Floaties in an Ocean of Grief

Momservation: No one has a child to spare.

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I really wanted to be business as usual today: whine about the trials of parenting, share a funny anecdote, throw together a tips list, and in the process do some light Kardashian bashing.

I wanted to talk about this being our last full week of summer, of my grand adventure of living it like a 12 year-old, of gladly choosing the indignity and discomfort of a mammogram over back-to-school shopping with a picky teenager.

But my heart is still heavy. I can’t stop aching for the loss of Natalie.

It was too close. Too scary to have a parent’s worst nightmare play out in front of us, unable to turn the channel, turn the page, not click on someone else’s tragic story so we didn’t have to be forced to fathom it.

It is all the more heart wrenching that if I’m struggling to find meaning and motivation in the simplest of tasks after losing such a precious, vibrant, young life—for me, someone to whom Natalie and her family were simply a familiar face in the community—I imagine what her family and close friends are going through and I have to stop and cry.

Because I know what they’re going through. Even though it’s been 30 years this August since my six year-old sister, Sommar’s, death in a terrible accident—the heartache associated with the death of a child can always be accessed.

Sommar, age 6

Sommar, age 6

The pain is searing. It is inescapable. It feels unbearable. The only thing that promises to heal it is time—and time becomes clogged sands in an hourglass.

So now, now that Natalie’s family is still counting the minutes since she’s been gone; her friends counting the days left to school because they are afraid of facing a school room with her empty chair; her community counting every hug they give their own children; the question becomes:

How do you survive it? How does one survive the loss of a child?

You ask an expert on grief—someone who has lost and child and not just survived it, but thrives despite the unnatural order of having to bury your child.

For me, that is my mother.

If you ask my mom, Jan, how to survive such unfathomable grief she’ll tell you: “You just do. I can’t give anyone a timetable, and I won’t—especially to those who are still counting the loss in minutes, hours, days. It would leave them devoid of hope if I told them how long it took me to break the surface of my grief.

“That’s what losing a child feels like. It’s like sinking to the bottom of the deepest ocean-—an ocean of grief. And you would stay there, because you have no motivation to do anything else. No strength to try and save yourself.

“But you do eventually rise to the surface because you have these floaties—the floaties are the people and things that attach to you and won’t let you drown in your own sorrow.”

Here’s my mom’s list of floaties that can save you from drowning in an ocean of grief:

  • Your children. You realize your remaining children still need a parent. They still have their whole lives ahead of them and they shouldn’t have to navigate it alone. Do you want them to believe that when life knocks you flat you never get back up and become a victim, or that you get back up and become a survivor?
  • Your family. These are the only people who truly know your pain, know the person you lost as you knew them. There is strength in numbers and you will all need each other to lean on to get through all those inevitable firsts that are coming—first birthday without them, first Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, first Mother’s or Father’s Day, first anniversary of their death. But together you will get through them.
  • Your friends. They are hurting too, but they put your pain first. They drag you out of bed. They make you shower. They make you get out. They take your kids and try to give them a normal routine again. They bring you food and make you eat. They shield you from ignorance and insensitivity. They let you cry and understand with words unspoken. They are there for the good and the bad and know that the bad is going to be a long, bumpy road. They know what they’re doing may be fought and resented initially, but later will be valued by their friend as who helped save them.
  • Your faith. You have to believe in something or it is all too unbearable. You have to trust that God’s heart beats for you when your heart has been crushed. You have to rejoice in the time you were given with your special soul, because the alternative isn’t losing them, but never being given the chance of loving them at all. You have to trust that those we love are always still with us and know only joy and peace. You have to believe that through this trial, God leads us to a greater purpose.
  • Talking. Not talking about the loss because it is too painful, robs your loved one of ever existing. Welcome people talking about them to keep their memory alive, that they were worth remembering, that they mattered in this life. Find people who will listen, whether it’s friends or support groups, without exhaustion of hearing the same memories, the same stories, the same heartache over and over on the path of healing. Tell people to not be afraid of upsetting you by mentioning them—it’s uplifting to hear how your special soul touched their life.
  •  Your responsibilities. They don’t go away. Bills still need to be paid. An education still needs to be accomplished. Pets still need to be taken care of. Food bought, meals made, clothes washed, house cleaned, the daily task of living attempted. Life still needs to be lived and you can’t have others live it for you. Getting back to “normal” and reestablishing a routine, like physical therapy, hurts at first but is necessary to regain full function again.
  • Yourself. Ultimately, surviving is up to you. It is up to you to decide that life is worth living. What do you want your legacy to be—someone who became a victim or survivor? How do you want to honor the memory of the person you lost? Do you think it brings them eternal happiness to know that loving and losing them ruined you or brought out the best in you? God and all those we love in Heaven want us to choose a life well-lived.

“I broke the surface of my grief when I finally said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” said my mom. “I don’t want to be sad every time I think of Sommar. She deserves better. When I remember her I want to feel happy, to feel blessed that at least I got to be her mother for nearly seven years.

“And when I finally broke the surface and could breathe again without it hurting, when I felt the sunshine on my face again, saw the world in color again, smiled when I heard the sound of children laughing again—I felt Sommar and I heard her. You know what she said to me?

“‘Thank you, Mommy.’”

To honor Natalie’s loving and giving spirit and support the Giorgi family in expanding tolerance for and education about severe food allergies please visit the Natalie Giorgi Sunshine Foundation at www.nateam.org 

4 comments

  1. Stephanie DeBenedetti-Emanuel says:

    Thank you for your post!! I, too, can’t stop thinking about her. We know people who are close to her family and its heart breaking! It’s also hard because my son has food allergies. Who’s to say it couldn’t be him. I can’t help but think of the person who served those rice crispy treats. They’ve got to feel awful. I think our recovery as a community, is a long time coming.

    • kellimwheeler says:

      I’m so glad it resonated for you, Stephanie. I debated whether I should do another post on this, but I figured since I’m having such a hard time going back to business-as-usual I imagine other people are too. And since we’re not getting out of this life alive, I figured everyone at one time or another is going to deal with debilitating grief — so I was hoping this could be helpful. And you know, I could do a whole another one on the what-ifs, the shoulda-coulda-woulda’s and fall-outs from tragedy, but I’ll leave it at everything happens for reason. You have to trust it and move on – the answers aren’t for us to know here. *sigh* *sniff*

  2. Daniel says:

    My name is Daniel Shelton; I am a social worker and grief counselor for a hospice in Las Vegas, NV. I have a Google Alert set on my computer for grief and grieving and recently your thoughts popped up. I am always looking for personal thoughts and experiences that might prove useful to those I serve and wanted to thank you for having the courage to share your difficult experiences. I wish you the best of luck in your personal healing and if there is anything I might be able to do to assist please don’t hesitate to ask.

    Sincerely,

    Daniel Shelton, LSW, MSW
    Family Home Hospice
    Bereavement Counselor/Coordinator
    8655 S Eastern
    Las Vegas, NV 89123
    702-671-1111
    Daniel.Shelton@uhc.com

    • kellimwheeler says:

      Thanks for reaching out Daniel. I’m sure many of my readers will find you and your work a valuable resource. Grief is not a journey you want to try and tackle on your own and I highly advocate reaching out to anyone who is willing to hold your hand.
      You do noble work – enjoy the journey.

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