To my friends who are struggling…

I have learned so much about the world through my journey with my daughter, Aria. I have been to hell and back, and experienced things I never imagined I would. In these moments, I interacted with people on a regular basis who had no idea what I was going through, and that really opened my eyes. I guarantee that I have unknowingly interacted with people who are fighting through difficult times on multiple occasions.

But even though I may not know who is struggling right now, or what they are dealing with, I want you to know I still see you.

I know there are days when it’s a struggle to leave the house. I know there are times when it takes real courage to strike up a conversation with someone. I know you are tired. I know you feel defeated. I know you can’t always see a way out.

But you can do this. Breathe in, breathe out. There is a reason that your heart continues to beat without first asking for your permission. You are here. You have purpose. Keep going.

I am no stranger to rock bottom. I called that place my home for a long time. Maybe you are there now. The good news is there is always a way out of that place. You just have to keep moving, keep on searching. You will find the light again, I promise.

The winds are changing.

Something has happened over the last few days. I’m suddenly feeling more like my old self.

For the last seven months, we felt really stagnant. We didn’t have much to focus on or look forward to. So we just did our best to pass the time.

But we aren’t passing the time anymore. We’re actually losing track of it. Days are flying by, and the weeks ahead seem closer than before.

I think this is because we finally have something to put all of our energy into. We are packing up and moving to Texas in two months, and suddenly our worlds have become consumed with planning, house hunting, and researching fun things to do in our new city.

When this opportunity first came up, Brian and I spent a lot of time contemplating if he should go out to Texas for the job interview. We wondered if it was too much to take on so soon after Aria’s passing. We didn’t know if we could handle such a huge life change on top of everything else. We really agonized over the decision, and were so scared of making the wrong choice. We agreed that Brian would just go to the interview, and we would pray for God’s will. And everything just started to unfold from there.

As I look back on that time, I realize that we did exactly what we were supposed to do. This new opportunity was something totally unexpected, and completely out of the blue. Everything happened so seamlessly that I know this was part of the plan.

I know in my heart that this change is going to be really good. For the first time in a very long time, I’m excited. Really genuinely excited. And that feels so, so good.

Part of me wants to interrupt this post with a little pessimism, and go on about how moving is stressful and that I’m scared this joy won’t last, but I won’t. I just want to cling to this moment for as long as I can.

I love the broken ones.

Losing my first born daughter stripped every ounce of artificiality out of me. I no longer cared for the ridiculous image of perfection that society told me I needed to have. I refused to hide my wounds, shortcomings, and struggles. I didn’t care if the world saw my brokenness. Truthfully, I now look at the broken, and painfully authentic parts of myself as the most beautiful.

I’ve noticed myself seeking those broken pieces in others a lot lately. It makes their beauty shine brighter. I want to hear how they have risen from the ashes, and maintained hope against all odds.

Life is messy. This world is full of heartache. At some point, we all will reach a place we never imagined we would end up. That’s not me being negative, it’s me being realistic. Putting up a facade and pretending everything is fine doesn’t bring you out of the darkness. It forces you stand in isolation as the rest of the world spins around you.

Don’t be afraid of your brokenness. Don’t run from your heartache. Hold it in your hands, become familiar with it, and tell it how much stronger you are.

Then tell all of us. Show me what you’ve overcome. Let us see the full magnitude of your joy. Don’t let me congratulate you on your accomplishments without telling me about the deep waters you swam through to get here.

I think that’s why I really love the broken ones. Their joy is far greater, and runs much deeper.

Find your place: on the importance of community for all of us.

For most of my life, my community was my family. My father, mother, and sister were my entire world. We moved so much throughout my childhood that they were my home, and the house we were in really didn’t matter.

As I got older, and my friendships matured, my community started to grow. My husband first joined my community years ago as my high school boyfriend. When we got married, I added his family into my community as well.

My community also consists of some amazing friends that I’m so honored to know. These are people who I’ve bonded with through shared experiences, shared faith, similar likes and dislikes, and even some who I have connected with on a heart level. Some have become permanent fixtures in my life, while others just stayed for a little while. Each one adding to my story, and impacting me greatly.

When my unborn daughter, Aria was diagnosed with a major congenital defect, I turned to my community of friends, and family for support. They were incredible. They supplied us with so much love, and prayed endlessly. But there was one problem. We kept hearing the words “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” It wasn’t wrong for them to say that. I appreciated the honesty. It’s true, they didn’t know what we were experiencing. But unfortunately, that started to cause a lot of feelings of isolation for us.

