Dear Kate: Living with Grief
Following our daughter’s death, my husband and I saw no end to the grief. Yet we have somehow discovered meaning, hope, and even joy after life’s most terrible loss.
“Dear Kate” was published in our November 2014 issue and is being featured as a part of our 12 Days of Longform homepage takeover.
With brutal, naked honesty, Nancy Comiskey opens a window into what grieving for one’s child looks like in “Dear Kate.” Comiskey first wrote about her daughter’s death for IM in “Kate’s Story,” one year after the car wreck that took her life. Back then, Comiskey claimed, she had no wise words for those trying to heal from a loss. With a decade of grappling now behind her, Comiskey shares what insights she has gleaned: the yearning, the desperate need to keep the memory alive, the slow healing. In just four short days after the story was posted online, Comiskey’s eloquent study of grief became Indianapolis Monthly’s most shared story of the year. Dozens of responses poured in from readers almost immediately, through both email and social media. Here is a representative letter: “One of the most beautiful articles I have or will ever read,” wrote one reader. “We lost our beloved daughter Vicki on March 13, 1999. You put in words what my heart could not express.” -Amanda Heckert, Editor-in-Chief
One morning in early June 2004, I peeked into the room where my 23-year-old daughter, Kate, was still curled up in the white wrought-iron bed she had slept in as a child. I paused for a moment and gazed at her lovely face, framed by wild, curly hair that spread out like seaweed across the pillow.
Standing there, I said to myself, as I sometimes did, I could not draw another breath if anything happened to this child.
Five months later in Bloomington, as Kate drove to Indian Creek High School to teach freshman English, a 45-year-old man high on opiates and cocaine crashed into her Honda Civic. In the emergency room, a nurse snipped off two tangled locks of her chestnut hair for me. Two days later, when I gently washed them in our bathroom sink, the water turned pink with her blood.
Yet I did draw another breath. And one after that. And one after that.
On Kate’s first birthday after her death, I wrote her a long letter. I planned to burn it and put the ashes in the stone wall my husband, Steve, was building in her memory at our cottage in Maine. But at the last minute I decided to make a copy. Every birthday since then, I’ve written her another letter, telling her about births and deaths, marriages and breakups, kindnesses and disappointments—but also about everyday things like a new kind of Friendster called Facebook, the YouTube honey badger, and the antics of her little Lab mix, Lola.
Ten years have passed since I last brushed Kate’s hair from her cheek. I’m not the same person I was then, and I know now I never will be. But I do the best I can with the life I have now. A year after her death, I wrote about my daughter’s too-short life in “Kate’s Story” in Indianapolis Monthly. I had “no brilliant insights on healing and hope,” I said then. Nine years later, I’m sharing the story of what I’ve learned since, along with passages from those birthday letters to Kate. If my experience helps someone better understand the loss of a child, if it offers hope to those facing challenges of their own, then Kate’s life continues to have meaning. And that is a gift I can still give her.
Reality Sets In
“‘Magical’ is a word we often use to describe you. Not that you were a saint. You smoked, you could be stubborn, and you liked having things your way. But your capacity for giving and accepting love, for appreciating the beauty in small things, for making people laugh, was truly magical. There was a brightness about you that was visible to the eye. I loved that you were so astonishingly beautiful, but I loved who you were inside more. It’s that inner light that I miss the most.” —July 2005
This is the terrible truth about losing a child: In many ways, the second and third years are even harder than the first. When your child dies, your life changes in an instant, forever. The blow is so profound that you go into a numbing, emotional shock.
Less than an hour after being told of Kate’s death, I sat in the ER waiting room and asked a colleague about her classes that semester. I didn’t shed a tear at Kate’s funeral. I was back in my journalism classroom at Indiana University a week later. For months, I felt encased in a giant invisible bubble. I could see and hear what people did and said and respond in a way that was mostly appropriate. But I wasn’t part of their world.
That numbness begins to fade about the same time people around you move on with their lives. The flood of calls and notes becomes a trickle. You see a neighbor duck into the next grocery aisle to avoid you. You catch a note of impatience in a colleague’s voice. Emails often say “Let’s get together soon” but rarely mention a time or day. Writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh described the struggle like this: “It isn’t for the moment you are struck that you need courage, but for the long uphill climb back to sanity and faith and security.”
