The Backpack

Christa Doran Uncategorized 2 Comments

I do my best to balance on the heels of my blue suede pumps as a hazy and delicious IPA sloshes around in the mason jar I cling to with both hands and I answer one of my least favorite questions… “So…how are you?”

Tonight, I don’t mind that she asked me this question, and I take a moment, staring thoughtfully into the distance as I try to convey in words just how I really am, 18 months after Lea’s death.

I feel my eyes narrowing as I tell her about my anger. I tell her I feel like I want to punch someone, or kick something or break something. I have so much anger….

You have every f*ing right to be angry she tells me as I am yanked from the image of me shattering the contents of a china cabinet as I scream like a madwoman… or like a mother mourning the loss of her child. 

I tell her I know, but this anger is not serving me. I don’t like the ways I am showing up. I don’t like the way my anger makes me see red. I don’t like the person who fires back in a fit of rage, as the real me is extracted from my raging body and floats above, watching the anger take hold. This anger is not serving me. 

I pondered some more, shifting around in my heels as my feet are starting to ache. Someone who usually wears a colorful variety of cushioned and comfy athletic shoes certainly suffers the consequences when they try to be trendy and chic. But you should see these blue suede heels…

I ponder for another moment, take a sip and decide to tell her about my backpack. Inside this backpack, which I wear every day, is my pain, grief, sorrow and recently, rage. I cannot put it down, and on the particularly hard days, it feels like it weighs one million pounds. At least. Other days, the load feels lighter and I am able to cover more ground. I smile more and struggle less, even though my backpack remains fully intact.  After Lea died, people saw this backpack. They could identify its contents and expected me to be different, to act differently, to show up differently. But today, 18 months later, they no longer see it. They see me showing up, doing all the things I should be, smiling, and living my life. They can see that my eyes are less puffy and red these days as the number of hours I spend crying is drastically reduced. They don’t see the backpack, but I still carry it. 

Carrying this backpack, while trying not to seem like I am carrying it, is exhausting. It is so heavy, and takes up so much space, and yet I must navigate life like I am not wearing it. Life moves on, even though I wish for just one moment that the world would stop to recognize my pain and my pack. The sun rises and sets and we keep moving forward. I have to be a mom, and a wife, and a friend, and a coach, and a leader, and run my business, and produce, and inspire and create and churn… and I am just. so. tired. The load is heavy, even though I carry it well… even though you might not even be able to tell I am carrying it. 

To date, I have hugged three women who have lost their children. The last one asked me just a few weeks after losing her son “How do you do it?” I shook my head as I held her tightly, arms wrapped around her backpack, tears rolling down her face. I told her, I don’t know how. You just do. She told me she feels empty… hollow without her son here and I nod, my own tears starting to form as I know this feeling all too well. The hollowness. The emptiness. The heaviness of this pack we are forced to carry.

Every day I navigate this world with a huge part of me missing. That hollow feeling never goes away, but somehow we learn to live with it’s awful presence. Somehow we learn how to move forward carrying this unbearable weight. Somehow we learn to live without their love. 

She asked me as I polished off the last sip of beer if I could put my backpack down. I slowly nodded my head no gazing down into my now, empty glass. Empty. How fitting.

What I realized recently, that I didn’t have the insight to tell her on that night, was that while I can’t put my backpack down, I am not carrying it alone. I am supported by an army of family and friends, who, with outstretched arms push me, and my pack up this mountain. And on the days when my backpack is so heavy that I can’t take one more step, they make space and sit beside me on this brutiful journey, bearing witness to me and my pack. 

Truth Telling: I See You.

Christa Doran Uncategorized 25 Comments

I fumble clumsily in the dark, trying get my alarm to silence, pull my sweatshirt over my head and check in… what is my truth today? Too early, I decide. Coffee first. A piping hot dark roast with just enough cream is filled to the brim of my favorite insulated mug and I snuggle up with a blanket and a new book for a quiet hour before my day begins.

Ninety minutes later the rush has set in and I am caught up in a tornado of lunches and winter weather gear, checking the boxes in my head to ensure everyone has what they need before heading out for the day. Keira’s arms are full of things she wants to take “on the ride” as if we are heading out on a weeklong road trip. I remind her it is just ten minutes to school but she insists, and I cave, with a sigh. Hold this please momma, she instructs as she goes to get her bright blue sneakers off the shelf. I take one of the objects in her hand, trying my hardest not to look too closely… not to soak it in She notices my behavior and provides another instruction, LOOK at it momma. I glance at the picture collage and my heart starts to crack, my eyes start to fill. Not today. I have things to do today, meetings to engage in and a long list of things that need my focus. I cannot sit in this today.

The sun has come and gone and here we are again. That is the beautiful and brutal thing about life. The worst thing you can imagine happens, and the next day, the sun rises, you realize it was not a nightmare, again… and the world goes about their business.

You don’t want it to. You feel as if the earth should stop spinning on its axis and split down the middle, as it to take part in your unbearable pain. But no. Life marches on and the Instagram feed continues to be filled with birthday’s, proposals, weddings, new babies, celebrations, family vacations and what feels like one million reminders of what you don’t have. Anymore.

Last night a “Facebook friend” and fellow DIPG mom posted about it being her son’s birthday. He would have been nine. I had a moment for her, imagined her pain, offered up a prayer for peace, and typed three words in the box. I see you.

Some might have wondered why I would write such a thing. To me, I see you, lets her know I am bearing witness to the painful and horrible events that are unfolding in her life, and allows her pain to be hers. Yes, I could have written, I know exactly what you are going through. Hang in! Stay strong! But I didn’t. Because I don’t. And also, because that is not helpful. Ever. At all. That post was about her, and her son, her family and her pain… not mine. I see you, allows it to be hers, but also lets her know that she is not alone. Because it sure does feel lonely, as the world continues on and you are left looking down at what feels like the broken remains of your life.

