Five Years Less

Five years ago today, I stood in the little hospital’s ambulance bay, hands trembling, trying to dial my mother on my cell, to tell her the worst possible news. Inside the brick building behind me, my 19-year-old daughter lay in a coma after a near-fatal accident. Unresponsive. Absent.

The sky above me was deep-spring blue with tufts of cottonwood drifting by on balmy breezes, stark against the towering oaks and maples of that historic Elgin neighborhood. In the distance a lawn mower hummed the soothing, monotonous tune of early summer. The serenity of that scene crashed against my awful reality.

I couldn’t think. I couldn’t remember my mom’s number. I couldn’t make my fingers to push the right keys. Rattled, numb, shocked. Is this happening? Is this real?

Then suddenly a hush swept over me, and I heard His whisper.

“I am good,” I sensed God say. “This circumstance doesn’t change my character. It doesn’t change who I am. I am good.”

Good?! Could this be true? What if—what if the worst of things happens?

The worst of things did happened: Katie didn’t pull through. A few hours later, she was pronounced brain-dead. Then we donated her organs. Then she died.

That was five years ago. I hadn’t known such agony could exist this side of hell. I could taste the pain—a sickening, metallic flavor, under my tongue each morning when I awoke. As the fog of sleep would fade, and throughout each day, and into my dreams, her death shocked me anew. If you have lost a child, you understand: Five years later, I am still shocked.

But I have survived. Slowly, slowly, as moments turned to days, then to weeks, then to months and years, the tsunami of pain receded, and the waves crashed less violently on the beach of my soul. And whenever an undertow of sorrow threatened to pull me under, I found the comfort and strength I needed—not enough for months or weeks at a time, but enough for each moment. God’s presence was like a miner’s lamp in an ink-black cave, showing just enough light for the next step, and no more. He showed up through the people who rallied around us—the meals they delivered, the cards they sent, the silent compassion they expressed, standing sentinel alongside our family as we grieved. We were carried in those days, truly.

His goodness showed up, too, in the private moments when I was alone in my agony, railing against our new reality. God’s unbending gentleness didn’t flinch. He didn’t recoil at my anger. He didn’t shame me for my despair. He simply was. Gentle, tender, present. I felt Him, always near, but never intrusive. The blanket of His embrace never slipped.

I had not been back to that little hospital in Elgin since those days—to that horrid brick building in the beautiful, victorian neighborhood where my daughter had died, to the place where God’s whisper had seemed baffling at the time—a cruel joke, yet somehow tempting, if it could be true. When I awoke this morning—five years to the day—I knew I needed to return to that place once again. I’d heard they shut down the hospital a year or so after Katie’s death. Did the building still exist? I googled it on my phone, plugged the old address into my GPS, and climbed in my car.

I retraced the route my husband and I had driven with frantic focus after receiving the hospital’s phone call five years ago. We had unknowingly passing our daughter’s freshly vacated accident site. This time, I slowed my car and acknowledged the spot with quiet reverence. As I approached Elgin, my “body memory” of the little town began to creep over me. The look of the streets was familiar. The turn-of-the-century homes, the ancient oak trees towering above, even the air smelled vaguely familiar. Its moist, flowering late-spring scent swirled through my open window and a tuft of cottonwood bumped softly against my windshield as I passed by.

I turned onto Central Street, and there it was, before me. Larger and more modern looking than I remembered—but on that day five years ago, I had not taken a good look. We had parked haphazardly by the ER entrance and ran up the ambulance bay into the ER, not knowing what awaited inside, not realizing I would not leave this building again until after. Until two days later, at 3 o’clock in the morning when the organ donation surgery was complete and Katie’s heart had beat its last. I would leave my daughter’s body behind in this building, for a mortician to come and collect.