And that climb is exhausting. Keeping up an appearance of normalcy in the early years required constant vigilance. I’d often slip into the women’s restroom at work, and my face would crumple as the door safely latched. I’d take long walks in the woods where no one could see me cry or hear me talking to Kate. One evening we were playing cards with friends when their son called. The father rolled his eyes in mock protest at the interruption and said he’d call him back tomorrow. A sudden longing swept over me. I left the room and braced my arms on the bathroom vanity. I would have traded every day of the rest of my life for that 30-second call. But I returned with a smile to finish the game. No one was the wiser.
Sometimes, though, the grief broke through unexpectedly. Three years after Kate’s death, I went to an open house for a friend’s daughter and couldn’t stop crying. Steve made our apologies, and we slipped away. At a concert with some friends, I broke into sobs when Iris Dement sang about the prospect of an afterlife in “Let the Mystery Be.” I never saw the woman sitting next to me again. Goodbyes of any kind were the worst. Just before one friend’s departure, I went upstairs to compose myself. “You can do this,” I told myself. But I couldn’t. As soon as I started to speak, I fell apart.
For years, I blamed myself for driving away friends with these “lapses.” Then one day I thought, It’s a miracle you haven’t taken a baseball bat and smashed every window in the house. If you’ve made people uncomfortable, if they think you’re a little psychotic, so what? Do you believe they would manage one bit better if the situation were reversed?
The sorrow and anger that followed Kate’s death, however, pale next to the terrible yearning. “Sometimes I feel panic sweeping over me,” I wrote to a friend, “and I’m so overwhelmed with yearning for Kate that I don’t know how I’ll manage.”
I searched for “yearning” and “grief” on the Internet and found a Harvard Medical School study that concluded yearning after a loss is far more debilitating than sadness or depression. The study included people who had lost a husband or wife, a parent, or a brother or sister. I wrote the author, Dr. Holly Prigerson at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, to ask why parents who had lost children weren’t included. Losing a child, she told me, is so many “orders of magnitude worse” that it couldn’t be meaningfully compared to other losses.
On his third birthday without Kate, Steve and I were standing in our kitchen, crying, when he choked out these words: “It’s not that I want her back. It’s not that I need her back. It’s that I have to have her back.”
But that was impossible. So we slogged through each day by breaking it into parts: This is how we’ll get to noon; this is how we’ll get to a beer and a glass of wine at 5; this is how we’ll get to bedtime. We avoided crowds, loud noises, or anything that could add to our stress. Steve, a Colts fan, found he could no longer go to games at Lucas Oil Stadium. When we went for rides on a friend’s boat, we had to ask him to putter along at a “No Wake” speed.
I took Xanax for anxiety and Ambien to sleep. I hoarded the pills, always asking the doctor for a few more than I needed. The yearning came in waves, and when it was at its worst, when I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on, I repeated these lines: “This is how you feel now. But just hang on and see how you feel tomorrow.” Somehow, things always seemed a bit better the next day.
Oddly, the only time I felt what I might call relief in those first years came when I jumped in an ice-cold lake after a hike in Maine. The water drove away every other sensation—the weight, the sadness, the anger, even the yearning. And, for a few brief seconds, I remembered what life had felt like before.
“I feel so close to despair so often … What I need most is the strength to look beyond my sorrow and not judge others too harshly. I’ll be more accepting of people for who they are. I’ll show more courage. And I will do everything I can to see that your memory stays alive.” —July 2006 and 2007
Six months after Kate was killed, Steve got a call from a friend in New York City he hadn’t seen or spoken to for more than a decade. On a whim that day, he had Googled Steve’s name and found the news stories of Kate’s death. He called and told Steve he was flying to Indianapolis. If all Steve could do was to meet him at the airport for a drink, that was fine. He’d turn around and catch the next plane back. He ended up staying with us for a few days, and we’ve been close friends with him and his wife ever since.
Every bereaved parent I know has stories like this. A casual acquaintance or a friend from the past steps up and becomes a lifeline. Sadly, the opposite is true as well. Every parent loses good friends they believed would always be a part of their lives. When a child dies, your circle of friends fractures and eventually re-forms in a new way.
One of Steve’s longtime friends gave a reading at Kate’s funeral. But when Steve didn’t bounce back as he expected, they argued and parted ways. A mother whose daughter died nine years ago says her close—now former—friend has never acknowledged that anything happened. Another mother told me one day that her friends had grown impatient with her grieving. “They seem to want me to get better for their sakes,” she said.