It’s so important to be around people who just get it. I needed to communicate with people who understood what I was talking about when I said things like CVR, hydrops, type II CCAM, and pulmonary hypoplasia. I needed people who didn’t need me to explain my feelings, because they already knew.

So I found my place in two different CCAM support groups. Those people provided me with a wealth of knowledge, and an overwhelming amount of support. On one of the hardest days of our journey, as we fought for our unborn daughter’s life, a CCAM mom in England called me. She let me vent about all of the tough decisions we were facing. She let me cry, and helped me to figure out the questions I still needed to ask our doctors. But most importantly, she listened to me with ears that knew my struggle. I had never met her, and she had nothing to gain from that phone call, but she listened anyways. That was the first time I really began to understand the importance of community.

We also joined hands with an amazing team of doctors, nurses, and hospital staff. They were such a massive part of our journey, and probably saw more of our pain than our closest friends and relatives.

When Aria’s condition worsened, and we opted to continue the pregnancy anyways, we became part of a community of parents choosing to carry their baby to birth despite a poor or fatal prenatal diagnosis. We were only in this community for a few days, because Aria was born and passed away shortly after her diagnosis became life threatening. But the support we received still helped us immensely.

After losing Aria, we found ourselves feeling isolated yet again. CCAM is rarely fatal. Only 15% of the cases become this severe, and there is no known reason as to why this happens. I can count on one hand the number of mothers that I know personally who have lost a baby to CCAM. While I am grateful so many families were spared from this pain, there is so much difficulty in being in a support group that is filled with success stories, and not understanding why we weren’t one of them.

So once again, we turned to our family and friends, and we were showered with so much love. But we were also faced with the same problem, yet again. As support rolled in, we continued to hear people say, “I can’t imagine what you are going through.” And the loneliness returned. Could I really be the only one?

But it turns out that I wasn’t alone. Not by a long shot, because I found yet another community. This one is filled with parents who have also lost a baby. I have joined hands with so many grieving parents, many without even meeting in person. I have poured out my pain in front of them, and they have supported me through some of the darkest moments of my grief. I have received messages from women just days after their loss – their heartbreak so intensely raw, and desperately searching for an understanding ear to hear their stories. As much as I wish no one else ever had to join this community, it is always an incredible honor for me to be the one someone feels comfortable speaking to.

But none of these communities would exist if one person never stood up in front of the world and said, “This is my story.” And these communities never would have grown if countless more didn’t stand up beside them and say, “me too.”

It doesn’t matter what you are struggling with. Maybe you lost a child, or a spouse, or a parent. Maybe you are dealing with postpartum depression, or another form of mental illness. Perhaps you have endured abuse, or had to walk a difficult path through life. I can promise you this, you are not alone. You belong to a community, and if you cannot find one, perhaps that is the world’s way of telling you that you are brave enough to stand up and tell your story. To share it with the world, so that we can grab onto your hands and say “me too.”

It is well with my soul.

As we said our goodbyes to Aria’s body at the hospital, we prayed with the chaplain who had been counseling us during our time there. She wrote a beautiful blessing for her that honored her life perfectly. That prayer had a profound impact on us, because amid all of the heartache, our spirits were lifted. As we said “amen” and raised our heads, Brian and I looked at each other and knew that although we were embarking on the most difficult journey we would ever face, we would survive. It’s such a strange thing to be both utterly shattered, and also at peace. It’s not really something I can adequately describe in words.

Since then, there have been many moments when my tears were suddenly halted, and Horatio Spafford’s beautiful hymn, “It is Well with My Soul” would play in my head.

And those words are so true.

It’s hard to admit, because hopelessness wants me to believe that it’s impossible for my soul to thrive after loss. It tells me that Aria exists only in sadness, and that stepping into the light means leaving her behind.

But that isn’t true. Not one bit.

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know or say
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

That isn’t to say it still isn’t hard. It is. I’m not at the end of grief. This is a journey I will walk for the rest of my days. There are days when I am weary, and life seems nearly impossible. But there is always this nagging feeling that reminds me my soul is well, and soon I will be too.

Guilt: The unexpected companion of joy after loss.

The further I deviate from my typical “routine” of grief, I notice so many changes in my thoughts and emotions.