I drove past the main entrance. A sign above the front door reads, “Greater Elgin Family Care Center.” They had repurposed at least part of the building. I rounded the corner, surveying, thinking, looking for the ER entrance, but the backside of the building had been torn down. No ER. No ambulance bay. Just a half-block patch of dirt scored with bulldozer tracks, oily puddles dotting the lifeless, grey soil. A chain-link construction fence surrounded the site to keep vandals out. To keep me from wandering the vacant, desolate lot above which a trauma room had once cocooned my daughter. I would not be revisiting that ambulance bay today after all.

Looking west from the hospital

Looking west from the hospital

I parked across the street and tried to get my bearings. Which direction had the ER once stood? I walked around the block, and the familiar oak trees and the direction of the sun brought it all back: I had stood just here, facing west, the sun warm against my left cheek as I had flipped open my cell phone. I had strained my eyes down that block, looking for our friend to arrive with our youngest two kids—quick—before their sister died. I had tried to dial my mom. And then came the whisper: “I am good.”

I leaned against the chain link fence and looked up. The sun once again shone down on me, as it had before—and as it has so faithfully over these past five years. I breathed deeply and exhaled.

They say I have experienced the deepest pain a human can experience—the death of a child—and yet the sun still shines. Slowly, as those first weeks had turned to months and then years, I had sensed a subtle shift inside. Small splashes of joy had begun bursting through the clouds of sorrow that hovered overhead—tentatively at first, but soon without apology. And eventually, life once again began to hold more joy than sorrow. My life was indeed still beautiful.

The whisper had been true. This circumstance had not changed God. His steadfast character had held firm. He had carried us through.

We will always feel the shock and the searing ache of Katie’s absence, but the “always” is actually an “until.” Until the someday arrives. Until the next reality. Until the other side. And as I stood there, my back resting against the chain link fence, it hit me: It has been five long years since my eyes have beheld my daughter—since she flitted out my kitchen door on her way to work, and I watched her drive away… And with each passing year that distance grows greater. But today I am five years closer to seeing her again on the other side. Perhaps this day marks not the fading distance behind me but the approaching reunion before me—five years’ less time until I step across that veil into the next reality and hold her in my arms once again.

Five years ago today, I had wondered, could it be true? Is God really good?

Yes. Yes, He is good. He is good, indeed.

Mr. Boozer’s Christmas Trees

Christmas 1998

Valleyford, Washington State

Christmas is a high water-mark time of year for families with young kids, and our family was no different. With five young kids at home, those weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas day were ripe with memories. For our family, Christmas always begins the day after Thanksgiving with a trip to a local tree farm to select and fell the perfect tree.

When we moved to the country in 1993, we bought a house with a 23-foot ceiling, which could accommodate a lot of tree, and my husband is of the mindset that bigger is better in the tree department. You can see where this is heading.

For the first four years of our life on the rolling wheat fields of the Palouse, we bought respectable, 12-foot trees from local tree farms—or “mere table-top trees,” as Scott called them. His eyes glistened every time we drove past a certain wheat farm a few miles from our house, where 25-foot-tall firs served as a wind break for a farmhouse up the hill.

By the time 1998 rolled around, Scott was done with tabletop trees. The day after Thanksgiving, we borrowed a friend’s pick-up and drove up the winding driveway of our neighbor with the towering firs. And that’s how we met Rex Boozer. No joke, his name was Mr. Boozer.

Mr. Boozer was a retired wheat farmer, but many years back, he had planted some Christmas trees to sell to nurseries. Most had sold, but he still had a line of trees too big for commercial use.

“Would you be willing to sell us one of your big firs?” Scott asked.

“Well, I do need to thin out my wind break,” he said, scratching his head. “So I recon I could sell you one. But I’m afraid I’ll have to charge you the same price as I charge everyone else…” Who else is crazy enough to buy a tree that size, I wondered. The White House?

“And how much is that?”

“Twenty-five dollars.”


The kids tore down the hill to the line of firs and began assessing which tree was the best. I was more interested in which one didn’t have, say, a family of bald eagles nesting in it. All were well over 25 feet tall.

