We Couldn’t Have Known

He couldn’t have known. He was just being a good guy, a gracious manager who gave us permission to use the back room of the restaurant for a family gathering.

Of course a restaurant wants patrons, and large parties mean large tabs and tips (hopefully). But he was kind enough to let me come in a few hours early and set up for our celebration.

My son surprised me by wanting to help. He was 15 and life was challenging him in some very big ways at the time. But it was his idea. He asked.

“Mom, can I go with you? Can I help?”

How does a heart both break and soar at the same time? A mother’s heart knows how, and my delighted shattered heart welcomed his company. He couldn’t have known what a gift it was to me that he asked, that he wanted to join me.

And not just join me, but help me in staging a surprise for my husband, his stepdad, whom he loved with deep affection as well as deep pain for reasons I’m not sure any of us understood at the time.

We concocted a cover story. Well, actually I concocted the cover story. I coached him on the details. I should be embarrassed about how easy it was for me, but I’m not.

Off we went to pick up the balloons, the candy, the cake, the colors, and the mischievousness that frame a surprise party. There were Skittles and M&Ms strewn down the center of the long table, sweet edible confetti for anyone who chose to partake. There were balloons tied to chairs, and a general spreading of Technicolor merriment in anticipation of the celebration yet to come.

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We giggled and speculated and worked up a sweat, then went home after thanking the manager yet again for his kindness in allowing us this privilege. He could have made money off those tables while they sat there waiting for our crowd to arrive. But we were granted favor. And it was a last in a lifetime chance. He couldn’t have known.

We walked into the restaurant a while later and were told my step-daughter and her husband were already seated near the back, waiting for us to join them for a quick dinner before they had to head home. The hostess escorted us to our party room, where my husband took two steps in then turned around and almost left. He wasn’t angry, just overwhelmed.

He’d told me he didn’t want me to make a big deal of his birthday, just like he never wanted anyone to make a big deal over him. But it was a big deal birthday, one that ended in a zero.

And it had been less than a year since we’d received the news that he had an untreatable invader in his body, and had been given instructions to “go home and make the most of your life.” In fact, the doctors were more than a little surprised that he was still breathing.

But he’d told me I couldn’t make a big deal. So I didn’t. All I did was agree to be a partner in crime to my step-daughter. She gave me the gift of allowing me to point to her and say with a smile, “She did it. It was her idea.” So I was able to honor his wish while also honoring hers.

We all knew we might be living on borrowed time. But there was a determination that would not be denied, that of a grateful family wanting to honor this man who loved us all so well.  He couldn’t have known.

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We laughed. We dined. We ate the cake and the sweet confetti. We took pictures in front of the birthday banner and tried to visit with everyone seated around that long table. It was a wonderful time with family ties four generations deep, and he said he’d had no idea it was coming. I’m pretty sure I believe him even now.

A year later he was lying in a hospital bed, fighting hard for his life. It was a fight he was soon to lose. And it made the memory of that celebration a treasure all the sweeter. We couldn’t have known.

** ** ** ** **

(Today’s post is in honor of what would have been my late husband’s birthday. We couldn’t have known that his son-in-law, one of many who helped with the birthday ruse at our neighborhood Macaroni Grill, would qualify to be – and insist on becoming – a live liver-donor for my husband.

It was his last, best chance. On his final birthday my husband underwent a surgery that we all hoped would save his life. He died two months later. But what a fantastic celebration of life we’d had only one short year earlier. I’ll always be grateful for that.)

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2014
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Work

My daughter’s stay in the psych ward (her first stay, at least) was five days. Yet it seemed interminable and exhausting to me. I can only imagine how it must have felt to her.

While my daughter was hospitalized, I worked. I worked to find the new therapist she needed. I worked to prepare my younger daughter for her sister’s return. I worked to prepare myself for her return as well. I worked at calming my nerves in anticipation of the unknown that lay ahead for us.

I worked at contacting personnel in my daughter’s high school to let them know why she’d missed school and was failing her core classes. I worked to advocate to her teachers on her behalf as depression, anxiety, and panic had interrupted class tests, make-up tests, and all manner of school work and homework in the preceding weeks.

I worked to make it clear to her teachers that I was not trying to excuse any behavior; I simply wanted my daughter to know she could walk into a classroom, take a test, and not let anxiety continue to drag her into a dark abyss leading to self harm and despair.

