Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Conversation

I had a conversation with another bereaved mom this week. It touched upon many of the things I’ve experienced on this grief-journey, so I decided to share some of it with you. My friend’s child died suddenly, as a young adult. The following is part of our discussion.

“It doesn’t matter what people who haven’t been through this think about anything you feel, say or do. They are not walking in your shoes. They are lucky, but ignorant. We don’t have to explain ANYthing to them.

“I feel the same way about looking at her photographs as you do; I don't get tired of them, ever. In the beginning, it was the last photos of her life…her last year. I wanted to honor her strength, courage, and her glorious beauty as she was recovering from the treatment. Then, I started to go farther back, and to remember the happier, healthy days. My mom loves to look at her photos; my dad is hurt by looking at them. They have had disagreements about what to do about this.

“I know a woman whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver (the drunk plowed into a group of kids who were walking back from a youth-group event on a sidewalk). My friend, the mother, said that she and her husband had a “silent argument” for months, in which he would close the door to their daughter’s room, and she would open it. He would close it again, and she would open it again. That’s just one example of the impact of a child’s death on a marriage. As you and I know, there are many more impacts.

“About the cremation: when Katie passed away, I washed her body with the Hospice nurse’s help, changed her clothing, took a lock of her hair, and then sat in her room with her for a few hours. I was so sad to have to remove the jewelry I had given to her, and that she loved so much. I kissed her. We left the room when the undertaker came to take Katie’s body from home; it was a very harrowing feeling. We couldn’t watch them put her in a body bag, nor watch them take her out of the house. The three of us huddled in our bedroom until they were gone.

“Picking up the ashes from the funeral home was weird. And you have probably read (on my blog) what happened when we scattered some of her ashes this summer: a major setback, for me. I had to re-group and re-think how I was going to deal with the rest of her ashes. I’m only thankful we didn’t scatter them all at once, because I have now set some of them aside to keep for myself. I didn’t think I would feel this way, but there it is. Katie wanted them scattered, and I thought it would feel as if we were fulfilling a promise and honoring her wishes. I also thought it would feel as if we had set her free, as though she was now ‘everywhere around us,’ in the body of water that we live next to, where she grew up, but instead, it felt like we had thrown a part of her away. Who would have guessed?

“The thought of moving forward without Katie in our lives felt like abandoning her, and there is NO WAY that I was going to accept leaving her behind. In fact, as a mother, I think our children are somehow hard-wired into our systems, no matter how old they are. Your son may take a different shape in your life, but I don’t think of it as ‘letting him go.’ I like your idea of ‘Aloha’ much better than letting go. As to taking him with you, I think it’s perfectly normal to want to do that. So how do I take Katie with me?

“She gave me a wonderful gift when she was dying. She made a motion to take a handful of her heart, and then she put it on my heart, and told me, ‘Now, I’ll always be in here.’ I did the same for her, then, and you know what? She IS in my heart. I take a lot of comfort from that intentional gesture on her part. You can see that she was far more mature than her 12 years by the time she died.

“A few years ago, before Katie got sick, I bought a figurine. When Katie was sick, a friend from the hospital ‘coincidentally’ sent her a smaller version of the exact same figurine. They are on the right side of the attached photo. It’s like a mother & daughter.

You see how they have their hands on their hearts? It's also perfect that they are listening to shells. Katie loved her cell phone, and we both love the beach. I thought of it as a ‘shell phone.’ I put them together where I sit to pray, and they remind me that we can ‘hear’ each other, in some way.

“I don’t visualize heaven very well, but I think of her in sort of a parallel dimension. I imagine that she is aware of us, as we are of her; I send love to her, talk to her in my heart, tell her when I am missing her, say goodnight to her when I go to bed. I have NOT ‘let go’ of her, but on some days, I am more aware of her than on others. I think of her as busy with her own new life, and somehow, I trust that it is good.

“I haven’t packed up her room. I will have to re-arrange some of it this spring, as we are going to have an exchange student from France for 10 days, who will stay in Katie’s room. Katie would have LOVED that! So I feel that it’s okay to winnow some things out for our guest, but I am not looking forward to it.

“When I open Katie’s dresser drawers or her closet, fresh grief assaults me. I cannot imagine having to suddenly pack up my child’s room or apartment and close it forever. The shock, the sense of ‘undoing’ what he had intentionally created would be a nightmare and a horror. I’ve taken photos of Katie’s room as she left it. I’ve thought about making a quilt from her favorite clothes, but am not sure I could stand to cut them up.

“I don’t think you were wrong to assume that the ‘abundant life’ is available here and now. It is still abundant; it is just broken. Life goes smoothly and beautifully, and then it gets broken in pieces, but I feel that the Lord is in the midst of the broken times & places, too. It is IMPERFECT, but still abundant.

“One other thing that Katie told me when she was dying, now deeply comforts me.  I said to her, ‘I will miss you every day, and send love to you every day, and when I die, I will come looking for you.’ And she said to me, ‘You won’t have to look for me; I’ll be waiting for you.’

“It makes me tearful, but I remember how sure she was when she said it.”

I can’t wait to see her again, to feel her presence, to feel the love and life-energy flowing between us again. I miss her so much.

As Jackson Browne so perfectly said,

“You’re the hidden cost

and the thing that’s lost

in everything I do…

yeah, and I’ll never stop looking for you

in the sunlight and the shadows

and the faces on the avenue…

that’s the way love is…”


Karen Gerstenberger is the mother of David and Katie, and the wife of Gregg. She blogs at and at


  1. Wow... that was powerful. So beautifully written, really stirred up a lot of emotion in me. I do a similar thing with my young daughter- taking a handful of my heart, and usually "placing" it in her pocket, so she can keep me in there all day with her.
    How she felt about spreading her ashes & clearing her room- I imagine it would be very difficult to let go.
    I'm sure Katie IS waiting for her :)

  2. I am too deeply moved by your words and your generosity in allowing us a glimpse of what you live with daily to come up with anything more to say than "Thank you."

  3. My God. That is one beautiful thing after the next. The heart gesture is so profound -- I'm in awe and full of sorrow, all at once. Bless you.

  4. Thank you for sharing your heart with us.

  5. Lovely...truly lovely. Your daughter sounds so amazing.

  6. Karen -- this is so beautiful and touching. I am so grateful that you share these intimate thoughts and moments with us. I always read posts about Katie through a veil of tears. Sending love.

  7. beautiful, karen .. as always.
    the gesture of putting her heart in yours is breathtaking. she was an incredible young lady.