Grieving One of Our Own

by Nancy Miller

July 5, 2014
I spend my time with guilt, horrible grief, regret, missing her.  I know you know these feelings, too.  I know I’m not the only one that has lost a child and feels this way….but I still feel like I’m all alone on an island somewhere.

elkinsRhonda Sellers Elkins was my friend. I had not known her long, but she had written to me after her daughter, Kaitlyn, died last year. Rhonda took her own life on August 29, 2014, sixteen months after her daughter committed suicide. The excerpt above came from an e-mail she sent me just a few weeks ago. She wrote to me often in the past few months, desperately grasping at life, sometimes hanging on by her fingernails. Like all of us have.

July 12, 2014
Nancy, when I think of the people that have gone 10, 20 or 30 years and more, still feeling this loss, it brings me to my knees.  I know it may soften, but even a fraction of this pain is too much to bear, and it’s hard to know I have to live like that until I die one day…who knows when.

Even though she went to support group meetings, tried seeing various therapists, wrote a memoir describing her personal journey, Rhonda was despondent beyond anything she could have imagined. Her grief was a dark room without any door handles, any way of escape. It was suffocating, it slowly squeezed the very breath out of her. She tried for a time, I think, to resist this onslaught of anguish…it overwhelmed her, moment by moment.

July 28, 2014
Nancy, I feel Kaitlyn does not want me to die.  It must be her, I don’t know.  You must know that for someone who has had suicidal ideation several times in her life, this is a big challenge for me.  To lose the light of my entire life to this horrible thing….it’s just so hard to make it from one day to the next. If I had a choice of being locked up in a cell for the rest of my life on bread and water and this pain, I would gladly take the cell.

Rhonda had suffered from depression most of her life, and had had previous suicidal ideation. More than anything today, I want to remind all of you inhabiting Griefland that survival is so possible. It’s also something you have to want. You choose it, you embrace it, you visualize it, you keep putting one foot in front of the other because this is what we do.

We live for one another, perhaps more than for ourselves.

We have other children, aged parents, partners and spouses, friends, all of whom count on us to survive. And if there is one thing I’ve come to understand since losing my daughter Rachel six years ago, is that life has never come to have more meaning for me. Rachel’s death razed me to the ground, leveled me in a way nothing else has, or ever will, but since her death, everything — the sky, the clouds, flowers, the myriad birds we have living in our garden, the deer that appear on our front lawn in the wee hours of the morning — has taken on this divine significance. It is in the appreciation of life — mine and everyone’s lives around me — that I have found a way to honor my daughter. To assimilate her death into my life, into my own survival.

This has not come without work, the hardest work I’ve ever done. Not unlike labor and childbirth. But finding my tribe, the people who have been here with me through every minute of this, through trusting the journey of life itself, I’ve come to see myself as strong, and the will to survive, to keep Rachel alive in my mind, in my heart, in the hearts of others, is part of the very need to survive.  More than anything, we need to use this sacred occasion, where we are grieving Rhonda’s death, to support one another even more, to reach out to those you see who are suffering, to let them know you are there. You don’t have to say any magical words. Just staying close by, checking on them, can be enough to save a life.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon overlooking a panoramic view of Eld Inlet in Olympia, Washington, my home. Sarah — my friend and a gifted writer — sat next to me on a bench overlooking the South Sound, the boats bobbing on the water like toys, the Capitol building draping our shoulders in back of us, the breeze blowing tendrils of her hair around her green eyes. Her sister Lily died 3 years ago, searing memories into her skin, onto her heart. She talked of treasured moments she had with Lily — running her fingers through her hair, the breeze sweeping around us in the moment — a moment I can still smell if I close my eyes. I would not have traded it for anything. We talked, laughed, hugged, walked, and as I drove back home, I felt as though I had just returned from some religious rite of passage. This is what we do. We live for each other, we love each other. Love trumps everything.

August 6, 2014
See, Nancy, I know all the “things.” I know all the mental health stuff. I have studied it extensively since Kaitlyn’s death along with what I learned before her death, which apparently was not enough.  But I can’t make those “things” work for me.  You can know all sorts of things, but even knowing does not help you.  I need a way to live.

Rhonda, if you are listening to this right now, please know how much you are missed, how deeply and horribly saddened I am, as are all who knew and love you, to mark your passing. While you are finally and completely at peace, I am also distraught that you could not find the way to keep living for those who have been left behind, who love you so much still, and can never make sense of this.

For the rest of us, I propose the following: celebrate the moment you are in right now, turn to your friends, sons, daughters, partners, parents, embrace them. Make a pledge to yourselves not to give up, no matter how black the night. Because as dark as it may get, the sun also rises, a new day shines on you whether you are ready for it or not. We are each given another chance to move forward, to give love to others, the only real reason for being.

Rhonda Elkins wrote two articles for the Journeys Through Grief Newsletters blog:

I Can Never Let You Go (child suicide)

In Memory of My Daughter, Kaitlyn Nicole Elkins

About the Author: Nancy Miller is co-author of Griefland: An Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship. Her daughter, Rachel, died as the result of a drug overdose. She can be reached at nancy@griefland.com