I worked to prepare the way to help my daughter find even a tiny but necessary victory.

I worked to release the frustration of not hearing back from several of her teachers. I worked to let go of the fear that they would judge me as “that mom”, the one who let her kid get away with anything, then made excuses.

mean-teacher

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I worked to remember that my goal was not to get my adolescent daughter to pass English, sing in choir, or even pass her freshman year. I worked to stay focused on helping her reach a place of mental wellness, health, and personal safety.

I worked, literally, to keep my daughter alive, to help her want to stay alive.

I worked to respond to the teachers who had kindly and compassionately replied after I contacted them to inform them of my daughter’s deep struggles. I worked to contain my tears, to thank these good people for seeing the inherent value in my 15-year-old, even though she could not see it in herself.

I worked to remind myself that they were bearing witness to the good in my daughter, and helping me hold onto hope, whether they realized it or not.

I worked at letting go of the frustration that I was the one having to do everything, with no help from my children’s father. I worked to not allow wasteful bitterness about that overtake me.

I worked to arrange my schedule so I could be where I had to be when I had to be there, whether taking my youngest to cheer practice, or visiting my older daughter in the psych ward.

I worked at pushing aside the grief I felt as a widow, the utter sorrow I felt at not having my husband to talk with at the end of an exhausting day. I worked at trying to think of the encouraging words I knew he would say to me.

I worked to recall the feel of his arms around me, the safest place I’d ever known. I worked to remember that, no matter how distant it now seemed, I hadn’t imagined him in the first place.

I worked at staying awake and focused despite little sleep. I worked at the dailies of life: carpool, laundry, dishes. And, of course, I worked at work.

I was tired.

 

(One of my favorite bands/songs/videos. Best when played at a loud volume.)

 

Saturday finally arrived. Though two days earlier my daughter had angrily demanded I pick her up “Saturday morning at 6!” I kept my word and arrived around 9:30 a.m. The requisite paperwork took a little while. And there were new friends she’d made to whom she wanted to say goodbye.

We left with a prescription and a plan, and I was hopeful they would work at the same time I was terrified they would fail.

One of the perks of a psych ward stay (who knew there was such a thing?) was that my daughter was able to continue as the patient of the psychiatrist who saw her during her days there.

While that may not seem like such a big deal, the truth is that finding a qualified psychiatrist can take more time than one might imagine. And after finally tracking someone down, it’s not unusual to have to wait up to two months (yes, TWO MONTHS – or more) for an available appointment.

This one not-so-small detail had now been taken care of. It’s not like the appointments would be close to home, but just to HAVE appointments for someone who could manage medication was a major hurdle crossed. I was very grateful.

sunny day

 (Source: Google Images) 

 

My daughter and I stepped out into a bright, sunny February morning in Colorado. She hadn’t had the freedom to be outside for several days. She seemed small and fragile, a combination of embarrassment, nervousness, and relief. I felt much the same as she.

I didn’t know the rules for what a parent is supposed to do when they pick their kid up from the psych ward. So we went to Jamba Juice. It seemed like a good idea. And it was.

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013
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On Being Temporarily Absent

“To love at all is to be vulnerable.

Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.

If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.

But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

To love is to be vulnerable.”

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, my heart feels wrung. And possibly broken.

My wish in sharing our story is to be a voice of hope and encouragement to other parents who are walking a difficult path. My deep desire is to come alongside those who love their struggling teens.

To do this, I feel strongly that authenticity is a non-negotiable, and vulnerability is essential. And so I have been sharing our journey; even more specifically, I have been sharing my journey. I have been reliving a heartache that I could never have anticipated, and that I know others are even now experiencing.

And my heart has been wrung. And possibly broken. Again.

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I have shared in earlier blog posts that my daughter’s descent  into clinical depression came virtually on the heels of my husband’s death.

What I am not so sure I shared is the feeling that while my husband’s death bent me, my daughter’s ensuing suicidal depression broke me. One tragedy on the heels of another left me barely able to put one foot in front of the other. Eventually and unsurprisingly, I faced my own clinical depression.

I have shared that some of the details of my daughter’s difficulties and hospitalizations are hard for me to recall, but the emotion, the struggle, the heartache … those are ever near. Even though that dreadful chapter began six years ago and my daughter has been back home for four years. Even though my husband took his last breath nearly seven and a half years ago. Even still.

