Our precious first-born daughter Kara would have turned eleven this past May, but I only knew her as an infant. Imagining how she would have grown and who she would have become is somewhere I haven’t allowed myself to go very often. Perhaps picturing the spring in her step as a living and breathing tween is too painful for me to conjure.
Or maybe I have decided to simply focus on the two girls we adopted at childbirth who were born after she came and went. As a busy mom there really isn’t time for this type of daydreaming in the midst of daily life. Yet, If I allow myself, I can picture how she might look today; with big and soulful blue eyes shaped much like my fathers with the blue of his own mother. This tender vision draws me in, nudging me closer. I imagine a growing Kara with long silky dark hair and fair skin. Her appearance is a glorious combination of her ancestors who are mostly eastern European and Irish. In this rare daydream, she walks on a path made of aromatic wood chips towards a green mythic meadow. She steps lightly in a flowing white dress. This image in my mind’s eye comes and goes. One thing I know for certain is that her disappearance left an ever-present ache inside of me which surfaces more readily as I notice the seasons change.
In the reality of the present, COVID-19 is far from over. I worry about our friends and family in colder places as winter sets in. How will they manage without the reprieve of a distanced lawn chair visit or an outdoor café? While I work in my office, my kids study online and miss interacting with their friends. I meet with my women’s group each week via zoom in virtual squares. “Little boxes of love” we call them.
There is no doubt it is tough for everyone in these days of quarantine and COVID-19. I’m less alone in my grief than ever before. We are all dealing with fear and trauma of one kind or another, wondering if life will ever look the same again. But when I go inside of myself, I can still feel the dull ache of her loss. I want to cry but the tears won’t come.
I was so checked out at Kara’s memorial that I moved, robot-like and unfeeling, around the room greeting people. I can still feel myself go to this place of foggy denial when the weight of grief is too hard to bear. I have moved through each of the five stages of grief coined by Elisabeth Kubler Ross during difficult times and seasons. They don’t move in a straight line—at times, I can still feel them turning and burning inside of me. There have been days when I didn’t want to get out of bed and others where I moved through life like a zombie.
As I continue to navigate these stages, 11 years after we lost Kara, I find myself wondering if the world is collectively rollercoastering through Ross’ stages of grief? I think we can all sometimes go through the first stage of “Denial”, otherwise known as “this isn’t really happening”, or the second, “Anger” which can be expressed as “why does it have to be this hard!?” And then there is the third “Bargaining”—which might be, “I use enough hand sanitizer and wear a mask. Surely, I will live if I follow safety protocols?” And just as I think I have got this, the fourth, “Depression” where we just want to sleep and wake up when it’s all over. I suspect many of us in 2020 have been in all of these four places with moments of the fifth stage “Acceptance.” This might look like, “I am going to roll up my sleeves and make this imperfect new normal work.”
I have learned, after losing Kara, that there is no avoiding grief in its myriad phases. I must move in, around, and through these so-called stages. And although we experience glimmers of acceptance, to be human is to fluctuate. The five stages of grief are not linear, and most of us exist in all of them as we move through these days of uncertainty.
And while some days I miss the hustle and bustle of the shopping mall or going to the movies with my kids, I am getting used to ordering most necessities online. It feels good to have found the “final” stage of grief, acceptance, if only for a moment.
But there are always reminders that connect you to grief, no matter how hard you have worked on acceptance. Recently, UPS made a delivery to our home. The children jumped with excitement as the doorbell rang. It was a special package. My nine-year-old daughter had gifted me a new pair of slippers, and not just any slippers, they are the exact same slippers that I wore every day in the hospital where I lived for two months before her big sister was born.
I was there in the old slippers due to a complicated pregnancy. Back then I paced, or was wheeled through, depending on the day, the shiny hospital halls with a sense of expectancy. My stomach was round and full. We wanted our daughter to stay safe in the womb, not emerge into the world too early, so that she could have a fair shot at life.
The gift is meant to be a replacement, but truthfully, the original pair are irreplaceable. Yet opening the box, I can see that the old slippers look the same as the new ones once did and a part of me knows that I can’t hang on to the old ones anymore. Their treads are worn and the once fuzzy synthetic material is dirty and matted, almost completely falling apart.
The new ones look almost too new. They are light unspotted beige and the insides are fuzzy like cotton balls. The old ones feel like a part of me. I remember fondly how they went home with me, my husband and our newborn babe. Those trusty slippers walked the halls of our new home as I cuddled her to my chest or they lay kicked off, in front of my favorite green nursing chair. They hugged my feet through all the joys and sleep deprived doubts that came with being a new mom; her first smile and the joy that pulsed through me as I laid her down to sleep.
“Look Dave!” I recall telling my husband “She is smiling!” We all lay down to sleep that night, but Kara, she never woke up. Our tiny and precious two-month-old daughter lost her life at two months old due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
Those old slippers ran frantically to meet fire truck 19 on the dark night that she took her last breath. They ran through a nightmare. They trudged on with me through the relentless despair of the depression stage and the soul sucking numbness of the denial stage, which blanked out the gravity of my loss.
Those thoughts of the old slippers flooded through me until I was jolted into the moment by the tug of my daughters’ hand on my arm, reminding me of life in the present.
Now, I sit at my desk in the new slippers and I know that they too are a part of the new normal that I find myself in. I may be sad some days and in denial filled fog on others, but ultimately today is all that I have. Like most of us, I choose to move forward with purpose and vision.
And to move through, there is a letting go that needs to happen. Yet some of my grief feels lodged and salty inside of me like thick soup. Eleven years is a long time, I often say to myself. Kara has been gone for a while.
I’m good at going through the motions now. I make small talk with my husband as he shares daily business, but my sometimes words fall flat.
There are moments when the undertow of grief is all I can feel. It is times like these that I know I need to stop and feel it in whatever form or stage it comes.
I have learned through my daughter, Kara, that feeling grief and moving through it means that I am able to step towards the new, heal and hope for a healthy tomorrow. We need to allow our grief to flow. May our collective tears in 2020 strengthen us to come together as we work for a better tomorrow.
Lily Dulan is an MFT psychotherapist, author and founder of The Kara Love Project. She lives in Los Angeles. She is the author of GIVING GRIEF MEANING: A Method for Transforming Deep Suffering into Healing and Positive Change. Connect with her at lilydulan.com and follow her on Instagram @lilydulan
All views expressed in this piece are the writer’s own.