It’s funny how silly little things can happen on any given day that might remind us of Rylie. Sometimes it’s just a song that she loved, or a flavor that she enjoyed, or an outfit she would have liked. It will just be something that pops up and makes one of us think, “Aww… Rylie…”.
Like everyone, Rylie had certain characteristics or quirks that were uniquely hers. Periodically, one of those quirks will pop up in one of us - usually Tanner. We’ll all laugh and joke that “Rylie is haunting us”.
One of the interesting parts about losing someone is that there are so many aspects of loss and grief that are truly just unexplainable. Often, when I sit down to write, I type then erase. Type then erase. Type then erase. Part of that is just the writing process, but a big part of it is just trying to capture the essence of a struggle in words.
This idea of Rylie haunting us is one of those areas where it is a real challenge to find the right words, to be able to explain it in a way that makes sense.
I guess loss and grief somewhat fit into the category of the proverbial onion. There are so many layers to it. You peel one away and find something else. Peel it away and find something else. The loss and grief onion though, seems to be a never-ending onion.
I’m reminded of a science experiment in school where we peeled away layers of the onion to look at the cells. At that point in my life, I’d only really seen the large layers of the onion that fall apart as you chop them. However, for the experiment, we had to peel away the thinnest layer possible - so thin it was like a tiny piece of saran wrap - transparent and it folded in on itself. Perhaps the loss and grief onion is just breaking the onion down to its tiniest layers, which just makes it feel never ending.
Our ‘Rylie haunts’ are just one of the layers of this loss and grief onion. It’s not as if she’s haunting us in a supernatural, spooky movie kind of a way. In fact, it’s almost the opposite. Anytime a ‘Rylie is haunting us’ moment comes up I’m compelled to look more closely at that layer. I’m almost always struck by how those moments really provide us all with a sense of comfort and connection.
In our house, mushrooms have always been a hotly contested topic. I grew up eating mushrooms and loving them. Ziggy grew up surrounded by mushroom lovers, but hating them. Rylie took more after me and came to really like mushrooms, especially as an alternative to steak. Tanner fell more in Ziggy’s camp, although I’m not entirely sure he ever tasted a mushroom before deciding they were disgusting. Needless to say, mushrooms rarely make it into our house.
Sometime after Rylie died, we ordered pizza and by some miracle I got to order my part with mushrooms. It’s a rarity, especially now that my fellow mushroom lover is gone. Tanner decided to try a slice of my pizza that day. We were all prepared to laugh at his reaction to the mushrooms on my pizza complete with quirked up “this is disgusting” facial expressions. Instead, we were met with raised eyebrows and close examination of said pizza, followed by “Wow, this is pretty good with mushrooms on it… Aww, man Rylie, you’re haunting me!”
Rylie was also notorious for eating chocolate chips, really anything chocolate. While Tanner also enjoyed chocolate, it was never at the same level. With Rylie, we’d often comment that she might enjoy a little pancake with her chocolate chips. She would often smother anything that was remotely acceptable with chocolate chips, nutella, or sugar of any kind. Tanner was always more moderate. He enjoyed chocolate chip pancakes or waffles, but there was always clearly pancake or waffle involved. In the last year especially, I’ve found that Tanner’s waffles are disappearing under layers of chocolate chips - which are also accompanied by handfuls of chocolate chips going into his mouth at the same time. Aww, Rylie…
On a recent trip to Washington D.C., I was taken aback by Tanner’s order of Dr. Pepper at lunch. Tanner has always been more of a Coke / Pepsi kind of a guy like his dad. Rylie and I enjoyed Dr. Pepper. When I looked strangely at Tanner after his order, he just shrugged and said, “I guess Rylie is haunting me again. I just have a taste for Dr. Pepper.”
Each time Rylie haunts us, I feel a strange sense of peace. While it’s strange for our tastes to suddenly change or morph into something she loved, there is comfort in feeling her nearby. I’m sure there’s some sort of psycho-analysis that would explain this phenomenon, but I prefer to just take it for the comfort that it is. It is a way for all of us to pause, remember, laugh and feel close to Rylie. Like the onion, it sometimes even brings tears to our eyes.
Over the last year, really two, I’ve been wrestling with a lot. I’ve been to counseling, read countless books, talked with trusted friends, and delved into my faith. Through it all, I’ve worked to not only address the accident and Rylie’s death, but I’ve also been digging into other aspects of my life that have shaped me into the person that I am.
One thing I’m realizing is that I don’t have to earn love or attention. I am worthy of it, just the way I am. As I look at those words on paper, I know them to be true, but I also find them hard to believe. I can’t honestly say why I would have believed otherwise, but my soul searching has proven that I have - for a long time. It seems that for as long as I can remember, I have equated my performance with how much love or attention I am worth.
I am someone who always has to be busy. I find it very hard to just sit and be still. I’m realizing that there’s a lot underlying this need for busyness and much of it is tied to using busyness to hide from challenging emotions / feelings. But I also know that I see being busy as being productive and contributing to the world around me.
Generally the only time I’m sitting still is when I’m at my computer (and then my fingers and brain are busy), or I’m reading a book.
Growing up, I read voraciously. I could always be found tucked away in a corner, or up in a tree reading. It was my happy place. I could visit worlds without leaving the comfort of my home. I could transform into people that inspired me. I could learn new things. My book friends were consistent. It didn’t matter if we’d moved to a new state, or if I was dealing with the trials and tribulations of growing up, they were always there. I spent a lot of time in the land of story.
