Year Three

Year three. I laugh. I’m happy at work. I eat more. I’m kinder, I smile at strangers. I take pleasure in being helpful. I go out more than I used to. I don’t always notice the perpetual knot in my stomach. I’m sewing again. I signed up for a class on Macbeth and another at a local craft store. I don’t wake up every morning and wish I hadn’t.

But I still wake up lots of mornings and think, “Again.” I might go out more, but not a lot. I feel odd and different. I’m alone in a way I didn’t know possible, and I know too many people know what I mean. I often feel like I can’t do this, but I don’t know what that means because I do, in fact, do this. I buy too many clothes because every time there’s a box at my door with my name on it, I think it’ll save me.

And I still cry in the grocery store, like when a song I wouldn’t normally pay too much attention to comes over the sound system and the singer is so earnest when she sings, “Because of you…” but I don’t hear the rest of it because whatever she’s singing couldn’t possibly mirror what I think/feel when I hear those three little words. And I still won’t let it comfort me that when I got out of that grocery store, the car parked across from mine had Philip’s initials and the year he was born on its license plate and was next to another car with his initials and the day he died.

Year three, and I still spend a lot of time alone. Grief’s my companion and I can’t get to know it if I don’t spend time with it. How shall I mourn? What is it to live with this shocking truth I’ve come to know? And what of my secret? That I know the yin-yang of grief means there is joy and beauty that’s as terrible as this anguish. To even think such a thing feels like a betrayal. And I don’t have to be told that it’s not – I’m not talking rational here. Philip does not want me unhappy. “Mom, you don’t have to choose,” he said. But that remains a thought, not an experience. When I go too long without thinking of him, I panic. When Philip was alive, I learned I wasn’t going to lose him. That the more I let go, the longer our bond. That hasn’t changed – I haven’t lost him, except for the way that I want him.

But how blessed am I? Philip is all around me. He talks to me, guides me, makes his presence known in ways that still make me twitch and blurt “fuck” because that’s how amazing he is. But Year Three, and I still ask myself, what I do with all that? His presence is a given. I don’t “look” for him – he is the one who makes himself known. But what do I do with that? I see sign after sign after sign and then I disconnect, go home and have a good cry. Because grief trumps all.

Year three and I’m still struggling with language. I’m struggling to write about truths without sounding trite and cliched because they sound like those things people say without really thinking about what they’re saying. Anything said over and over loses its power to move us, to tell us something we don’t already know. To say things like “you don’t get more than you can handle” or “everything’s a lesson” is infuriating when things start to get real, like they do when someone you love dies. Especially when that someone is your child.

But the saying is necessary. That’s why writers write. Good writers will make you pause and consider, rethink what you thought you already figured out. I want to be that writer because how the hell else am I going to figure this out?

Year three and there’s still that one thing that’s always been easy. It’s easy for me not to ask why – it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t help. It’s never the why, it’s the what-I-do-with-what’s-so. “Why” might have a time and a place, but Philip’s death isn’t it. “Why” keeps me rooted in an ugly world where I judge and condemn and assume that I know what should and shouldn’t be – it keeps Philip’s death real personal, as if it was something done to me and if it was done to me, then something’s done it and might do it again. But there is no “something,” not in that way. Of course more crises can come. That’s life. But it’s not personal, there’s nothing out there doing stuff to me. We each have our share. So what do I do with mine?

To be in the world, but not of the world – that’s what Philip’s trying to teach me. And I see the simplicity of it. If I take seriously all the signals he sends every day in the most startling ways, then I am beginning to see things a little differently. If I pay attention to what he is now and stop looking back and forth to what we were and what I thought we’d be, then I can breathe a little. If I stop trying to make sense of a world that is essentially senseless and look to my experiences to teach me what’s so, then I am taking real responsibility for creating my own world – something I’ve never done. I’ve watched most of my life, like it’s a movie. I’ve waited for life to give me something it can’t. I’ve let it happen and taken my sorrows as defeat. My choice – I have a choice. And when I finally had the nerve to choose differently, Philip died and I thought the world was making some hideous cosmic joke. “Mom, you gotta to go deeper,” Philip said. But this grief, this grief; it’s this dark where I go deeper, and I know that’s not what he meant.

