by Lisa M. Kurek

July 14, 2019

Five years ago (actually 1,862 days ago as I write this, but who’s counting, except me) my 23 year old daughter died from a freak accident. In my brief hours of clarity, before I descended into the black hole of grief, I realized that my first life had just ended and I would now have a choice. Unlike my daughter, I now had a second life, and it would be up to me to choose how to live that life.

Losing a child is unspeakable. There are no words to describe how it feels. Most of us, at some point in our adult lives, think about the time when we will lose our parents. We may also think about the possibility of losing our spouse or partner. But we never think about losing a child, for this is not supposed to happen. Everyone dies. This is the one absolute truth awaiting us. Another truth is that everyone has parents. But regardless of age, no child should ever precede their parents in death. It defies every conceivable notion of what should be.

It has been, and continues to be, an excruciating journey, but I do not make it alone. My husband and son walk their own paths yet they are inextricably linked to mine. It is one of the ironies of grief that it is the loneliest and most isolating experience that we actually share with others. Somehow, we have gone from questioning whether or not we’d manage to survive, to each in our own way thriving. We have come to understand that it is possible to live with pain and joy coexisting, even after experiencing such a profound loss.

In the process of attempting to write this (which took much longer than I ever expected), I found myself reflecting on what I did, what I learned and what I still do, and so I’ve shared some of these musings below.

What did I do?

  • In the beginning, I allowed myself to be subsumed by grief. I didn’t look for distractions. I didn’t bury myself in work. I gave myself permission to just be. I have a chair. I sat in that chair for 3 months. In that chair I learned how to be one with my grief.
  • Within weeks, as soon as I could breathe, I sought help. I found a grief counselor and saw her every week for a year. I found the Austin Center for Grief and Loss and joined a bereaved parent’s support group. I collected books on grief. Some were worthless, some were helpful, and a few were truly enlightening.
  • I bought a beautiful journal and pen. I had never in my life been a writer. My goal was to simply use them to count the days. With each passing day I would know that my will to live this second life was winning. Yet something unexpected happened. Words started gushing from my brain through my pen to that journal. I wrote every day for a year. I can’t imagine what is on those pages. I’ve never gone back to read them. They are the repository for exquisite pain that I’m not sure I can revisit. But by having a place to hold that pain it opened up space inside me to start to let the beauty of life back in.
  • I built a new community. I call it my grief community. Child loss is like a disease that many are afraid to get too close to, for it makes them confront a reality that they can’t fathom. The implications are that many that we held dear from our first life don’t make the transition with us. That became ok for me, but I need people in my life. Once I opened my shattered heart to others, I saw how many true angels there are on earth. From the funeral director, to the people at my new gym, to other bereaved parents, to the artist who covered my body with beautiful memorial art, I found new people to love who love me as I now am.

What have I learned?

  • The commonly used vocabulary of grief doesn’t apply (or at least not for me) to child loss.
    • I will never “accept” that my child died. But I am learning to live with her wherever she now is, for she can never truly leave me.
    • I will never “heal”. My shattered heart will never be put back together. But it is within the infinite space created between the pieces that there is room for joy to creep in.
    • I will never, ever “get over” her loss. But I will carry my grief with me, no matter how heavy its ever oscillating weight is, and continue the journey that is my second life.
  • I have learned not to fear making others uncomfortable. I own my story and I tell my story, even if it is difficult for others to hear. I have two amazing children who will both forever be a part of me, even if one is no longer here on earth.
  • The biggest gift anyone can give a bereaved parent is to ask them about their child. Others become so fearful of “making us feel bad” (as if we could feel any worse than we already do) that they can barely make eye contact. Yet something as simple as asking our child’s name for those who didn’t know them, or sharing a story or memory if they did, is a priceless gift, for what we want more than anything is for them to be remembered.

What do I do now?

  • I live my life as close to day by day as I can. When the weight of the grief gets too heavy for me to function, whether on birthdays or holidays or for no apparent reason, I still retreat to my chair and give myself permission to stay there until I am once again strong enough to carry the grief with me.
  • I continue to write through my blog “Dragonfly Karma: Musings of a Bereaved Mom”. I now count time by months instead of days, using the blog to post musings on the 8thof every month, which is the anniversary day of my daughter’s death. It has become the trail of breadcrumbs for my journey and it is my hope that other bereaved parents may find a few of the crumbs that might help them on their journeys.
  • I embrace clichés, and call on them to help me refocus when I feel myself going astray. My two favorites:
    • “The only two days you can’t control are yesterday and tomorrow”. To worry about things I can’t control is a senseless waste of the energy that I need to carry my grief.
    • “Practice gratitude”. The absolute worst possible thing happened. Yet I am truly blessed. These are not mutually exclusive. To be grateful for what I had and what I have is my gift of grief.

I have found that grief doesn’t define me but it is now forever part of me and I have the power to choose how I will live with that. Whether by luck, intuition, sheer force of will, divine intervention, or all of the above,in the early months and years I found ways to survive. In my fantasy world no other parent ever loses a child and my beautiful daughter is still here on earth. In my real world, I choose to survive one day at a time, surrounded by amazing people, always for her and with her. The depth of one’s grief is measured by the depth of ones love for the one we lost. My grief is infinite. And I am blessed.

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Lisa M Kurek

The gist:  Wife. Mother. Bereaved mom. Blogger. Crossfit enthusiast. Knitter. Biomedical Engineer. Retired consultant to technology entrepreneurs. Living life one day at a time.

For those with a slightly longer attention span:Originally from Michigan, Lisa has lived in Austin, Texas since 2011.  She has two degrees in Biomedical Engineering – a ScB from Brown University and an MS from University of Michigan.  Lisa spent the first 15 years of her career working in engineering, marketing, sales, and senior management for a variety of companies including a large medical device manufacturer and a venture-funded biotechnology tools company.  She spent the next 21 years as Co-owner and Managing Partner of BBC Entrepreneurial Training & Consulting, LLC, a consulting firm assisting corporations, government, academia, small business and entrepreneurs with issues relating to technology transfer, business development and commercialization of technology. Lisa sold the consultancy in 2016 and retired in early 2018.  She now spends her time across a wide range of activities, including working part-time at the coolest ever bridal boutique; volunteering at the Austin Center for Grief and Loss; knitting, crocheting and embroidering; showing up to Crossfit as many mornings as she can; sharing her grief journey on her blog Dragonflykarma.com; and ultimately just trying to live one day at a time.