I always tell people that dying was the greatest gift that my parents ever gave me, as morbid as that may sound. Their deaths cursed me with a lifetime of sorrow and missed opportunities, but also blessed me with endless compassion, understanding and appreciation for each and every breath I take. Losing my parents robbed me of so many moments in life; my mother seeing me graduate, my father walking me down the aisle, my parents holding my children someday and being involved in their lives, seeing me find a career I am passionate about, that also pays the bills. The silence in moments like these is deafening and I feel their absences like a knife in my chest.
Grief is a creature of many faces. It stalks amidst the shadows of our lives - hunting us, preying on our moments of weakness and feasting on heartache and loneliness. Grief is a festering, silent, incurable disease. Grief is a tangible emptiness writhing in the pit of your stomach. Grief is an ocean of despair whose depths are so profound that they could never be measured. Grief makes slaves of us all, whipping us into a desolation that is inevitable submission. We are all carriers of grief. Grief does not discriminate based on class or circumstance. In that dark and empty place where loss lives, it finds us - and in that place, we are all equals..
When I was sixteen years old, my mother died of brain cancer. I cradled her in my arms as she took her last ragged breaths. Two weeks earlier, she had entered a coma. Since then, her body had started to decompose. I can still remember the way she smelled – like a corpse, her breath rattling with the fluids that had begun to fill her lungs. In those last moments of her life, I was irrevocably changed on a core level. My beliefs, my hopes, my dreams, my fears - every detail that had defined me for sixteen years shattered in the stretch of a single heartbeat.
I spent the next few months drowning.
My mother; my primary caretaker, my friend, my confidant, my disciplinarian, my warm embrace, my everything – forever gone. Words do not exist for that kind of grief. I have spent a decade trying to describe it, yet still find myself falling short of it. It was truly hell. I dreamed of her dying a thousand times, a thousand different ways; gruesome, bloody nightmares that would wake me screaming and soaked in sweat and tears.
The guilt of her passing, the pain I felt, the confusion and the terror were all like physical beings that lived with me, day in and day out, tormenting me every moment of my existence. I started telling myself that if I were closer to God, if I had just believed, then those prayers I’d uttered in the hospital chapel months earlier would have saved her. Something in me snapped at that point. I began self-mutilating, carving the word “God” over and over again into my flesh. I convinced myself that this act made me closer to God, because physically my leg bore the word.
There was a stretch of time where I truly believed that my self-harm was going to bring my mother back from the dead.
Eventually, as time went on, the pain lessened, replaced instead with numbness and acceptance that my life was never going to be the same. I felt infinitely lost, but went through the necessary motions of life as I was supposed to. I graduated high school (barely, but yay me!), started working, dating men who reminded me far too much of father, paid my bills, went through a brief stint in community college and mostly just existed the best I could.
"To love life, to love it even when you have no stomach for it and everything you've held dear crumbles like burnt paper in your hands, your throat filled with the silt of it. When grief sits with you, its tropical heat thickening the air, heavy as water more fit for gills than lungs; when grief weights you like your own flesh only more of it, an obesity of grief, you think, How can a body withstand this? Then you hold life like a face between your palms, a plain face, no charming smile, no violet eyes, and you say, yes, I will take you I will love you, again.”
- Ellen Bass
In 2011, less than five years after my mother's passing, my father died very suddenly. He was over medicated by the Veteran’s Administration, his cause of death ruled as poly-drug therapy. "An accidental overdose." *
Losing my father sent me spiraling out of control in the blink of an eye. I overdosed on Klonopin, or forget-a-pins, as they are sometimes referred to. For those of you that don’t know, Klonopin is a benzodiazepine, oftentimes used to treat depression, even though depression is a leading side effect of use. It makes you black out and it makes you mean as hell when taken in high doses. It also can make you very suicidal. For four days, I lost control of myself. I don’t remember what happened, all I know is that I came to in sudden pain with a door being kicked in my face, splitting open my eye after locking myself in a bathroom with an armful of kitchen knives.
Six months after losing my father, I sold all of my belongings, bought a cargo van, packed it full of non-perishable food and began a soul vacation lasting two months, carrying me six thousand miles across the country and back again. That was the start of my personal and spiritual transformation, though it still took me several years to process what I learned on that journey.
Where I'm At Now: Four Years Later
Here's a breakdown of where I am now. And who I've become.
- I started working in holistic medicine four years ago. I now work for a brilliant chiropractic neurologist and clinical nutritionist. Five days a week I interact with people who are hurting and I pride myself on my ability to bring a smile to every one of their faces. I have a wonderful job and have been given so many amazing opportunities to learn and grow, both personally and professionally.
- Three years ago I started a retail store, which failed after the first year. It was a profound learning experience and I am very grateful for it.
- It was also three years ago that I found my spirituality and since then have had undeniable moments of clarity that have strengthened my faith in the inter-connectivity of all life and the power of love to heal the world.
- I have also found my soul-mate, a connection forged almost nine years ago which was recently rekindled. My partner has helped me to finally embrace my past and learn to let go of the hurt I have clung fiercely to for ten years. He encourages me to be the best version of myself and challenges me every single day to continuously evolve. I feel safe and loved and couldn't imagine my life without him.
- I frequently share my personal experiences with people and have cultivated beautiful connections with others who have known pain and loss. I cannot count the number of people who have thanked me for sharing my story with them. It helps to know you're not alone in your grief.
- I even started seeing a therapist recently to finally start working through the complexities of my own grief after all these years. It's been very cathartic thus far, and I look forward to peeling back more layers and addressing unresolved issues I might not even be aware that I've repressed.
If you take anything away from my story, let it be this: time does not heal all wounds, you only develop better coping mechanisms. The cycle of grief does not exist and is a fabricated concept that only confuses people when they start bouncing around the so-called grief spectrum.
When people get to know me and learn about my parent's deaths, they always say things like:
"Wow, you have such a positive attitude."
"You seem so happy now. How can that be?"
"How could you stand living with that kind of pain?"
I am happy. I am positive. And I live with the pain of my past because I have no other choice. These were the cards I was dealt. I make a conscious effort every single day to be grateful for the life I have now. Without the experience of losing my mom and dad so tragically, and so young, I am certain I would not be the person I am today. I wouldn't even recognize the person I was five years ago.
My experiences with grief shaped me into a person of deep, unshakable compassion for those who are suffering, which is why I am so good at what I do. I know what darkness looks like and how hard it is to break the shackles of your own mind. I have lived in the hell of my own heartache and survived, barely. Depression is no fucking joke. The pain I went through was as physical as it was emotional and it came very close to taking my life - several times.
If you are reading this and feel like taking your own life, please know that there are people who love you and couldn't live without you, including me. We are all in this together and there is always hope.
Kaylyn Hansen has worked in the alternative medicine field for over four years as a patient liaison, educator, and physician's assistant.