As I’ve gotten older, my love for reading is still strong, but I don’t do it nearly as much. It’s rare for me to leave the house without a book in my car or bag, but it’s also almost equally rare for me to actually read it.
It’s ridiculous really, but somewhere in my brain, I feel (although I’m moving in the direction of felt) that if I was working on my computer, I was at least “doing” something productive. In that same place in my brain, I feel that sitting on the couch and reading a book, regardless of the content, was too much of a luxury. It feels like something that should just be squeezed into awkward pockets of time (hence the book that’s always with me). Somewhere along the line, reading transformed into something that I needed to earn.
If I could hold up certain accomplishments, then I earned the right to just sit and relax. If I’d completed all the items on my to do list, then I could justify being swept away. The only problem is that the accomplishment list and checkboxes never seem to end, or I’m just too tired by the time they do.
I’m not sure how / why that transformation happened, but it did. Over the years, I became driven by this need to perform, to earn, to show that I am worthy. I am just now realizing how destructive this belief has been.
I am trying to retrain my brain, my being, to know and really believe that I am worthy. I don’t have to earn the right to read a book. I don’t have to earn time to relax on the couch and watch a movie. I don’t have to work out extra hard to earn the chocolate chip cookie.
Clearly, all of this has to be done in moderation and there is some element of ‘earning one’s keep,’ but it is definitely not an all or nothing equation.
I envision this need to earn things as a cape with badges (almost like Girl Scout badges). I am realizing, in just about every part of my life, I feel the need to wear this cape and wear it proudly flowing off my shoulders. As I’ve thought about it more, I realize that pride and performance are part of it all - I’ve worked hard for all those badges and have a right to be proud, but I also find myself clutching that cape tightly around my neck.
I’ve begun to wonder what would happen if I let that cape go. What would be left standing underneath?
In a way, my cape has been my suit of armor. I see it as what makes me worthy. I use it as a way to ‘prove’ that I’ve earned ‘fill in the blank’. It is also what has kept me from letting people see what I am underneath it all.
In many ways, underneath that cape, I am hiding a scared little girl. One who is afraid to admit if she hasn’t done something productive. One that is afraid to admit that she doesn’t have it all under control. One that is afraid to show how heavy that cape, with all those badges has become, and how hard it is to hold it up.
So I’ve been working to loosen my grip on the cape. I’m still terrified to let it go… I’m not sure if I’ll like the person that’s left underneath it, much less if anyone else will. But I also realize that if I don’t loosen the grip and let it go, I will be crushed beneath its weight.
There are some days when it’s easier to undo the clasp of my cape and let it flap in the wind. There are other days when I get scared and I revert to holding it so tightly that nothing could get it away. But I also realize that it is a process.
I know, that the more that I can loosen the grip and realize that the world hasn’t fallen apart, that I can read the book, or watch the show, or just sit still - the easier it will become.
I may not be able to fully let go of the cape yet, but I’m getting better about not trying to earn the badges at least. Each morning, often several times a day, I try to find ways to remind myself that I am more than what I do or how I perform.
I don’t think this is just a me thing; I think it’s part of how we’re built, but it seems that certain memories kind of ebb and flow through life. Some memories are forever prominent and can be recalled on demand, but others seem to lurk in the corners of my mind almost like the dog hair in the corners of the house or under the chairs. Much like the dog hair is stirred out of the corners with a swift breeze, these memories surface with the just the right triggers. Sometimes it’s a smell, a song, or a food. Somehow it always seems connected to one of my senses.
The other day it was both a song and muscle memory. Sure certain songs can take me back to middle school and the first romantic slow dance, while others make me think of a dance party in the living room to stave off boredom, still others bring back memories of adventure like skydiving at 18. The ABCs, however, was not a song I’d expected to spark a memory. Yet it did.
Tanner and I were going through the night time routine and somehow sign language came up. Years ago, I taught both kids the ABCs in sign language. It was one of those things that would entertain us on car rides or while waiting at a restaurant. It kept us sane and I figured it was good for the brain and dexterity. As the kids got older and we began to spell our names, it became even more entertaining - consider all the letters in our last name!
So as we chatted, both Tanner and I fell into old habits and started to form letters with our fingers. Tanner was a little rusty and he started at the beginning trying to shake out the cobwebs and remember how each letter was formed. He went slowly at first, looking to me for approval or hints. We both laughed at how we think the signs for r and x should be switched because their forms more closely resemble the opposite letter.
After he’d conquered each letter, we looked at each other and began signing and singing the ABCs. The muscle memory required to form the letters and the tune of the song became like the breeze and memories began surfacing. The further we got in the alphabet, the more our voices cracked, the more our eyes welled with tears. By the end we just leaned into each other and hugged letting the tears flow freely.
It was one of those moments that neither of us expected, but the memories of doing that exact thing with Rylie hit us both.
I wanted to ask him what was going through his mind, partially because I’m curious what these moments of grief are like in his head, but in all honesty, it would have been a welcome distraction from the emotions that were welling within me. Since I’ve been making an effort to sit in emotions when they come up instead of tamping them down, covering them up, or distracting myself, I sat there quietly. I just sat there (probably not as long as I should have, but certainly longer than normal) and let the memory wash over me.
For a brief moment, I could picture sitting with both a six year old Rylie and four year old Tanner helping them make the strange shapes with their chubby little fingers. I caught a glimpse of sitting at a table in a restaurant waiting for our food and having finger-spelling races for our last name. That one was always complete with giggles as our Gs and Us almost always got mixed up!