Some casual friends drifted away in those early years because we were hard to be around. We were the cautionary tale—a walking reminder that they were just one phone call away from being us.
To be fair, we were sometimes the ones who pulled away. We didn’t want to listen to advice or religious counsel. And we sometimes took offense at things people said. Shortly after Kate’s death, a woman wrote to tell me her husband’s prostate surgery was a success. God had guided the surgeon’s hands, she said, so her husband wouldn’t be incontinent. I know she didn’t mean it this way, but for me, the implication was that God hadn’t guided the hands of the man who crushed Kate’s car on the highway.
When bereaved parents get together, we often share the odd things people say to us.
“I know how you feel—my grandfather died last year.” (Yes, that’s sad, but it’s not in the same universe as losing a child.)
“I always tell my kids not to drive on that road.” (So, my daughter would be alive today if I had done the same?)
If I was going to survive without my daughter, I had to find the will to do that within myself.
“Everything happens for a reason.” (It would be nice if that were true, but it’s no comfort whatsoever.)
Most people who say thoughtless things just blunder into it. And saying anything—even if it’s unwittingly hurtful—is better than saying nothing. When someone avoids the subject entirely, you feel even more isolated. “Just give me my five minutes,” Steve says. “I’ll ask about your children and listen to stories about their jobs and homes and families. But then give me a chance to tell you something about my daughter.”
One day at work eight or nine years ago, I got a call from an Indianapolis dentist who had lost her own daughter a decade before. The dentist was divorced and told me she’d realized soon after her daughter’s death that she had to decide: She could talk about her daughter or she could have friends—not both. No mother should have to make that choice, I thought. And I would never choose friends over talking about my daughter.
Yet we have made adjustments. Some dear friends can listen to almost anything, no matter how painful, and we try not to take advantage of their generosity. Others don’t want to hear about the sorrow but are okay with happy Kate stories. And we also have friends who seem to panic at the mention of her name. Now I realize that, for them, seeking us out, knowing there is a chance we’ll bring her up, is a gesture of compassion.
It’s hard to pin down what separates people who step up from those who disappear. We’ve found no correlation between empathy and a person’s age, gender, education, religious beliefs, or even whether they have children. These people do share what Steve describes as a secular “grace”: the courage to reach out to grieving parents on their own terms, to listen without changing the subject or giving advice, and to bring up a child’s name—the most wonderful gift of all.
After Kate was killed, two longtime friends hauled a trailer to her house in Bloomington and packed up her belongings the week before Christmas. A casual friend at Steve’s school brought him lunch every day for a year. An attorney friend sat with us through every criminal hearing as the offender was convicted of DWI causing death in Monroe County District Court.
Three years ago on Kate’s birthday, we stopped at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Alaska. We struck up a long-distance friendship with a veterinary student there whose sense of humor and love of animals reminded us so much of Kate. This May, she asked us to join her for graduation, because she knew it would be meaningful to us. That, Steve says, is grace.
Not everyone who reached out to us in the past decade is still in our lives. Time and distance and life’s complications have intervened. But I keep a special place in my heart for those who’ve helped us make it this far.
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
“Dad and I are still in a holding pattern with our lives. We get through each day with the terrible heaviness in our hearts. I know you wouldn’t want that, and I’m trying to do some new things. But our longing for you just gets more intense even as we know others are moving on with their lives. People say how strong we are and they’re glad we’ve ‘gotten through it,’ but nothing could be further from the truth.” —July 2008
By the fifth year after Kate’s death, we had sunk into a routine with fewer towering waves of grief but little happiness. We stayed close to home in the evenings. In the summers, we spent 10 weeks at our cottage in Maine, finding some peace in the power of the ocean and the changing of the tides.
I threw myself into projects in Kate’s memory. I scanned photographs and made slideshows. I learned Final Cut Pro so I could edit the videos she’d taken with her grandfather’s camera. I sewed quilts for friends who had done so much for us, always using a few scraps of Kate’s clothing.
Surviving took so much of our energy that we had little reserve for the everyday bumps and bruises of life. I had lunch one day with a young mother whose 6-year-old son had died several years earlier. “I wish I could wear black for 10 years,” she told me, “so people would know to treat me gently.”
