There were many lines in the movie Return to Zero that resonated with my heart, but there’s one in particular that has stuck with me like a bandage to my soul. Its truth is woven into the threads of me. I’ve lived it, and I know with a knowledge deeper than all knowing that it’s true– “there is life after this”. I’m living proof.
Many years ago, I stood in the same place where my life as I knew it was destroyed: the laundry room. To this day I can’t do laundry. Not even one load. You’d think that laundry wouldn’t be synonymous with the worst day of my life, but it is. It’s a trigger for me that is more triggering than almost anything else, because it was exactly where I was standing when my life as I knew it ended, the moment my son’s life ended. The trauma of what happened that day is forever embedded in my body and my soul– you can only purge and trauma therapy so much of it away. It is permanently written into every cell of my being.
Hearing an empty washing machine fill with water is enough to cause a full blown panic attack. It signifies the moment that would forever be seared in my memory as the last moment in the before, the last moment before a permanent period was violently placed where there should have been the endless run-on sentences of my happy, healthy toddler. Sickening erie silence where there should have been giggles. The blackness of death where there should have been the light of life.
Even worse is the swish-swish-swish of the water at the start of the laundry cycle because it reminds me of the moments and breaths of my son’s life that never were but should have been. The washer cycle should have started. His life shouldn’t have ended. Life should be fair. Instead, the washer lid remained open, the water still filling as our life as we knew it was violently destroyed.
Now you can imagine why the laundry doesn’t get done in my house if it’s up to me. It’s not laundry. It’s life or death. And the reminder that in that moment, death won. Over and over and over again.
I couldn’t stand in a laundry room without suffering unimaginably paralyzing flashbacks. Until my story was rewritten.
Fast forward three years post-loss. I’m moving into a new apartment. Attempting to find what everyone so desperately wants bereaved parents to find: their new normal. The only problem was, I didn’t want a new normal. In my head I’m thinking **** this new normal. I just wanted normal. Life as I knew it. Before. With my son. Before. As it should be. Before. The good old normal. The kind I loved.
Standing in my new laundry room, I’m surrounded by endless emotional landmines. I unpack the usual laundry room inhabitants: laundry soap (another trigger), dryer sheets, laundry baskets, clothes. Hangers. I can’t find the hangers. Hot tears stream down my face. My vision blurs, my pulse quickens, my thoughts race. I had hoped it could be simple. Just unpacking, not re-living. Simple? Simple died the day my son did. I now live in the land of complicated-torturous-endless-grief. Where laundry rooms are synonymous with emotional war zones, and where there is laundry, panic attacks come more often than normal breathing. In my mind I’m seeing my son dying over and over and over again, and every time I can’t do a thing within my human power to save him. Every good and beautiful thing in my life was destroyed while I was stuck in the laundry room. Being a normal mom. Doing normal mom things like washing my son’s poop-stained pajamas on an otherwise normal morning. Until without warning, normal wasn’t normal anymore.
Flashback after flashback after flashback beat me down, for this is the evil way of PTSD.
I try deep breaths, but they remain shallow and quick. I try saying aloud you’resafenow–you’resafenow–you’resafenow. Not working.
Just then my friend walks in the room with an arm-load of hangers (having no idea of my past five minutes of merciless torture), puts a warm hand on my shoulder, and says, “I feel like I’m supposed to tell you this right now. Remember that part of The Passion movie where Mary is holding her murdered son in her arms, and he says to her, ‘Behold. I make all things new’? God is going to do the same thing with you. He’s going to bring new life out of every ounce of your suffering.”
A river of tears that had been dammed and corked by the constant lump in my throat freely poured down my cheeks. Exactly the right words, at the right moment, in exactly the right place. Though I wasn’t so sure I could believe the words at the time.
Yes. Even this.
I’m not usually one for lines, especially not overly religious ones because at that time almost every ounce of faith I’d had was obliterated. But this one? This one line shifted something deep within my wounded soul and began healing me in ways I wouldn’t realize until years later. In ways I honestly didn’t fully realize until now.
It’s no coincidence that these words were spoken to me exactly where I needed to hear them: in the laundry room. The place where my life as I knew it ended. The place where I was wounded beyond all repair. And the very place I needed to be in order to take my first steps into my new life that was waiting for me.
At the time I didn’t think much of it. You don’t realize the moment you start taking your first healing steps until years and years down the road. It happens slowly. Timidly. Often with trembling and great fear.
It’s like dipping your toe into frigid water. At first you can only stand it for mere seconds at a time without becoming chilled. But you keep dipping your toe in little by little, until you get used to the way it feels to be immersed in it. Life post-loss is filled with countless years of brave toe dipping, endless drowning and eventually learning to swim in an uncomfortably frigid new life.
Until one day, you might wake up and realize, wow, it’s been a long time since I woke up feeling the dreadful weight of grief first before everything else. Slowly, over time you might start waking up and falling asleep to the thought of something else– something a little bit lighter than the weight of your loss. Maybe it’s something simple like wow, that dinner was phenomenal. Or, I had fun today. Yes– fun. (It sounds crazy, I know.)
And one day you might look back on the past years of your suffering, however long the darkness has hovered, however long the cycle of clawing your way up and out of the pit of despair that is grief, only to get knocked back down again and again– and you might think– look at how far I’ve come. I made it out of the pit of hell. I survived.
And you might feel pretty damn proud of yourself that you somehow survived the unimaginable. As well you should. You’ve earned it.
Now, when I walk into a laundry room, the trauma isn’t the only thing that goes through my mind. Yes, it’s still there, and it most likely always will be. But there’s something else that’s almost as strong:
Yes, it’s not the life we wanted, it’s not the life we asked for, and it’s certainly not the life we would wish on even our worst enemy. But we have the power to write our own stories of life after loss. It’s ours and nobody else’s. We can choose what message our story of loss has to tell the world. Maybe it’s one of unending love. Or one about redemption. Forgiveness. About surviving and thriving through the unimaginable. Maybe it’s one of supernatural strength. Or about the kind of hope that is sacred. Or one that humanizes us all by bravely baring every scrape and bruise and wound and victory that makes you exactly who you are today.
Whatever it is, and whenever you’re ready, it’s yours. Yours to claim. Yours to tell. And yours to live.
This is not the end of your story.
There is life after this and though it’s ever-painful, it’s also more beautiful than you could ever imagine.
. . .
Photo credit: Kerry Kresl
“There is life after this.” ~ Return to Zero, the movie