One week ago today I packed a suitcase and I got in the car and I began to drive. I was all alone making the 3 hour trip to Geneva, WI where I would soon meet other mother's who had cared for and lost their precious children.
Mother's like me.
I was grateful to have found the retreat through a friend on Instagram. Social media is brilliant in that way, though it can be hard in so many others. I saw information about this retreat just 3 hours away from home and felt the nudge in my spirit to just go.
The retreat was created by Jessica Lindberg, founder of the Ethan Lindberg Foundation. Jessica and I have been friends through social media for a little over a year, when we both wrote out our stories for the On Coming Alive Project, created by Lexi Behrndt, who I have also been friends with (even through text!) for a little over a year. Lexi would be speaking at this retreat and we would finally get a chance to meet in person and share our stories, and hearts. Also to be speaking was another 'friend' from the coming alive project, Tom Zuba. I had read Tom's story a year ago and was astounded at the amount of wisdom he had gained in his grief journey through the years. I couldn't wait to hear him speak; to really listen to all that his heart may have to offer mine.
So the decision to go was actually really easy. My heart said to just go, and I really listened.
After this winter, it needed a little restoring, no doubt. For the first time probably ever I didn't hesitate before signing up. The kids would be ok, I would think about and make arrangements for them later, and Chris was completely on board (as always).
It literally took no time on Friday for all of us to settle in. It felt as though every mom who was with me that day was absolutely meant to be there. That they craved exactly what I craved: companionship with someone, anyone like them.
It's so hard to explain and such a fine line to try to because I always want the people around me to know how deeply grateful I am for their support and love. But the truth is, now more than ever, from day to day, I feel so very alone in this monstrosity of mama grief. I just needed so badly to look into the faces of other mother's who carry the same weight, the same anguish, the same questions around with them from day to day. I wanted to learn from them, observe them, listen closely to them, validate them and even speak life into them, from my very own heart.
And immediately on Friday, I knew I had made the best decision for myself when I signed up to go to this retreat.
Everything was so beautiful, immediately it felt like not only had I taken a weekend to really focus on myself (my heart, mind, spirit) but I was being given this awesome opportunity to spend 3 days with Mabel. Just she and I. I had her photo and was asked to really look at it. Her name was written and typed in so many places that it was breathtaking. Life moves on around us so quickly and so ordinarily that often, we don't make the time to just look at their faces or write out their name. To see the delicacy and thought behind the sweet details of this retreat created for she and I (and these other mama's and their babes) was truly humbling.
The retreat is so crucial for mom's like us.
We are a different breed.
What I mean by that is, the complexity of our grief is not wrapped up solely in the loss of our child. This retreat focused on the mom's who have had medically fragile, terminally ill, very sick children. Over the weekend we shared bits and pieces of our stories with one another out loud. We spoke about the decisions we made, the ones that were made for us, the heartbreak of knowing if it was right or how it could have been different. We talked openly about what we believe:
Is there a God? If so, where is He and why did He allow this to happen?
Where is Heaven? Is my child there? Is my child still near me?
We journaled and we painted and we laughed and we cried and we really listened.
We were teachers and we were students...to one another.
What happened in the rooms over the weekend was really so sacred that it feels unfair to type it here. It was an experience, though, that none of us will ever forget. The respect I have for these moms is unmatched and it was an honor to share my time with them. And if I had the choice, I wouldn't have left just yet. I will forever crave the raw, gritty, truth that we spoke; our words unhinged as we were given the freedom and space to really just be.
When Sunday came there was definitely an apprehensive presence about us. Leaving that safe space and coming home to the rest of the world was the weekend's biggest challenge, even after all the intense grief work we did. And that's a perfect way to describe it. Grieving people who are given an opportunity to be secluded from the world for a couple of days do a lot of internal work.
Grieving people who are left alone for any amount of time are doing a lot of internal, emotional work, actually.
That's what this grief business is: work.
I've been writing here and talking about grief for so long now (literally almost 7 years.) I walked away from the weekend realizing that I am ok.
I am still very much grieving and it is incredibly lonely and sad and hard at times but I am doing it with such a fervency and intention (as I always have) and that is really the only true way to do it.
And it is ok. In fact, it's necessary. And healthy. And life changing, totally altering, stretching and profound.
Tom said it best and almost immediately:
"Grief has been my greatest teacher."
And it has also been mine.
Do you remember all the posts I have written about my friend, grief? The entity that it became in me? How grief is a constant companion and I don't so much hate him like I once did? He's been residing in me for so long now and will forever take up occupancy in my heart. And I am ok with that. It no longer makes me feel helpless or uncomfortable. I just ride the wave of grief right with him and allow him to mold and shape me how he will.
