The First Time I Laughed After the Death of My Daughter

by Suzanne Leigh

I used to laugh a lot and I still do — for the most part it’s the polite social chuckle typical of people who enjoy the company of others. But a recent e-mail bemoaning work from an acquaintance made me laugh for real. It was a dreadful laugh that provoked whole-body convulsions and guttural sobs; it sounded like I required immediate psychiatric intervention or perhaps the Heimlich maneuver. It wasn’t the laugh of a normal person. But it might have been the first time for years that I’d responded so viscerally to something that was completely unrelated to the decline or death of my elder daughter.
On another occasion I’d gone for a run by the ocean when a gentle drizzle morphed into pummeling sheets of rain that drenched my clothes and flooded my sneakers making my feet squelch. I ran the two miles it took to get home, showered and changed. And that’s when it hit me: I had been cold and wet and now I was sort of, kind of, content to be warm and dry — very fleetingly at least.

Would I have been able to laugh out loud — albeit in a bizarre and embarrassing manner — or taken comfort in being warm and dry a year ago when I was six months into my grief journey? I don’t think so. Back then there had only been naked grief, the paradoxical joy-agony of being parents to our gorgeous surviving child and the block-it-all-out drive to fake “normal” in the name of professionalism for the goal of drawing a paycheck. So perhaps I have inched back a little closer to the way I once was.

Always ‘shades of gray’

Is it possible to find happiness after the death of one’s beloved child? At less than 18 months after the passing of my daughter, I don’t think I’m qualified to speculate, but I was curious to hear what others had to say. At a recent meeting of bereaved parents who had lost a child to cancer, I asked one mother whose older daughter had passed away five years ago. She had subsequently gone on to have two more children, held down a full-time job she seemed to enjoy and struck me as candid, competent and pragmatic.

Happy like she once was? No, not exactly, she told us. There were bad times and there were good times, but those good times were always beset by shades of gray. I like the analogy of gray clouds encroaching on a sunny day. Maybe I’ll feel that way when I’m at the same stage of grief. For now those shades of gray are darker. The lightness is there but the blackness of losing our elder daughter remains ever present, even as we appear to do a better job of functioning in our daily lives.

For us, functioning means showering our surviving daughter with unadulterated love — we have never stopped doing that — showing up for work with the appropriate attitude, showing up for doctor appointments, for dental appointments and maintaining the healthy habits we’d had before the diagnosis of our elder daughter. (It’s interesting to note that according to a study published last year, people in stressful situations are likely to resume the same habits they’d had in non-stressful times — both healthy ones and unhealthy ones — turning it up a notch in some cases. That might mean boosting their endurance on a fitness regimen or it might mean eating a second jelly doughnut for breakfast. This runs counter to speculation that a bereaved parent is at risk for resorting to drugs or compulsive drinking when those habits had never been part of their lifestyle.)
I’ve re-read the e-mail that triggered the insane laughter incident, curious to know if it had the same effect. It doesn’t, but it makes me think of my late daughter and the way she used to laugh when she was well: the raucous ripples of delight emanating from her being; head tilted back, jumping up and down, her arms in the air. I so miss seeing that.

Suzanne Leigh is a freelance health writer. She blogs about her family at: www.themourningafternatasha.wordpress.com