We chose the fullest tree that wouldn’t be dragged bald by being too long for the pick-up truck. We had brought a handsaw that might work for your average 12-foot tabletop tree, and Matt and Scott had already worked up a good sweat taking turns at the 10” trunk. Only Scott’s lower legs were showing from where he lay sawing, when Mr. Boozer appeared,  chainsaw in hand.

“This’ll do,” he said, firing it up. Matt helped Scott extricated himself from beneath the lower branches. Bethany (11) and Katie (9) helped me grab Sam (7) and Tember (5) out of harm’s way. Mr. Boozer’s chainsaw sliced through the trunk like butter, and the tree crashed to the ground. (No eagles flew out, which I took as a good sign.)

Our friend Garry loaned us his pick-up to haul the tree.

Our friend Garry loaned us his pick-up to haul the tree.

Somehow we got the tree loaded onto the pick-up. But the real trick was getting it into the house. Scott cut about 6 feet off the bottom of the tree, so it topped out at a mere 20 feet tall. But turns out even a 20-foot tree is still very wide at the bottom. Scott removed the front door from its hinges, then he and Matt and I pushed and pulled, until at last the lower branches gave way to allow passage—though new molding and spackle were necessary for post-production.

Then came the herculean task of raising the tree upright. Pulleys, ropes, and guide wires were involved. It took three trips to Shopko to secure adequate Christmas lights to cover the branches, and even our ample volume of ornaments looked sparse in its mass.

But oh, how we enjoyed that tree! The scent of all those fir boughs delighted our noses every time we came inside. For our annual family Christmas photo, the kids climbed up the extension ladder I’d used for decorating the top of the tree, posing oldest to youngest, with Matt in the enviable top position. And at our traditional overnight New Year’s Eve party a month later, many of our friends had slept around the tree.

Vaudrey Christmas Photo 1998--a week before the plague

Vaudrey Christmas Photo 1998–a week before the plague

But the most memorable image of our 1998 Christmas tree came the day after New Year, once our friends had gone home. That’s when I discovered Mr. Boozer’s trees–in addition to being beautiful and huge–were also pesticide-free: In the warmth of our woodstove-heated home that December, our towering tree had been fooled into thinking it was spring, and a plague of long-legged, black-winged bugs had hatched from the bark. Each branch was now enveloped with moving mounds of these crawling bugs. Cupfuls of them. Gallons of them.

While it had taken the better part of two days to get the tree into the house and decorated, it took a mere 30 minutes to get it stripped bald and out of the house. Scott grabbed his chain saw from the garage, the kids began ripping ornaments and lights from the tree, and Tember, just four at the time, helped me box the more delicate ornaments as quickly as possible.

The older kids, however, had the unsavory task of grabbing bug-invested branches and hauling them outside, then throwing them off the deck into the pasture. The boys were pretty brave, but the girls were totally disgusted. But, tears streaming, and plenty of complaining, they stuck to it, as we were all in a panic to get the tree out of the house before the bugs decided to take flight.

Soon, all that was left of our magnificent tree was the naked trunk, also covered in bugs. Scott sectioned the trunk with his chainsaw, but there was no shortcut to getting each section outside but to grab it with both hands—squishing the bugs that coated it.

The kids narrated through grimacing faces: “Ewwww! Dis-GUS-ting!” “Gross!” “I’m gonna gag!”

When the last section was finally out the door, all that remained was a pile of sawdust, an empty tree stand, piles of tangled lights—and a story we will never forget.

Next year, a tabletop tree.

Christmas Break

A pile of winter boots and shoes
Makes puddles by the kitchen door.
The closet in the hallway bursts
With coats and mittens, hats and more.
The day was rich and fast and fun
And all the beds are filled, but one.

Now suppertime has come and gone,
The table full, each belly fed.
The conversation lingers on,
Til weary ones climb into bed.
The sun has set, the day is done,
And all the heads are kissed, but one.

We lie alone, with grateful hearts
And memories that will not fade.
But slow and long, these years apart.
Oh, how I wish our girl had stayed.
Another Christmas come and gone,
New memories made with all but one.