In my mind I see snapshots of moments that broke me over and over. I see my children grief-stricken and confused, and my inability to make sense of any of it for them or for myself. (If you want to torture a mother, render her incapable of helping her own children. Or at least let her live in that belief.)

I see a young widow whose grief was cut short by a need she will never regret tending to, but whose heartache upon heartache bent her low and broke her down.

depression line drawing

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It’s not that I don’t want to share our story anymore. It’s not that I am no longer passionate about walking with those whose hearts and families are breaking. It’s that I didn’t expect it to still feel so intensely raw.

As someone who believes strongly that we are created for relationship and community, story is a necessary part of the equation to me. It’s the only way we know we aren’t alone. It’s the best way to walk with each other.

Sugar coating the hard stuff is a disservice, I think. Not that we gratuitously compare stories to see whose is worse. No. That is a prostitution of the roads we each must walk.

But an honest story is a powerful and loving weapon when we are fighting for our lives and wellbeing, and for the lives and wellbeing of those we love. Honest stories build trust.

So I haven’t stopped sharing my story, our story. I have just come to a place where I need to remind myself to breathe.

My heart is so wired into the NOW that I must remind it that these things are not happening now. The emotions can return full force though. At the drop of a hat. And I know that there are consequences and costs that everyone in our family will always deal with. There’s fallout. That’s not bad. It just is.

Every now and then it simply still hurts. And I get stuck. And the past pains and current challenges in my life magnify and compound one another. It takes work for me to untangle all those things and put them back in their rightful and appropriate places. Compartmentalizing doesn’t come naturally to me. In fact, it exhausts me.

My husband has not just died. My daughter is not slicing her arms while raging about how she wants to kill herself. Those things happened a while ago. But pieces of my heart can sometimes feel like they are happening now. Again.

It’s not PTSD. It’s just the journey of grief and growing and living in the wholeness of life, the good and the painful (which can sometimes be the same thing).

My head wants to move on, but my heart wants, needs, to stop and grieve a little. Not the same intense grief of a few years ago, but a grief that must be tended to nonetheless.

Now that I am officially pushing Old Broad-hood, I have learned a thing or two about myself. I have asked friends for support in several areas of my life. I have asked for accountability, for grace, for humor, and for witness to my tears.

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I have learned that if I am not gentle with myself, I return to that place of wanting to lie down in front of a bus. And since the place I now rent has a bus stop literally behind the back fence, that’s not really such a good place for me to get to.

So I’ve been temporarily absent.

The words roll through my mind, trying to coax my heart to participate.

Just write. That’s what the writing experts would say. Put your butt in the chair and write. But I’ve chosen to put my wellbeing over my word count, because I’ve spent decades ignoring what I need for what I “should”. And the bus stop behind me isn’t going anywhere.

Just write. My heart wants to. It really does. And it will.

But lately my heart feels wrung. And possibly broken. And I’ve been learning to take care of it.

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013
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His Sweatshirt

“Bring me his sweatshirt, mom. Please.”

“Of course, sweetie. Of course I will.”

My daughter was limited in the personal items she was allowed to have during her mental health hold. Hoodies – the staple of teen fashion – were okay, but drawstrings had to be removed. Favorite (imitation) Converse shoes? Fine, but no shoestrings allowed. The safety pins my daughter loved to use as fashion statements were absolutely forbidden.  I was forced to look at clothing, and much of life, in a whole new way.

But the thing my daughter wanted most was “his sweatshirt”, and there was no reason to deny her request.

When my husband had died almost two years earlier, I’d invited all three of his adult kids to go through his clothes, to pick out some favorite items they might want to keep for themselves or their own children.

I tried to also give them each special items, perhaps tokens of affection they or their children had given their dad that would now make their way back to the original gift givers. Or maybe an item that they had seen growing up in their childhood home that held special memories for them. It seemed only fitting to do this.

(Admittedly, there were a few things it took me time to be able to part with. Thankfully, my step kids are gracious and patient.)

I had also asked my own three adolescent children what they would like to have of their stepdad’s as special mementos. My older daughter had chosen an old sweatshirt that my husband used to wear often. He was great at coming home from a day of work and changing into comfy clothes, a signal that work was left behind and he was now present and available at home.

