We were driving back to Los Angeles after Jackie’s memorial when, somewhere along the long stretch of the 101 Freeway that passes through nothing but farmland, I noticed Heather looked incredibly uneasy.
“I can’t go home,” she said. “I can’t do it.”
I peered into the rear view mirror at Annabel, then out at the endless rows of crops. I wasn’t exactly sure how to respond.
“Okay,” I finally said. “Where do you want to go then?”
“Anywhere. Just not home. ‘Cause when we get home this trip will be over and it will be real. She’ll be gone and there will be no pretending otherwise.”
After a brief discussion we decided to stop at Pismo Beach, a beautiful beach town that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Our plan was to get a room with a view for the night and put off the inevitable just a little longer.
Unfortunately, when we got to Pismo Beach we discovered that rooms with ocean views were nearly $300 a night. We were discouraged until we spotted a Best Western.
“There!” I shouted. “A Best Western! They’ve got to be cheaper, right?”
Heather nodded, but when we looked up their price we found it was $209. That’s right. $209…. For a Best Western.
“What do you want to do?” I asked Heather as we idled outside the Best Western. “It’s a lot of money, but –”
“It’s too much,” Heather said with tears in her eyes. “Get back on the freeway.”
I squeezed Heather’s hand and turned onto the on-ramp. We drove in silence a bit, and as we did it occurred to me that I’d felt the same way Heather was feeling in the days after Maddie passed. Back then I stared at my computer all day long reading each and every tweet, comment, and blog post written about my little girl. In a weird way I felt like, as long as Maddie was being talked about, she wasn’t gone… the nightmare wasn’t real.
But the nightmare was real, of course, and eventually the tweets, comments, and posts slowed. People from all over the world had been so incredible to us, but it couldn’t last forever. Eventually I had to accept what had happened and try to start living again.
This grieving business isn’t as simple as all that though. While at a point you do have to accept your loss, you also have to take the time you need to process it. I didn’t do that. A month after Maddie passed away I went back to work. I’d gotten it in my mind that I had to go back to work at that point; that I needed to return things to normal.
As I drove to work that day I felt what I can only describe as a panic attack coming on. “Why was I going to work?” I wondered. “To what end? I used to go to work to make money to support my beautiful baby girl… but why now? What for?” It all seemed so shallow and empty.
I didn’t last past lunch that day. It was too soon. I’d tried to make everything “real” before I was ready to accept what happened. Later, when I got home, things only got worse. I was coming unraveled. It was the closest my grief came to pulling me under for good.
After reflecting on all of that I took Heather’s hand again. “We may be going home, but you don’t have to make it real yet. Take your time. Sleep late, eat ice cream, do whatever you need, okay?”
We’ve been home almost a week now, and Heather is still working on making it real. I know she’ll be okay eventually, she’s a veteran at this grief business after all, but I’m giving her as much time and space as she needs. Grief is anything but simple, and she needs to do it at her own pace. When she’s ready for the world to start turning again, it will.