Then I sat there for a moment and just felt her absence. It was a VERY brief moment because for a girl who struggles with emotions, that’s a tough one. That’s the one I really want to cover up with conversation, awkward laughter, or sudden busyness.
But I could hear a few important people in my life ask, “What would it look like to just feel that absence? What’s the worst that could happen?” So I sat, leaned into Tanner and tried to honor the emotions we were both feeling.
I haven’t gotten to the point, that I sit in it long enough to really know what the “worst” is, but I’m making progress. A millisecond is better than no seconds, right?
After my brief dance with that loneliness and vulnerability, I whispered to Tanner, “I miss her so much.” He whispered back a muffled, “me too.” We leaned in a little closer.
I should have stayed in that place and let myself feel a little more, but I didn’t and I think that’s okay. It’s all part of the process.
Instead, I distracted myself with the mind boggling way that our memories work. It has to be our mind’s unique way of storing all the memories we make everyday since we can’t possibly keep them all front and center. I am so grateful that my senses can be like the breeze that stirs the dog hair from under the couches, and unearth those memories that seem long forgotten. Not only is it efficient, but it’s a relief to know that I’ll get another opportunity, when I least expect it, to practice sitting in an emotion.
I’ve been spending a lot of time working on me. Learning about me. Growing me. Shaping me. Liking me. Hating me. Challenging me. Testing me.
In many ways, it feels very self-centered. Just look at how many times I wrote ‘me’ in that last paragraph! What I’m really starting to figure out though is that it’s not as self-centered as it sounds. By focusing on me, I’m giving those around me a better version of myself than they had before.
Even though I know that to be true, I often find myself making comparisons. Not to where I’ve been and how far I’ve come, but instead to all of the people that I see reflected around me. I look out in the world and it’s so easy to see all the things I think I should be, instead of all of the things that I already am.
As a person who has always had ridiculously high, and often unrealistic, expectations of herself and one that has always felt that I need to earn everything, I’m wrestling with a new idea. What would it look like to lower my expectations, but still hold the bar high?
I know, how can I both lower something and hold it high?!? Hence, the wrestling.
Here’s the thing though. What if lowering ones expectations isn’t really about lowering them, but recalibrating? What if the idea of lowering an expectation is actually about lessening the amount of expectations one puts on oneself?
On any given day, I have a zillion expectations of myself.
But here’s what I’m realizing. This list is not realistic (especially given that it’s a fraction of the list and a lot of the embarrassing ones didn’t make the cut).
I am forced to remind myself, every day, multiple times a day, that I am not superwoman. I cannot be all things to all people, myself included. When I try to do that, I spread myself too thin and am no good to anyone.
So here’s my theory. What if I look at my expectations differently? What if I focus on just a few (like one or two)? What if I zero in on those and give it my very best? Raise the bar on just those few things and let the others go?
Although, it’s a concept I’ve been wrestling for a while, it really hit me the other day. I have a cousin that’s just a year older than me. We haven’t seen each other in forever - literally forever. I think we were probably eight or nine last time we saw each other. We used to get together in the summer for a week. She’d come to me or I’d go to her. It was a big deal. Then, for some reason, it stopped. We drifted apart.
After Rylie died, she reached out and reconnected via Facebook. She continued to reach out. Every so often, I get a card in the mail - yep, old school mail - and it makes me giddy like a kid at Christmas. Her beautiful handwriting adorns the envelope and I open an adorable card to find a heartfelt note inside. It usually reminds me that she’s thinking of me. It often references something one of us has posted and how crazy similar we are, even after all these years.
Every time I get one of her cards, I think, “Man, I should be better about this!” I add another expectation to my long list. I should send her a card. I should send cards like this to people that I don’t connect with often enough, but to whom I feel a deep connection. I hang the envelope up on my board as a reminder to do just that. Then guess what… I rarely, if ever do.
I have another friend that is gifted with the ability to make people feel special and remembered. She’s one of those people who sees something she know someone will like. She picks it up, stores it (and somehow doesn’t forget where), then wraps it up with a million other little reminders and presents them on a birthday, a special day, or just a Tuesday because that’s what she does.
In both of these situations, I wish I could do those things. I aspire to be thoughtful and intentional in the same ways. I set an expectation of myself to do the same things. Nearly every time, I fail to execute.
What I’m starting to realize is that maybe I’m setting the wrong expectations. It’s not that I can’t be thoughtful or intentional, but perhaps my thoughtfulness or intentionality should manifest differently. Or maybe I just should focus my energies elsewhere.
As a society, I think we have a habit of looking around at what others are doing and trying to be just like them, or better. What a boring world that would become! If everyone was good at sending out heartfelt notes in cute cards or building the perfect gift for others, then those moments wouldn’t be special. They wouldn’t stand out.
I don’t want to be part of diluting the world, I want to be part of enriching it. I’m realizing that instead of trying to be the best at sending out cards or creating the perfect gift, I can honor the talents of those around me. I can recognize the value they bring to my life.
Then I can lower the number of expectations that I have of myself. I can refocus my energy on a few areas that make me giddy with excitement, that play to my personality and strengths, but also challenge me to grow a bit. I can raise the bar on execution in those areas.
So rather than a list a zillion miles long, I hope to adjust my expectations lowering the number of competing priorities. I’ll have a few things that I really want to be accountable to and for and I will do them really well. For all the other things, I aim to recognize those that do them better than me. To validate their gifts and efforts, maybe even be inspired by them. I will also, recognize that in order to be the best version of myself, I don’t have to be the best version of everyone else.