But this particular sweatshirt was one he often threw on early on a Saturday morning as he brewed coffee, read the paper, and prepared his favorite bagel for breakfast. It was a treasure on many levels and had become something of a security blanket to my daughter

 red sweatshirt

(Photo Source: Google Images)

In both the best and worst of times she slept nightly with the worn shirt close by. So often she had cried to me after his death about missing him and wanting him back. I understood at a deep level how she felt (and then some), and was not at all surprised that she wanted “his sweatshirt” now that she had been placed on a psychiatric hold for suicidal ideations.

It made perfect sense to me. To a frightened and unstable fifteen-year-old it was portable comfort, raveled and worn, in a place where comfort was difficult to find. I was happy to grant her request.

Visiting hours included Tuesdays, so I was returning less than 24 hours after I’d followed the ambulance across town and had her admitted. I took some approved clothes, the needed sweatshirt, my younger daughter, and an anxious heart, and drove us all through afternoon traffic for our first visit.

To call it uncomfortable would be an understatement. And incomplete. How else might I describe it? It was bewildering, sad, strange, surreal, terrifying, and with a few tendrils of hope that I tried to believe weren’t just taunting me.

There was one room where all visits took place simultaneously. All of the adolescents hospitalized there and all of the visitors who had come to see them were confined to this one very plain not-terribly-large space. Each group had their little gathering of chairs as segregated as possible from the others, with some people having to share their seat with another.

visiting room

(Photo Source: Google Images)

Some groups sat close together, speaking in hushed tones. Some seemed less eager to sit closely, or to even talk with one another. Some were loud and frustrated, others subdued and resigned.

I tried to (or not to?) catch glimpses of the others in the room while simultaneously trying to figure out how our family had ended up here, how my daughter was faring in the psych ward, and just exactly what the next step might be.

Add “disconcerting” to the list of adjectives.

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013
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I Left Her There

The moment had come. They psych ward doors had opened, swallowing us into the unknown, shutting tightly and unnervingly behind us.

Once again, my daughter was given scrubs and non-skid socks to wear until I could return with “approved” clothes for her. I was grieved that she had no personal items to comfort her in this most frightening of places. (Shoestrings, drawstrings, belts, and other such items were strictly forbidden in the locked ward populated by adolescents who might use anything they could find to harm themselves or others.)

black hightops

(Photo Source: Google Images)

It was around midnight after a very long day.  I honestly don’t remember much except being in a small, dark room where the clothes of the adolescent residents were kept folded and stacked on shelves.

As I look back on that time, I’m surprised at the details I simply cannot recall. The emotion of the moment … that returns to me in a heartbeat, and even now I weep as my body responds to the memory of all that I felt in those difficult hours. I can feel it in an instant.

I left my daughter. I left her there. I left her in a psych ward on lockdown. I left her there because she was suicidal. I left her there because I could not keep her safe. I left her there because I loved her. I left her there with a trail of my tears and much of my heart.

Upon returning home, I sent an email out to my trusted group of friends, those I’d been sharing the journey with on many a late night when I was unable to sleep or bring any order to my world or mind.

I so missed the strong support of my husband. It had been less than two years since we’d watched him be removed from life support and take his last breath. How desperately I ached for his wisdom and comfort.

And so, my small but trusted band of friends had ‘listened’ faithfully as I’d regularly poured my heart out to them via email, lamenting my daughter’s depression, self harm, truancy, constant talk of blood and death, and all the other dark details that had been filling our lives for a number of months.

sad emailer

(Photo Source: Google Images)

There had been a few quick calls and texts to them during the daylight hours as we’d moved through the mental health crisis that had landed us in the emergency room. The following is part of the update message I sent to My Group after admitting my daughter to the psych ward for the first time. It’s a bit disjointed, though I tried to edit it to make it easier to follow.

It was sent on February 19, 2008 at 1:31 a.m.

* * * * *

Hello, friends.

I am just home from a very long night during which C was hospitalized for her own safety.  C’s dad came over to talk with her. He was very reluctant to admit her, but I am quite convinced it was the only safe option.

I did call 911 because C made it very clear that she would fight us if we tried to take her to the hospital.  So between the two squad cars, paramedics and ambulance, she went rather peacefully if not tearfully.  My heart just aches for her.

