My Daughter’s Death Ended My Marriage — Here’s How I Healed

Many moons ago, I moved very quickly. I failed to stop and marvel at the world around me — its beauty, its challenges. As a mom, I grew to prize multitasking above all else; I could accomplish colossal feats without ever really being present. Participation felt risky, so I watched instead. My role as observer became cemented: I was expected to watch from the sidelines rather than join my team on the field. It was a classic example of going through the motions — or, as my mom friends and I would often joke, the concept of “fake it ‘till you make it.” And then, my world turned upside down. My daughter died — and soon after, my marriage ended.

My third daughter, Cora, died of complications following a heart transplant. She was born with a congenital heart defect, hypo-plastic left heart syndrome, and we brought her into the world knowing her life would be fraught with uncertainty. Never did I imagine it would be so short. At age five, after 18 months spent waiting for a donor, Cora finally received a heart transplant — an event our whole family had looked forward to with bated breath. The thing is, I hardly fathomed Cora might not survive it. But she didn’t.

When she succumbed to antibody-mediated rejection, seven weeks after her epic surgery, I was gutted. As the reality of Cora’s death set in, disguised as a raging mass of shock and anger, I occasionally dared to lift my head. What I saw each time was a man — my husband of 15 years — who, during the very best days of our relationship, had been unable to meet my needs. Which of course made me wonder: How could I expect him to help me through the dark days that lay ahead? Patrick, equally gutted by what was unfolding, had his own plan: Get back to normal as quickly as possible.

I, on the other hand, saw the gift within my grasp: Cora’s death could set me free, if I let it. And I didn’t need the throngs of friends and family members offering empty condolences to understand my perspective. I simply needed to move my life in a positive direction — one that would nurture my children through their distress rather than direct them to avoid it. This, I determined, was a feat I could accomplish best on my own. So I filed for divorce.

As I struggled to make sense of the chaos that threatened to engulf me, I made a quick, albeit powerful, decision: I vowed to transform myself, and my way of living, from the ground up. I turned my attention toward finding a village for my kids. I wanted a community that would both challenge them to expand their horizons and lift them up when they felt defeated — and in doing so, would nurture me, too.

“Healing happens in the woods for everyone,” my friend Tes told me a scant three weeks following my 5-year-old daughter’s death. Then, she issued an invitation to join her on the land where she has been teaching my two daughters, through her rites of passage program for girls, how to much the power of nature can help kids. Deep in the throes of grief, and despite having alienated myself from most of my friends and family by rejecting their condolences about Cora, I accepted.

Daughters in the woods
Image: Courtesy of Hannah Van Sickle.

It was a cool, October morning as Tes and I set out; clear, blue sky — punctuated by cotton-like clumps of clouds — stretched above our heads while dry leaves crushed underfoot. We walked, mostly in silence, until we reached a clearing among the trees where we stopped to make a fire. From opposite ends of a homemade bow drill, bearing down with what little strength I could muster without bursting into tears, we cultivated a tiny, glowing coal. Working together with carefully cupped hands and deliberate breaths, we ignited our tinder bundle of birchbark strips and dry tufts of milkweed. As blue smoke curled upwards, Tes smudged the air with a tightly wrapped sage bundle — and we cried. Her gift to my daughters and I was both timely and invaluable; Tes has taught us that a deep connection to one another, and our collective memory of being a family of five, begins with tethering ourselves to the land.

In the ensuing years — nearly four since Cora died, over three since I left my marriage — I have learned to cope with the loss of my child while forging a path out of the darkness. Finding common ground in nature, where both my kids are also involved, has changed how we work together. When obstacles crop up, we are energized by the fact that we’ve encountered worse; when problem-solving, we know that patience and understanding will get us twice as far as sarcasm and snapping at one another will. In the woods, each of us acts as both observer and participant; it is an undeniable requirement. We know how to squat and pee without letting poison ivy brush the backs of our thighs, we’ve learned to use chewed plantain leaf as poultice for bee stings, and we understand the importance of a buddy when doing tick checks at the end of the day. 

Today, my fierce, beautiful daughters continue to be shaped by time in the woods. The pieces of my 14-year-old’s bow drill are scattered about my house as she inches ever closer to a 24-hour solo challenge in the woods, the final feat before she graduates after six grueling years of preparation; she is anxious she won’t be able to keep her fire going all night, and nervous she will be hungry during the fast. My 12-year-old is back to gathering twigs of varying thicknesses, the only tools she needs to adeptly fashion a teepee fire on her own. Both girls have agile knife skills, can identify dozens of species of wild edibles, and often sleep outdoors, unafraid of the dark. Their time in the woods has simultaneously made them uncomfortable and forced them to grow.

mom and daughter in the woods
Image: Courtesy of Hannah Van Sickle.

I continue to enter the woods with a bit of a lump in my throat, testament to the wonder that happens there and the pain that is often stirred up. I am so vulnerable in nature. Despite the towering trees and thick underbrush, the moss-covered rocks and leaf-strewn ground, there is nowhere to hide. Others see me in the woods, just as they have seen my children, and this often leaves me feeling raw and exposed. Most importantly, I am able to see myself. This, perhaps, is most painful of all. 

Look how far you’ve come! I whisper to myself when stoked with confidence and clarity. When I’m weary, on the other hand, I feel like Sisyphus pushing his boulder. But somewhere, in the chasm between those two poles, lies balance.

Our days in the woods still dawn in much the same way they always have: a maelstrom of mismatched socks, leaky water bottles, and tantrums over hiking boots that are suddenly too small threaten to unmoor me. There are frenzied searches for missing knives and errant bandanas, and swearing often ensues. But then, clarity settles in, and we see: In the midst of all that remains the same, we have changed.

Imagine my contentment when, through dappled sunlight streaming from a break in the evergreen canopy, I spy two sisters who — while often at odds — quite literally find common ground in your woods. And, perhaps more importantly, a common language. It is a gift from the earth and from you, and I am extremely grateful for both.

This I wrote to Tes, after one of our last days together in the woods. The tools my daughters and I have acquired through our immersion in nature, instrumental in navigating the blows of death and divorce, will prove invaluable as my daughters grow into adults. In fact, I can already see them at work.

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