Mother who lost daughter writes about resilience & the ‘slow awakening’ of hope

In 2015, Images & Voices of Hope spent a lot of time exploring Restorative Narratives‘ role in news stories. As we look ahead to 2016, we’re interested in learning more about how this genre can play out in various types of media and story forms.

Along these lines, we’re drawn this week to a personal essay, “Dear Kate,” which embodies many of the key tenets of Restorative Narrative. The essay — which was recently published in Indianapolis Monthly — details how Nancy Comiskey has coped with the loss of her daughter Kate, who died in a car crash in 2004.

Comiskey writes that in the first year after Kate’s death, she didn’t have any “brilliant insights on healing and hope.” In the decade since, she has learned to grieve and has reflected on what it takes to cope in the aftermath of a devastating loss.

Comiskey doesn’t gloss over difficult truths in her essay; she acknowledges them and explains how difficult her journey has been. Similarly, Restorative Narratives don’t wrap up everything with a pretty bow. They often dig deep into a tragedy but they don’t get stuck there; instead, they show how the people and communities who were affected are finding meaningful pathways forward.

In her essay, Comiskey reveals how she has made a meaningful progression from a place of despair to a place of resilience. Comiskey and her husband Steve learned that it can take awhile to develop resilience and that they had to do it on their own time. So many people around them expected them to “bounce back” sooner than they did.

“One of Steve’s longtime friends gave a reading at Kate’s funeral,” Comiskey writes. “But when Steve didn’t bounce back as he expected, they argued and parted ways. A mother whose daughter died nine years ago says her close — now former — friend has never acknowledged that anything happened. Another mother told me one day that her friends had grown impatient with her grieving. ‘They seem to want me to get better for their sakes,’ she said.”

Comiskey heard a lot of cliches along the way: “I know how you feel.” … “Everything happens for a reason.” While these phrases weren’t comforting, they were better than silence, Comiskey said.

As the years passed, she began to see glimmers of hope — little flickers of light in the darkness. “If I was going to survive without my daughter, I had to find the will to do that within myself,” Comiskey writes. She goes on to quote a passage from Wendell Berry’s novel “‘Hannah Coulter,” in which he writes: “You have got to have hope. But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud. You must not let your hope turn into expectation.'”

Hope wasn’t some grandiose feeling that overpowered Comiskey, but it was meaningful nonetheless. “Novelist Louise Penny describes the moment despair turns to hope as a tiny point of light — ‘more imagined than real’ — in the darkness of regret and betrayal and loss. For me, that light seemed infinitesimal in the early years after Kate’s death,” Comiskey writes. “We found purpose and eventually meaning in scholarships and donations and other things we did in Kate’s memory. But hope was elusive. When it came, it was not in sudden epiphanies or flashes of light. Hope, for us, was a slow awakening to the possibility of happiness.”

Comiskey, now a grandmother, says she has a lot of good in her life and no longer feels stuck in despair. At the same time, she doesn’t pretend to be “fully recovered” from the loss. Recovery is a place where light and dark coexist, a process of discovery that may not have a true end.

“I know I’m a different and, in some ways, better person than I was 10 years ago. I’ve accepted some problems can’t be solved and some relationships can’t be salvaged. I’m a better listener. I’m more empathetic and less likely to judge. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I’ve learned if you look for something not to like about a person, you will always find it,” Comiskey writes. “This month, we will reach the 10-year milestone of our daughter’s death. It seems both a lifetime ago and yesterday that I last held her in my arms. We will mark the day as we always do, walking in the woods, watching her videos on TV, leaving flowers at the tree her friends planted on campus. Then we will continue our journey.”

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