Like all of us, Rylie was unique. She had her own way of doing certain things and her own approach to making herself known. While I’d say that she was more about bringing others up, than being in the spotlight, one of the things I loved most about Rylie is the subtle little ways she would show up.
In a way, she kind of reminds me of the little leprechauns that she and Tanner used to trap. You know the little leprechauns that show up mysteriously on St. Patrick’s Day leaving green footprints on the floor, or green ‘poop’ in the toilets? One could never really catch those sneaky little leprechauns, but they would leave their mark behind in some little leprechaun sized way.
Rylie was a lot like that. It was not uncommon to find that she’d written her name on something random, or drawn on a container. Like the leprechauns, she was never caught in the act, but there were always little reminders that she’d been there and left her mark.
Sometimes her marks were intentional like when I noticed an “R” scratched on the handle of her side of the car and a “T” on Tanner’s handle… Or the lipstick imprint that is on the wall in her room. That was her way.
Other times, the marks were just an afterthought, a result of her being in a room, making a concoction, or trying a pinterest project. Kind of like the mystery item that’s melted on the carpet in her room. I’m still not sure if it’s crayon, candle or some sort of creation she made from a variety of substances.
One of my favorite Rylie “stamps” is Harry. I’m not sure when Harry happened, but at some point Rylie sketched a little face on the top of the large container of salt in our spice cabinet. Perhaps it was while she was baking a treat for us, or preparing a surprise meal. Perhaps it happened while she was leaning on the island talking to one of us as we prepared dinner. I really don’t remember.
Likely, I found it annoying at the time. I can almost hear myself saying something snarky like, “Really Rylie, you couldn’t doodle on a piece of paper?” or “Come on… I need to add salt to this recipe and now I have to wait for you to finish your doodle!”
It surely wouldn’t have been one of my finest parenting moments, but it’s also very much a reality. I’d say I probably have more parenting moments like that where something less than supportive, kind, or understanding bursts out of my mouth than moments where I’m championing my child(ren) or encouraging them.
Needless to say sometime in the last year and half, when the salt ran out, I was paralyzed. I know it’s just a 59 cent container of salt, but I couldn’t throw Harry away. Not after Rylie died and I knew that no more Harrys would magically appear.
So I kept it and bought another container. Then I had to do this weird shuffling routine, putting Harry in the cabinet along with his nameless and faceless counterpart. At one point, I told myself I should throw Harry away. I mean, really, it makes zero sense to take up space in an already crowded spice cabinet for an empty salt container, and it’s not like I could proudly display Harry in our cabinet of artwork either. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Then a brilliant friend suggested that I simply pour the new salt into Harry.
So I’ve done that - a few times over. I have kept Harry around as a reminder - especially in those weird bewitching moments around dinner time. You know those times, when the worst version of yourself comes out? For me, I’m even quicker to judge, quicker to yell, and just generally feel frazzled.
Now when I reach for the salt, I see silly Harry staring back and me and I’m reminded that Rylie was there.
She stood in that kitchen with me countless times.
She made a giant mess of that kitchen countless times.
I was irritable with her for interrupting when I was measuring or reading a recipe, more times than I care to remember.
I was annoyed that I had to come in behind her and clean up after she’d made a giant mess, more times than I care to remember.
I was quick to forget that the giant mess came from a delicious meal that she’d created out of love, more times than I care to remember.
I use Harry as a visual cue to remember that the ones we love may not always be around, in more ways than one. I try to use Harry as a reminder to pause and find perspective.
Yes, it was annoying to be interrupted in the middle of a recipe and lose my place. But, that meant that Rylie was there. It meant that she might have been telling me a story, or asking for help. If I’m honest, it also more likely meant I’d called her down to lecture her on her grades, the condition of her room, or something equally silly. Oh, but what I would give to have that interruption. To have her pick on me because I follow a recipe to a T, while she would just add a little of this and a little of that and somehow have it turn out.
Yes, it was frustrating to have worked all day and have to come home and clean up after someone who was more than capable of cleaning up after herself. But that meant that I didn’t have to cook and clean. It meant that Rylie was loving us using one of her beautiful gifts. Oh, what I would give to have to clean up the kitchen after a Rylie meal.
Aside from Harry reminding me to treasure moments, even the frustrating ones, I use him as a reminder to pause and adjust my attitude. Why is it that I find it so easy to hurt the ones that I love the most? I know there were lots of times where that bewitching hour was a result of personal frustrations, disappointments or challenges, yet I’d lash out at the kids or Ziggy. So I try to look at Harry’s goofy face and remember that love is the language we are meant to speak.
Rylie spoke love more openly than I ever did. Harry is her way of reminding me to speak love to others, and myself. It’s her stamp. Her reminder that she’s still with me - still teasing me about my cooking skills or lack thereof. Still encouraging me to learn and grow with each passing day.
Growing up,Valentine’s Day was one of my favorites. It was what I liked to think of a sneaky holiday. My parents would always get me something small as a way to remind me that I am loved. Usually the gift was a book or something silly like a pair of festive socks. It was never about the gift. It was never a ‘big deal’ with lots of wrapping paper and preparation. It was more a small gesture and a reminder. It was always waiting at the table when I woke up.
In middle school / high school, my hopeless romantic came out full force and I began to look forward to Valentine’s Day because it was a chance to profess one’s love, or have one’s loved professed to you with with a color coded rose. Remember… white for a secret admirer, red for love, and pink for friendship?