At the very least, we hoped people would recognize the playing field wasn’t level. Once, we welcomed a close friend and his new girlfriend into our home for a visit. Three weeks later, they sent us a list of what we, the bereaved parents, had done wrong and what we needed to do to make them feel more comfortable. We tried to patch things up, but the friendship was over.
Even the smallest irritations—spilled coffee, a burned-out lightbulb, a dresser drawer that sticks—could put us on edge. And major setbacks shattered whatever relief we found in routine. My mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the spring of 2009 and died that summer. When my visiting-professor contract ended, I lost my full-time status, along with my health benefits, for two years. Mistakes in the sentencing of the man who killed Kate meant that the case had to be reopened. One day we were making progress, and the next we were back in the early throes of grief.
Certain days are always harder than others. Birthdays become more—not less—important after a child’s death. Milestone ages, like 21 or 30, take on added meaning, just as they do for the living. This is the day you hope others will pause and recall your son or daughter. As one mother whose child was killed 14 years ago told me, “Every year I ask myself: ‘Is this the year when no one remembers my daughter’s birthday?’”
Steve and I did the best we could at family and holiday gatherings. Our son, Daniel, had lost not only the sister he loved, but the parents he had known. We worried how Kate’s death would affect him now that he was an only child. So we wrapped presents and put up a tree and baked a turkey. But we all knew the table was missing a chair.
Weddings seemed unthinkable at first and still evoke conflicting emotions; you’re happy for the couple, but at the same time you mourn for what your child will never know. One mother who attended the wedding of her daughter’s boyfriend told me she spent most of the service in the bathroom. Just last summer, I watched Steve choke back sobs as a father walked his daughter down the aisle.
“Funerals are a lot easier,” a bereaved father told us recently. At a funeral, everyone is sad. At a wedding, you’re the only one whose heart is breaking.
As you would expect, the anniversary of the moment that forever divides your life into “before” and “after” is the worst. An ache settles into your heart weeks before, and the days leading up to it are actually worse than the anniversary itself. When that day is over, you breathe again, knowing you have another full year before it returns.
But some emotional jolts come without warning. Once, as I was checking out a book, the librarian pulled up Kate’s account instead of mine. Steve had the TV news on one morning while he was grading papers, and Kate’s face flashed up on the screen—a promo for a news segment later that week. Not long ago, I called home from my cell phone, and a young woman’s voice said, “Hello, you’ve reached the Comiskeys …” It was Kate. Somehow our answering machine had lost power, and the greeting defaulted to a forgotten phone in the basement. What hurt most was it took me a few seconds to recognize my daughter’s voice.
A friend calls these moments “grief bursts.” We know we’ll feel emotional at holidays and birthdays and weddings, but the unexpected reminders of what we’ve lost still take us by surprise. But, as painful as these bursts are, none of us wants them to stop. They connect us with our child.
“I don’t think you would have liked the idea of turning 30. But I know you would be lovelier than ever. You touched so many lives in your 24 years, and I know they remember you even if they don’t always think to tell us. I can promise you this: You will be in my thoughts and my heart every hour of whatever life remains to me. Your name will be the last word I say and your beautiful face will be the last thing I see.” —July 2010
A mother I know sees a psychiatrist whose own son died 24 years ago. He told her that grief is different for every parent, but you must accept two universal truths: One, no one who hasn’t lost a child will ever fully understand how you feel, and two, if you expect people to respond in a certain way, you will be disappointed. It took me far too long to learn that second lesson.
When hope came, it was not in sudden epiphanies or flashes of light. It was a slow awakening.
After Kate’s death, I thought friends, colleagues, and even strangers would know how I was feeling and what I needed them to do and say. It was almost as if I wrote a script, didn’t show it to them, and then got upset when they didn’t know their lines.
I looked to Kate’s friends most of all to fill some of the terrible emptiness. They were Kate’s age and knew her in ways that we, as parents, didn’t. Being with them was as close as we could get to being with her. They wrote to us and visited. They took trips in Kate’s memory with money we gave them from her insurance. Three asked us to take part in their weddings, and one gave her daughter the middle name Kate. I knew they were more important to us than we were to them. That’s the nature of the bond between all parents and children. But I believed they would always be a part of our lives.
