I first heard these words a few weeks after my Mum died, and in those words I found the first comfort I’d felt since I watched her take her last breath; her hand cupping my cheek, my hand holding hers. It had been the strangest experience – watching my Mum’s body become nothing more than a shell of who I knew her to be as I witnessed her magnificent soul leave the body that had betrayed her with illness. I thought I had prepared myself in the weeks leading to her death; we had gotten her affairs in order, made her funeral arrangements and dealt with all the legalities of dying. But what I quickly learned was that there is no way to prepare yourself to lose someone you have never not had in your life. My Mum had been part of my life since before I was born; she is half of what created me, she nourished me and grew me and kept me safe within her womb for 9 months. She then spent the next 37 years teaching me, shaping me and helping me grow into who I am today. 7 years after her death, she is still guiding me, inspiring me and shaping my life. Even in death, she is still very much a part of my life – because death doesn’t end a relationship, it changes it.
I’ve shared those words with various clients in my bereavement practice, and on some level, those words have helped them as well; one client, in particular – Meredith. She first came to me a year and a half ago, consumed by grief for her infant daughter, Mackenzie, who had been born still only 9 weeks before. Meredith was a woman who had not yet found a life partner but who desperately longed to be a mother, so she chose to do so through sperm donation. This woman who had made the very brave decision to be a single parent and raise a child on her own was now faced with grieving her daughter without a partner’s support. When I shared the words “death doesn’t end a relationship; it changes it” with Meredith at her first appointment, they seemed to shift something for her. She shared with me that she felt Mackenzie with her almost all the time, and so those words made so much sense to her. We talked about bringing Mackenzie with her, into her life moving forward; still having a relationship with her. That can be much more difficult for someone to do when their loved one didn’t get to live here on earth, to never have the opportunity to become joined with family, friends and a social circle. There are no shared memories of Mackenzie, no shared stories of her. It was easy for me to bring my mother forward and keep her in my life; others knew her, others loved her, others shared memories and stories and laughter. There are many differences for Meredith; she has memories of being pregnant and feeling Mackenzie move and grow and expand in her belly. Meredith has memories of the incredibly strong bond they shared while Mackenzie was growing inside of her, and how she would burst out laughing – regardless of where she was – when Mackenzie would give her a kick. She has memories of the anticipation of giving birth to her daughter and feeling her as a person outside of her body for the first time. She has memories of hopes and dreams and plans for her daughter, and watching her grow through all of the changes and ages and stages of her life. Those are all beautiful memories of ‘before’. Then Meredith has painful memories; not feeling Mackenzie move and feeling that something was wrong, having those fears confirmed with ‘there is no heart beat’, delivering her full term daughter and feeling the weight of Mackenzie in her arms for the first time, staring down at her beautiful face and trying to make sense of what went wrong, not having any answers. That is the hardest part of grief I think; sometimes, there are no answers to ‘why’....it just is.
How does one reconcile that? Do they ever?
We worked through all of these thoughts and memories over weeks and months and together we discovered that Mackenzie was constantly ‘showing up’, reminding her mother that she is still there, still with her. There were signs – or what we came to call ‘love notes’ – everywhere! Mackenzie would put a hat, a necklace or a bracelet in Meredith’s view – with pink and gold, of course, as those were Mackenzie’s colours. The candle that Meredith made with Mackenzie’s name on it had a heart shaped piece of wax pool at the bottom of it on her first birthday, and another time, the wax looked like an intricate angel feather. Heart shaped stones would appear in Meredith’s path, and then...there were the flamingos! Yes, flamingos! We came to learn quite early on that Mackenzie LOVES flamingos, as they were constantly popping up in the most interesting spots, and so...flamingos became part of their family. These signs brought Meredith much peace, often laughter at her ‘clever girl’ and helped her immensely with validating the connection she shares with her daughter. Even though Meredith held her daughter for a short time in her arms, she holds Mackenzie tightly in her heart and she has integrated her beautifully into her life. That brings Meredith peace as she moves forward, together with Mackenzie.
Mackenzie changed Meredith’s life; she taught her mother how much you can love someone before you’ve even met them, she taught her mother what unconditional love is, and perhaps most importantly, she made Meredith a mother. Meredith is forever changed by Mackenzie’s life, as we all are by loving someone so deeply. And she is forever changed by Mackenzie’s death, as we all are by losing someone we love so deeply. And though Meredith would love more than anything in this world to have her daughter on earth today – a toddler who would undoubtedly embrace the world around her with wonder and wild curiosity, Mackenzie has given her mother a gift in showing her the unbreakable bond between parent and child, and that indeed, “death doesn’t end a relationship; it changes it”.