We all have pain. Sharing it makes us feel less alone. It lets us know that there are others out here under the waves, being crushed by big rocks, trying to make it to another day. Our rocks are different. They vary in weight and size, and we truly don’t know how it feels to be under that exact rock. Remember that the next time you are ready to tell someone you know how they feel, or you know exactly what they are going through. Because you don’t. But that doesn’t mean you can’t bear witness to their struggle and let them know, I am here. I got you.

Thank you for sharing your pain with me. I was overwhelmed by the honesty and courage in your stories. I read them with tears streaming down my face, whispering to the screen, I see you.

I write to you from the glider I nursed all three of my babies in. The place you will find me every other night, when it is my “turn” to sit with Keira while she falls asleep, something we have struggled with since the rose colored glasses hit the ground and shattered into unfindable pieces.

Keira went to bed one night and Lea was there, sleeping. The next day Lea was gone and never came back. I might imagine that would create a feeling of fear and uncertainly in a four year old. And so, here I glide, writing my truths.

Hi, I’m Christa. Today I feel tired in every sense of the word. My body is tired, my mind is tired, my soul is tired, my spirit is tired, every part of me is tired. Today, my grief feels as if I am being pinned under a large rock. The weight of the boulder is there all of the time, but several times a day, a smaller rock pierces me and adds to the pain. Every morning I wake and pray that today is the day the rock will be lifted. I am hopeful that day will come soon. It always does. The waves pull you down and hold you under, but eventually, you come up for air. Hopefully tomorrow, there will be some air.

Your turn.

xo

Christa

Truth Telling Day One: The Painted Face

Christa Doran Uncategorized 30 Comments

Like opposing ends of a magnet being pulled towards each other, I felt drawn to her. I approached slowly, studying her face, her body, her eyes and her surroundings. She is so sad, I thought to myself. I wondered why her face was painted black and her hair cut short unlike any of the other women that I saw when I look around. I know that hurt, and I see you. I see your pain. After having a moment with this statute, I looked around to make sure no one saw my antics and marched on. A few minutes later I found myself in a room adjacent to the village and saw the woman again. Here, they told her story. This woman is morning the death of her husband. She has blackened her face and cut her hair to express her sorrow. Her period of mourning could last up to a year.

I look at her and instantly wish I could paint my face black. I study her face, her eyes, her pain once more and tell myself that a painted face would most definitely make life easier. I wouldn’t feel like such an imposter. My outside would match the inside and send a message to anyone around that says, Here is my pain. Remember. See me, sit beside me and bear witness.

In the wake of last nights blog, and my decision to each day, re-introduce myself to myself as a check in of sorts, I have decided I will capture it here and share it. Part in effort to normalize grief and the grieving process, part in an effort to let all you who are weary know that you are not alone. I see you and I share in your pain.

Those were the exact words I said to my friend today as I held her hand, our glossy eyes looking at each other with a both knowingness and a brokenness for our present situation, and also with a sense of gratitude to have someone to sit with and bear witness to our pain.

I see your pain and it’s big. I also see your courage and it’s bigger.

Glennon Doyle

Because, really, that is all we want. I don’t want advice, or pity, or a strategy or game plan or a tissue. I want someone to see my pain and not try to fix it or heal it or make it better. I want them to see my tears and let them fall. I want them to have the courage to sit in silence as they bear witness. But people are uncomfortable with pain. Experiencing it personally, or watching it happen to someone else. We don’t like it. We want to run from it, escape from it, numb it, treat it, mask it, hide it, wrap in up in a box and shove it wayyyy back in the deepest, darkest part of our being. We want to coat it with something cleaner, prettier, and less messy. The pain reminds us that life is precious and fragile and yes, this can happen to anyone.

I write to you wearing the same “salty” sweatshirt I wore all day yesterday. The sun came up, a new day started, and here I am showing up in my dirty sweatshirt, with my courage, writing about my pain…again. I decided that for as long as it is helpful to me, I will do my best to start my day with truth telling. I would love to hear your truth telling as well. Feel free to share in the comments and together, we can bear witness.

Hi, I’m Christa. Today I put on clean pants and feel a tinge of hope. Today I decided that I can be in pain, and still show up. That’s courage. I can be scared and still show up. That’s brave. Even in this dark place, I can show up and bring what I have to each day and be honest with myself and others in the process. That is honesty and vulnerability. I can see your pain and stand beside you in silence. That is bearing witness. I can be angry and sad and mad and not feel like me, and yet still love the person I am. Because that person was thrown into the fire and came out the other side. And I think that deserves a celebration… and possibly a clean sweatshirt.

Imposter

Christa Doran Uncategorized 18 Comments

Please check all that apply. Tired. Check. Trouble sleeping. Check. Sadness. Check. Depressed. Question mark. I walk the plastic clipboard back to the window, return to one of the gray seats that fill the waiting room and start to ponder my answers. I wonder if anyone has ever put a question mark next to depressed. I don’t think I am depressed… I think I am grieving… but I am not sure. What I do know is I don’t feel like me. I really hope she doesn’t ask me about that question mark…

My body feels heavy as I drop into the wicker chair in our dining room and start crying. I am finally ready to answer the question Mike has been asking me for weeks. The one I brush off with an annoyed “I’m fine. I don’t want to talk.”

I am wearing my softest, oversized sweatpants and sweatshirt to match, the word “salty” is inked across the front. It is the most honest thing about me right now.