I had asked C earlier in the afternoon to rate her likelihood of suicide on a scale of 10 and she nearly yelled “10!” at me; I asked if she thought she actually would act on it and she said of course if everyone would just leave her alone (she used much more colorful language).  That was when it became glaringly apparent that she really needed to be admitted.

She had threatened to run away over the weekend and she and I even had a tussle in the driveway as she fell into a heap yelling about how much she hated me, much to the confusion of the man watching us from across the street.

We went to Children’s Hospital emergency room by ambulance about 6 p.m. Monday, and they had no empty beds so she was transported to [a freestanding behavioral center].

The supervisor I spoke with tonight said there is a decent likelihood she will be there more than 72 hours as there will likely be med changes they will have to monitor, but they don’t generally keep someone longer than 5 days.  He did tell me that last week they had 3 adolescents and in the past 24 – 36 hours they have admitted 15.  Wow.

Poor C may just be getting to sleep now (if she is lucky) and their days start at 6:15 and go until 9 or 10 at night.  When I said goodbye to her tonight she actually let me give her a kiss on the cheek and a good, long hug (which felt so good; I’ve really missed that).

I cannot describe to you her state of mind earlier today and over the past 4 days.  It’s been as if another person is living in her body, and this week I have been the trigger that has really set her off.  She told me, among many disturbing things, that she’s sick of people saying they love her and care about her and it just makes her want to kill herself when she hears it.

But she told me she loved me tonight so I felt free to return the favor.  I did tell her as I was leaving that she was going to be okay there and she agreed and said, “I know”, but in her real voice, not the unknown person she has been.  I think maybe, at least tonight, she might have even felt safer there than she did at home.

I spent about a half hour talking with the supervisor before I left and I feel like they are on top of things with the kids in their care; he even addressed issues before I had a chance to voice my concern about them.

This will, of course, take C way out of her comfort zone; that’s not a bad thing but I sure would appreciate your prayers for her.  I just want to scoop her up and cradle her in my arms and bring her home ~ which would defeat the purpose of everything we went out on a limb for today, but it just really hurt to see her like that.

Perhaps now that she is there the fear and anxiety of the unknown, and the threat of hospitalization (vs. the reality) will melt away and she can actually get to a safe place.  I know this may not be the last time we have to do this; I hope so, but I won’t be surprised if it isn’t.  There are so very many things going on concerning her treatment and the more people involved the more “options” are offered or brought up.

I feel very helpless to protect her, but I felt even more helpless when she was at home.  Now I believe she is in a safe place where she cannot hurt herself, and she can get some ongoing help, even if only for a few days.  I know it’s a long road ahead.  But I think I can get a few good nights worth of sleep, and I look forward to that.

K (sister, age 14) and J (brother, age 18) are both very upset.  I communicated with J several times by phone tonight and he was in tears.  K was here when all the uniforms and official vehicles arrived and that was very scary for her.  She was able to go to the hospital and see C before they moved her to another facility. I think that was good for both of them.

(My stepdaughter) went in to see her also and of course C apologized for the colorful tirade she let fly against her this afternoon.  As usual probably more details than you wanted, but as always I appreciate your prayers and concern.

C has not been able to tolerate any concern from others lately, and I don’t know if/how long that will continue.  But thanks for loving her with your prayers, even if it is from afar.

Monica

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Say What?

The inside of the house still smells like a campfire today, which is fine by me. We had a lovely evening yesterday, grilling dinner and chatting around the fire in the backyard.  My kids were all here. At the same time, even.

My mom was here too. She brought The Best Three Bean Salad In The World, and she’s going to give me the recipe. Tastes just as good now as it did when I was a kid.

Eventually everyone left and I was alone. I sat in the darkness by the fire waiting for it to die down before dousing the last two crackling logs.

firepit at night

(Photo Source: Google Images)

It’s still hard for me; I admit it. There are times I feel very alone.

Ironically, alone feels most alone after having been around people, after shared laughter and lingering good-bye hugs.

Maybe that’s why I am less social than I was before my husband died. Sometimes it’s by choice, and sometimes it’s simply by default. People have lives, and they expect you to get on with yours. Their obligations and marriages haven’t ended. They just don’t understand what you’re dealing with because, thankfully, they’ve not experienced it.

They might not realize that when you do go out and partake in life, the fun may just be followed by deep exhaustion of every conceivable kind. They don’t get that sometimes crowds are the loneliest place in the world.

