by Caroline Flohr
The journey is ours alone, but not ours to walk alone. I’d like to tell you a little about my journey.
Like most women my age with five children, my life was busy. Three children from a first marriage and two from a second, I was focused on family and living a quiet life on Bainbridge Island, just a 35-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle. Nothing could have prepared me for the early morning knock at our front door in August 2004. That morning, our lives changed. Unbeknownst to us, eight teens had packed into an SUV and took a midnight joyride on our dark island roads. My 16-year-old twin daughter, Sarah, was dead. No details were given. The coroner called 4 hours later. No one was asked to identify her body.
Our epic period of trauma began.
The shock set in and everything slowed. My mind raced to my four children who lived. A clarity washed over me. I didn’t need to know everything or know the details, but I didn’t want to forget anything. And above all, I was determined that my family would survive intact. I pasted that thought to my forehead like taping a reminder on the refrigerator. Tragedies were something that happened to others, never to me. How wrong I was.
In the immediate days, attention turned to details of the burial and a celebration of life. Everything had to be perfect. This was the last party my child would ever have. Friends brought food; flowers arrived; community and strangers cared. I began to take notes, jotting down everything, so I’d forget nothing. I hung tight to my faith. My kids lost theirs. Communication between my husband and me hit a new low.
I wove Sarah’s name into daily conversation. Each evening I lit a candle on the kitchen windowsill while I cooked the family meal, letting myself feel Sarah’s presence in the shimmer of the flame. A favorite photo sat next to the candle. I understood that the littlest ones would know Sarah only through the stories we told, so I told lots of stories. I formed an image in their minds. And each evening, we prayed for Sarah.
As the days passed into weeks, it was obvious that I’d lost Sarah’s twin sister, Caiti, to a broken heart. Barely hanging on…would Caiti live? The two had lived a lifetime together… would I have to place Caiti’s ashes on top of her sister’s? Christopher, just 11 years old, kept his composure as he got overlooked in the shuffle. The littlest children, both under 2 years of age, kept my mind occupied. I stayed busy tending to my children who lived.
There was no way to know then how important it was to stay busy while we adjusted to this new chapter, and I was forever grateful that I had four children alive at the breakfast table waiting to be fed each day, waiting for rides to schools. Time went slowly. The sun barely seemed to shine. The grief came in waves, sometimes unexpectedly, plunging me back down to the depth of that raw pain. In general, people respected our privacy, some not knowing what to say, others saying, “it’s time to move on, get over it, overcome your loss;” but really, don’t deceive yourself, you never get over the death of a child. I learned to surround myself with those who listened well, not those who gave advice. I tried to get rid of expectations, focusing on each day as it came. I tried to go gently, listening to my intuition, knowing the power in prayer. Nothing was for certain; no plans could be made; I just hoped we could survive intact. The obvious was clear: we had to learn how to weave this tragedy into our life.
Two years after Sarah’s accident, Caiti packed and went to college. Only then was I certain she wanted to live. At college she forged a new identity for herself where people didn’t know she was a twin or knew of the horrible accident.
Four years later, I could finally admit it had been a living nightmare. My family would remain intact; I began to grieve.
When five years had passed, we knew it was time to release Sarah, that she needed to journey on, that we would be okay, and that now…Sarah lived within each of us, her Light shining bright.
Almost seven years later, Christopher–10 years old at the time of the accident–realized that he was now older than his sister would ever be. His setbacks began.
Eight years pass and here I am, sharing my story with you in hopes that it encourages you to share your story, to go gentle on yourself in your journey, to let you know the compassion and hope and awareness that awakens with time, to eliminate your expectations, and to give yourself the quiet space you need to heal.
The levels of grief and love go deep. There are many levels. It’s a process and we need to allow ourselves to engage in that process, knowing that when the deep pain returns, and it will unexpectedly, that we must allow ourselves to enter that hollow and know that we will resurface and life will continue and be good. We will walk with more awareness, more beauty and understanding, more strength. Our lives can expand in the present.
About the Author: I was a woman like many others; focused on my five children and family, living a quiet life on Bainbridge Island in the state of Washington. Watching ferries pass to and from downtown Seattle, combing beaches for shells and sea glass, running the island’s trails with my dog, tending my garden, and reading good and great literature served as inspiration for my pleasantly chaotic life. Although educated as an engineer, I have always been drawn to writing. My brief escapes to quiet places and quickly jotted notes always provided calm and comfort, like spending a few minutes with a close friend, a good listener. Little did I know that ultimately my writing would be my survival during the most traumatic, harrowing time of my life, the death of my daughter, Sarah, a 16-year old twin. The shocking accident and the long, emotional impact on our family is documented in Heaven’s Child, my debut story, published in June 2012. You may visit Caroline on her website, Heaven’s Child.
Read another article by Caroline Flohr, The Forgotten Griever