I don’t feel like myself... I start to tell Mike as I feel the tears start to sting my eyes. I am morphing into an anti-social recluse who I don’t recognize. I don’t want to go out anymore. I don’t want to be with anyone or engage in conversation. I cannot wait to get home to wash the day off my face and get in my soft, warm sweatpants. My emotions feel short and sharp and I have to work hard to temper my anger throughout the day. I want to be home, on my oversized couch, in my oversized clothes, cuddling with my girls. I used to seek out conversation and look forward to social events… now I try to come up with every excuse not to be around people. I jet out early, avoid eye contact, walk quickly with my head down, and dart down aisles to avoid human contact and conversation. It’s just so exhausting being around people now. All these new and unwelcome personality traits are making me feel like an imposter. I miss my old self and the old “rose colored” world that she lived in.

We “survived” the holidays so to speak. A vision of Lea presenting Jesus with a bright and beautiful birthday card (as she always did) came to me on Christmas Eve as I gazed out the car window sitting in my sorrow, anger and indifference. It was a beautiful, peaceful image that helped me get through our first Christmas without her. I am sure the card she crafted for Jesus was magnificent, just as she was.

I can tell the people who have already forgotten what happened to us… to Lea. They excitedly ask how our holidays were with a big smile. I wonder if they see my face change and my body tense up. I wonder if they see my hands are forming fists, my knuckles turning white. I try my best to fight the war that is raging inside me. I force a smile and answer with my standard “they were fine thanks” before finding a swift exit away from this place. Inside I am screaming and yelling and punching. It is exhausting being two people. Imposter.

Nine months later, people expect it to be getting better… for me to be getting better. For the “healing” to be taking place, and the scar to be forming. While I don’t care one bit what “people think,” I guess a part of me thought I would be in less pain. Time heals all things, right? Maybe not this. There is no system for grieving, no path to follow. Nothing to help it heal faster, or to keep the waves from pulling me under and holding me there. I must endure. I must persist…but I am just so tired of enduring, and so exhausted from persisting.

Each day I wake up and wonder if I will feel like her again. If I will want to go out with my friends, attend the parties, and be in the center of the action. I wonder if my smiles will be less forced and if I will be less tired. I wonder if today is the day I will feel like one person again… one whole person who does’t feel split down the middle, ripped open, trying frantically to control the deluge of sorrow.

My grief is a solid brick wall in front of me. I want to bulldoze through it, scale it, tear it down a brick at a time. I’m desperate to get to the other side of the wall so I can see what’s waiting for me down the path. But the wall will not budge, or let me climb, or let me remove a single brick. All it will allow me to do is lean against it, exhausted. Grief is nothing but a painful waiting, a horrible patience. Grief cannot be torn down or scaled or overcome or outsmarted. It can only be outlasted. Survival is surrender to the brick. There is no such thing as progress, or if there is, it’s not linear. Every day, I wake up and march the same lap of grief, rage, and panic.

Glennon Doyle, Love Warrior

This world is full of imposters. They fill our lives and our social media feeds— their photos are smiling and happy and filtered, they tell us they are “Great! Good. Fine.” What I have learned is that like me, many are hiding hurt behind that forced smile. This world is full of pain. People are hurting. People are navigating tragedy and doing their best to heal from traumatic events while continuing to show up to life… in something other than sweatpants.

Imagine if everyday we woke up and told ourselves the truth. What would that look like? What I know is that every day is different and we show up different to every day. Today, my truth would look like this…

Hi, my name is Christa and right now, I want to be alone in my sweatpants. I miss my child, and my old life and right now, what feels best to me is being at home with my family… in my sweatpants. I am tired, and sad, and for the first time in a while, being honest with myself about where I am, and who I am… or who I have become. Over the past few months I have tried to busy myself into a better place because I was tired of grieving… tired of the pain, and of the sitting in the uncomfortable places. It’s lonely and exhausting and I want to feel true happiness again. I want to feel like me again, and I am scared this is how I will be… forever.

As my fingers fly across the keyboard and words fill the page I decide my only choice is to sit here and endure, and outlast, and march on, and try to love this new person…sweatpants and all.

It’s easy to sing
When there’s nothing to bring me down
But what will I say
When I’m held to the flame
Like I am right now

I know You’re able and I know You can
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone

They say it only takes a little faith
To move a mountain
Well good thing
A little faith is all I have, right now
But God, when You choose
To leave mountains unmovable
Oh give me the strength to be able to sing
It is well with my soul

I know You’re able and I know You can
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone
I know the sorrow, and I know the hurt
Would all go away if You’d just say the word
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone

MercyMe, Even If

The Dark and The Light

Christa Doran Uncategorized 7 Comments

Pain changes your life forever. But so does healing from it. -Kayil York

I woke up on the angry side of the bed today. It happens a lot. So this is how today is going to be. Ok. But I hate this. I hate the tears that are already forming in my eyes before I even have the chance to brew my morning coffee. I hate the knot that has formed in my stomach and is twisting, turning, tearing through my insides. I hate the heaviness… the brokenness I feel in my heart. I can feel the tension in my jaw and the anxiety building in my body and I want to put my fist through a window. It’s not even 7am and I want to break something. My life is destroyed, why not punch things? But I can’t punch things, so instead I lift heavy, heavy weights, push my body physically in the gym and take ice cold showers. When the pain on the outside matches the pain on the inside, I feel better, calmer, more able to bear the burden, carry the load, play the shit hand life has dealt us. I don’t want this life. 

Every day, I feel like a living example of those t-shirts that show the same person experiencing twenty different emotions. Processing all the feels so much of the time is exhausting. I just want to feel like me again… all of the time.

