My daughter Heather Heyer’s death taught me how to grieve. We all need to know how today
As of today, the U.S. has suffered over 160,000 deaths due to COVID-19. That is a great deal of pain and grief across a wide swath of the population—grief around losing a job, a family member, a friend, a lifestyle.
But most of us have never talked about how to grieve. Do we even know how to bring it up? Everyone’s grief journey is unique, but hearing how others handle it can be a launching point to discussion and understanding.
If you ask me which I prefer—mountains or beach—I will always choose mountains. My childhood was spent in the Shenandoah Valley, surrounded by mountains. My heritage is coal mining, carved deep from the Appalachian Mountains.
When I was about 5, my parents took me to Myrtle Beach, S.C. Having never seen the ocean, I was somewhat excited. That was until my babysitter that year, my grandmother, regaled me with stories and pictures from encyclopedias of riptides, crashing waves, sharks, lampreys, and jellyfish. It took a great deal of coaxing to get me into the water. As a chubby child and teenager, the beach was never a place I fully enjoyed.
But now, I live at the beach. Not in real life, but metaphorically.
Three years ago today, I was tossed into the ocean. My daughter Heather Heyer’s murder, at a counterprotest to a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., put me in a position of public scrutiny and speculation. I took charge of the situation by dealing with the press and politicians head-on and planning Heather’s memorial. The waves crashed over my head, but I spluttered to the top, treading and swimming as best I could.
The first night, I quietly sobbed in bed for hours next to my exhausted husband. But I was so busy handling the press, politicians, and “immediately urgent details” that I don’t remember crying very much for a while after that.
Then came an influx of cards and notes, many with small amounts of money. They poured in through the funeral home, the mayor’s office, general delivery, and even TV stations. With the help of Heather’s supervisor from work, I started a scholarship foundation in her name. But I don’t remember crying much during that time. Life was just…busy. I spoke on national television, accepted posthumous awards for her, and traveled.
But at some point, there came a reckoning. I’d only allowed myself to experience waves of grief in trickles. I refused to cry in public, as the press would quickly air raw emotion but entirely disregard the parts about justice or equity. I built a dam to hold in my emotions. But we all know what happens to walls of sand when the waves roll in.
About five months later, when the holidays came, the dam broke. Pent-up tears flowed and flowed. I sat in my chair for hours on end, tears rolling down my face. Each new thought of Heather would start the sobbing anew. I think I cried for a couple of weeks. My poor husband was completely at a loss. He had recently lost two siblings as well. We had seen a grief counselor, but stopped at some point due to my travel schedule.
Friends told me it would hurt less as time went on. In my darkest moments, that was hard to believe. But I studied how others handled grief. Listening and reading when others shared their pain, I drew a few conclusions.
First off, we all die. That is inevitable to the human experience. We don’t get to choose who dies, when they die, or how. And if you loved them, you will hurt when it happens. But loving someone fully and completely is worth the cost of the pain of losing them. You will have the pain of loss anyway. But choosing to love at least minimizes regret.
Second, grief is like the waves of the ocean. It washes over you in both predictable and unpredictable waves. The waves come at holidays, at birthdays, at death anniversaries. They come as you fold her jacket to donate or wrap yourself in the blanket you crocheted her for her 16th winter. Rage comes as well. Holding back the waves only makes them hit with greater ferocity later.
Third, we can choose how to deal with the waves. I, for one, refuse to let them drown me. Others are still here who I love. I refuse to chase the waves, to eternally be a victim. I let them come as they must, and then stand in the shallows as I move on with my life. I can feel the pain of the wave and accept that pain. They always pass. And when they do? I breathe again.
Fourth, I recover more quickly if I do something of value in her memory. I choose to turn my attention away from the waves. The “something of value” doesn’t have to be big. It just helps to do for others in their name.
So I live at the beach, standing always in the shallows, always missing her, and always working to grow from our shared causes. It is common to the human experience to lose a loved one, and knowing I am not alone gives me comfort. Waves crash over or lap gently from time to time, and the tears fall. But I keep looking ahead. I have work to do. I have a purpose for being here, and I choose to survive.
I cannot promise that what worked for me will work for you. But acknowledging your pain and grief to others can be hugely cathartic if done properly. Find a grief counselor. Find a grief support group in person or online, but keep your wits about you. Predators certainly lurk.
Just know that holding back the waves only causes them to build up, leading you to a tidal wave further down the beach. I’m sorry to welcome you to the shallows, but know you are not alone.
Susan Bro is the mother of Heather Heyer and has spent the last three years working to be antiracist, in addition to training to be a certified life coach. She is a respected voice on issues of trauma and commitment to difficult conversations, restorative justice, diversity, and equity.