ana had to manage the loneliness of dying on her own. At 15, she was terrified of being in pain or of losing her dignity.
My clearest memories of Ana involve her fear and sadness. This is a cloud that hangs over my life, preventing me from truly enjoying anything anymore. Which brings me back to therapy.
I am a fractured person. Part of my identity is stuck reliving the last few moments of Ana’s life. I’m also reliving the entire length of her illness.
But I am also living in the present. I get up. I work. I clean the house and I help my younger daughter with whatever she needs. In this sense, I have moved on, but it is slow painful movement that’s weighed down by survivor’s guilt and constant longing.
Managing both identities is exhausting. They are inherently at odds with each other. Celebrating my younger daughter’s birthday, for example, reminds me that Ana has no more birthdays left to celebrate. Then I feel guilty for thinking this way and not being fully present for my surviving child.
Living simultaneously in the past and the present not only adds stress and sadness to my life, but it also prevents me from looking forward.
The future either terrifies me or provokes no emotion other than despair— it feels dead and flat and hopeless and this is ultimately why I’ve started therapy again.
I don't know how I’m supposed to exist in the world anymore. There is no clear path forward. I guess there never really is, but when Ana was alive that didn't matter. The path forward was in her future and her sister’s.
After Ana’s death, I rejected the common platitudes that I associated with grief and loss. I should accept it. I should move on. I should be grateful for the time I had with her.
The “it’s time to move on” line of thinking is extremely painful, but holding onto the past isn’t working either.
Though it’s hard for me to admit, maybe there is a kind of moving on I have to do in order to survive.
Death is forever. I’m only now starting to realize what that means. Bereaved parents are in danger of getting stuck in our grief, of holding onto the last few years, months, and moments that our child was alive.
Even though I knew Ana was dying, I couldn't fully imagine what it meant when she would be gone. Part of me is still waiting for her, still perpetually in shock that I’ll never see her again.
It’s been 27 months since I've heard her voice or looked at her beloved face, but missing her to the point of self-destruction isn’t going to bring her back.
I’m slowly trying to change my perspective on what living means for me. I am trying, really hard, to find some peace.