Heartbreak

My Daughter Isn't Coming Back

Photo: Courtesy of the Author
Ana, at about age 11, walks on our driveway

She’s not coming back.

At first, I counted her death in days, then weeks, then months — now it’s been years.

I marked each turn of the moon with small changes, tears, and disbelief that another month had passed. I observed the passage of time as a spectator — her 16th birthday, her 17th, her 18th — the solstices, the day she would’ve started 11th grade, then 12th. This year, she would’ve graduated from college.

I waited for her on all the days she missed — Halloweens, Thanksgivings, Christmases, and the days in between.

It’s been five years, but the globe keeps turning and I keep counting the sunsets. But I’ve stopped waiting for her. I used to think about her last breath and force myself to remember that last touch because it was so hard to believe that it really happened…she died.

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But dwelling on these memories and waiting for her death to unhappen stopped helping after a while, maybe at year three or so. Now, something inside me is shifting.

She’s not coming back. I know that now, I do.

My grief is not a feeling or a thing. It’s not a weight that will lessen over time or a wound that will heal. But it has changed. It’s a cloak, a shield, a badge of love. It’s a place that I’ve learned to navigate.

My grief is a place. It’s a different dimension. I entered it the moment she died.

(Her breathing shallow, her hands cool, her feet swollen, her eyes — closed for most of the day — flickered open one last time to find mine, and her soul fled from her failing body with one final exhale).

I lost her and I thought my love had nowhere to go. But I was wrong. Our love travels together through time and space. I couldn’t follow her (oh, how I wanted to in those first two years), so I entered the place where I still linger.

At first, the blue sky hurt my eyes and the grey sky hurt even more, settling into my bones, exhausting me.

Now, I marvel at the sky the way she did. I admire its colors and moods and changing dimensions. The sky stretches over my world and hers — like love — it connects us.

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I still get tired of the day too soon — even now, more than five years later. Sometimes, all I want to do is sleep, so I lay down for an hour or so. Then I get up and move through the rest of the day. I used to wait for each day to be over, wandering through my memories, drawing hearts on her wall, or whispering her name. I was desperate to close my eyes each night. I wanted my heart to stop beating.

Now, I’m in awe of my heart which keeps beating its tachycardic song, carrying me and my grief forward. My heart still has the capacity to love and to want love and to want life. How remarkable.

One morning, in my first year of grief, I found a dead sparrow lying beneath the tray feeder. Its tiny body was perfectly still. A few sunflower husks were stuck to its head and beak. I’d wept as I wrapped it in a paper towel, not for the life it had lost, but for its bad luck — to die suddenly in the night among an abundance of seeds. I’d wondered then, where had it gone? Could it reach her?

This week, I found a dead Blue Jay in my garden, its feathers shining like the sky beside a blossoming lily.

I didn’t cry for the Jay, but instead, I moved it to a spot overgrown with brush across the street from my house. It left it as an offering for the Black Vultures that sometimes drop by. I didn’t weep for the Jay the way I did for the Sparrow because I finally understand that its life and death are connected to something much larger than me.

I’m not there yet with my daughter, but there is some peace about her loss that wasn’t there before.

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She’s not coming back. I know that, really, I do. I miss her every day. Each year that passes pulls me farther away from her, but…there is something new happening. I am aging. Eventually, my hoped-for reunion will happen. Until then, I have some life left to live.

Five years are nothing to Ana now, but when she was alive, each year marked an incredible (almost unfathomable) transformation. She was a child, then an adolescent, then a teenager just old enough to look back on her life wistfully. I wonder what she sees now. I wonder what she’s trying to tell me?

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Sometimes, I feel her all around me and I know that she’s transformed.

Five years are nothing to me either. I used to think this was another casualty of wandering the grief-place. I was unable to understand time the way I once did. But now? Now, I don’t want to understand it. I’m content to leave some mysteries unsolved.

Grief ripped the filter from my perspective, showing me the futility of my obsession with time; calendars, clocks, dates, days. At first, I couldn’t stop counting. I couldn’t stop waiting. Now, I move through time in a way that feels more authentic than before I lost Ana.

There are no days anymore, no nights, and there’s no great rush to get to the next milestone. There are only blue skies, sunsets, hours that pass, and the birds coming and going, living and dying. All of this is bringing me closer to her.

She’s not coming back. That will never be okay, but maybe I will be okay.

There must be meaning in the rest of my life or else why am I still here? This new perspective feels like a revelation. That I ever wanted to live forever, to grow (really) old, to hold onto life as long as possible — seems absurd.

I once read an article about a 75-year-old man, accomplished in his career, whose cancer was missed by radiologists. Six years later, he was finally diagnosed. By then it had spread. He was terminal.

I’d stared at his wrinkled face in the photograph — his bright eyes, his thin frame — and wondered if the error had given him six years of relative health if avoiding the brutality of treatment had actually afforded him more time.

I wondered if he understood how lucky he was to have lived to the age of 75 and to now be on the road to death. I envied him the way I envied the sparrow and the Jay. I still envy him, but I think, maybe, I’m okay waiting for my turn.

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She’s not coming back. And I’m learning how to let go of moments and the things they’re attached to.

I’m going to stay in the grief-place forever, but I wish it had a better name. For the dead, there is no undying. For me, grieving the loss of Ana, there is no ungrieving. It’s been more than five years, but it feels like a day.

It’s been more than five years, but it feels like a lifetime.

I love her more than I love myself. I can’t reach her, but I’m starting to reconnect with the part of myself that followed her into death. It’s a process that doesn’t care about time. I’ve stopped counting the months and years that pass the way I did before — with endless desperation.

Instead, I’m ready to let time carry me with it like a piece of driftwood across the surface of the ocean and live my life until I die. Some day, in a place where the dead sparrow and Blue Jay still fly, I know I’ll see her again.

Jacqueline Dooley is an essayist, content writer, and bereaved parent. She's featured in Human Parts, GEN, Marker & OneZero.

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.