Name: Brandee Eubank
Tell me about the person who died:
My daughter, Erica, was the kindest, most generous, most sensitive person I had ever met. That sounds like something that a mother might say, but it’s true. Those are wonderful qualities but I remember wondering: how are you going to survive here, in this world? Everything affected her, deeply. I worried about her.
She was also a lot of fun. She loved to dance, goof around, camp, and explore; she loved animals, and color. She was drawn to beautiful things. After she died, seven years ago, one of the tattoos that I got in her memory was a bright blue bird. She was so beautiful, so full of energy, but so achingly fragile.
And her skin. It sounds strange but I think about her skin a lot. She had the most beautiful porcelain skin. When I was around five or six, I imagined my future child. I remember wishing that she would have skin like Snow White, who I was obsessed with at the time. And she did—amazingly, because I don’t. She had smooth, white skin, and her cheeks flushed the loveliest pink. I remember how her skin looked, and what it smelled like through the years, and how it felt to press her to me. It’s unusual to see that exact complexion but when I do, my breath always catches.
I adored her. I had her very young, at seventeen. When I grew into adulthood it wasn't as my own person, it was as Erica's mum. I still haven't been able to quite figure out who I am beyond Erica's mum. It's like I lost my daughter and my identity at the same time.
I don’t always mention how Erica died and I suppose that comes from a place of protectiveness. Erica killed herself. I’ve heard the things people say about suicide and they are so often lacking in compassion or any real reflection. I am not sure I am prepared for people to think those things about my child, let alone say them out loud. Very often the act of suicide itself seems to overtake the entire narrative of a person’s life, reducing it to that one moment. She was a wonderful and complex being, and there was so much more to her story. I’ve only recently started to be more open about the choice she made but it still makes me fearful. I wish people were less reflexive in their responses because we do, societally, need to have these conversations.
What has your experience of grief been like since your loss? How did it change over time?
I cried every day for over a year after she died. My husband would leave for work, I would wait until I knew he hadn’t forgotten anything at home and the coast was clear, and I would start crying. Sometimes I watched TV shows that we had watched together–Gilmore Girls, America’s Next Top Model–and even comment out loud, as though she was there. I wandered the property and wailed like a wounded animal. Sometimes I would forget that the sound was emanating from me and I would startle and look around to see what kind of animal that was. I would pretty much cry on and off all day until about an hour before he was due to arrive home and then I would wash my face and rub ice under my eyes to get the swelling down. As if he wouldn’t notice.
I don’t cry often anymore. My eyes well up but I hold back the tears and keep moving. I still play the what-if game (if I had done this, not done that, if she had been here and not there, if, if, if...) in my head all the time but I hide a lot of what I’m going through. I don’t know if it’ll ever end. The other day it occurred to me, “Hey–you know that you’re going to die, too.” And it was a relief to remember that.
I’m a wreck. But I present well.
If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape, what would it look like and feel like at different points since your loss?
Oftentimes it feels like a vast desert. Windy, bare, desolate, beige. Other times it looks normal, except that I’m separated from everyone by this bubble that has closed around me. For all intents and purposes, there’s nothing out of the ordinary, except for the fact that I cannot fully connect with anything. There is something intensely isolating about being able to see everyone and everything happening around me but knowing that I am removed, separate, inside of this bubble that I don't remember creating.
Tell me about something that reminds you of the person who died, and why?
Erica drew me a picture of an iris at school one day and I still have it. It’s a bright purple flower and next to it she wrote, “Mom, you’re like a perennial. Beautiful and every year you’re still a blossom.” It made me laugh. I loved it. I kept it up until I realized it was losing its color and then I put it away. I keep it with her ashes now. But I have several purple irises tattooed on my forearm because it’s a memory that makes me smile.
How did the people in your life support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
My husband has been my biggest, and sometimes sole, support. He’s been tremendous, mostly in having no expectations of me. He’s never pressured me to be anything other than exactly what I am in the moment. He doesn’t ask me to talk but he’s there to listen if I choose to speak. I can cry, not cry, demand to be alone, need him near me. He rolls with my moods, I don’t have to explain myself to him. That acceptance and freedom has saved me.
I was surprised by some of the reactions of friends and acquaintances. I think people are afraid of death, and the death of a child is the scariest. Some people reacted like I might be contagious. Others wanted, almost immediately, to know how I was moving forward. What positivity I had been able to find in the situation. One female family member told me, about a month after Erica’s death, that if it was her she’d use the experience to try to help other people through similar situations instead of thinking about herself. She didn’t have children at the time.
How did your private grieving relate to your public mourning?
I haven't mourned publicly, outside of those instances early on when I broke down before I could escape a situation. I'm a little bit like an injured animal in that way. I prefer to slink off and deal with my wounds in private. Even seven years later, when I allow the myself to really experience the pain it leaves me howling and gasping. People may say that they want me to share, but no one wants to really see that kind of thing. And I don't say that in a self-pitying kind of way. I don't want to share that with anyone either. I don't think I could even force myself to be that vulnerable in front of anyone.
Was there anything about your cultural or religious background that affected the grieving process for you?
I sometimes wish that I believed in an afterlife. That I would see her again. But in some ways it's better that I don't. I briefly entertained the possibility after she died and I panicked, wondering if I should die immediately too, so that I could be there for her. What if she needed me? She must need me. And maybe there was some time limit, for catching up to a person after death. That was a crazy period.
What helped me was looking outside of my own Western culture. The self-help books, grief counseling, “finding positivity in negative events”, talk therapy–none of it is stuff I can relate to. It made me feel even worse for a while, that I couldn't move forward in the expected ways. But then I remembered a documentary I had seen, I don't know about what, and the documentarian is walking through this village and an old woman is sitting on her porch, crying. She looks miserable. And one of the villagers says, matter-of-factly, "Oh, that's (so and so). Her son died many years ago. Sometimes she cries." Sometimes she cries. And no one is freaking out or dragging her to therapy or suggesting a book she should read.
People all over the world lose children every day and they're not expected to "do something" about it. It doesn't make me special to have lost a child, it's just sad. And I don't have to develop a mission statement around that sadness.
How did your loss and your experience of grief change you?
I’m kinder now. It’s part of trying to carry her forward but it’s also because after she died I wondered with whom she had come into contact that day, or the day before, and whether they had shown her any kindness. Was someone nice to my child? Or did she not interact with anyone in a gentle way before she died? Since she had recently moved to another province, I don't know these things. So I am hyperaware that everyone is someone’s child, and I want them to know kindness and love.
The downside of that is that I am even more sensitive to the harm we do each other and I don’t know if that’s something I needed heightened. Every time I hear a bigoted statement, or a cruel comment, or a selfish position, I am just gutted. Someone's child is hearing those words.
At the same time, the little things (and most things are little things) don't bother me anymore.
Brandee Eubank lives with her husband, Shane, and their beloved golden retriever, Ben, in a small house on the Alberta prairies. Together they run a small business and in her free time she writes.
This post is part of Grief Landscapes, an art project documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief. Participants shared an experience with bereavement, and I photographed an object that evokes the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the story.