© 2014 Denise Smyth


22 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lucia Maya
    Sep 06, 2014 @ 18:27:26

    Dear Denise,
    you wrote so many things that I feel exactly, that I can’t put to words right now, as I’m too IN it… and it really helps to know that someone else gets it. You know I’m sorry that it has to be you, or anyone, but grateful to have company at the same time.

    As I’m approaching the 2nd anniversary of Elizabeth’s death this month, I feel I need to be writing about it, but have to wait til it comes, which is frustrating, as you know. So reading your story helps, like you’re expressing some of what I feel filled with and it’s like a little relief valve. Made me cry too, which I needed…
    Sending love, Lucia


    • Denise
      Sep 07, 2014 @ 15:15:53

      If I’ve touched you, Lucia, then I’ve written well – thank you. You’re right – the writing comes. It’s been harder lately; maybe because Natalie moved out? And Ed left? Sometimes I think I’m just waiting it out…tell me, Lucia, when will it be two years?


  2. Denise Hisey
    Sep 06, 2014 @ 22:38:48

    ‘I know the yin yang of grief means there is joy and beauty…’ that feeling of betrayal is so familiar to me, Denise. that really stood out to me. when I was processing all my grief I thought if I did something fun, or had a happy day I was denying the pain just like others had denied my pain. I felt I was betraying myself. Philip is right, you don’t have to choose. but until you grieve enough, you might feel like you are choosing. your writing of pain and wrestling is so raw, so real, so relatable. your ‘enough’ has a life of its own, and one day you’ll know when it’s time has arrived.


    • Denise
      Sep 07, 2014 @ 15:22:25

      Oh, Denise; lately, I keep seeing him when he was a kid. I had his whole childhood, and for that I’m grateful. But that innocence – it overwhelms. We were all innocent; what could any of us know what would happen? I’m glad I couldn’t have known, much as I see the way I was being prepared. But there’s something so poignant about that time, captured in so many pictures; and the things that seemed to be “problems” back then – amateur stuff. Yes, my “enough” has a life of its own. Not that it blasts my grief apart once and for all; but that it has more force than it does now.

      Thank you.


  3. anna whiston-donaldson
    Sep 07, 2014 @ 15:03:20

    This touches me and rings true as I hit the 3 yr mark.


  4. Molly McKaughan
    Sep 07, 2014 @ 15:29:37

    I wish Nick sent me signs the way Philip sends signals to you. He did in the beginning, about himself –“Ma, I’m everywhere and nowhere”– but not about how I was to live in the world without him. That I’ve struggled to find out on my own… 13+ years go. I’ve learned to find tiny joys… one I remember is seeing the puffs of breath coming out of a bird’s beak at it sat on a wire outside my second floor sun porch, and I chortled… thinking of all the little birds breathing all over the world, unseen, unnoticed. I’ve also learned to be there for my daughter (who was 14 back then and is now 28) in a way i do not think would have been possible without Nick’s death and their father’s 10 weeks later. I can still be self-centered but I see it sooner, and I know, even in my grief, it’s not all about me. It’s about helping others, connecting, being there, witnessing, hugging, listening. At year 3, I knew some of this, but the grief was much more palpable and Nick’s absence more of a pit in my stomach. Ten years later, my heart is still broken, as it always will be, but I’m ok.


  5. Denise
    Sep 07, 2014 @ 16:22:08

    Good to hear you’re “ok.” And I know that means you live with Nick’s death differently than you did ten years ago, five years ago, maybe even yesterday. Life seems too long to live without Philip here – as I wrote, here in the way that I want him. That’s what I have to stop – it’s just now. How do I live now? That’s enough of a challenge without adding crazy fantasies of time to come that might never come anyway. Have I not learned that yet?


  6. Gibber
    Sep 07, 2014 @ 19:50:57

    I hope that you know it’s okay to be grieving. My heart goes out to you. xo


  7. Denise
    Sep 07, 2014 @ 19:59:48

    Thank you – it’s still so intense, I still get so shaken up…I guess this weekend’s been full of it. xoxo


  8. Rose
    Sep 07, 2014 @ 22:34:30


    3yrs have come and gone, and you are still here and going…some days better then others, some days not worth talking about it, but you are still here. Also, during this journey of yours, some of us got to know you and your life story. We got to know your feelings, as true as they could be and we stayed right next to you.