The events we attend to honor Lea, keep her memory alive and raise money for her cause turn me into that t-shirt and then some. I am beyond grateful for the stream of love and support, and how the troops continue to rally so she is not forgotten… but then I have to show up to these events that I wish didn’t exist because she was here with us. And every time I see her joy-filled face, or colorful, bright art attached to the event, twenty of me show up, but the loudest me wants to put my fist through a window. The loudest me is usually the angry one. The one who catches a glimpse of that sweet face and then feels the heat and anger rising, rising, rising like the tide. Look away quickly before you feel too much. I hate that it is my child, and this is my life and I have to carry this load for the rest of my life. That horrific fact stirs up all sorts of uncomfortable, dark emotions. This. Is. Forever.  Give me back my old life. 

So many painful contradictions in my head and in my heart pull me in all different directions. Look at her pictures but not for too long… it hurts too much. Think about the memories, but not for too long or you won’t be able to function. Sit in your grief and sorrow, but not for too long, you have things to do, a business to run, children to raise and people who need you. You can’t live covered in tears and snot for the rest of your life. My mind and heart feel like they are a split personality every day. I don’t want this life. I don’t want this story.  

We have tolerated a chain of painful events since I last wrote. Moments and events that should be filled with joy and happiness are now painful and leave my insides dark and twisted.

 First family trip… as four. August 2018

 First Halloween without Lea

 Back to school 2018

It felt like a betrayal when I finally changed the screen saver on my oversized iPhone. So much so that I had a conversation with her first. It went like this… Lea, I love you, and I will never forget you, and I can’t wait to see you again… but it hurts too much to see your bright, sweet face every time my phone lights up, and so I have to do this. Set New Image. Dry eyes. Clean face. Get back up.

That was a big moment for me. It was a turning point down yet another dark hallway. This is my family now. When people tell me “Lea will always be a part of your family. Lea is always with you. Lea will always be your daughter…” I get angry and want to break things. Those people are the lucky ones who get to tuck their child into bed each night. They get to kiss them, and love them, and hug them and get angry at them for fighting with their siblings, or not clearing their dinner plate, or for grinding bright green play dough into the carpet. They get to take them on trips, and send them off to school, and dress them up for Halloween, and buy them Christmas gifts and dream about their future and what they will become. We won’t experience any of those things with Lea. She is not with me, and no, I don’t feel her. She is gone. My normal is shattered and my life feels like it is broken into one million pieces with dangerously sharp and painful edges.

Normal died with her. So how the hell do I survive this? How do I make it feel better and hurt less? How do I live as this new person, with a life that is the stuff my nightmares were made of? How do I make this tolerable? How do I live here in this dark place? I don’t want to live here. 

What I’ve learned is that I can’t fix this. Grief is not a problem to fix, it is a burden to carry. I can’t make it hurt less. I can’t “work” my way into the light. I have to figure out how to live as this new person. How to carry the load, and how to wear the scars. I have to surrender to the dark. -Christa Doran

 Art by Megan Craig

There was a beauty and freedom that came the day I stopped fighting, and surrendered to what was, what is, and what will be. Arms tossed into the air, knees hit the ground, covered in tears and snot, I surrendered. I stopped fighting and I sat there. In the dark. In this place that felt impossible, painful, horrible and uncomfortable. It still hurts like hell, but I allow myself to sit here…to rest here in the mud and to not be ok. I don’t try to fix it. Or numb it. Or resist it. Or fight it. I sit in it. I carry it. I hold it. I feel it. I honor it. I endure it. And ok, sometimes I numb it.

Being in the dark day after day taught me that I can survive this awful place. It is less scary now. It still hurts, but I fear it less and less each time I get pulled down here. I know I can tolerate dark and uncomfortable places. I now know I can withstand the pain that results from living through my worst nightmare.The light will come again, but for now, I will surrender. I will sit in the anger and indifference and sadness. I will sit, and wait, and pray.

I never thought I would or could make it through this. Yet here I am. Not ok, but showing up. I recently  told my story in front of two large groups of strangers. It was messy and raw and filled with tears (and yes, snot). The story was one of hope and resilience and surrendering to your situation. It went like this…

  • It is ok to be uncomfortable. We can do hard things. Seemingly impossible things. We can endure more discomfort than we realize.
  • It doesn’t have to be ok. You don’t have to be ok. We need to stop lying about where we are and start telling the ugly, honest truth. I’m here, I am showing up. I don’t look like a homeless person, I am clean and my clothes are ironed, but I am not ok. And that is ok.
  • You can fight it, resist it, numb it all you want. But whatever “it” is for you, will still be there when you get up.
  • There are times when you simply have to stop fighting it and surrender. I was trying to fix the pain of losing her. But I can’t. I had to surrender to it. And sit in it. And endure it.
  • I never thought I would or could make it through this, yet here I am. Not ok. But here. Showing up. We are far more resilient than we know.
  • Grief is not a problem. It cannot be fixed, or treated. It must be carried and endured and we need to find a way to do just that. I am doing things that help me carry this unbearable burden, and that will look differently for everyone.
  • I cannot change what happened to me. But I can choose what I do, what I say and how I live my life moving forward. I choose kindness, and truth, and love, and respect, and family, and friends, and strength (and that looks different day to day) and bravery, and faith, and hope. And showing up as is every day. No apologies.
  • I will take this horrific road one day, and one obstacle at a time and continue to look for joy, and laughter wherever I can find it.

I don’t want this road, I don’t want this life. I miss Lea so much it hurts, everyday, but I know, without a doubt that I will see her sweet face again soon in Heaven, and I long for that day when we meet again. 💙 Until then, I will surrender, and endure the dark.

