I started the Angel Zoe Kindness Project after Zoe’s Dad and a couple friends asked me what I was doing for her birthday.
Zoe’s Dad and I talked about the balloon release being the weekend after her birthday so that friends and family can join in, but when he asked me what I was doing on her actual birthday, I was at a loss.
I’ve been trying very hard to turn her death into something positive, to make it mean something. What I haven’t been doing, I realise, is making room for grief.
When we were told Zoe’s cancer had relapsed and she could not be saved, I put my focus on gathering people around so that they would have the chance to say goodbye. In actuality, Zoe was already too sick for this. In the words of our palliative care social worker, she was saving the tiny amount of energy she had left for the people who were most important to her. What I should have been doing was making room for grief.
After Zoe died I focused on making her funeral a celebration of her life that everyone would feel a part of. I spent time finding resources for children affected by death and emailing them to school and her friends’ parents. There is nothing wrong with any of this, but I was doing them in part to avoid making room for grief.
Even when I was given books on grief, I would flip to the end – how do I skip these hard parts? I went back to work quickly to avoid a very quiet house full of memories.
I realise now this is not a new pattern for me. Amidst the chaos of Zoe’s initial diagnosis and treatment, I soldiered on. When her treatment ended, we had a party and rushed forward to fit the most we could into life, which is of course a good thing, but perhaps I should have made a little room for the grief.
We spent the year following Zoe’s treatment anticipating my father’s death from cancer. The two hour each way weekend commutes to my parents’ house we fitted around swimming lessons, kids birthday parties, work, Zoe’s medical appointments and making sure childhood cancer knew Zoe had kicked its butt. We did not give grief the time of day.
The day after my Dad’s funeral I took Zoe for her final school visit before starting the following week, then set about organising her birthday party two days later.
I realise now that grief is patient. It will wait in the corners of your house to catch you unawares. There are days you steel yourself to survive: birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries. Grief comes to visit on the days you forgot to prepare for. On New Year’s Eve when you suddenly realise you got through Christmas by deliberately doing something different, but now have to face crossing into a new year your daughter will not be alive in. On days when small unexpected things focus your memory and your senses on a moment she was so present when now in every moment she is so absent. On mornings when you wake smiling from a dream of your father and your daughter picking flowers to realise they are both missing.
I have to accept that grief is here to stay, an unwanted but permanent resident in the corners of my life. One I have to make room for and make friends with in all its forms. I must learn to simply sit with and feel the anger, sadness, despair, hope, and the bittersweet joy of memory that will all be a part of our relationship.
I am very much looking forward to releasing balloons to honour Zoe for the Kindness Project. But on the day of Zoe’s birthday and on many many other days, I will also be reminding myself to make some room for grief.