But just beyond the lovely days–
Alongside streets of bronze and gold–
Is where she dances, laughs, and plays,
And where she paints in brushstrokes bold,
Where all the dreads of earth are gone
And Son shines brighter than the sun,
And death a feeble memory,
And beds are filled, and life begun.

Family Photo 2012

No More Perfect Moms

So I joined the launch team for the latest book by author Jill Savage, director of a terrific organization called Hearts at Home. I met Jill, a fellow mother of five, at the annual Hearts at Home conference last year , and I resonate with her down-to-earth, authentic style of parenting. I was thrilled to get my hands on an advance PDF of the book.

You can tell by the title that this book will strike a chord in the hearts of most every mom. After all, who among us doesn’t struggle with a little perfectionism when it comes to our roles as mothers? Most of us are well aware of our own shortcomings as parents, and how often those mistakes adversely affect our kids. I stand among the most flawed of mothers, and even though my kids are now mostly grown, I still make mistakes regularly in how I relate with them and encourage their young-adult steps into the world.

I challenge you fellow moms to plan on diving into this book. The content of its pages do not disappoint, and you’ll be encouraged and equipped through its wisdom and the real-life stories Jill relates. The book doesn’t hit the bookshelves of local stores until February 4, but Jill and Moody Publishing have created clever ways to encourage us moms before its release date, beginning today, January 1. Interested? Here’s how you can take early advantage of No More Perfect Moms:

First, begin 2013 with a free boost of encouragement, inspiration, and motivation from Jill and her team by signing up for the No More Perfect Moms 31-Day Email Challenge, which starts today. Subscribe here.

Second, get $100 worth of free electronic stuff by ordering your copy of No More Perfect Moms during the week of February 4-9.  The book becomes available February 4 and Moody Publishing and Jill are offering eBooks, audio workshops, and more to everyone who places their orders during the first week of its release, which could help it hit the New York Times Bestsellers List. Win-win. Sign up here for a reminder of the launch date–and to get your free stuff.

Third, consider giving No More Perfect Moms as a Valentine’s Day, Easter, or Mother’s Day gift for moms you know. If you order your copies early (between February 4-9), you can take advantage of the free bonuses. Read more about the book here, to see if it might be a good gift for moms you love.

May 2013 be a year where we strive to become better moms, deal gracefully with ourselves when we fall short, and remember that there are No More Perfect Moms!

No More Perfect Moms


So I did something today I’ve been putting off for four years: I opened my daughter’s art toolbox. Katie was an artist—had wanted to be an artist since she first put crayon to paper. She drew throughout her childhood, took all the art classes she could in high school, and was a studio art major in college when she died at 19 of a ruptured brain aneurism.

Her toolbox arrived in the mail a week after she died. Someone had boxed it up for us, and shipped it. And I wanted to explore it, examining her “artist world” and the brushes and tools she’d used to bring her final paintings to life. I was hell-bent, in those early days of shock and grief, on not turning away from a task or a step just because my heart was being torn in two. It’s not that I am especially courageous or that I like pain. I simply had greater fear of my potential for creating shrines to my daughter that would later leave me stuck in my grief. So I did the hard things: I visited the crash site (her aneurism ruptured while she was driving and there was a nasty crash). I went to the wrecking yard. I did her make-up and hair for her viewing. I attended the coroner’s inquest. Determined to have no regrets, I felt compelled to lean into the pain rather than withdraw from it, not out of bravery or masochism, but out of a deep conviction that “through” was the quickest way to survival.

But I couldn’t do her toolbox. When it first arrived, I had opened it and removed a few brushes. But as soon as I saw that familiar painter’s apron of hers—a green Starbucks apron from her barista job in high school, now splattered with fresh paint—it was too much. I bundled the apron, stuffed it inside, shut the lid, and stored the toolbox out of sight in the basement.

Until today. I have good reason to open it today: I am soon to become a grandmother, and my son and daughter-in-law in California have asked me to paint a mural in the nursery for their baby girl. And I know just the tools for the job.

