What Happens When You Aren't Really As Strong As Everyone Thinks...
It is no hidden secret that my life went from very private to very public in a matter of seconds (read my last blog). It also comes as no surprise that when your life becomes very public people feel like they know you, that they know exactly what you need or how you feel, that they desperately want to help in some way. Often times the way that they offer their help is by using their words. Words that are said with the best of intentions and are most likely heartfelt but words that often contradict the way a grieving mother feels. I can’t speak for every grieving mother but for myself, this contradiction causes anxiety.
Since the very early stages of grief began for me I was constantly being told how strong I am. I was told in countless ways that I have handled such a horrific tragedy with such grace and dignity. What I would really like to say when someone says that to me is, “this is not the Miss America pageant and I am not striving to have grace or dignity. What I am trying to do is survive my life, the thing you just referred to as a horrific tragedy, without a part of my heart. I am trying to remember how to breathe when I really don’t want to and I am trying with everything in me not to let the tears start (again) because I am not sure if they will ever end”. Of course I never say any of these things to anyone because I know they mean well and I have also learned that you have to have grace for the non bereaved, you were once just like them. I long for those days, the days when I didn’t know pain like this existed.
What causes the anxiety is how fake you feel as a person. You don’t feel strong and inside you are dying a little more with each passing second. You can’t think past the next 5 minutes and sometimes it’s really just past the next minute. You certainly don’t have any long term plans for your life anymore, what’s the point of having those? You had plans at one time and they all were taken away from you right before your very eyes. Grace and dignity I guess are super subjective. Can I pull myself together long enough to give the media an interview? Yes. Can I fake smile in a picture? Sure. Can I say all the right things and attempt to be the picture perfect grieving mother and wife? Apparently, I can. In reality though, I feel none of it. I feel completely and totally empty inside. I keep waiting for something to make me truly smile or belly laugh. I keep waiting to recognize the face staring back at me in the mirror but all I see is the agony in my eyes, the dark circles that have appeared, the massive weight loss, a very fake smile, and a woman that has aged so much in the last 20 months. Nothing, absolutely nothing, will age you faster than losing your child.
Let’s talk about PTSD and what most people are fortunate enough not to ever experience or know in their lifetime. PTSD is not only real but it is debilitating. It is the most isolating thing I have ever experienced. Your mind becomes ravaged by fear. Fear now controls your every thought and every move. I want to use someone else’s words to explain grief and fear because they are the most accurate description that I have read. Especially, when grief is brought on suddenly and traumatically. “I want to explain why grief can also bring fear into one’s life. There are many reasons why this can happen, but here is one of the biggest causes. When you have endured the incomprehensible grief, when pain erupted like a never ending volcano, it shatters your belief system. That internal seed of hope that life will always be ok implodes. One moment you were fine, the next you were wailing on the floor, hoping the searing pain would end. You have now seen beyond the veil, looked into that hidden room, glimpsed inside pandora’s box, and now you can’t unsee what you have witnessed. I still long for that innocence, that unawareness to be returned to me. To go back to a time when I didn’t know pain like this existed. To return to a time when I didn’t feel a need to stand on guard just in case the trapdoor opens beneath my feet. This is another reason why the bereaved are such different people on the other side of loss.”
It is true, the bereaved are different people on the other side of loss and those of us that are left suffering from PTSD as well as the agony of child loss feel it even deeper than anyone could ever begin to imagine, unless you have walked the dark and lonely path. PTSD causes you to see fear where there was once joy. You fear things more and more as time goes by until you find yourself wanting to be alone because it means not having to be fake, which is exhausting, and you don’t have to try to explain all the irrational fears that have now become part of the new you. Where others see happiness you are weighing in your brain what could go wrong and how it could happen. Yet to the world you seem so strong but you sure don’t feel anything like strong.
