A Parent’s Grief Is Permanent

Contemplating another year of missing my daughter

During the first year after my daughter died, there was a split second each morning when my eyes hadn’t quite adjusted to the shift of light and my brain was still assembling coherent thoughts. During those seconds, the world existed entirely in my mind. In that instant of suspended reality, before unconsciousness faded to awareness, I could forget she had died. It was a weightless, fleeting half-drawn breath of a second that offered up a shred of relief.

I lived each day anticipating this singular moment, crawling into bed far too early each evening so that I could travel closer to that sliver of time when she was still, impossibly, alive. Then, when the full light of morning hit me, I remembered she was gone, and I felt like she had died all over again.

That was year one.

At some point during the second year, this hairline crack of solace vanished, like a fragile dream that fades with waking. A different kind of grief gripped me after that. It was a grief anchored in reality that started in October when the world ached with color. I knew all that abundance would be gone soon. By mid-November, the leaves would be brown and the trees bare. For the first time in my life, I felt the entire length of winter. It wrecked me.

My daughter, Ana, in her last school photo at age 15. Photo: Juliet Lofaro

This new flavor of grief thwarted my attempts to connect with Ana’s spirit. Hopelessness has been my dominant emotion this past year, punctuated by the realization that Ana is gone forever. With her loss, my years as a mother and my most joyful decade have passed.

This was year two.

I’ve learned that you can yearn for something so hard that it physically hurts. You can miss someone so desperately that it makes you wish daily for a different ending. And so I wished—and I still wish—that it was me who got the cancer. I wished that it was me who had to say goodbye to life, that I had suffered with the intractable pain of a dying body instead of my sweet girl, my Ana.

I’ve spent these winter months fighting off a desolation so profound and unmovable, I marvel that I can get out of bed at all some days. But I do get out of bed. I must get out of bed.

It’s with a heavy heart and no small amount of relief that I say goodbye to the second year of grief and enter year three without Ana. As I approach March 22, the anniversary of her death, I’m already noticing a new change to the shape of my grief.

She feels so far away.

The first year of grief was akin to a moon landing. I found myself in alien territory, numb and adrift.

The second year has been consumed by the slow, painful realization that I am never going home. It’s lonely up here on the moon with no light or air or color. But we do have the most dazzling view of Earth.

As the final month of the second year draws to a close, I’m trying to navigate two opposing realities: I’m the mother of a child who is no longer here. But she can’t be gone because I still feel her in every cell of my body.

Year two is reality. It’s waking up every day without the fleeting, desperate thought that maybe this was all a big mistake. It’s getting used to the way the house sounds with only three of us inside its walls.

Year two is forgetting the little things about her face that I’d once had memorized, like her crooked tooth, the arch of her eyebrows, and her smell.

By the end of year two, I’d stopped telling Ana’s story to every person I met. When it came up—if it came up—I’d simply say, “She would’ve been 17,” or “I lost my daughter.”

At first it seemed important to recap the nearly five years we spent trying to keep Ana alive. They overshadowed everything that came before them. My husband, younger daughter, and I were traumatized by that reality but retelling it feels like I’m holding on to that trauma.

Those were the final years of Ana’s life and not talking about them makes me feel like I’m losing her all over again. But, if I’m being honest, there are dozens of moments each day that make me feel like I’m losing her all over again.

I don’t know how to release the trauma of watching Ana die without feeling like I’m also losing my sharpest memories of her. I thought I wanted to remember every single thing about her, but maybe year three is about letting myself forget some things.

If she hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be hanging on to all of these memories so tightly. I don’t do that with my younger daughter. There are joyful memories buried beneath the sorrow, and I know I need to unearth them. I want to unearth them.

I suspect this is what year three will look like.

Ana loved folding paper cranes. I wrote about this as she was dying and again on the first anniversary of her death.

We folded cranes last March and left them everywhere we could with the hashtag #CranesForAna written on their wings. With the help of Ana’s friends, the cranes flew far and wide.

Ana’s cranes bring me joy. The memory of her folding them offers solace in place of pain. It’s a memory worth carrying with me into year three.

The Japanese believe that if you fold 1,000 origami cranes, your wish will come true. Ana didn’t know this. She just loved to fold cranes and give them to people, especially me. I wish I could tell her about this tradition.

Last year, I learned how to fold my first crane. It’s calming and meditative. It allows me to think of her with every crease I make in the paper, a gift from Ana that I hadn’t anticipated. I am so grateful for that gift.

If I fold a thousand cranes, my wish won’t come true. That’s the reality that year two hammered home. Yet, with each crane I fold, I feel Ana close by. I am reminded of the joy of Ana’s life, not the sorrow. It is almost—but not quite—like the hair’s breadth of a moment that I experienced each morning during year one, before I remembered that Ana was gone.

A collection of paper cranes I folded on the first anniversary of Ana’s death. Photo: Jacqueline Dooley

On March 22, 2019, the second anniversary of Ana’s death, I invite you to fold a crane with me. Here is the tutorial that taught me how to fold my first crane. When you’re done, write #CranesForAna on its wings and leave it somewhere for a stranger to find. This grief is heavy but when people share in remembering Ana’s life, it’s a little easier to bear.

This year’s cranes. Photo: Jacqueline Dooley

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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