If you’ve never buried your spouse, please don’t presume to tell me that I haven’t moved on, that I shouldn’t be sad anymore, that I need to keep busy or be less busy, to simplify or find a hobby or go on a date.

And if you have buried your spouse, I don’t want to hear it from you, either.

There is a fine line the widowed must learn to walk, a line that involves rejoining the living, and learning – allowing for – happiness. But it also involves knowing that your loss will always be part of you, and knowing that somehow those things need to coexist. They can. It’s possible; it really is.

But please never make the mistake of telling us how to do that, how to integrate loss and life. Or that we’re not doing it right, that if we will “just _______” it would be better. For the rest of my life my husband will still be dead. And while I can and do experience happiness and fulfillment, that fact will always make me sad. There are some wounds that will never fully heal.

It seems that the ones most bothered by that are the ones without the wounds.

Those of us living it, it’s hard but we’re okay working to figure it out daily. Our sadness doesn’t scare us near as much as it seems to scare others. We have been handed the tricky task of learning to survive in a different universe than the one we thought we lived in. Sometimes, even years later, it’s still painful. Sometimes, even after finding a new love or a new life, it still stings.

It’s okay. Let us feel it. We need to. Don’t try to talk us out of our grief, even if you think it should have ended long ago. It doesn’t define us, but it’s still part of us, and we need you to allow for that. If you can’t, then it’s fine for you to keep your distance. Or at least keep quiet about it.

*****

Why oh why did I awake in such a melancholy mood today?!? I think it’s because I woke up sick. Achy. Congested. Sneezy. Dizzy. And whoever those other three dwarfs were. I woke up that way, feeling like one of them. My beard is fuller and I may even be shorter than I was yesterday, I think.

I’m so thankful we had our Memorial Day gathering an evening early because I have spent today sick in bed, except for loading the dishwasher from last night and seeing my mom who brought me a small tin of yummy pistachios, which I have already eaten. I hear they’re good for colds.

 pistachios

(Photo Source: Google Images)

I think my hearing is a bit off too. While watching mindless TV a bit ago, I heard an insurance commercial that started out like this: “Funerals are a very difficult thing for families to go through.”

But I didn’t hear funerals. I heard urinals. I’ve been through funerals, but never dealt much with urinals, especially as a family activity. It threw me for a quick minute, but then gave me a much-appreciated belly laugh, which I think is better for colds than even pistachios.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Darkness Descending

After my husband’s death, I took over the off-site property management of an apartment complex he’d managed for years. I did my best to learn the job without the benefit of a teacher, and even managed to figure out some of the many details he’d kept brilliantly within his own mind, thus taking them to the grave. (I had plenty of one-sided conversations with him about this, believe me!)

But a year and a half after he died, the apartments were sold and the new owners brought in all new staff. Not only did I have to lay off some dear and hardworking people, I lost my own job as well.

I found more work relatively quickly, but the stressors of a sharp learning curve and constant change, both personally and professionally, were wearing me down. I missed the calming reassurance of my husband’s presence the most in the quiet, solitary hours of nighttime, so my sleep schedule was often erratic at best.  I was weary and worn, pulled on every side, knowing there wasn’t enough of me to cover all the bases that needed to be manned.

I felt that I was leading my little family into a new school year in about as unsettled a manner as I could imagine.

schoolbooks

(Photo Source: Google Images)

The previous fall, less than 6 months after my husband died, we were of course all still reeling with the loss. I had homeschooled both of my girls up to that point. They had always been involved in enrichment programs, youth groups, parks and rec activities, and/or homeschool co-op, as well as having friendships with neighborhood kids.  In the interest of allowing them to honor their own grief and needs, I let them each choose whether or not they would stay home for school.

My younger daughter had chosen to no longer homeschool. But my older daughter chose to remain at home for one more year, her final year before high school. She was an introvert to be sure, but had always made friends easily and was fierce and loyal in her friendships. She was compassionate and empathetic, with a heart quick to love, give, and forgive.

A year later, in preparation for high school, she had gone to freshman orientation. Later, we had walked the empty halls to find her classrooms so as to ease her in to her daily schedule.

As I dropped her off that first day of school, she was anxious and tense. “Mom, I just want to throw up.” I did my best to lovingly but firmly send her on her way, confident that she would make friends and find her place. After all, aren’t the majority of high school freshmen nauseous with worry on the first day of school? Don’t we all have to learn to make our way, to take a big, scary leap into the world at some point, and learn that we will indeed survive?

