This month has been a whirlwind of pain, triggers, and generally not great behavior from both Russ and me. Our eldest daughter, Elizabeth Shade-Ware, died unexpectedly in her sleep. Suffice it to say, I am a wreck and am shocked I can even post this month, but I felt the need to put the pain on paper. I’m not alone in facing grief, especially in our BrainLine community, but my experience is my own and I want to articulate what we’ve been going through. Maybe my struggle can help you in some way.
Let’s start at the beginning. I first met Liz when she was 10 years old, pretty soon after Russ and I first started dating. I came to live with her full time at age 11, awhile before Russ and I were married. She was a giggly, beautiful bridesmaid in our wedding. She started referring to me as Mom as soon as she possibly could. I came to be her only mother as her bio-mom lost her parental rights very early in her life. Blended families aren’t always easy but we made it work. We did everything we could to give her the best education and opportunities, while supporting the more difficult aspects of military dependent life. She and I bonded during deployments, sharing worries and good times while her father was away. She grew into an incredible young woman, going off to college, falling in and out of love, surviving a nearly-fatal car accident half a country away from home, adopting a dog, living her life.
She came back to live us after a heavy heartbreak and essentially being stranded on the west coast. She faced some emotional struggles, but we were here for her, a safe and loving home. And her sisters were ECSTACTIC that “Sissy” was living in the same house. Elizabeth was also ecstatic to have two little sisters who adored her and literally climbed on her as much as possible. She was so loving and patient with them, even when they got too loud or asked too many questions. She found a job and got back on her feet. Then she found a better job with a more livable wage, benefits, an office, and something small which made her light up: business cards with her name on them. She moved into her own apartment, but she made sure to come visit often. She had just gotten a promotion at work and was starting to feel solid enough to try dating again. Then one morning, she missed her alarm. Her roommate was worried about her and went to check on her. She never woke up. We still don’t know what happened and are waiting on the medical examiner’s office for a final cause.
Part of me feels like time has no meaning. It feels crushingly fast since she was much too young to be taken from us – but it’s also moving too slow as we wait for answers. I want to know what happened. I want someone to blame. But really, I just want my daughter back to hug her one more time. She gave the best back-cracking hugs, just like her Dad.
Speaking of her Dad, Russ has been both solid as a rock and not at all. His firstborn, the person who made him a Dad, is gone. The smallest things trigger him and it takes so much longer to find his calm. We have purposefully allowed more time to decompress and spend time with family and friends. Creating space for happy family time, like eating at a restaurant (but making sure it is not during a busy dinner rush) or simply playing in the back yard, takes a little longer than normal. At first, I would say he regressed, like our younger daughters did. They needed more snuggles and wanted to sleep in our bed – and we let them for the first few days. But the more I thought about it and all the things we were all going through, the more I realized he was doing really great, using tools and techniques he picked up in this PTSD journey. He’s doing much better than I am.
I struggle to get up in the morning. I cycle between utter lack of motivation to do anything and wanting to burn the world down. Then I feel guilty, because not everyone has the luxury of time to grieve. The world doesn’t stop – and the show must go on. I get angry that our mental health is so often ignored in the workplace; fortunately, at this moment, I am and grateful to have such supportive colleagues. The anger goes as soon as it comes and morphs into sadness and tears. I don’t feel like eating anything. I started forgetting to eat lunch most days. In order to make sure I ingest something, I have been buying protein shakes and setting reminder alarms. Early on, a chef friend brought us a vegetable tray which was great. Since then, I’ve been buying pre-cut veggies – crudité if we are being fancy – so I can grab-and-go. It’s not the healthiest, but it’s better than what I tend to stress-crave: dark chocolate and French fries. Our youngest daughters help immensely with ‘it’s time to eat’ reminders because they are always hungry! I’m kidding, but their bodies are really good at letting them know it’s snack time or meal time. Since I’m making food for them, I make a plate for myself and Russ too.
I know it is still early days and I need to be patient with myself. I know that I will eventually not cry at the sight of a baseball/softball cookie in the grocery store because it reminds me of Liz playing sports. I know that I will stop thinking that I will get a random text from her or that I need to add a place setting for her on holdiays and weekends. I know I will grow around the grief... eventually. But it doesn’t stop the triggers. It doesn’t stop the anger. It doesn’t stop the tears.
Throughout all of this, the kindness of friends and strangers has been absolutely incredible. We’ve gotten cards and handwritten letters and flowers. The most beautiful bouquet came from our veterinarian’s office, of all places. But more importantly, we’ve gotten social time and space to grieve. Hugs, conversation, or distractions, depending on what we needed in the moment. Neighbors offering playdates “whenever” so the girls can be out of the house when they need a break. Music directors letting my voice break and I crumble into tears when I tried to sing “Lean On Me” and giving me performance tips if my emotions take over on stage. They don’t shy away from our pain. They ask if we want to talk about Liz or not. They let us cry. They hold space for us. That is more than enough.
Lean on Me
by Bill Withers
Sometimes in our lives
We all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there's always tomorrow
Lean on me
When you're not strong
And I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on
For it won't be long
Till I'm gonna need somebody to lean on