What is your gift, he asked. I transform pain into power, she said. -Qasim Chauhan

PS- There are three ways you can help raise money for Lea’s chapter of the Cure Starts Now. See our fundraisers page for more info and thanks. You make a difference. xo

Storms & Wonderings

Christa Doran Uncategorized 5 Comments

Once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But when you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what the storm’s all about. -Haruki Murakami

I was told she turned the sky green again, just like she did the night of her wake when a tornado ripped through Hamden. I was told she painted another double rainbow across the sky after the downpour had subsided. A downpour that started at the exact moment we started to gather in her honor to raise money for the thing that took her from us.

Lea was a force of nature. Defiant and about who she was and what she wanted she would dig her heels in and fight. This served her well when life gave her something no child should ever have to face.

Being two minutes early to the fundraiser, we missed the downpour by seconds. I carefully walked up the steps in my gold wedges, thankful my hair was still intact, and opened the heavy, antique doors leading into Roia. I couldn’t breathe. There she was, larger than life, her smile big and bright on poster that stood taller than my 5’2″ frame. They call her the “Hero” of the CT Chapter of the Cure Starts Now, but she was my hero long before this night. I could hear my heart beating in my chest and wondered if everyone around me could see it in my navy jumpsuit with a plunging neckline. My mouth was dry and my legs felt like they might give out beneath me. I took it all in and my mind decided it was all too much. I ran upstairs to let the tears flow and try to compose myself. It felt wrong. Being here for this felt so wrong… but I know it was right. It is what she would want. I used the lessons she taught me in bravery to get up and say what needed to be said.

I nursed a glass of white and paced the beautiful space that was quickly filling up with friends, family and strangers dressed in their best.

This night was planned long before she left us, and to be honest, when she first passed I was indifferent to finding a cure. For Lea, it will be too late. Nothing can bring her back. But as I told the two hundred incredible people that filled Roia, helping is what Lea would want us to do.  The night was filled with joy and sorrow, laughter and tears. It was an overwhelming night were we did a lot of good for this cause and raised over $62,000. And two days later I turned 39.

I miss her every day… it is an excruciating feeling, this missing her.  The day I turned 39 I missed the handmade gifts and bright, colorful cards she would spend hours crafting in honor of special occasions, like birthdays. I missed her at the table as we savored my favorite birthday meal, lobster and corn. There was a empty space at the table where she should be… and my heart feels that every second of every day. I missed her the next day as we took our first photo as a family of four. It felt so empty without that one amazing human added so much to our family.

I imagine her a lot. My imagining contains vivid details, right down to her thick french braids, bright colorful clothes, joyful skip and musical giggle. Last week Liv and Keira were sprinting ahead of me as they always do. I turned and looked behind me, where Lea always was, slowly walking as she took in the world around her, never looking where she was going which would sometimes lead to trips and falls. I would stop and say “come on Lili!” “Coming momma!” she would yell ahead to me as she turned her leisurely stroll into a jubilant trot.

But when I turned, she wasn’t there. She is gone. A word and feeling I struggle with every day. Her presence is missed every moment, and in my mind, she will always be six. I will never have the chance to know her at 7, or 8 or 18 or 28… something I struggle with as I see her little friends running around. I quickly size them up and wonder if Lea would be that size. Or what clothes she would insist on wearing. Or how she would insist I construct her hair. Or what amazing art she would have created. So many wonderings. So much sadness.

The weather today is exactly like it was one year ago on this day. How do I know this? Because that was the day I watched Lea fall off her bike and run away in tears screaming that she can’t ride her bike anymore. It was the day we sobbed together on the cream sofa of our brightly lit living room as she told me that she didn’t feel like Lea anymore. That her body felt lazy. That she was hearing voices in her head that were trying to change her. That there was a monster in her brain that was trying to kill her. That was August 9, 2017, the day I called the doctor and said I need to come in, now. One day later they found the monster in Lea’s head. It was a tumor growing in her brainstem called DIPG, that did indeed kill her exactly nine months later.

Tomorrow marks one year of this hell on earth, and three months since she left us.

Today my heart hurts more than usual. Today there is a pit in my stomach that won’t leave. One year went by so fast. We endured so much. And we miss her more than ever.

As I told the amazing community of supporters at Roia, Lea’s short life was not wasted. She continues to impact how I live my life, and I know she does the same for many of you. I have received countless emails, cards and messages about the impact she had on you and the changes you have made in your life because of her story.

Since the start of this hell, I have compared the feelings of grief, mourning and sorrow to a storm that comes and goes in waves. I often imagine myself in the ocean, some days the water is calm and I am floating above the water able to breathe, function and find joy. Other days I am bobbing up and down, some moments my head is above water, other moments I am submerged under the waves. And there are the bad days, the days I sink like a stone to the bottom of the deep ocean, unable to breathe, feeling like I won’t make it, and maybe I don’t want to.

Thank you to those who are my breath in the deep deep water. I am grateful I can continue to find purpose on the days when I sink to the bottom like a stone. That purpose allows me to resurface and move forward, whenever the storm passes.

I have learned that grief is a process that becomes a part of your story… it is knitted into the fabric of who you are. It is not something you get over, or move past, it is a new way of being.

I have been doing my best to grieve Lea, but also honor her. I know she would want me to be happy. She hated to see me in pain, or sad. She wanted to fix it with a hug and an “I love you momma…” Now more than ever, I could really use some of that Lea medicine. I will continue to honor her with the way I live my life. She has been and continues to be my greatest teacher ever.

Grief never ends… But it changes. It’s a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith… It is the price of love.