I watched with curiosity and concern while she went about making her way. I came to learn later that because of her quiet nature and unique style, other students made erroneous and unkind assumptions about her. Like all of us who were not in the popular crowd in high school (which by definition is most of us), she was misunderstood and unfairly mislabeled by adolescents whose opinions I wish hadn’t mattered to her. In response, she latched on to the first crowd that welcomed her.

They wore, for the most part, black clothes, black hair, black makeup, and hair in their faces to obscure wounded and mistrusting eyes. I observed relational dysfunction, adolescent angst, and the deep longing we all have to find a place where we feel loved and worthy.

They talked of things dark and macabre, and from them she learned of self harm and the relief they claimed it offered. While some of them had blonde hair and wore neon colored clothing and toothy smiles, they all shared a brokenness that drew them together. And I could fault none of them for the wounds that had been visited upon them.

I was sad for their pain, heartbroken and even angry for what my daughter was exposed to through them, but I understood that they were really just a group of wounded souls, holding on to one another for dear life. They were brokenness begetting brokenness. Still, when your child is in the quicksand, you don’t just feel sad that she has fallen in. You fight through hell and high water to get her out.

quick sand

(Photo Source: Google Images)

As we neared the end of December, my anxiety increased as I realized my daughter’s depression, confusion, and self harm were increasing. She had written a lengthy and scathing diatribe of a suicide note to her sister shortly before Christmas. And while many siblings may go through times of severe dislike and perhaps even loathing of one another, this note was particularly troubling. It was rambling, coherent, precise, and inconsistent all at the same time.

My younger daughter had the sad and scary task of first reading it, and then bringing it to my attention. I will always be proud of her for summoning the courage to do that.

Chaos, despair, and self injury were enveloping my daughter’s first four months of high school. The road ahead looked more desperate and steep to me than any I’d ever seen, darker even than the realization less than two years earlier that my husband would soon die.

In an effort to bring order to the chaos, my daughter and I went to see the family doctor who’d treated her for most of her life. He prescribed an antidepressant and made it clear that mental health counseling was not optional.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

In The Beginning

It began about sixteen months after my husband died.

He’d battled a rare liver disease for a few years, his diagnosis coming less than two years after we were wed. His final two months were spent in the hospital, save for a Valentine’s Day discharge home that lasted less than 72 hours. About five weeks later, we gathered around him, saying our final goodbyes as he lay unconscious. The nurses, by this time very dear to me, were kind enough to turn off the alarms that began sounding after life support measures were removed.

Hospital Monitor

(Photo Source: Google Images)

We had cried, we had prayed, we had sung, we had told him the things we felt were most important to say, many of us at the same time. It was a cacophony of loving sentiments and earnest anguish expressed in the most grievous of times. He breathed his last. We lingered a while.  And then we all went home.

My adult step-kids and their cousins left to return to their families. (I sure love all those “kids”.) My in-laws drove back home after the death of their firstborn. (I love them even now.) My dear mother, herself widowed a few short years earlier, left with what I imagine were difficult thoughts at best.

My son (age 16) was living with his dad, so while he departed to a separate destination, my two daughters and I walked into our darkened and forever-changed home. And while I rarely allowed them to sleep the night in my bed when they were little, we all piled under my comforter together in the cold March darkness. It didn’t matter that they were 12 and 13 years old. No one was going to sleep much anyway.

Life changed, of course. In drastic ways that could not be undone. Grief is an odd phenomenon for so many reasons, not the least of which is that everyone experiences it differently. But we could say the same about life, couldn’t we? Everyone experiences it differently. The triumphs and losses a family experiences together are processed and assimilated uniquely by each individual.

As I did my best to adjust to being a widow, an unexpectedly single mom for the second time, my kids did their best to adjust to life without the step-dad that they had known and loved for more than half their lives. The wound was deep.

My older daughter, a few months shy of her 14th birthday when my husband died, began to grapple with adolescence in more marked ways when she turned 15. It was subtle at first, not nearly as obvious or aggressive as it became in time. She had always been quiet and observant, even as a baby. Though introverted, she was affectionate, with a natural talent for words, music, and bold creativity. But as she prepared to enter high school, any sense of worth or identity she had possessed seemed to disappear into thin air.