Katie had planned to paint a mural in their first apartment, but it is one of the many things she didn’t get to complete in this life. I have a fraction of my daughter’s artistic talent, but this mural is within my skill set. I will use her brushes to create new memories, not to erase the old—never to erase the old—but to find a meaningful way to turn yet another page as life moves on.

So I find the toolbox in the basement and pull it off the shelf. I sit down on the cement floor, open the lid, and let myself explore.

In typical Katie fashion, her brushes need a good cleaning. Rinsing a brush is never as much fun as painting, after all. When Katie painted, her intensity and single-minded focus drove, and she didn’t notice the mess. I finally had to boycott gifting her any new brushes until she began to properly care for the ones she had—and she did make improvements. But, always, for her, the tools served the moment, rather than the artist serving the tools. So, yeah, I’ll wash her brushes, and it will not be a waste of warm water and bristle soap!

In the middle section of the toolbox, on top of her paints, pencils, ebony, palette knives, oil pastels, and such, I find a stack of individually designed invitations to the various senior exhibits of graduating art students. Katie must have been saving them as examples for the day, three years down the road, when she would design invitations for her own senior exhibit. I swallow hard.

Beneath the invitations and bearing thumb tack holes, I discover three notes from friends, encouraging words Katie must’ve tacked to the wall of her studio space. One, from her best friend, closes with, “The world is truly fortunate to get to know your heart. And I am so lucky to be your friend.” Katie would say she was the lucky one. Perhaps that was part of her secret.

And there it is, her green Starbucks apron, lying in a bundle, shoved in the bottom of her toolbox, just where I’d left it four years ago. I pull it out, give it a shake, and hold it up. I run my fingers over the dried paint. I draw it to my face and breathe deeply, taking in its oil-and-acrylic smells. The sturdy canvas fabric feels cool against my cheek. This time, I do not cry. Painting brought Katie too much joy, and right now her joy is trumping my sadness. She lived life full-on, with gusto and intensity and purpose, and she painted the way she lived. The apron—covered with smudges, splatters, smears where she had wiped her hands, and even individual fingerprints—this apron itself has become a canvas, a work of art that tells the story of a remarkable girl.

I pull the apron over my head and smooth out its wrinkles against my chest. I sit for a moment. If I put this apron back into the toolbox again, I risk making it a shrine. I will instead bring it to California and wear it while I paint my granddaughter’s mural. I’m not hoping to channel Katie’s artistic talents—nothing like that—but I won’t complain if I feel a bit of her joy as I paint, joy she would share with us—perhaps does share with us—in this pre-auntie, pre-grandma season which is short-lived and delicious. This is a good plan.

At the bottom of the toolbox, buried beneath giant tubes of oil paints, I find two Tazo tea bags—Wild Sweet Orange and Awake. Classic Katie! Of course she would store tea with her art supplies, engaging the savory senses as part of the “artist’s life”—or perhaps engaging a friend over tea as she painted. I finger the teabags and imagine conversations shared, the pungent aroma of the tea mingling with the smells of paint and turpentine. I imagine how she might have made herself a cup of tea late at night as she finished an art project, alone with her joy and her tools and God.

These teabags, too, I will bring to California. I will brew myself two cups of tea—yes, I realize the tea is four years old and has been sharing a home with turpentine and oil paints. But I will sip the tea and savor bittersweet memories of my daughter the artist, the lover of God and beauty and people, and I will toast the yet-to-come memories of my granddaughter, Cadence Ruth Vaudrey, whose fresh eyes will blink and look upon a mural painted with an artist’s joy—and with tools that carry great mojo.

And I will indulge myself with a quiet moment to celebrate both.


My dad didn’t have the advantage of an example of fatherhood from which to draw upon when he took on the role of father at my birth. His own father took off when Dad was four and Uncle Rod was three. It was 1942, when the world was at war and when many boys’ fathers were being heroes in Europe or the Pacific. Granddad left his family at a time when fathers didn’t do that sort of thing, and when good wives didn’t get divorced and raise two boys on their own. Granddad sent child support, but he didn’t show up again in person until Dad was 12, and then 18, and then long after I was born. So my father didn’t have much hands-on experience to draw upon when it came to demonstrating what a father-child relationship should or could look like.