As I got older, there were moments when my inner cynic surfaced, grumbling about being told when I should tell someone that I love them. Shouldn’t we be sharing love with those around us everyday?!? However, that cynic was more likely my stingy self talking; not wanting to buy a $4 card that was just going to get thrown away.
When the kids were born, memories of my childhood joy around Valentine’s Day resurfaced and I wanted to share that joy with them. However, my stingy self was nearby and I didn’t want to fall into the pattern of buying flowers and chocolates because that was on the shelves. I wanted it to be more about the sentiment.
Somewhere along the line, Ziggy and I decided to divide and conquer. Rylie was his Valentine and Tanner was mine.
I think Rylie enjoyed Valentine’s with the same childlike joy that I did. Ziggy often would get her a cute little stuffed animal and always a card. One year, he bought her a little necklace. She would snuggle that stuffed animal for the entire year and wore the necklace regularly - I guess the sentiment won over the marketing in that situation.
Tanner’s joy over the holiday is not as pronounced, but I still think it’s important to him - somewhere deep down. When he was little I’d get him a toy car or figurine. As he got older, it would be a book or some hockey cards. The gift always included some sort of written note or card.
Then somewhere else along the line, I decided to start a new Valentine’s tradition with the kids - one of those traditions where I’m not sure who likes it more, them or me. We continued to do small gifts for each kid, but on February 13th, I would sit down and cut out tons of hearts from colored paper. I’d break out my markers and write notes on each heart to each of the kids.
Each heart includes something I love about them as a person, a memory from the year, something I appreciate or admire about them, a dream I have for them, etc. There have been several years, where I grumbled when it was 11 o’clock at night and I realized I hadn’t done their hearts yet. But each year, that grumbling was silenced by the reactions to the process.
Each Valentine’s morning, I’d get up super early and roll tons of pieces of tape in order to stick the hearts on their bedroom doors. They would wake up and I remember seeing the joy on their faces at the transformation of their doors. I also remember having to read the statements aloud to them as Rylie was early in her school career and Tanner hadn’t yet learned to read.
There is something powerful about putting ideas like that into visible words - at least for a wordy like me. It gives me a moment to realize how often I think those words, but how rarely I say them out loud or really acknowledge the person they’re about.
It gives me a chance to reflect on the year and flesh out moments where I’ve seen my kids grow, mature, show resilience, and make me laugh.
It forces me to be intentional about articulating the little things that makes each of my children unique and shining a light of appreciation on those qualities.
The year after the first door decorating extravaganza, I realized that both kids still had many of their hearts hanging on their doors! The hearts were warped and curling. Some had fallen off, but they were still there and occasionally, I’d catch one of them reading them as they walked into their room. That’s when I knew I was in it for the long haul. I’ve done it every year since.
Last year, as expected, was tough. I didn’t want to cut out only one set of hearts. I wanted to cut two and write messages to BOTH of my kids. I wanted to see Rylie’s eyes sparkle with joy and maybe a little bit of disbelief as she read the messages. But, I also knew that I had to cut out one set. It was probably more important that year, than any other, to shower Tanner with love.
So I pulled on my big girl pants, grabbed a box of tissues, and sat down to cut out half as many hearts… I forced myself to focus on Tanner instead of the fact that there were missing hearts. I told myself that I would get through his hearts and then determine if I cut out more for Rylie even though she wouldn’t ever get to read them. The exercise was painful, but it was just as good, if not better, than years before. I needed the reminder just as much as Tanner did. It was a beautiful opportunity to pause and reflect on all of the amazing things that make Tanner, Tanner.
I cried while I wrote. I struggled at points, to figure out what to write - not because there weren’t things to say about him, but simply because sometimes it’s just hard to see the sunshine through the grayness of grief. I was also used to writing one heart for Rylie and then one for Tanner, so the rhythm felt off. But I made it through.
When I was done making Tanner’s hearts, I remember sitting there and feeling silly and guilty all at the same time. I wanted to cut out hearts for Rylie and hang them on her door, but that just felt too weird. It will always be her room and her door, but it’s transitioned. I knew she couldn’t read the hearts and it felt crazy to make everyone else that walked past her door read hearts meant for her eyes. At the same time, I felt guilty not acknowledging the girl that I love so much and that has taught me more than I thought imaginable.
So I tweaked the tradition… I cut out one large heart and wrote Rylie a letter. I poured out my heart; telling her how much I missed her and all of the things that I will always love about her. I shared the regret that I have in not knowing if she truly understands how proud of her and inspired by her I am. It was heart-wrenching and healing at the same time. It was hard to know her eyes will never read those words, but it felt good to honor her and not forget that tradition with her. Instead of hanging her heart letter on her door, I placed it next to the mold we have of her hand. It was different, but it was as right as it could be.
Yesterday, I stopped at the top of the stairs and noticed that Tanner had literally every heart still on his door from last year. Some had been repositioned after falling off, but they were all still there. I wonder if there will be a point when he’ll ask me to put them somewhere else so his friends don’t see mushy Mom love notes, but for now they seem to matter. So I sat down last night and cut out his hearts, wrote messages intended just for him, and hung them this morning.
I also cut out another giant heart and wrote another letter to Rylie. I snuggled in a quilt made from her old clothes and pieces of her comforter. I thought back over the year and shared how missing her has changed, but is still ever present. I stared at the fabric surrounding me and reminded her how she has made me a better mom and better person. I sobbed as I told her how proud of her I am and whispered that I hope we are making her proud as we aim to make this world a little brighter in her honor. I sat in that moment - it’s not one of my strengths to sit in emotion - for as long as I could. I folded her heart, got up and placed it next to the one from last year. The tears flowed openly as I bent over and touched the mold of the hand I miss so much.