So I wrote to them often and made sure they had cards on their birthdays. At times, I’d send small gifts, something I couldn’t do anymore for Kate. If they heard from me, I reasoned, they would think of her.
In 2007, we went with several of Kate’s friends on a service trip to Botswana, where another friend was in the Peace Corps. In the months before we left, I imagined every detail. During the day, we’d help rehab a community center for children. Then we’d gather in the evening to share stories about Kate. By this time, Steve and I were starved to talk about our daughter.
But days passed after we arrived, and we hadn’t heard any stories, or even her name. Kate’s friends stayed together with other volunteers in an apartment, and we were in a hotel in town. They were always kind and invited us to join them, but we began to feel that the trip really wasn’t about Kate.
The next year, Steve and I organized a reunion at our home. We viewed the day as a kind of memorial and put together a video of the trips Kate’s friends had taken in her memory. Two of her friends traveled from as far as Arizona and Wyoming to be there, but others had to work late or leave early or miss the gathering altogether. It wasn’t what we’d anticipated.
Still, our spirits continued to rise and fall based on what other people did—or didn’t—say or do. I saw a grief counselor and told her how devastated we felt as people moved on with their lives and left us behind. “I’m just desperately trying to keep Kate’s memory alive,” I told her. When she pointed out I had used the word “desperately,” I realized how telling that was.
Looking back, I see that my expectations were unrealistic. Kate’s friends from various points in her life were now in their late twenties, moving to new places and starting new jobs; their adult lives were just beginning. While they missed Kate deeply, their initial grief had eased.
I understood for the first time, then, that if I was going to survive without my daughter, I had to find the will to do that within myself. I could hope that people would keep her in their hearts, but I couldn’t expect them to express it in a scripted way.
In his novel Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry writes about the subtle difference. “You have got to have hope. But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud … You must not let your hope turn into expectation.”
I still write notes to Kate’s friends on their birthdays and keep up with their lives on Facebook. I’m always happy to see or hear from them, but I don’t worry so much if I don’t. And we’ve become even closer to some of her friends in a quiet, natural way.
Last November, Steve and I were having pizza in Bloomington. When he handed his credit card to the waitress, she looked at his name for a moment. Then she asked, “Did you know Kate Comiskey?” When Steve said he was Kate’s father, the young woman’s eyes filled with tears, and she threw her arms around him. She was one of Kate’s students, she said, and had been thinking about Kate that week. After nine years, she still remembered the date Kate died. Her words reminded us that even if we don’t always know it, Kate is remembered by those whose lives she touched.
Glimmers of Hope
“We’ve made more new friends this year who have also lost children … This group is so comforting to us. (I think you would have thought Debbie and Greg’s son Adam was quite a catch.) They have helped us even though we’re ‘ahead’ of many of them in our grief. It makes me feel stronger just to write about these wonderful people.” —July 2010 and 2011
For a long time after Kate’s death, we had only occasional contact with other mothers and fathers who had lost children. We went to a support group for bereaved parents at an Indianapolis church, but didn’t feel comfortable. Then we got a call from a couple in Columbus who had read “Kate’s Story” a few weeks after their daughter drowned in Belize. We started having dinners together, finding solace in our shared loss. A year later, we met a couple in Bloomington whose 20-year-old daughter had died in a car accident. They organized a quiet pitch-in dinner for six couples at a nearby park. That gathering changed our course of grief.
At first glance, we are a motley group. We are Baptists and Buddhists and nonbelievers. Among us are artists, teachers, administrators, a real-estate agent, a minister, and a crisis counselor. But we share a powerful bond: All of us lost our children just as they were blossoming into young adults.
From that first meeting, we felt an overwhelming sense of ease. We didn’t have to be careful about what we did or said—we could share terrible thoughts and know no one would flinch. They understood.
Sometimes the group has deep conversations about the nature of death and loss, and sometimes we talk about the Colts or the latest YouTube cat video. We help each other through the inevitable setbacks and celebrate the small pleasures. We talk about our children freely and joyfully. Everyone listens. No one gives advice or proselytizes. Instead, we share what works for us.
Surprisingly, we laugh a lot. A mother who drove from north of Indianapolis to join us wrote this the next day: “When I’m with parents who have gone through the same experience, I can laugh, and they understand that it’s okay. When other people see me on a ‘good’ day, enjoying life and laughing, they think that I must be ‘over it.’ They get confused when they see me again and I’m back to my normal self.”