At first I think, “I’m having a good time!” And I cherish that. I cling to that feeling. I let the happiness wash over me. It almost feels like an out of body experience, because I’m not used to these moments of normalcy anymore. They remind me of my pre-loss life, and to be honest, I love that feeling.

But it doesn’t always last. I’ll get so overwhelmed by how much a moment feels like my life before Aria, that I start to feel like I’m abandoning the life I had with her. It’s as if all of this joy is somehow dishonoring her legacy, and not giving Aria the moments of remembrance she deserves.

Then the anxiety sets in, and I beg the grief to wash over me. I stare at photos of her, trying to return to the state of depression I was in for the first few months after she passed. It’s as if I feel safer in sadness.

Then I become overwhelmed with guilt. Am I a terrible mother? Am I forgetting her? And how could I possibly allow myself to be happy without her?

It’s awful because deep down, I know I want to be happy. I crave normalcy and healing. I want to live a fulfilling life after loss. But guilt speaks so loud that it’s impossible to ignore.

Part of me knows these feelings will likely be fleeting, and as healing continues, the guilt will eventually subside. But right now, it’s such a huge part of my journey. My mind is struggling to comprehend these intense emotions which causes me to overthink everything. I know that these moments, while messy and complicated, are still constructive. Working through it brings me closer to where I want to be, even when if it feel more like a setback than progress.

Checking in: Seven Months Later

The seven month mark is so surreal to me. It sounds like such a long time, and it certainly does not feel like seven months have passed since Aria’s very last breath.

When I wrote my last “Check in” post at 5 and a half months, I found it very difficult to explain the place I was in. My emotions were pretty elusive, and ever changing. I figured things would stabilize soon, and eventually I would have a more definite answer to the question, “How are you doing?”

But it’s still just as tough to explain.

I still cry every single day. Aria is the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning. My entire day is saturated with thoughts of her. Who would she be? What would she look like? I ask myself “What if?” a million times, in a million different ways. And without fail, each night as I begin to drift to sleep, my mind replays all of the conversations we had with our doctors, as I try to understand all of the pain and trauma.

If you were to ask me “Are you happy?” I would be quick to say yes. On the surface I suppose I am happy. I’m married to an amazing man, who I have a beautiful relationship with. We’re fed, we have a roof over our heads, our finances are fine. So those bases are covered. We are also extremely blessed to have a lot of wonderful people in our lives, who give us a lot of laughs, and good times. So sure, yeah, I guess one could say we are happy.

But there is always that lingering question in my mind, “How happy can I really be without Aria?”

Beyond all of that, I often struggle to figure out what to do with myself. Each day brings so much possibility, but I have no idea where to begin. So most of the time, I just pick up around the house, and find small things to occupy myself until Brian comes home from work. This pattern doesn’t feel like truly living. I just sort of exist in this limbo, with half of myself in heaven with Aria, and the other half tethered to this earth.

These feelings are what led us to plan a spur of the moment trip to Las Vegas. Brian and I literally just looked at each other one day and said, let’s get outta here. Less than two weeks later, we were on a plane to Vegas. There was magic in finding ourselves in a completely different place, with so many things to occupy our time. But it was also a lot of work, and we experienced a few difficult moments. Grief strikes no matter where you are in the world. And it was definitely not your average Vegas trip. We opted out of intense, late nights of drunken partying because we just don’t feel comfortable with that kind of fun anymore. Maybe that’s our “parent instinct” kicking in. Instead, we chose to indulge in great food, amazing shows, shopping, relaxing, and many discussions about Aria.

We had a great trip, but it was really exhausting, and hit hard once we returned home. For three days, all I wanted to do was sleep. Constantly trying to maintain happiness and joy, all while fighting off grief was a lot of work. It was still worth it, and we made a lot of great memories, all while finding ways to include Aria in our trip as well.

Now, I feel as if I should have a goal to accomplish over the next few weeks, but I’m lacking a lot of creativity at the moment. I know there are things I could work on, but grief is so unpredictable that it’s not fair to set timelines. I do want to stay consistent in day to day tasks like going to the gym, and eating well. I’ve also got a lot of planning I should be doing, as we are moving across the country in less than six months. But I have this feeling that life is just going to unfold no matter how many goals I set, or plans I make.

So, that’s where I am now. It’s still so impossible to sum up in a sentence. I do believe it’s possible to grow, and really come alive in some way after tragedies like this, but it’s a tremendous process. Although, I have a feeling we are getting there. Wherever “there” may be.