Although she won’t get up each Valentine’s morning and read the words on her hearts, it does my heart good to know that I’ve been able to share with her spirit the love that I have for her.
It does my heart good to know that Tanner is able to read his messages when he needs them most.
It does my heart good to pause and honor the ones I love for who they are and what they mean to me. It’s a reminder that it’s not about fanfare and wrapping paper, it’s about sentiment. It’s about acknowledgment and being seen and heard. It’s a reminder that we should all do it more often and not just on a February 14th.
I recently joined a small group of women that meet every Sunday at Starbucks. Several of the women had been meeting for months, but there were a few of us that were new to the group. This meant that we were asked to give the obligatory elevator speech - telling the other members a little bit about ourselves.
I’ve always found those elevator speeches somewhat challenging. I never know quite what I should say. It’s always been hard to gauge what might relevant or that others might find interesting.
Since Rylie died, I’ve found that it’s even more challenging to come up with what to say. It’s one of those awkward things where I have to determine if the setting is one in which she might come up. If it is, I’ve found that it’s easier to just say that she died right off the bat. That way there’s not some weird moment where people feel like they’ve gotten to know you and then BAM! a bombshell like that is dropped. The trickier times are when the speech is given in a situation, where I’m not sure if it’ll come up.
Although, Rylie is one of the most important parts of my life, it’s not necessarily something that is relevant. That’s even more awkward - the last thing I want to do is enter a business or professional meeting and lead with, “I’m Meghann. I have two children. Rylie died in May 2017 and Tanner is almost 13,” when there is very little reason to share that information given that setting. Sure in both business and professional settings our personal life comes up, but I found in those situations, it’s often better to leave that part of my story for more one-off conversations.
Even then it’s tricky, because death, especially death of a child, becomes the elephant in the room. I find myself wondering how I can tell my story in a way that is honoring to myself, to Rylie, and those around me. The last thing I want do is make people uncomfortable or wonder what to say.
As I sat at Starbucks, listening to the other women in the group - okay, kind of listening - I was also weighing the options for telling my story. I realized that even without the death of a child, the elevator speech sucks. I don’t think I’m alone in that.
In many ways it’s challenging to boil one’s life down to a few sentences, but I also find that sometimes it’s hard to come up with anything to say at all.
I mean, we’re talking about identity here. For women especially, but I have a sneaky suspicion men have this same struggle in different ways, our identity is tied to so many external measures. When I meet a bunch of women (especially at my age), the elevator speech almost always includes listing off a husband, a certain number of kids and their ages, oftentimes a job, and then some sort of tie to family duties - shuffling kids to and from a million different activities, running the house, etc. Very rarely does it include something about the woman herself - something she just really identifies with, enjoys doing, or is proud of.
Don’t get me wrong, being a wife and a mom, are two of the hardest and most rewarding ‘jobs’ out there. There is a huge source of pride in all of those things! But as I sat preparing my speech, I was struck by the huge holes.
Well I’m a mom - but one’s dead - do I want to get into that?
I’m a wife - to a guy named Ziggy - do I want to explain that’s really what he goes by and not some weird pet name?
I’m technically a teacher, but I’ve taken a leave of absence this year - do I want to explain why?
I’ve been in the corporate world, but that’s been over five years ago and it doesn’t seem relevant.
I’m running a non-profit, but it’s not a full time job, and I don’t want this speech to turn into a promotional meeting.
I guess I spend my time meeting friends, making sure we have food to eat and that our house is semi-presentable, volunteering, running and doing yoga, but how do I admit that I’m not really sure where I spend my time these days?
Over the years, my elevator speech almost always lead with my profession and the fact that I have kids. At this very moment, those are two areas that take a lot of explaining and I don’t identify myself with them in the same way. So it just feels inauthentic, but the authentic part feels too heavy, or too real for a first meeting…
Suddenly, I was struck by the fact that I’m not alone. My holes may be different, but so many people have experienced things in their lives that are challenging, embarrassing, uncomfortable, or unsettled - I could go on and on.
How does the recently divorced or single parent introduce him/herself?
How does the person who has jumped from job to job just to make ends meet explain his/her situation?
How does the person who just lost their job explain that?
How does the person who has always wanted children, but has been unable to have kids, introduce him/herself?
How does the person who wants nothing more than to meet someone and get married, explain that this dream hasn’t yet been realized?
How does the person who has experienced tragedy, of any kind, introduce him/herself without entering into this defining moment?
More importantly, why are we wrapping our identity in so many external factors? What would an elevator speech look like that wasn’t somehow tied to accomplishments or milestones?
Imagine being able to introduce yourself in a way that honors who you are at your very core…
“Hi, I’m Meghann. Looking back in my life, I’ve had some major accomplishments and I’ve had some major hiccups. Someday, I’m sure I’ll share those with you, but here’s who I am - I love to get a good sweat on and think deep thoughts. If you ever want to debate the finer points of life, invite me on a run or for a cup of coffee. I’m a sucker for Young Adult fiction and sappy romance movies. I’m an even bigger sucker for motivational quotes, videos, books etc. I am waaaay wordy and love to play with the nuances of words - creating just the right message, but don’t be afraid. I promise I won’t judge your sentences. I love to get things done and cross things of a color-coded list, but even more than that, I believe in connection. I love talking to people and taking the time to enter into their story, bit by bit.”
Wow - it wasn’t until I started typing that I was able to think of my story that way. Maybe I should put this version on my phone so I can use it in the next elevator speech situation. I wonder what kind of reaction I would get?