While the core group remains intact, we have expanded our circle to include other mothers and fathers. When we meet newly bereaved parents, we try to be honest about what lies ahead but hopeful some relief will come. Most importantly, we all have the comfort of knowing we are not alone.
“I finally unpacked all your clothes and washed and dried and hung them neatly in the closet that would have been in your room at our Brown County house. I thought it would be sad, but it was strangely comforting. I was washing your clothes again, just as I had for years. I couldn’t bring myself to wash a few items that still had a trace of your scent, and it struck me that I can’t see you or touch you or hear you on earth, but I can still smell your scent. What a powerful idea!” —July 2011
After a child dies, you don’t know for weeks, months, or even years what will be precious to you, what will connect you with your child’s memory. Every night, I sleep with a little pillow Kate made shortly before her death. On his bedside table, Steve keeps a dish of shells Kate bought us for our 15th anniversary. I drove my 2001 Honda Accord for nine years and 170,000 miles after Kate died because it was the last car we sat in together. But few things evoke more powerful memories than your child’s clothing.
Steve and I packed up Kate’s clothes on a bleak December day just five weeks after her death. We grimly put everything she owned into plastic bins, loaded them onto a trailer, and hauled them back to our home where they stayed for six-and-a-half years. Occasionally, I’d sort through a box to find a skirt or sweater I could wear. Sometimes, when I was overwhelmed with grief, I’d just breathe in the air around her clothes, hoping for a hint of her Jean Paul Gaultier “Fragile” perfume. Otherwise, her things remained sealed away.
Then, on a balmy May afternoon in 2011, I decided Kate’s clothes had been stored in the dark long enough. I broke open the bins and pulled out pieces one memory at a time. The cabbage-rose skirt she wore to her teaching interview. The strapless black linen dress she wheedled her dad into buying at Banana Republic. The funky skirt she and I made from an old pair of Abercrombie & Fitch jeans. Lacy Victoria’s Secret underthings, sky-blue flannel pajamas with puffy white clouds, enough black tank tops to outfit a Zumba studio. Some pieces still had price tags attached.
I set aside those few things on which a trace of her scent lingered—a pale-blue bridesmaid dress, an ivory mohair cowl-neck, a cropped denim jacket. Then I washed, dried, and folded the other items. I bleached a white nightgown that had yellowed with time. I sewed up tears and tightened loose buttons. I hung the dresses, blouses, and skirts on hangers in a walk-in closet. I stacked the lingerie in tissue on shelves layered with lavender sachets.
I wrote an email about the day to our parents’ group, and their responses stacked up minutes later. “I wear anything I can fit into—age appropriate or not—right down to her underwear,” said one mother. A father told us he was dieting, seven years after his son’s death, so he could fit into his shirts again. A mother said she slips her son’s Phish T-shirt into her pillowcase each night. Another mother found a pair of her daughter’s flip-flops in a closet. “They had her toe prints,” she said. When she put them on and walked around the house, she heard her daughter’s footsteps.
I know some people might think it was strange or creepy to do laundry for a child who has died. But when I finished Kate’s laundry that afternoon, when I wrapped myself in those freshly washed memories in cotton, silk, and Lycra, I felt surrounded by Kate’s presence. It made me happy.
“Sometimes now I look in the mirror and wonder what you would think if you saw me. Would I look terribly old to you? Would you be embarrassed by the things I’ve done and said? I think you’d be proud of my strength and disappointed in my lack of patience. But we are making progress … You will not be forgotten. I was so lucky to be your mother.” —July 2013
Shortly before Kate died, we bought her a mandolin she never had the chance to play. When my husband left Warren Central High School, the other teachers gave him a guitar. Both instruments sat in closets for years, all but forgotten. Then one day, we decided to learn to play them. It seems a small thing, but it was a turning point. You don’t take music lessons for yesterday or even for today. You take them for tomorrow. And that was a new way of thinking.
With the help of a music teacher, we found some other people learning to play guitar, fiddle, banjo, and mandolin, and we became a band. We get together twice a month to play and sing, and we make up in enthusiasm what we lack in talent. “It’s okay,” says one member, “because we’re all pretty good at something else.” Kate was not a gifted musician, but that never stopped her from singing her heart out with the radio or the ’70s turntable she salvaged from our garage. Now I imagine her laughing with us when her dad belts out “Galway Girl.”