But despite a lack of modeling, my dad did a few things very right: My mom and brother and I had a solid–though small–roof over our heads, and in the country no less, with horses and ducks and cows. We had clothes that passed as “cool-enough”, a color TV, and eventually two cars. And never did a bill collector come knocking. My dad’s own memories of bill collectors at the door have made him particularly adverse to debt of any kind. To this day, he pays cash. He carries a money clip–do they even make them anymore?–with a wad of hundreds, twenties, and tens neatly folded in his front pants pocket.

And on certain quiet evenings when I was a kid, with my childlike but real struggles and wounds and storms, I would snuggle up next to my dad on the sofa in our tiny farmhouse living room. He would wrap his arm around me, and I would rest my head on his chest. And he would hum.

Understand, my grandmother was a concert pianist, a music store owner, a teacher of music. So my dad’s childhood, though essentially fatherless, was rich in the arts. He knows music. He didn’t simply hum the latest top-40 hits or even the hits of his day. He hummed Debussy’s Clair de Lune or Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. He hummed Chopin and Mozart and Listz. And my pre-teen head would rest on him and listen to the melodic timbre of his hum reverberating through his chest like the unobtrusive sounds of a bassoon or timpani–the backdrop of an orchestra, soothing, rhythmic, constant.

And he didn’t know it at the time, but he was gifting me with a secure, peaceful sense of what a father is to be. Such that 35 years later, when the tidal wave of the death of a child crashed into my life, it was reflexive for me to curl up next to my heavenly Father, sense His arm around me, rest my head on His chest, and listen for the melody. And though the sound of this storm has been deafening, beneath it–faintly, beautifully–I hear the symphonic melody of my Father’s love.

When the Anesthesia Wears Off . . .

Everyone tells you the first year  after the death of a loved one is the hardest. The first birthday, the first Christmas, the first Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. And the first year was no cake walk, mind you.

But what I had not expected is that the second year is really not much better than the first. In fact, in some ways it’s harder. The world around you is relieved that you made it through the first year. There is an unspoken expectation (and it is understandable) that surely you must be through the worst of it. You can almost hear the collective sigh of relief amongst your co-workers, friends, and even family when you cross the one-year threshold. No friend actually says, “Aren’t you over it yet?” (If they do, you need to either do some polite coaching or refine your definition of “friend!”) They don’t begrudge you—at least not verbally—your occasional noticeably hard days in Year Two. But you fear you have overstayed your welcome on the Grief Train. You begin to sense you’ve pushed the limit on how much you can ask of well-meaning, good people—that surely they must be growing weary of your inability to function at 100%, to think clearly, to keep mentioning your loved one, and to keep your emotions in check.

I get how they must feel. For the most part, our society is uncomfortable with grief—or with any emotions other than happiness and perhaps political indignation. So what do we do when someone is in genuine pain for a genuine loss? We are understandably ill-equipped.

“Do I say anything when it is the second anniversary of your loved one’s death? The second Thanksgiving? The start of the second school year?” your friends may wonder. “And if I do say something, what if it only reminds you of your loss and ruins your day?” They don’t get that your loss is front and center in your mind 24-7, and their mentioning it is a welcomed relief that validates your sorrow.

The problem is, to your friends, a whole year has passed, but to you, only a year has passed. And it doesn’t feel like a whole year. It feels like you’ve been in a time warp and before you know it, you’re crossing a threshold that has shown up prematurely and unwanted. Your wound is still fresh. You are surprised by its freshness. You wonder, shouldn’t I be feeling better by now? It’s been a year. And yet the pain is still raw, burning, mentally consuming, physically exhausting. And you don’t want the days to keep marching forward, the weeks to keep slipping by, the months on the calendar to keep turning, because each increment of time creates more distance between when your loved one was alive—and now.

Acute grief is like surgery.