Enduring The Grief

Christa Doran Uncategorized 13 Comments

I had my own notion of grief. I thought it was a sad time that followed the death of someone you love. And you had to push through it to get to the other side. But I’m learning there is no other side. There is no pushing through. But rather, there is absorption. Adjustment. Acceptance. And grief is not something you complete. But rather you endure. Grief is not a task you finish, and move on, but an element of yourself- an alteration of your being. A new way of seeing, a new definition of self.

-Gwen Flowers

Last week someone asked me  “How is today for you Christa?” I responded with “What a great way to ask that question. I appreciate that. Thank you. Today, I am ok.” Every day brings with it a new set of emotions, different levels of pain, sorrow, sadness and grief, as well as seemingly benign events that can send the waves crashing down over me. Today Mike and I looked over at our oversized, L-shaped sofa and thought back to where we were exactly two months ago, cradling Lea in our arms, soaking every second of our last few hours with her.

 Our last photo with Lea, hours before she died.

I thought two months into this mess I would be in a different place. I thought the pain and longing would have subsided… even if just a little bit. I thought I would have adjusted to the quieter, less chaotic home now that we have one less child in the mix. I thought I would be less sad, with drier eyes and maybe a bit more sparkle in my soul. I was mistaken. Five weeks in the numbness wore off. I came out of the haze. I woke up feeling empty, looked around at my new world without Lea, and was shaken by it, many days thinking I don’t want to exist in it anymore. A world without one of my pieces. One of my parts. One of my reasons for existing.

 My pieces, 2016. Credit: Christina Rosario Photography

My broken heart starts aching in my chest and then the nausea creeps down into my gut. There are days I just don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t want to feel this way for even one more hour. Parts of me want so badly to fast forward through this time to a less painful point in my life that is, hopefully, off in the distance. But it doesn’t work like that. This is a part of my story. A chapter I wish could be ripped from the pages as if to undo it all… erasing the scars and filling the emptiness.

“Scars are a testament to life. Scars are a testament that I can love deeply and live deeply and be cut, or even gouged, and that I can heal and continue to live and continue to love. And the scar tissue is stronger than the original flesh ever was. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are only ugly to people who can’t see.”

“As for grief, you’ll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it’s some physical thing. Maybe it’s a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it’s a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.”

“In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out.

But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what’s going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything…and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.”

“Somewhere down the line, and it’s different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O’Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself.

And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you’ll come out.” Credit 

The work feels hard. Many days impossible. In order to find my way out of the wreckage, as much as I don’t want to, I am finding ways to help with this process we call grieving. Weekly bodywork, writing this blog openly and honestly, exercising and moving my body, and spending time with those I love are a few of the things I have been doing to help me endure this. I am searching for a therapist to talk to about this process and how to move through this in a way that serves me best. I am saying no to things that I don’t want to do or that don’t feel right for where I am. I am allowing myself to feel, and be, and weep, and mourn any way that feels right to me in that moment. I am not hiding my tears, or my grief, or the messy, ugly parts that go along with this.

I had a dream last week that we lost Keira. I woke up shaken, as I now know, this is a reality. We are touchable. Fragile. Every day I feel so vulnerable in this world, yet every day feels more valuable than it did before August 10. Lea’s death forced us to realize how quickly your “everything” can be taken away from you, and your life can crumble before your eyes.

Many days Lea’s absence seems to consume me. The waves seem bigger, angrier and more violent these past few weeks as we continue to float in the wreckage. Liv and Keira have been missing her more as well. The buffer she created is gone and Liv and Keira fight more than they used to when Lea was here to offer another playmate when one is tired of the other. We talk about Lea all the time… about all the things we loved about her. We tell our favorite Lea stories. Keira wears a Lea shirt. I flip through photos of Lea BC (before cancer) and cry, every time telling her out loud how much I love her and miss her.

On the particularly hard days, when I am missing her the most, I imagine her running, jumping, skipping, laughing, dancing, and painting Heaven with her joy. All things this life took away from her, but the next one can not. I know my work here is not done yet, but I look forward to the day when I join her, and can bask in her joyful sparkle once again.

  Melancholy by Albert Gyorgy. Geneva, Switzerland.

Resilience

Christa Doran Uncategorized 10 Comments

Man never made any material as resilient as the human spirit.” – Bernard Williams

Resilience: The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

Five weeks. The amount of time she has been gone, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts, and what feels like a huge age gap between Liv, 9, and Keira, 4. The amount of time it took for the sympathy cards to stop and the text messages to slow. The amount of time it took for me to wonder if people will forget her… or worse, if we will forget her.

 Our last field trip together.

I was looking back on an image I took exactly one year ago on a field trip with Lea’s class and thought to myself “I wish I had gone to more field trips. I wish I had been there more.” Then, a parent from her class sent me an album filled with photos and videos of class activities and field trips… and there I was. In almost every single image. I am having trouble remembering those amazing times. The funny, silly, joyful times with her. But the ugly, awful, gut wrenching times? Those moments seem to be seared into my memory and haunt me on a daily basis.

I opened her sock drawer for the first time in five weeks and my eyes fell on all the bright, colorful socks that were stuffed in her top drawer. I quickly slammed it shut and walked out of her room remembering the exact socks she was wearing the day they found the tumor, August 10. There are moments like that one where I push it all out of my brain, not wanting to feel it, or process it, or “deal” with it. There are days I imagine she is at a friend’s house, or at school, or still asleep in her bed. And there are days where her absence is undeniable and hurts more than I have the words to describe. Those days I am having a tantrum on the inside, kicking and screaming, writhing on the floor crying, unable to function. But that is on the inside. One the outside, most of the time, I keep it together in order to go about my day and do what is required of me.