Perhaps we all need to revise our elevator speech. What an amazing world it would be if we were able to introduce ourselves in a way that spoke to our core, in a way that would invite conversation and allow us to share the milestones and the hiccups in an authentic way.
What’s your elevator speech?
During the last several months, I have been blessed with the gift of time. I took a leave of absence this year so that I could ‘work on me’. I’ve somewhat affectionately dubbed it ‘The Year of Me’. It’s been both humbling, wonderful, and terrifying all at the same time. For a girl who is constantly on the go, has a to do list eight miles long, and wants to conquer the world, being faced with days that are largely unscheduled has been an experience. It has taken conscious effort to keep this time flexible, to build new patterns, to allow myself space to explore different things.
My natural tendency has always been to pack a million things into a day. To wake at 4 or 4:30 for early morning workouts and fill the hours between the end of the workout and bedtime at 11 or later with lots of checkboxes. While my job as a teacher allowed me to make connections with people, my students especially, I really never made time for others outside of what came naturally with teaching. I measured my day simply by how much I got ‘accomplished’, how busy I appeared to be, and how much more I’d found to add to my list. Kind of insane when I look at it written out like that.
During this ‘Year of Me,’ I’m working to change some of these habits and tendencies. To trade appearances for more meaning. It’s hard work to break habits and thought processes that have been ingrained for so many years. Many days I struggle when I look up and realize I’ve somehow wiled away seven hours of my day and have nothing ‘to show for it’. But I’m trying to measure my success by something different. It’s not how busy I look, or how much impact I can visibly see on my immediate environment. It’s not how many things I’ve crossed off my list or even how full my calendar is. It’s about what I’m learning. It’s about how I’m growing. Even if I have nothing tangible to wave around as a badge of honor.
So, I’ve been guarding my time fiercely. I’m striving not to fill it with minutiae, but to fill it with meaning. I still rely on my calendar to keep me organized and it’s full. It’s full of meeting people over coffee, hiking with dear friends and talking about life, hockey practices without a bag of grading and a chance to talk to other parents, volunteering, and regular FaceTime dates with friends that aren’t as close by but challenge me to be the best version of myself.
While all of this sounds dreamy, it’s also an effort. It’s an effort not to fall back into the minutiae that made me feel good because I could show anyone (because I’m sure so many were interested - ha, ha) how much laundry I’d finished, the groceries that I’d bought, the papers that I’d graded, the lessons that I’d developed, the meetings I’d attended or spearheaded, and the floors that I’d vacuumed.
Suddenly, I find myself trying to judge my worth, my contribution, by the meaningful connections I’ve made that day. Even then, I have to remind myself it’s not about how many, but the depth of those connections. I have to remind myself that it may even be a meaningful connection with myself as I read, study, write, run, whatever.
I’ve always been a reader and I’m a sucker not only for a good cheesy Young Adult novel, but also for a good personal development / self-help type book. In the last year and almost a half, I’ve read my fair share of both cheesy and growth minded material. This weekend I was struck by a quote I read from the Dalai Lama, “The way through the sadness and grief that comes from great loss is to use it as motivation and to generate a deeper sense of purpose.”
This made me think of a conversation I had recently where I was asked about how I ‘stay so positive’. My first response was that it’s a lot of pretending, but the truth is also that it is a daily choice.
Each day I must wake up and make a conscious choice to look for beauty in the world, to see opportunities to grow, to honor the people I love. I must make the choice to see, feel and do these things regardless of the ugliness in the news or the hole in my heart.
For me, choice is becoming a habit, and most days I can make that choice in the morning and have it carry me through. But in all honesty, there are other days where I must consciously make that choice - over and over again. It can be exhausting. There are days when I give in to that exhaustion, but I try not to because I know deep in my soul, that regardless of how many times I have to make that choice, it is the right one.
I love that the Dalai Lama doesn’t talk about the way to “get over” grief, because losing Rylie is something that I’ll never “get over”. Instead it is something that I will wade my way through. Some days it will be easy, like walking at the edge of the surf on the beach where the sand is compact and hard. Other days it will be more work, like slogging through deep peanut buttery mud.
Regardless of the conditions, I’ve come to find comfort in knowing that I will use this grief to grow. Rylie has made me a better person. From the moment that she was born, and perhaps even more so since she died, she has been my motivation and given me a sense of purpose. Sometimes that motivation has been misguided, but I’m a work in progress - I’m learning.
When she was first born, my motivation was to be the best mother and role model that I could be. My purpose became to love her fiercely and to make sure she knew how loved she was. I found myself trying to do more and be more so that I could be an example to her.
Yet, somehow, even then, I found myself watching her and learning from her. I’d watch her grow and was always in awe of her spirit which was so authentic and loving.
Rylie loved with a heart that was so big and she welcomed everyone into it. She had a way of quirking up her eyes and laughing so that you couldn’t help by join in. She showed compassion in ways that were beyond her years.
Of course, much of this is hindsight. In the heat of moment - I was more aware of the times she’d dig in her heels and question me. Or the times that she’d drive me crazy making messes while she created the perfect gift, note, or trinket to remind someone of her love. Or the times when she’d get emotionally invested in a situation that was beyond her control and I’d have to talk her down.
Now that she’s gone, my motivation has shifted to be one of choice not control. I realize that I cannot control everything and by being present in the moment, I can learn a lot. I choose to honor her spirit and to live in a way that is inspired by love.