Over the past 20 months there have been what I refer to as defining moments or moments of clarity. They are the moments from the beginning that stand out even amongst all the fog I was living in. This statement is one that I will never ever forget. In fact, it might honestly be one of the first moments of clarity that I had. My mom and I had gone to see our personal injury attorneys and we were talking with them when another attorney entered the room. He was an older gentleman but he knelt down next to my wheelchair and he said that many years ago someone had said the words he was about to say to me and that they had stuck with him all of his life. Little did I know that they were about to be the words that would stick with me all the days of my life and that, that very moment would be a defining moment in my life. That it would be the time I remembered the clearest amongst all the fog. He knelt down next to me and said, “You, Mrs. Zisa, are a living example of a loving God, to a watching world”. He was right. My very private life that had now become very public was now my way of honoring my family. It was my way of preparing for what Gad would soon place on my heart to do with my life, Acts For Adalyn Foundation. I was an example of a God I had grown up believing so strongly in, even though my anger at Him was and still is, if I’m being completely honest, tremendous. I am very angry at God but I still believe in Him. This horrific tragedy was the chance to show the watching world that I would not crumble from all the pain that had just become my life, my reality. Rather, I would get my strength from Him and I would show the watching world just who my family was. I would show them who the man I married really was and who my precious daughter was. I would come to honor Adalyn’s memory by helping the mother’s, who just like me, had just felt the searing pain of a never-ending volcano erupt. I would fight to become Dane’s voice and even though I would continually say, “I don’t know how to do this, I don’t know what I should do,” I would show up and I would keep fighting for him. I would not quit him. I would fight for him the way that I would hope that he would have fought for me if it had been me that horrific night. And I would do it all while being more afraid of this world than anyone could possibly know. I would do it all with very calculated steps and plans, one minute at a time. I would not plan for the future, there wasn’t any sense in that. I would get through one minute at a time, put one foot in front of the other, get out of bed each day, and do my very best. Some days doing my very best simply meant getting out of bed but I showed up.
I never saw it as strength. I saw it as a necessary means of surviving. I saw it as a way to make my family proud and to honor them. Dane’s injuries are very visible from the night but what happens when your injuries are not visible to the public? What happens when your injuries are buried deep inside your soul and burned into your memory? What happens is that you develop PTSD. Which means all those things that I saw as a necessity to survival are really strength. They are the strength of a mother’s love. It is being “a living example of a loving God, to a watching world”.
What I have learned in the last 20 months is that strength and weakness can coexist. Sometimes they coexist inside of the same moment. Grace and dignity are not mutually exclusive of pain and suffering. The watching world doesn’t know that side of me because that is mine to sort through but it is also my job to tell the honest truth about toddler loss. If you are going be the example then you have to be honest. I cannot paint a picture of the fog lifting and you finding this great joy again. That just isn’t true. The fog may begin to lift and rays of sun may shine through. Some days they may stay for awhile and other days they may not come at all. When the clouds hide the sun in your life, remember, even if you lose sight of it for a moment, the sun is always there. This is true no matter how far along the road of grief I travel.
You, my fellow grieving mamas, are strong. You may not feel it and you may feel so fake when you hear those words but you are surviving the unimaginable. You are breathing when your lungs are on fire. Your heart is beating even though it is completely shattered. You are stronger than you even know. If I were asked today what advice I would give to a bereaved parent it would simply be to just get through this moment. Don’t look down the road, it’s scary. Don’t think about not having your child until you are reunited at Heaven’s gate, that seems like an impossibly long time. Think about this moment and how you can best survive the right now, this minute, and before long you will put one foot in front of the other and you will find yourself doing the impossible. Sure, there will be triggers and things that make you feel like you can’t go on anymore but the truth is, you can. One day, many months, after your loss you will look back at the early days of grief and you will find your defining moments, your moments of clarity, cling to those. Hold tight to what has gotten you this far and even on your weakest day remember that you possess a strength that may not be felt by you but it is visible to the watching world.