What is required of me grows week by week as life fills with more and more normalcy. For the first time in months I sat on the brightly colored couch across from my leadership coach. We discussed what is next for me, and my business, and how I was doing managing the great big mess. Eyes filling with tears I told her that I feel like the worst parts of me died with Lea. The parts of me that were over-scheduled. The parts of me that felt the need to control everything. The parts of me that put work before family and friends. The parts of me that got upset about things the “small stuff” that doesn’t matter. The hasty parts. The uptight parts. The high-strung parts. The fearful parts.

Fear was an emotion I experienced on an almost daily basis before Lea was diagnosed with DIPG. Then, the thing I was the most fearful of happened… and I survived it. It battered me, it beat me down, it tossed me around, it made me unravel. It also made me face my worst fear as it taught me about bravery and resilience and forced me to take deeper roots.

Storms make trees take deeper roots. 

Lea was beautifully different. She was creative, fiery, defiant, and one hundred percent herself. I now stand firmly in who I am and have an unwavering sense of self thanks to her and the perspective she gave me, and so many.

There are only a few tickets left for The Cure Starts Now Fundraiser in Lea’s honor on July 28. Learn more and get your ticket here. 

Me, Bravely.

Christa Doran Uncategorized 13 Comments

Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up. -Anne Lamott

Too many “good” days in a row usually means a kink in the line and a breakdown to follow. The weekend was sunny and bright, filled with lots of distractions and laughter, which is both beautiful and dangerous. When I remain distracted, and don’t take the time to process the sadness and move through the grief, it catches up to me, building and building until is bubbles over when I finally sit in silence.

In the midst of the distractions this past weekend I took a big step and asked someone to take a photo of me, with my two daughters. This is the first time I have taken a photo with my girls since Lea’s death and it was both sad, and a step through the pain. I don’t believe I will ever “move past” this, but I can move through this, however seems right. And taking that photo, on that day, felt right.

Last year

This year’s photo was missing one of my children, as well as the sparkle in my eyes. I looked at the photo and wondered when that sparkle would return, when I wouldn’t look so dead in the eyes…tired, sad and defeated. Then I remind myself that these eyes have seen things they never should have, and while my eyes may have lost their spark, they are filled wisdom, strength, sadness, love, commitment, grief, joy, pain, fatigue, perseverance, more strength and more love (thanks to the friend that reminded me of this). They are a bit less sparkly than they once were because one of my sparks is missing from my life. The spark that allowed me to love deeper than I ever thought possible, to face my darkest fears, and to be me, bravely.

Caring for two, healthy children is easy compared to what we were used to. While the emotional work is hard, the daily and hourly physical work is so much less. Lea required full time care and that took everything we had in order to hold it together and provide her all we could in every way possible. It took so much work to keep our spirits up, to carry and move and position her body, to meet her every need and want. Now that it’s over, it feels like I am experiencing an unravelling of sorts, in every way possible.

Unravelling is a good way to describe how I feel every day since Lea’s death. As I peel back the layers of grief and sorrow, I also have to face the daily triggers, a something that causes deep sadness while reminding us of how much we have lost.

Triggered, as I clean the “teeth” drawer, purging old toothpaste tubes and toothbrushes that should have made their way to the trash months ago, and I find Lea’s toothbrush. I immediately had a vision of her perched on the purple stool, one of us behind her for support, scrubbing her teeth with her left hand as well as her ability allowed on that day. I wanted her to be here so badly, next to me, screaming through foamy mouth that she was done scrubbing and needed a boost to rinse.

Triggered, when I finally threw out the remains of the last thing Lea had baked. I had held onto it long enough and it was starting to mold, but the thought of throwing something away that she made, something I could smell and taste that she had a part in, felt impossible.

I remember scurrying through our cabinets in search of something to bake, preferably, chocolate. Minutes later Sabine and Lea were perched at our kitchen island measuring, mixing and stirring the thick, rich chocolate in a stainless bowl. Later on that night we enjoyed Lea and Bean’s delicious cake, covered in a healthy layer of chocolate frosting and rainbow sprinkles. This was the last cake Lea would ever bake, and the last time she would see her best friend Bean, as she died just two days later. I am so glad I said “yes” to her baking request and the beautiful mess it created.

Lea & Sabine, May 8, 2018

Triggered, when I find her sneakers, still in perfect condition, sitting on our hall shoe rack. I gather all of her shoes and put them in her closet, longing to lace them up for her, even if for just one more time.

Triggered, when one unassuming night I looked at Lea’s empty bed and it hit me that she is never coming back. I imagined her the way she used to be, asleep in her bed, full cheeks and sweet profile, french braids undone from a full day. I start to panic at the thought of never being able to kiss her, or hug or, or smell her, or experience her. That night I went to bed with two of her turtles and two puffy, red eyes.

We have been unable to pack away any of her things. Her room and office exist the way they were when she was with us. I know the day we will come when we will be ready, but that day is not today.