Although, I’m still figuring out how to do this, I know my purpose is to spread joy and kindness in her memory. To accept myself and others where we are. To show compassion and empathy. Most of all, I will make the choice each day to smile, to say hello, and find a little bit of joy in the day.
The other night, I found myself crumpled over the sink. The weight of what I’d just seen and how much I’ve missed it weighed on me - literally causing me to fold over myself, balancing my head on the faucet. The water poured out of the faucet drowning the tears coursing down my face.
There have been times since the accident and Rylie’s death where I’ve found myself physically affected by the loss, but I can probably count on one hand how many times I’ve let that happen. I’m sure there would have been a lot more times like that, but I put up fences. I like to compartmentalize and everything has its place. I’m learning, through counseling, soul searching, etc. that really FEELING an emotion is not my normal MO. I’m also learning that when I let it happen, it can be painful. It can be breathtaking. It can be bittersweet. But it is always powerful.
That being said, I wasn’t prepared to go there when I stumbled upon some videos of Rylie.
A while back friends of ours, who also lost their daughter, shared video of her. It was beautiful and bittersweet. It brought tears to my eyes to watch this beautiful soul, so vibrant and alive. It made me realize how similar our girls were.
Then, I was struck by the realization that I really didn’t have any video of Rylie (other than when she was maybe two and we were first time parents with a camcorder). Who knows if we could even figure out how to watch that!!! It struck me that I didn’t have any old voicemails from Rylie. I couldn’t even call and listen to her voicemail greeting. We didn’t have her phone to scroll through and see silly things she’d recorded, because it was lost in the accident. At some point, I looked through some things on my phone, Facebook, and her iPad, but there wasn’t much.
Then the other night, I somehow happened upon a few videos that were downloaded to Google Photos. They weren’t much, a birthday serenade and a silly fashion show with her and Tanner. In both clips, Rylie wasn’t the main attraction, but her laughter was clear. Her joy was present. Her voice so real.
I watched. I indulged. I rewatched (maybe more than once)- laughing a little and crying a little.
After that little indulgence, I snapped back to reality and got about the business of getting ready for bed.
Most times, when I begin to reminisce, wonder about what could be different, or just ‘feel’, I batten down the hatches and hide out behind all my to dos. I don’t allow myself to sit in it. I don’t allow myself to think about it. I don’t allow myself to feel the vulnerability of it. I just distract myself with a to do list.
This time wasn’t like that. I don’t think I was trying to avoid feeling, or reminiscing, I just turned the videos off, like I would any quick clip that I’d indulged in, and got back to what I’d been doing.
At least that’s what I thought I’d been doing…
So as I set about to wash my face, I was shocked by the intense feelings that washed over me, through me, around me. I resisted the urge to bury them down below the surface - in all honesty, they were probably too intense to have been buried anyway. Instead, I tried to open myself to the intensity.
It was then that I crumpled. I think it was my natural response to protect my heart that was hurting. It was clenching - I was clenching. My body was responding to the sounds - to the nuances that were only Rylie.
It was remembering the way her voice would lilt on certain words. I was remembering.
It was feeling the love that came through every missed note of Happy Birthday. I was feeling.
It was longing for that joy and laughter. I was longing.
The few times that I’ve let my emotions be felt so deeply that they manifest in bodily sensations, it’s been about feelings of anxiousness, frustration, even anger. Other than the day that Rylie died, I don’t think I’ve really let myself experience moments of longing like that.
I was sad and lost. It was uncomfortable. My body was telling me that it hurt so much that it wanted to crumple into a fetal position and protect itself. But it was also freeing. It was acknowledgement of a truth so real, but one that I often ignore.
The truth is never again, will I hear her missed notes. See her act silly with her brother. See him look at her with adoration. Never again, will I hear that laughter so rich with a tinkle of joy.
I laid my head on the faucet and let the permanence of the situation wash over me. I felt the longing and the loss roll over me in waves. Then I dried my tears and climbed in bed. I climbed into Ziggy’s arms and just lay there. I felt another crumpling. I curled into the fetal position and realized that I’ve become used to not having her here. It’s not that I don’t miss her Every. Single. Day., but it’s become my normal.
That sucks. There’s really no other way to put it. I am thankful that I don’t have to crumple every single day. That I’ve figured out ways to cope, to be constructive with my grief, but it sucks that Rylie’s absence has become the norm.
So I lay there - Ziggy held me - and I let that reality wash over me too. The need to fold into myself gradually lessened and I leaned into my support system some more. I let him carry some of the weight.
Days later, I’ve come to acknowledge yet another freeing fact. I can acknowledge those truths. I can even let that despair that comes with those truths wash over me. I can feel - really feel all that comes with those truths - and I will be okay. Maybe not the same, but okay.
I realized those hurts were slowly replaced by joy. The waves became waves of gratitude. I may never experience those things again, but I was lucky enough to experience them before. I was lucky enough to find two videos that captured her spirit. I can listen and watch them any time I want.
I will hold on to that gratitude. I will allow myself moments to really FEEL, to allow myself to crumple onto the sink or into the arms of someone I love because that emotion needs to be honored. But eventually, I will let those waves of hurt calm and become waves of joyful reminisce.
Meghann and Ziggy Guentensberger are Rylie's parents. During their time in the hospital with Rylie and after her death, they began writing about their experiences. What started as a way to keep people informed of Rylie's condition, turned into a way for them to process all that was happening. After she died on May 26, 2017 they both continued to write as a way to process and heal themselves and occasionally inspire others. These writings are housed on the Rylie's ARK Facebook page.