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  • Writer's pictureChristina Stiverson

the loss of my daughter to cancer forced me to dance with my grief


woman dancing with fire

Nearly a year after the loss of my daughter, I received a cryptic invitation from Mary, a fellow cancer mom I had met in the hospital. In the little time we had spent together, she had told me about her career as a dancer.


I wondered what this invitation was about. The registration website was vague at best. A dance show with dinner was all I knew, and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go. I was specifically told to bring a friend. I invited Erin who was also an accomplished dancer. I pictured us with glasses of wine in our hands watching people move creatively on a stage.


The location was kept secret until just a few hours before the event.


Erin and I arrived at a non-descript residential home in an older neighborhood. We parked on the street a few blocks down wondering if the GPS led us to the wrong location. Perhaps that added to the intrigue.


This is a strange place for a dance performance, I thought.


The house had extremely small rooms, low ceilings, likely built in the early 1900s. Erin and I walked into the confined space of the entry where we were given several pages of paperwork to fill out.


How are you feeling today? Describe any recent trauma in your life? What medications are you on? What is your favorite song?


I felt like I was being screened for an impending psych ward confinement, which didn’t seem altogether unrealistic at the time. The fear leading up to the one-year anniversary of my daughter’s death was overwhelming.


Shortly after the intake phase, we were put in a small group of four. I estimated a total of 20 people present for the event, plus the staff. Disappointingly, Erin was not in my group. I wasn't quite sure what was happening.


We were not allowed to talk to the other members of our group. All we were told was that we would experience several stations around the house, and then dinner would be served.


Great… I was already hungry, but I was not prepared for the twists and turns ahead!



***


Station 1


My first set of directions led me to an old van parked on the street outside the house. Tiny snowflakes began to fall on my cheeks as I exited the house to the location on my paper guide. My group mates and I found our way to the seats in the van.


We intuitively put on the headphones lying on the seats and a video began to play on a TV screen. The video started with a woman, likely in her 30s, dancing on a beach. She was narrating her story about losing her mother to cancer just before having her first child. She reflected on her emotions mothering her children without her own mother.


I suddenly found myself wondering if everyone else around me had been affected by cancer. Was this why I was invited?



***


Station 2


My next location was the cellar beneath the house. I was first in line from my group to proceed. The entrance had a sign saying only one person should proceed at a time. The solid wooden doors were so heavy I had to use both hands and a hip to leverage it wide enough to slither through. The initial aura in the cellar felt like a horror movie. Then, white lights gave way to a path down the steps to the back corner.


There were no instructions, but a table with supplies to write. Hanging up on a thinly strung line with clothes pins, there were handwritten letters. Each note was a personal message, heartfelt notes to people who had passed. They ranged from happy to angry to forlorn to forgiving. After reading them, I sat down at the table.


I wrote my very first message to my daughter, Adelaide. Tears poured down my face, wetting the paper so much I wasn’t sure if my writing would be legible to others. I thought of starting my letter over on a dry sheet of paper, but then decided to leave my letter in its authentic state of being stained with all my emotion flowing out.


I re-read the other heartfelt letters to those who had died, or to people who had been absent from their life. I felt their pain, their joy, their love, and suddenly I felt less alone with the loss of my daughter. It made me realize the weight so many people carry.


Has everyone here experienced a recent loss? Was this why I was asked to attend?



***


Station 3


I was directed by a staff member to a steep and narrow staircase leading upstairs to a bedroom. Mary, my fellow cancer mom who had asked me to participate in this event, was silently waiting in the room for our group to arrive. The room had a baby crib, stuffed animals, and some basic décor. I noticed the contents of an all-too-familiar hospital ‘go-bag’ displayed out on the floor.


There was a recording which started to play when we were all in the room. Mary’s pre-recorded voice described, in such definitive detail, the anxiety of having to pick up your life in a matter of minutes every time your child with cancer spiked a fever, had a small fall, or simply seemed off. All the memories came flooding back. I could feel my heart racing just hearing the tremble in her voice.


Was everyone here a cancer parent? This must be why I was invited.