And I know I'm a better human because of it.
In fact, I find myself grateful for it.
In fact, I find myself grateful for it.
The life changing thing about this weekend, for me, was the invitation to allow myself (inside of the grief) to really take care of me. To continue my relationship with Mabel in a way that is boundless and healthy and free.
"I never knew really what grief looked like. We're very good at hiding it, compartmentalizing it, experiencing it in private, mostly. You are, of course, allowed to actively grieve during a wake, a funeral, a burial; perhaps you can keen over your husband's dead body, post a few sad status updates, write a blog post, but did you know that grief isn't just crying? That grief isn't just a facial expression or a physical act? Did you know the grieving person can do a lot of things like: laugh, and go to movies and grocery shop and raise a child all while bleeding to death internally? Well, now you know...so you wont be surprised when it happens to you...
That grief; that sneaky, stalker-y, internal bleeding kind of grief cant be posted to Instagram. It can't be performed on cue when you run into former friends who have evaporated from your life, or acquaintances you recognize from the Internet. People are always telling me how much they appreciated my honesty and transparency and I would think, "whyyy?'
Not because I was lying about anything but because even if I were made of Saran Wrap and glass, there's no way you can see this part....
Grief was my constant companion and I didn't totally hate it either. And I still don't. It's a bruise I get to push, a pain that reminds me that what I had and what I lost is real. It's the price I paid for loving deeply and for letting myself be loved. It's the evidence that [she] was here and that [she's] really gone.
Falling in love didn't take my grief away, and it didn't diminish it at all. My grief just scooted over a little bit to make room for...[joy]. Happiness...Love... is so much easier to demonstrate than grief. They're so much easier to see. And something about that made me really uncomfortable. Maybe I was afraid of the judgment of others, but mostly I think I feared my own judgment.
That if I was happy, I must not be sad anymore. That if I wasn't sad anymore, I must not have loved her. That I didn't actually deserve to be happy again."
--Nora McInerny, from her podcast, 'terrible, thanks for asking.'
*[some words changed to make sense in my heart.]
In this podcast Nora goes on to say that her new love (for me, happiness or joy) didn't replace her old (grief, sadness, Mabel). There was space enough for it all. We don't have to be stingy with our grief OR our happiness. There's enough of it all to squeeze right into that space of our heart.
And there is.
The struggle for me now is that it has almost been 2 years without my darling daughter.
And I really, truly do look (and mostly am) happy.
And sometimes that is super conflicting and strange.
The magnitude of joy and the magnitude of the sorrow are so intense at times, it feels impossible to reckon it all inside of me. Like my heart will explode from all of the feelings that push tight on the edges.
But it hasn't. And it won't. And for my entire life, I will have to embrace the dance that this is in me.
The mothers I met last weekend all had so many things in common. But the one thing that resonated most with me, aside from their strength and courage, was their incredible ability to be vulnerable, and open. And the reality is, their grace and beauty shined so brightly that they impacted my life forever.
And not just them but their children as well.
Their tenacity and light showed us all how to really love.
"How to never take a day for granted; not even a minute."
When you have experienced that kind of love, and are in a room full of women who have too, it's like this secret club that finally feels like it's worth your membership.
I spent an entire weekend with mother's whose hearts are shattered and breaking as they simultaneously laughed and told inappropriate stories.
It is true, the world cannot see our broken insides.
It's so much easier to see a group of women at a table laughing over dinner while sharing stories of their dead children than it is to see that every word settles deep in our bones and tears us apart.
Though, it doesn't destroy us. In fact, it makes us better.
We are an elite breed of humans.
The fighting kind.
The passionate kind.
The giving kind.
The listening kind.
The learning kind.
The growing kind.
The generous kind.
The 'my child died but I want to LIVE' kind.
I left on Sunday, having met these women just 2 days before, and feeling like I had known them my entire life. You do not share this kind of time, intimacy and love with anyone and NOT leave changed. Forever, I will be grateful for the weekend that I got to tuck myself away and hug my daughter's memory tight without the distractions of the real world. I will forever be grateful that I listened to my own heart and headed toward healing; an ongoing journey that has no real end.
We want to live.
And we will go on to do so.
It's a beautiful thing to experience, to witness and to be a part of.
It was truly my honor.
To find out more about the 'Restoring a Mother's Heart' retreat, please visit:
Currently they are being offered twice a year (April & November). If you are reading this and feel your heart saying to just go, you really must.
I promise, you will leave changed.