My daughter, Julie Ann Christiansen, died by suicide in the thirty-fourth year of her life on May 29, 2010. Just eight weeks before her death, I took this photo, the last I ever took of her, as she posed with her dog Phoenix
Yesterday, was World Suicide Prevention Day, but quite honestly, the significance of that day was far from my mind. While I always commemorate the day with other survivors of suicide by lighting a candle at 8:00 p.m. in memory of my daughter, I completely forgot to do so this year because I was in the midst of celebrating life with two of my living children, their partners, and two of my grandchildren.
So much has changed since Julie’s death nearly ten years ago. The family has seen divorce, remarriage, and the birth of a new family member. Jim and I have moved to a new city. In so many ways, our lives don’t outwardly look anything like they did a decade ago. Yesterday seemed to provide a microcosm of those changes.
Daughter Amy and I had gone shopping for a wedding dress earlier in the day. Julie would be so happy to know Amy’s new love. She’d be so happy to have her brother and sister-in-law back home from the far flung places where they have lived from Bangladesh to Boston. She’d be thrilled to know her new nephew Leon was born eight years after her death during the month she too had been born.
This photo of last night’s family gathering, is in many ways an encapsulation of all the changes in our family and would have caused Julie if she had been seen the photo to ask, “Who are these new people in the picture?” The reply would be, “That’s Jewett, Amy’s new love, and that’s Leon, Jon and Sam’s new son. That dog is Luna, Amy and Jewett’s wonderful Labrador retriever who does not have the vicious tail wagging capabilities that your dog Phoenix had.”
Last night’s gathering was an evening filled with much laughter, and sharing of stories that the kids say I never remember how they really happened. I marveled at the wonder of it all. I marveled over the happiness that I see in Amy and I am grateful that Jewett is in her life and in our lives too. I love having Jon and Sam “home.” I love hearing of Atticus’ high school life where as a junior he is taking mostly AP classes and has joined debate. I marvel at having a toddler in our midst. Leon is speaking in full sentence now and exerting control over his world as he attempts to tell us where our assigned seats will be, and shows us that his personality will indeed be strong, and interesting.
The practical side of such a gathering wore me down and made me aware that I am aging. There was the shopping for food, the preparing of it, of which I did little as I opted for burgers on the grill, store bought potato salad, chips, and Amy made dessert. Even the coordinating of getting food, dishes, and drinks on the table takes more than I seem to have these days when it comes to a crowd in my kitchen that includes dogs, kids, and confusion in cramped quarters. But all of it was so wonderful. My children were with me and I am always most happy when they are with me.
After it all, I went to bed, and I dreamt of Julie. She came to visit me in my dreams. Maybe subconsciously she had been deeply missed as the others gathered and I hadn’t been in touch with missing her, but I awoke this morning with a lingering sadness and a deep sorrow despite my joyful heart of having family with me.
In my dream, Julie came to visit me in a place I didn’t think she would know about, but she found me. Suddenly, she was there in our midst as if she belonged there, and indeed, she did belong, but she surprised me by appearing and in my dream I told her I didn’t think it was possible that she could, would, or should be there. But she was in our midst, and she assured me that it was her desire to see me that brought her there. We even danced together, and then I awoke and she was gone, but the memory of being with her remained.
And so today, I have been sad and the cavity in my heart that the loss of her has created has made itself known and felt. When my heart is full, so very full, and happy and grateful, there is still always a place that remains vacant.
I think this vacancy awareness comes from a chamber in my heart where Julie once lived. This chamber is the place that opened up and welcomed her on the day of her birth on April 8, 1976. It opened up and she moved in when I first held her in my arms and her eyes locked eyes with mine and she gave me her very first Julie look.
A mother’s heart keeps those chambers where each child lives soft and tender, loving, open, accepting. Those chambers are full of grace and unconditional love for each child living in the mother’s heart.
Can such a soft tender, well tended after part of a heart break? One wouldn’t think so. One doesn’t think of a fleshy part of a body being a place that can be shattered like glass. And so, as far as metaphors go, I don’t think we can picture a heart breaking like glass, but I know from experience that heart break feels like a shattering. I also know that a ripping took place when the life that lived in that chamber of my heart was snatched from that sacred place where I had carried my child, my beautiful daughter, for thirty-four years.
A mother never imagines that her heart can relinquish the treasure she has held so closely, so protectively, so lovingly, so deeply, for so long, In truth, the mind and the heart of a mother never do relinquish the child held in the mother’s most sacred place, her heart.
Perhaps, I continue to hold that place in my heart open. Only Julie was meant to live there and only she could ever fill it. When Julie left me on her own accord in a way I will never understand, I am only able to accept her leaving by trying to understand that she must have been so consumed by pain that her felt need to flee outweighed her ability to have hope for her future.
I know she never meant to break my heart. That was not her intention. She would have hated how she hurt her family. She would have hated how she shattered me. My own heart, while shattered and broken and confused and unable to comprehend her death, was somehow, by the grace of God, able to forgive her and to grieve for her pain and hopelessness. My heart has been able to accept her death and know that she is now at peace.
And so, while the cavity in my heart still aches, and while it is filled with a longing to be with my child so I could again gaze into her beautiful blue eyes while running one hand through her gloriously thick curly hair while the other hand intertwines my short fingers with her lovely long fingers, the cavity in my heart has been healed even as it aches.
The heart of a mother, my mother’s heart, has had an amazing capacity to accept the unacceptable. Accepting the unacceptable has taken many tears and many days and nights and much sorrow, but the capacity of the heart to keep on loving also allows it to keep on living.
My heart was not quashed by the loss of Julie even when I was sure it would be. I think if such a quashing would have happened, it would have annulled the sacred memory of her life. The hopeful parts of my mother’s heart remained. I had four other chambers in my heart where my other children lived and these chambers were still vibrant, alive, and very much in need of care.
It is a miracle that in this past decade that while my heart is still broken, it has been healed. In the Christian life we learn of how the opposite result from what one would expect to happen happens when one seeks to walk and live by faith. The Prayer of St. Francis teaches us these truths when it speaks of learning that is by giving that we receive, and by pardoning that we are pardoned. The broken parts of the heart, while still feeling bereavement over of the loss of the one who once filled the heart with the joy of her presence, are now filled with a deep and abiding peace that transcends my ability to understand or explain. Today, I read words by Frederick Buechner which came close to describing that which now resides in the chamber where the memory of Julie now lives. That chamber now also is filled with shalom which Buechner says means wholeness, or a fullness of having everything you need to be wholly and happily yourself. He goes on to say that “for Jesus, peace seems not to have meant the absence of struggle, but the presence of love.”
When this cavity was created in my heart, when an emptiness that seemed it would never be filled occurred when Julie left this life, a new peace moved in supernaturally when I first learned of her death. This peace has grown over time. Her physical absence left the love that created the space for her behind. Shalom also began to inhabit that space where the love of her remained, and both love and shalom began and continue to heal the broken parts of my heart.
Love, memories, and shalom will remain in this place of my heart until I am taken home, until I see her again.
Love created this space for Julie in my heart.
Love never dies.