Novelist Louise Penny describes the moment despair turns to hope as a tiny point of light—“more imagined than real”—in the darkness of regret and betrayal and loss. For me, that light seemed infinitesimal in the early years after Kate’s death. We found purpose and eventually meaning in scholarships and donations and other things we did in Kate’s memory. But hope was elusive. When it came, it was not in sudden epiphanies or flashes of light. Hope, for us, was a slow awakening to the possibility of happiness.
Almost from the beginning, I found purpose in teaching—I often tell people it saved my life. If I was going to stand up in front of college students every day, I had to be prepared. When I prepped for class or graded assignments or talked with students, I had to focus on something besides how I could live another day without Kate.
Teaching also brought me closer to her. Kate taught school only a little over a year, but she was a natural like her father. She could make each student feel like the most important person in the room. When I lead a good class, I feel I’m honoring her memory. Now, I look forward to the beginning of each new semester. Like Kate, my students will always be in their early twenties, with life’s possibilities ahead of them. In a sense, teaching is a way of suspending time.
For Steve, meaning came from building Kate a stone wall like the ones she loved in Ireland and New England. The project at our Maine cottage became a mental, physical, and spiritual exercise. Over nine years, Steve fitted 30 tons of stones into place by hand, often laboring from sunup until dark. Friends and family brought us pebbles, shells, and coins to tuck between the rocks. Today, the wall contains mementos from all seven continents. A piece of tile from Ipanema Beach, rubble from the Great Wall of China, a stone from a Tibetan monastery, sand from the beaches at Normandy, and a rock from a dogsled trek across Antarctica. Kate’s ashes are there, too, along with those of her dog, Lola, who died in my arms last year. Our ashes will be there one day as well.
Even as some contentment crept back into our lives, seeing Kate’s friends settle down, marry, and have children was bittersweet. But three summers ago, a couple brought their baby to stay with us
in Maine. For four days, I carried and cradled that little boy, took him on walks around town, and rocked him to sleep. I thought how happy Kate would have been to see it.
Our son had not yet met his wife, so no grandchildren were on the horizon for us. But I realized that even if I never had grandsons or granddaughters of my own, I could take delight in this new generation. That acceptance made what was to come all the more wonderful.
A little over a year later, Daniel married a kind, bright, lovely woman, and he is now the proud father of two sons. We are besotted with “the boys,” and they have opened up a new future for us. We’re buying toys, playing with them in a sandbox, and daydreaming about taking them on hikes in Brown County or building a treehouse in the old crabapple in our yard in Maine.
When they visit us there, we will show them the stone wall their grandfather built. And we’ll tell them stories of the short but magical life of their beautiful Aunt Kate.
The Road from Here
When I reread my letters to Kate for the first time this spring, I felt glad I was no longer in as dark a place as I was in those early years of grief. But I was also envious of how viscerally “near” to me Kate had seemed then. Relief, it seems, comes with a price.
Yet I know I’m a different and, in some ways, better person than I was 10 years ago. I’ve accepted some problems can’t be solved and some relationships can’t be salvaged. I’m a better listener. I’m more empathetic and less likely to judge. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I’ve learned if you look for something not to like about a person, you will always find it.
I know how much a small gesture—a word of encouragement, a note on a birthday, a shared memory—can mean. And I’m more appreciative of life’s small joys: a whippoorwill’s call at dusk, a warm hug from a friend, lifting a slippery grandson out of his bath like a baby seal.
This month, we will reach the 10-year milestone of our daughter’s death. It seems both a lifetime ago and yesterday that I last held her in my arms. We will mark the day as we always do, walking in the woods, watching her videos on TV, leaving flowers at the tree her friends planted on campus. Then we will continue our journey.
The sadness and yearning are always with us, and we have good days and bad. But for the first time since Kate’s death, we can look to the future without despair. In “Kate’s Story,” I wrote that I lost all fear of death when she died. That’s still true, but now I’m in less of a hurry to get there. IU professor Douglas Hofstadter, in his book I Am a Strange Loop, suggests that when you die, you remain as “a set of afterglows, some brighter and some dimmer,” in the minds of those who loved you most.
I remember so vividly the light that surrounded Kate in life. Whatever I do and wherever I go in the years to come, that glow will always be in my mind and heart.