***


Station 4


Next was a tiny kitchen, barely big enough for our small group to stand side by side. Sprawled out on the counter were bottles of pills (represented with candy), liquid medicine (juice), and a list longer than the credits of a Disney movie. Our task was to meticulously measure out each prescription.


At one point Adelaide had 14 different medications multiple times daily. This station certainly brought back the daily struggle to stay sane. We managed a medication list so detailed and crucial it felt like the cancer was just waiting for us to screw up.


At this point in the night, I had not seen Erin at all and began to wonder about her experience. What was the purpose for bringing her?



***


Station 5


The final station was outside, between the house and the garage. It was snowing much harder than earlier in the night. I was significantly underdressed. I was ill-prepared for this event for a myriad of reasons, which now included neglecting an appropriate jacket or hat. My body was freezing and weakened almost to the point of collapse.


I was overwhelmed by the build-up of memories and the culmination of emotions from the last four stations.


I was totally unprepared for what was about to take place.


Part of the survey we filled out before the show asked us to identify our favorite song. I had no idea why this was being asked, but I flippantly put down the song swirling around in my head at the time.


We circled around a raging campfire so close we shared airspace to breathe. The magical feel of fresh snow resting on my eyelashes diverted my attention from the frigid temperature.


Through our individual headphones, we listened to all the selections from my group in unison. I can’t recall any other songs that were played that night, but when ‘Let It Go’ from Frozen began to play, I could not hold back my tears.


For the very first time in my grief journey, through my burning eyes and pulsating heartbeat, I felt a true spiritual connection with my daughter. It was foreign yet powerful. Her spirit was with me, holding me up from falling to my knees on the snow-covered ground in front of the fire.


I desperately wanted to let go of the pain, but not the memory of my daughter. I didn't know how to start. The farther away I got from her death, the more it felt like she was slipping away.


The night had fortuitously brought her back to me.


So, was there going to be any dancing?


I needed to process my experience and by now I was starving.



***



The dinner was nutritious and delicious, not your typical American portion, but classy enough to get away with. I was extremely hungry after all the emotional exhaustion, like I had just competed in the “grief Olympics.”


Before the dinner plates were abruptly swiped away from our picnic table, eight people slowly entered the single car garage lit with white holiday lights. The dancers were eloquent and beautiful in their movement to position themselves around the group. They were dressed in tattered street clothes, which made me feel like they were one of us.


The music began to crescendo in the background and the dancers leaped onto the table with one brisk movement.


I noticed one dancer was holding back tears as she swung from rafters just above me. I don't remember much about the dinner table routine, except that it made me feel joyous after an evening of unplanned self-discovery and deep emotional strain.


I could feel the culmination of stories from the stations coming together around me in their dance. This show was about their most intimate experiences exposed.


At this moment, I felt less alone after the loss of my daughter.



***



To close out the evening, the dancers performed a stunning group number outside the garage on the driveway while the snow fell endlessly from the sky. The chill in the air gave way to a rhythm I could feel deep inside my bones. It resembled the set of a ‘Step Up’ movie. There were headlights from a car parked in the driveway shining directly on the dancers.


Their bodies exuded freedom of expression, and their faces were glowing from the snow crystals and lights. I immediately felt lighter, like I was levitating in my seat. Suddenly I was able to be in the moment and relate to my own journey. I could feel the passion in their movement; like I was enveloped in their world and they in mine.


This was the first time I was truly present with my grief.


I had been numb for a year, filling every minute of my days with tasks for everyone else. I would speak of Adelaide often and tell her story but was not able to connect with my raw emotions surrounding her death.


After the event I asked Erin about her experience. She had lost her father to cancer when she was a teenager. This was something I had not known. To say she was deeply impacted by this event would be an understatement.


I’m eternally grateful for Mary, whom I met by chance one day on the 7th floor of the hospital. She invited me for a reason, and Mary gave me a gift I could not buy for myself: an unexpected grief experience so profound it changed the way I connected with my daughter.


When something unexpected comes up in your journey, embrace the unknown. Don’t hesitate because you are grieving. It may be just what you need.



*Christina Stiverson is a certified grief coach, retired Air Force veteran, and President of Foundation for Addie’s Research. She finds immense joy in her life as a wife and mother to her three beautiful girls. E-mail Christina@graduategrief.com or read more.

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