“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” -Vicki Harrison

 May 2

This Thursday will mark one month since her death. We are resuming our routines and finding a new “normal.” I went back to work last night. I am so grateful to do a job that I love, where I feel a deep sense of purpose. I couldn’t imagine returning to work that I hated. Our house is quieter, less chaotic and crazy. Liv and Keira are doing as well as they can be. They have always had a special connection, but now, they are closer than ever. Thick as thieves. Bonded tighter than ever because of this shared tragedy.
I know this is how it is going to be. Lows, and even lower lows. Even (almost) four weeks later, it still seems like a dream, and there are still moments I feel like this can’t be happening. She can’t be gone. Those nine months we had “left” with her went by far too quickly, and I wish we were still in them. Because as bad as many of those moments were, I could hug her and kiss her and smell her. I replay memories of her in my head so as not too forget her. Part of me wants them to fade, in hopes that the pain and sadness will fade with them, and another part is scared to forget her and the amazing girl that she was. I know someday the sparkle in my eyes will return. Until then I will show up and face each day as bravely as I can, because that is what she would do.
Be you. Bravely.
From Lea’s kindergarten journal, January 17, 2017
Saturday, July 28 there is a Lessons From Lea Cocktail Social to benefit The CT Chapter of Cure Starts Now. Get your tickets here. Space is limited and more than 50% of the tickets are sold already!

The Tornado

Christa Doran Uncategorized 21 Comments

To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn’t come with guarantees- these are the risks that involve vulnerability and often pain…I’m learning that recognizing and leaning into the discomfort of vulnerability teaches us now to live with joy, gratitude, and grace. -Brene Brown

I chose an outfit she would have loved, a navy blue polka dot dress and bright green wedges. My petrified body marched into the large room where her wake would be held and took in something no parent every should. My six year old child was in a short, white coffin, surrounded by photos from her too short life. I wailed. I shook. I sobbed. I looked up at the heavens, tears flowing like a faucet. I shook my head “No.” I asked God “Why?” I couldn’t get too close to the coffin without feeling like I might fall over and collapse. I didn’t touch her or kiss her because I refuse to remember her like that.

The funeral was standing room only. Then there was the burial. A goodbye to her earthly body that had betrayed her. Our friends and family walked up two by two, some unable to make eye contact with me, tears falling onto the petals as they laid a single flower on her coffin, then walked away. After everyone had come and gone I stood in the rain and thought… “Now what?” 

Now, the real work starts. The re-building after the wreckage.

The truth is falling hurts. The dare is to keep being brave and feel your way back up. -Brene Brown

Today I drove through the wreckage of the tornado that hit Hamden at the exact moment of Lea’s wake. The past nine months has felt like a tornado. An uprooting of our lives. An angry, violent and tumultuous event that ripped through our family, flipping us upside down, smashing our hearts and souls, and destroying one of the things we love the most in this world.

On that violent night, when I saw my six year old child in a coffin, it felt as if my world was over. If I am being honest, there were moments I wished it was.

 The sky in Hamden during Lea’s wake. Do you see the heart?

We were brave, and strong, and we fought hard with her. Now we have to figure out to heal, and mend, and rebuild a new life, without her. A life that very frankly, scares the shit out of me. And where do you even begin? When the wound feels so deep and raw, like it might never close… where every minute is filled with a new set of emotions.

The next day the sun came up, like it always does. I got out of bed, put one foot in front of the other, and made a coffee… just like every other morning.

 #purpose

It took Lea nine months to grow inside my body. It also took nine months for cancer to overtake her body as we watched. As quickly as I became a mom of three girls, I became a mom of two… and that feels so wrong. Most of the past nine months feel like a blur… a bad dream, a horrible nightmare, filled with the most awful things we could ever imagine enduring. But we did. And here we are, still standing. Forever changed, but still standing. Broken, beaten and so very sad, sprinkled with a touch of anger and a dash of envy…but we are still standing.

We are taking this grieving and healing process one moment at a time. I believe there is no right or wrong way to do this… there is only what feels right to us, today, and every day looks so different. Some nights are unbearable. My newfound anxiety takes control of me, my blood pressure skyrockets and it feels like I want to crawl out of my skin, unable to find peace or calm. On those nights I am thankful for prayer and Ativan. Some mornings are horrible. Like when I forget she is gone and go into her room to wake her up… only to find her empty bed, perfectly made and covered in her favorite stuffies and Beanie Boos. On those mornings, I am thankful for three amazing distractions and work that gives me purpose.

Fear not, for I am with you. -God

Tomorrow would have been Lea’s seventh birthday. To us, she will forever be six.

 One year ago.

I am sure she is eating plenty of chocolate ice cream in heaven, as Lea’s heaven has candy lined streets. I can see her up there, skipping, smiling, painting the heavens in bright and beautiful colors, and making everyone around her laugh as they marvel in her joy and sparkle.  I miss her every second of every day… some seconds hurt more than others.

One of the many things I have learned through this tragedy is the true resilience of the human spirit. It can be shattered into what feels like a million pieces and then, slowly rebuild, stronger and wiser than it was before it was broken. Today marks two weeks since her death. Today I actually laughed. And smiled. And while we are not ok, I know in time we will be.

Lea’s story might be over, but ours isn’t. I will continue to document our “what comes next” and how are are navigating and healing. And to answer to many of your questions, yes. Someday, I hope to write a book, but for now, there is so much more to tell.

Experience and success don’t give you easy passage through the middle space of struggle. They only grant you a little grace, a grace that whispers, “This is the part of the process. Stay the course.” Experience doesn’t create even a single spark of light in the darkness of middle space. It only instills in you a little bit of faith in your ability to navigate the dark. The middle is messy, but also where the magic happens. 
 -Brene Brown, Rising Strong
We would like to compile photos and stories from Lea’s life. If you have anything you can share with us about Lea, your interactions with her or your favorite moments and memories, please email us at lessonsfromlea@gmail.com. Feel free to send multiple stories!
There are a few days left to get your Owl by Lea t-shirt to benefit the CT chapter of the Cure Starts Now. Get yours here. 
Saturday, July 28 there is a Lessons From Lea Cocktail Social to benefit The CT Chapter of Cure Starts Now. Get your tickets here. Space is limited.