Wednesday, February 10, 2010


I’m going to be honest with you:  last week was rough. There were good things in it, too, but overall, it was very difficult.

 Grief is not linear; it’s not a series of stages on a horizontal plane, as some books would have you believe. For me, it’s much more of a spiral journey, in which I meet different feelings and have up-and-down experiences on a continuum. It doesn’t have an ending or a graduation. I will feel better for a while, and then fall into a dark hole. Last week, I fell hard.

 It started with a simple argument with our beloved teenage son. I’m going to take a leap here and guess that practically all families with teenagers have disagreements - with their teenager, and about their teenager. This is considered NORMAL.

 What makes this “normal” experience intensely painful for me is that, having been through such abnormal circumstances since Katie’s cancer diagnosis, treatment and her death, we are an unusually close family. We were a tight-knit foursome before Katie’s illness; we bonded even more in solidarity to support her, living in extremely close quarters (four of us in one room, sharing one bathroom). We worked together daily to help Katie survive both the disease and its treatment. When she died, we became a team of three, and our focus turned to surviving her death - because we didn’t know how to live without Katie - we are still learning how to do that. Since no one other than the three of us experienced what we did (and saw what we saw) in the course of those months, we were a unique band of three. Three strong individualities, blended into a working unit.

 When a senior in high school turns his energies toward the college application process, and then toward the activities of his last year of school, there is a natural movement away from parents and into new territory. I did it when I was his age; most kids make this transition, with some degree of awkwardness and some degree of grace. It’s an exciting time, and I am happy for David, truly thrilled with the prospect of the next steps in his education. In all honesty, as hard as this stage would be for us in normal circumstances - our first child leaving home - it is much harder now that Katie (our youngest) has left home ahead of him, and permanently.

 My friends whose children have graduated from high school assure me that their families went through similar “growing pains” to ours, and that all we are experiencing right now is normal. What does not follow the expected pattern is the exacerbation of my grief for Katie which accompanies David’s pulling away.

 I want to prepare him with grace, and let him go with grace, but the process is not always what I would call gracious. It requires that I stay awake in the present moment, and step-by-step, move into a new role in life. That takes courage, energy and creativity - and sometimes, I am NOT fully awake, or able to see creatively. This is where the ungracious moments occur.

 After last week’s argument, I cried harsh sobs in bed, late at night, for the family of four that I miss, for the girl who I cannot hold, for the life we left when we checked into the hospital on October 10th, 2006. I cried for the life that ended with Katie’s last breath on August 16th, 2007. What remains of full-time motherhood is swiftly passing, as David pulls away and into the next phase of his young adult life.

 I don’t cry every time we have a disagreement. This time, it hurt.

It is my job to prepare him for to leave the nest; I have known and accepted that job since he was a baby. This is the natural order of things: we prepare him to go out and take his place in the world. But I thought I would have three more years of stay-at-home motherhood with Katie when he left. I was looking forward to her high school years, and all that we would share, after David embarked on his college career. I thought it would be gradual; I though it would happen gently. I did not expect that it would feel like broken glass and gut-punches.

 I am hopeful that this week will be better.

 The good news is that David completed his college applications, which were sent in on time. Tennis season went well, and ended with an award, recognizing him as a gentleman-scholar-athlete. Ski season is in full swing, a new semester has commenced, and the golf team will soon begin practice. Our senior is doing well and enjoying his life, and for that, I am thankful.

You can read more of Karen Gerstenberger's writing at and


  1. Karen, my heart aches for you. You have been robbed of that special time with Katie, while you are also trying to prepare David for his future.
    I pray this week will be better for you.

  2. "Grief is not linear" is the only way to define the path that grief forces you to take. You have no choice. And it is neverending, unfortunately. You'll be in the midst of it 40 years from now. I hope I'm not sounding harsh, but you have lost a child. That loss is not one that occurred on August 16, 2007. It is an ongoing loss. And for that, you are in our hearts and prayers, because we all either know, or can only imagine, how soul destructive that is. For some, that destruction is an epilogue and they cannot get up and continue on with life. And that's ok. I don't know if I'd be able to do otherwise.
    Then for others, like yourself, that destruction does not define a last chapter. No matter how incredibly difficult, you turned the page and made the choice to focus on all the wonderous endeavors you've begun to honor your baby girl, including the choice to continue being the best mother you can be for your David. And that's ok as well, because again, I don't know if I'd be able to do otherwise.
    You do your best by your son, for your son, and with your son. No matter how difficult the disagreements, David does know that. I agree it is your job to prepare him for the flight out, but it is not all your job. One of the reasons you have children is to raise them to think on their own & become productive in their decisions. David has prepared himself for this new chapter in his life just as much as you and Gregg have. He experienced the loss of his baby sister, and I'm thinking that has matured him beyond anyone else in his peer group.
    So, even though I don't know what the disagreement was about, I'd be willing to bet whatever David was campaigning for wasn't too far from what you would have wanted anyway in an otherwise normal transition into college years. Your circumstance doesn't make it a normal transition because you had an understood vision that you'd have time with your Katie once David was in college. That won't be your reality, and you are by all means entitled to react abnormally & ungraciously to what others would consider a normal situation. Again, I don't know if I'd be able to any different.
    Thank you for sharing your heart. I hope that by sharing, you feel somewhat lighter this week. You're in my thoughts and my most heartfelt prayers. XOXO

  3. Karen ~
    What you (we) are experiencing are NOT normal growing pains. Everything is altered by our terrible losses. I know that my perception of everything with respect to my surviving children, or anyone else's children,whether about something positive or something not, has veered far from "normal." Just today I stopped in to see someone and she hung up the phone and mentioned she was talking to her daughter, who is off at college and sick. I wanted to start screaming about how impossibly lucky she is that she can talk to both of her children, how lucky she is that her daughter's problem is some kind of virus, how lucky she is that all that stands between them is a few hundred miles on this earth. The only "normal" thing was that none of that happened except in my head.
    You are an incredible mother to both Katie and David, but this is not the version of motherhood that anyone seeks.

  4. many hugs
    you are a lovely mother and lovely writer

  5. Your words are poignant. I'm so sorry for your loss, and moved by your bravery in sharing your story.

  6. Grief is definitely not linear and I think you described it beautifully. I'm so sorry last week was so hard. It's completely understandable that this transition period for David would bring the grief rolling in again. I'm thinking of you, sending hugs and hoping you find your way back to the top of the spiral.

  7. I hope this next week is better for you,