I remember when I had surgery #5 on my broken wrist, six months after Katie died. It was an aggressive surgery involving the removal of my broken scaphoid bone, the removal of a nerve, and a bone graft that would fuse four other wrist bones together. Not a walk in the park. The doctor warned me, “This is one of the most painful surgeries you can have. Most patients are on narcotics 24 hours a day for 2–6 weeks afterwards.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’ll be two weeks,” I said.

“You could be six weeks,” he countered.

Day One, post-op, I was in plenty of pain, to be sure. I could tell they’d knocked me around pretty good inside. But I had a sturdy cast in place to protect me, and I was still a little foggy in the head from the anesthesia. And of course I had a bottle of Happy Pills at my side to take the edge off my pain.

But Day Two caught me off guard. The anesthesia had now fully worn off. There was nothing to hinder me from fully feeling every fiber of pain in my wrist. The raw pain took my breath away. Had it not been for the bottle of pills, it would have been unbearable.

(And I was four weeks, for the record. It was humbling.)

This is what Year Two is like. You have slowly stepped out of the anesthetic-like fog of shock that God provides to help us ease into the depth of pain that this type of loss brings. And now, your wound is still fresh—and the pain unbearable—only there is nothing to shield you from feeling the full brunt of the pain. (And I wouldn’t recommend a bottle of Happy Pills for this kind of wound…) There’s no going back. The only way to less pain is forward.

During Year Two (and certainly during Year One, as well!),  it will do your pain-soaked heart a world of good if you can find even one friend (and preferably two or three)—a few beautiful souls who are long on listening and short on fixing. If your loss is the type that has also devastated other members of your family, it is especially important for you to find such a friend outside your family circle. When a death of a child or a parent with at-home children occurs, the entire household is wracked with pain, and as the parent, you are acutely aware that your own grief must not be dumped upon the shoulders of your children. (This doesn’t mean you hide your grief from them; they in fact must see your grief in order to validate their own feelings of sorrow. I simply mean you are still the parent, and your grief affects them differently than it would affect an adult. It would be irresponsible and likely harmful for you to lean upon your children as your primary support).

You probably won’t need to ask your grief partner(s) for hours upon hours of listening—or day upon day of being available. But find someone who can walk alongside you on the days you know will be hard, and who is willing to be “on call” for those unexpected triggers—stumbling across a piece of your loved one’s jewelry or writings or photos, or getting the death certificate in the mail, or any number of other triggers you didn’t see coming but which have left you wrecked. Just knowing you have someone ready to take a call or meet with you can bring a peace of mind that helps you face each day with a little more sure-footedness.

I’ve been blessed with a couple such grief partners, and one in particular. In Year Two, on most hard days, I just need to shoot her an email and process what’s going on inside. And she will “listen” and answer and validate my sorrow. Sometimes I might need a phone call and she is good at catching my tears. And every once in a while, I am knocked flat, and it’s an all-out cry for help, and I drive over to her house or she meets me somewhere. She doesn’t need to fix everything–she can’t–but just her presence means the world and soothes my scorched soul. She has walked with me through those horrific one-year milestones as well as other “regular” days when a trigger I didn’t foresee catches me off guard. She has visited Katie’s crash site with me and planted flowers. She has watched videos and looked at photos. On the one-year mark of Katie’s death, she and my other grief girlfriend surprised my daughter Bethany and me (Tember was in school) with a beautiful, elegant brunch together—and an opportunity to do my own grieving during the morning, so I could be fully present and focused on my family and their grief when they got home from school and work later in the day. Today, when I look back on the one-year mark of Katie’s death, it isn’t my sorrow I remember–it’s that brunch, and those friends, and how loved I felt. My grief is still ongoing, they are still available for me, and they are helping me navigate this journey in ways I will never forget.

So find your grief partner(s). And fully expect Year Two to surprise you with its depth of pain. Perhaps you will be pleasantly surprised and find my words to not match your experience. I celebrate with you if that’s the case!  But if not, you’ve been forewarned: The anesthesia will wear off. And Year Two is a killer.