Today would have been my late daughter’s 26th birthday. Amelia died at 18 months old in the same car accident that killed her big brother Jeremy at age 4 and left me severely injured.
In the long years since her death, I learned that some days are worse than others. I usually feel a more intense level of grief (in contrast with the daily baseline) on either of their birthdays or on March 15, the date they died. Some years, these dates sneak up on me. Other years, I feel storm clouds gathering for days. Like this time.
I went to bed weeping last night. How could I have survived all this time without her? I never got to wave goodbye on her first day of first grade… I never got to watch her graduate from college. Would she have a serious boyfriend now? A fiance? A husband? Would I be a grandma? I miss every moment of the history we didn’t have. Every laugh. Every time we didn’t go shoe shopping or share an ice cream. Every secret she didn’t share with me. Every hug.
Of course I woke up thinking about her. I lay there quietly, a few tears trickling onto my pillow. I learned from a grief counselor that one way to handle this pain is to write a letter to the deceased. I began the letter. I told Amelia how much I grieve her death and all the things I’ve missed in these years. I usually get pretty emotional when I write these. Were it not for the birth of my next daughter Sophia, now 23, I would strongly prefer to have died with Amelia and Jeremy.
But as I’m about to write those last words, this year it hit me for the first time.
She’s been dead 24.5 years. In that time, I’ve successfully raised another daughter. I bought a house in a town I loved, all on my own after divorcing my children’s father when Sophia was 2. I have run a successful business all these years. I provided jobs for some wonderful, smart people. I mentored some of them. I’ve personally written and had published 31 books under nine different names. I’ve helped +1,200 people get their own book deals and live their own dreams. I have been a guest on many television shows — from “Dr. Phil” to “Dateline” — hundreds of radio shows, and I’ve been featured in or written many articles in newspapers or magazines. I even blog on The Huffington Post! I learned to speak an extra language since the children died. I resolved my issues with their father and now consider him my friend. I’ve been to Europe many times. I’ve admired great works of art and architecture. I’ve helped tens of thousands of people through blogs like this one and my website WendyKeller.com. I’ve hiked in beautiful forests, loved deeply, made friends. I built a rich, interesting, creative life for myself.
Sure, it’s been hard. Yes, I wish it had been different, but it wasn’t. So I did the best with what I had left.
I remember the day I realized, “I’m still alive. I guess I may as well make the best of it.”
The things I think of as enriching, satisfying and meaningful in my life may not be the same things that you value in your life. Yet as those moments of joy and accomplishment flooded into my mind, I realized that I have not spent these years in vain. I chose to continue living. To get back up one more day, despite the permanent hole in my heart, and do something. What other choice did I have? To wallow and grieve, to let my life end in a box labelled “Bereaved Mother” as surely as they ended their lives in boxes?
The letter to Amelia took a surprising positive upturn. I looked at how much I’ve learned, given, and grown since she died. I began to feel the pain clearing. If I died today, I could be at peace knowing that despite the dreadful, heart-wrenching event of the car accident, I have made something of my life, something that means something to me. Even though she hasn’t been here with me for so very long.
In the end, it really isn’t about what happens to us. It’s whether we allow ourselves to process the pain and move on. That decision makes all the difference.
Here’s my wish for you: That whatever happened to you then, you decide to live now.
Please, please, please… comment below to share how you are handling the great anguishes and losses in your life — and what you have allowed to delight you since those events occurred.