    You and all the other mothers whom I had a chance to read about their stories, made such an impact in my own life that you all will never know. Every time, I think about giving up, of not been strong enough to handle this or that situation, you and a few other mothers I came to meet through your blog come to my mind. And with all your love, and with all your strengh and all you wisdom lift me from my pitty and sorrow state.

    I want you to know, in this 3yrs mark that I admire you and believe you are a great human being. You are enduring the most feared and the biggest pain someone ‘s can endure in life, the lost of a child. But, despite all the tears, and pain and confusion you are keeping your head up and your heart open and pure. To me and to my eyes, that makes you an example of compassion and a living proof of a real mother’s love.

    Love ,



    • Denise
      Sep 10, 2014 @ 09:23:21

      Hey Rose – I wish I could see what you do; thank you for reminding me. Two-and-a-half years, another change of seasons…every change is a loss, but then – that’s what life is. And what’s between the loss, also. I love fall – it’s my favorite time of year. But it reminds me time is endless and Philip still isn’t here. “But I am, mom,” he says, even as I write this. Which I shouldn’t be right now, since I’m at work and I’m starting to cry.

      Thank you Rose; it’s always so very good to hear from you, dear friend. xoxoxoxo


  9. DragonPack
    Sep 08, 2014 @ 10:28:55

    Oh my friend… as always you say it so well. I need to blog, but my words are stuck. Yesterday was three years since my Qory died. So many lifetimes since then, and so many days of “Why bother?” But I am here, and you are here… and I am grateful for our connection. Even if right now I am drowning, which I am, I am grateful. Much love my friend.


    • Denise
      Sep 10, 2014 @ 10:18:05

      Three already? And how many lifetimes is that? It’s excruciating – I don’t think we’ll ever run out of tears. I feel so defeated, so often; breathe, I tell myself – just do what you’re doing. I so understand “stuck” words. I’ve been feeling like that so much lately. I think I’m just more scared to stop writing. Sending love right back to you – you’re not alone, though lonely you must be. Me, too.


      • DragonPack
        Sep 10, 2014 @ 12:23:43

        You’re afraid to stop writing, I’m afraid to stop running. I get that. Writing was always my most critical coping skill… but this, grief, the loss of my son, writing just isn’t enough anymore. I have to move my body or it will eat me alive. Yes, the loneliness is the absolute worst. Sometimes I’m afraid it will swallow me, and other times I’m afraid it won’t.

  10. lensgirl53
    Sep 10, 2014 @ 09:02:19

    I hear you rising up and coping a little more than at first. But as time wears on we can be struck down only to have to rise again. Over and over. I know there is a plateau of peace and calm that lasts longer than the undulating ground of first grief. Sending you much love….dale..brandon’s mom


    • Denise
      Sep 14, 2014 @ 16:47:27

      Thank you Dale – over and over. I just bought the movie “Groundhog Day.” Have you seen it? Over and over – in Hollywood, though, they get it right. I’m just too full of it now, if you know what I mean.

      So much love back to you xoxoxoxo


  11. pedro
    Sep 14, 2014 @ 10:12:37

    Hi, just stopped in to say hello. I learned a long time ago that almost nothing we can ever say or do will help in dealing with loss, so I stopped trying to “fix”. people as if they were broken. (Grief does not mean broken, it is a normal response. if a person wasn’t affected , then you might say there was something wrong.) I learned that the best thing I could do was just be there, talk and share. So that’s what I’m up to . I’m here!


    • Denise
      Sep 14, 2014 @ 16:50:36

      Yes – a normal response. And it’s being around people that “get it” that helps; it’s like all the pieces go back together for a while. You are one of those people – for that, I’m grateful.


  12. jmgoyder
    Sep 18, 2014 @ 20:56:08

    Your writing is so powerful and you sound stronger. I am sorry to have lost touch with you and many others Denisexxx


  13. Denise
    Sep 19, 2014 @ 20:07:09

    No worries. None of us went anywhere – but I have to say, it is so good to read your blog again. I know I haven’t commented (I’m feeling a bit wordless lately), but I am reading. xoxoxo


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