[OPINION] Sacred spaces

Armadem Nuñeza
[OPINION] Sacred spaces
'My daughter's death was my own death but instead of passing on, I lived to see my own life crumble apart'

It was the spring of 2016. We walked this path a hundred times before but today, the mud was ankle-deep and the grass was overgrown. It was the only route so we persisted.

My daughter tried gallantly to conquer fields of grass that were taller than her, parting them in a group using only her hands. She stepped on a few budding flowers and said “Tada!” when she surpassed the wide expanse of foliage just to get to our local playground.

If I were to be asked where my daughter’s favorite place is, it would be this playground. The same place where I got the call from her doctor telling me that my baby has leukemia.

From a parent’s perspective, it is difficult to explain how death affects you. It is not emptiness or a dark void but an overwhelming sense of quietness. The loneliness doesn’t kill you; it is the silence that comes after when the people have left and you are forced into this unwelcome, deafening stillness. (READ: The art of letting go: Truths about parenthood)

I grew up in a big family of 8. It was chaotic and noisy but the chatter was always comforting. It is that clamor of sibling fights and petty debates over which flavor of ice cream to buy that makes it familiar. The sort of filial idiosyncrasy that stirs up homesickness when you are away from home for too long.

When I became a mother, it was the ceaseless noise of toys banging on the door that annoyed me. The irony is that, the same sound of hard plastic hammered on wood is what I miss the most.

They always say to never take what you have for granted. It is an old adage that has been said countless times as a reminder to always be grateful. But I was just that, incredibly thankful for my kid. I was deeply in love – a kind of love that was different from what I felt with my husband. It was softer and stronger at the same time. I wanted to protect her but also give her wings. I loved being a mother and not once did I take it for granted. I knew early on that my days with her may be long but the years would always be short.

I just didn’t realize how short. 

For 5 years, she was all I did with my life, but now I have nothing to show for it. I relinquished my entire identity, hopes, and ambitions just to take care of her. Years of creating moments of perfect warmth and happiness, and suddenly, there was emptiness.

I went to therapies, counseling and support groups for parents but instead of finding solace, all I saw was my own grief reflected in the eyes of mothers and fathers still coping after years of losing their child. They tell me their own stories and they ask for mine because they said talking is helpful; that it is the best road for healing.

But the communal narration of sob stories did not help me. In fact, it had a sense of morbidity to it. I did not want to know how their children died, what they did to save their marriages after the loss or how they dealt with survivor’s guilt. I just wanted to slip out quietly and deal with my own loss without an audience. (READ: How far can a mother’s determination go?)

Family and friends tell me all these sympathetic messages: how my daughter is now in good hands, that everything happens for a reason, that she’s now in heaven’s gate holding God’s hands. My personal favorite was always how “at least” now she’s no longer hurting.

The obligatory condolences sounded cliche to me, said by people who never experienced what it was like to lose a child. The grief doesn’t end after the funeral is over. The mourning starts after everyone has settled back into their own routine and you are forced to live a house that once echoed your daughter’s laughter and cries. She is gone and no words or prayers will ever change the fact that I will no longer hold my daughter.

My daughter’s death was my own death but instead of passing on, I lived to see my own life crumble.

The worst thing is being reminded of my daughter by the most innocent and banal of things. I could be buying groceries and out of habit, pick up her favorite cookie. Or wake up suddenly at 5 am, only to be reminded that I do not need to cook her breakfast or prepare her lunch. The reminders are in everything I do and everywhere I go. And every time, it stings. The pain comes back not as heavy as in the beginning but still bad enough.

It has been almost two years since she died. The initial pain has passed but the feeling of melancholy still lingers. Her memories have started to fade into an abyss of vagueness. I have forgotten how she smells or what she looks like sleeping or what her soft hum of breathing sounds like. 

I know I’m still not in the best place emotionally and I don’t think I will ever be. When it comes to your children, how do you ever get over the loss? No parents should outlive their children and have to bury them. The pain is inexplicable; it feels like your heart can actually break. Maybe this is why there is no word to describe a parent who lost a child.

Today, I braved the path that led to her favorite place. The grass was shorter this year. They were sparse in between the clumps of moss, and wet under the early morning dew. 

It was only 6 am so I was the first one there. I sat on the bench near the sandpit where my daughter and I used to make castles.

Normally, it was full of kids but this time, it was quiet. Everything was at a standstill and it muffled the noise of my thoughts as I tried to cling to every memory of her. There wasn’t the slightest sound and it created an atmosphere of utmost tranquility.

I was so sure that going there would awaken a familiar heartbreak but it did not. I was always carrying this mixed bag of emotions but today it felt lighter. It was the first time I felt calm.

To find serenity in common spaces we used to share is almost an improbable feat but attaining it unexpectedly becomes holy and sacred.

I don’t know how to find healing after her death but I will walk our old paths and hopefully find this almost tangible calmness just to feel a momentary semblance of peace. – Rappler.com

Armadem Nuñeza, 28, lost her daughter to cancer.

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