When the kids were quite young (ages 7, 4, and 2½), their dad had made the choice to leave our family. Having been the child of divorced parents from years ago (before the divorce statistics were so high, when – unlike today – I didn’t know anyone else whose parents had split) I knew the potential for damage to my impressionable children. I took them to a counselor, and the most useful long-term piece of advice I received was that, as young children of divorced parents, they would most likely struggle more than normal during milestone transitions as they grew up.

This had absolutely seemed to be the case up to that point, so when my daughter started to act out with impatience, eye rolling, frustration, and withdrawal, I chalked it up to the cumulative losses we’d all been through, plus the hellishness that adolescence in general can be. And I reminded myself that the ride would likely get bumpier than most, but we’d get through it.

I saw her as I saw her brother and sister: capable, full of life, with so much to experience and to offer the world. I hoped that as she entered high school she would be able to try a myriad of new things, to find her niche. I expected the confidence in her many talents and abilities would only strengthen. I was wrong.

I am not so old that I don’t remember high school and what it takes to try to find your way socially. In fact, I went to three different high schools in three different states all within the final year and a half of high school. I remember well. But as I said, we all experience life differently, and my daughter’s experience was nothing any of us expected. Her sense of identity and worth were shaken to the core. The beautiful and talented girl I saw was nowhere in her view. While I tried to reassure us both that she would return to herself, she was spiraling into an abyss of confusion and despair.

It’s worth noting that I don’t think there is one particular reason we can point to for this. I believe it was the culmination of so many things, both genetic and environmental, that landed my daughter where she ended up, with peers who tended towards emotional dysfunction and physical self harm. Her black hair, black fingernail polish, and thick black eye liner didn’t concern me near as much as the darkening shadow in her heart. She was trying. She was trying so hard. But she was at a loss, and I was simply not fully aware of all she was wrestling with.

Goth makeup

(Photo Source: Google Images)

At first she tried to make excuses about the cuts I saw on her arms and wrists. At first I tried to believe her. In retrospect, I can see that she was initially reticent and even somewhat delicate with her self injury. But as time went on, as her darkness descended, the increasingly aggressive scratches, cuts, and gashes began to mirror the turmoil she felt inside.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

I Didn’t Know How

It’s not that I didn’t want to believe it. It’s more that I didn’t know how.

I’d had plenty of “Believe this and figure out how to live with it” challenges up to that point. I really had.

Years earlier my first pregnancy had ended in a complicated miscarriage that landed me in the Emergency Room. The graphic nature of the loss was jarring and disconcerting, to say nothing of the accompanying pain, both physically and emotionally. The grief was intense and stayed with me for what seemed like a long time, even though my son was born a year later.

But there was a mental file cabinet for that, helping me to make as much sense of it as possible: Miscarriages happen. This isn’t the first time in history, and life can move forward from here. It really can.

Eight years and three kids later my first marriage came to a devastating and difficult conclusion that landed me in my first therapy session. The surprise nature of the circumstances caught me more than off guard as the truth of my husband’s infidelity and willful departure from the family we had created together left me wounded, but wiser.

But there was a mental file cabinet for that, helping me to make as much sense of it as possible: Marriages end. And I will take this chance to learn and grow, and figure out ways to make more prudent decisions in the future.

Nine and a half years after that, my six-and-a-half-year-old second marriage came to a heartbreaking end when I was widowed, landing me on my own once more. The life changes were monumental, to say nothing of the heart changes that I had to face.

But there was even a mental file cabinet for that, helping me to make as much sense of it as possible: None of us will go through life untouched by the death of someone we love. And among the many gifts my late husband gave me was the fact that he believed in me before I was able to believe in myself. And so I knew that to honor him well, I would have to learn to live a new life without him next to me. It would not be an easy thing to do, but it would be the right thing to do.

Fast-forward about a year and a half, when my fifteen-year-old daughter began a supremely intense wrestling match with life, with herself, with all of us. And then she began to cut, to carve her beautiful porcelain flesh with sharp objects, leaving blood stained sheets and pillow cases, tender scabs that became fleshy scars, and an absolutely terrified and bewildered mother.

There was no mental file cabinet for this, nothing to help me make any sense of it at all.

It’s not that I didn’t want to believe it. It’s more that I didn’t know how.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013