A sister in loss.

A few days ago, a woman came into my workplace to take care of some business with a coworker. We started to chat while she was waiting, and it was a typical conversation between strangers. You know; the weather, the news, our husbands, etc. Then she asked the question I was dreading from the moment our conversation began:

“Do you have kids?”

I panicked. This question is by far the hardest thing I am asked on a daily basis. I never know what to say, or how to say it. But on the other hand I’m grateful they ask because I do want to talk about my daughter. I just despise the way people often respond.

“I have a daughter, but she passed away about a year and a half ago.” I said shakily.

And then I stared at the floor and quickly cracked a joke about how I also have a dog, who I treat like she is my second child. Which is how I always follow up my answer to the “kid’s question”, because people are often quite visibly relieved when I change the subject. For the general public, talking about how my daughter died is just too uncomfortable for them to navigate.

But when I looked up, she stared at me with tears in her eyes, grabbed onto my hand and said, “I am so sorry. I lost my son right after he turned eighteen years old. I know your pain, and I’m sorry.”

I stood there for a moment, shell shocked. She caught me completely off guard. I had become so accustomed to people clamming up and quickly changing the subject when I explain that I am a bereaved mother. But this woman wouldn’t let me switch topics and gloss over my loss. Instead, she chose to open her heart and sit in this messy, emotional moment with me. Just like that, this woman who was a total stranger a few seconds ago had turned into a sister in grief.

“How old was she?” She asked.

“Only an hour old. She was very sick at birth.”

She blew a kiss towards heaven and said, “Oh, sweet baby girl” and put her hands over her heart. I could see the sincerity all over her face.

“How long has it been since your son passed away?” I asked.

“Eleven years. He died two weeks before he was supposed to graduate from high school.”

I told her I was very sorry, and we stood there for a few moments with our red and misty eyes locked onto each other. We then nodded in unison, and continued to go about our business.

The moment was brief, but I can’t tell you how much that conversation meant to me. The impact changed my entire day. I suddenly felt like I was no longer at work, but in a community where I belonged. A place where I was understood. For the first time in what feels like forever, someone was seeing me for me, and not the brave face I plaster on each morning. She saw the tears I was trying to blink away. She heard the subtle shake in my voice when I told her that my daughter had died. And she felt that same searing pain in her heart when she heard that I too had lost a child. It was beautiful and heartbreaking all at once, which is really the best way I know how to describe bereaved motherhood.

Even as I rocked on my knees, howling. I detected soft breathing behind the roaring. I leaned in, listened. It was the murmuring of ten million mothers, backward and forward, in time and right now, who had also lost children. They were lifting me, holding me. They had woven a net of their broken hearts, and they were keeping me safe there. I realized that one day I would take my rightful place as a link in this web, and I would hold my sister mothers when their children died. For now my only task was to grieve and be cradled in their love. – Mirabai Starr

Dreams

The other day Brian was helping me in the kitchen as I prepared dinner when he looked at me with glistening eyes and said, “What would she be doing now?” He didn’t have to specify who “she” was or what exactly he was asking, I already knew.

“She’d be talking. Not a whole lot. But several words by now I’m sure.”

“Would she be walking?” He asked.

“Walking? She’d probably be running by now.”

I watched the corners of his lips turn up just slightly, like his proud smile was some kind of secret he was trying to keep inside of him.

This pride we feel is an interesting thing, and not easily understood by those who have not been where we are. To think about all the growing and thriving she could be doing right now if things had been different brings so much mixed emotion. The most apparent and obvious are the negative ones, the pain, the longing. The ones that form tears in my eyes and an ache in my heart. But there’s a pride in imagining her growing up, and the joy that would have brought.

Sometimes, for the briefest of moments I pretend it was all different. I ignore the fact that she never came home from the hospital and let myself imagine what it would be like if she were racing around the house with our dog, Lana in tow. My ears fill with the symphony of tiny footsteps and excited squeals. I close my eyes and watch her black hair bounce in the air as she plays. Oh, it feels so good to imagine how those curls have grown since the day she was born. I sit there in that joy for just a moment. And then…

The weight of the world falls back onto my shoulders, and reality floods all my senses like a rising tide, washing all my dreams away.

But that imaginary joy, it still left its mark on me. A hope for what is to come. On that day when that little girl turns around and sees me standing at the gates of heaven. One sweet day.

Until then, I will do my best to thrive here. To build something beautiful from the wreckage that became my life nearly eighteen months ago. And I’ll dream, because no amount of anguish can take that from me.

I’ll dream about life on this earth. I’ll dream about growing old with my sweet husband. I’ll dream about having more babies. I’ll dream about having a farmhouse with a bountiful garden. I’ll dream about finally living next door to my best friend. I’ll dream about holidays surrounded by family.

But most of all, I’ll dream about her until I won’t have to dream at all.

Looking back, and hoping forward.

There are so many things I want to say, but it would take hours to write it all. So I’ll try to sum it all up in one post.

Yesterday marked one year since we met our team of MFMs and fetal surgeons at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for the first time. That first meeting in consultation room #2 was not a good one, and it still weighs heavy on my heart.

I keep thinking, “At this time last year, I was having a Fetal MRI.” or “Meeting with Dr. K” or “Crying in our hotel room.” And so on and so forth. It is strange to be out shopping, knowing exactly one year ago I was sobbing in my husband’s arms, as my sick baby girl moved around in my womb. It is still so hard to comprehend how I ended up here, almost one year away from the last time Aria kicked in my belly, or the last time I held her in my arms.
img_3848After I sent this photo to my Dad with the caption “One year ago…” He replied with, “Do you think you could have ever imagined what the next year would be like?” To which I replied, “Not in a million years.”

And there are so many different meanings wrapped up in my response. Even with all the horrible things our doctors were saying, I never wanted to believe in the possibility of a future without Aria alongside us. I never dreamed that I would become a bereaved parent. I never imagined the magnitude of pain this loss would bring, or how endless grief actually is. I never knew that heartbreak could bring such immense physical pain. And in the moment Aria’s heart beat for the last time, I never imagined I would ever know joy again.

And yet, laughter still finds a way to fill the walls of our home. Brian and I still dance around in our kitchen. I still attempt to embarrass him in public with random antics. He still does the same silly things he’s always done. We still talk about our daughter daily, and happily reminisce on our fondest memories of her. We look at pictures and gush over her adorable little nose. Such a contrast to the days when I feared I would never be able to look at pictures of her without crying. I wouldn’t say I am “healed” or “better”, just different.

Beyond all of that, I never dreamed Aria’s name and story would be known by hundreds of people all over the globe. I never fathomed that she would inspire people so much that they would help us give sixty children Christmas gifts in her honor. I didn’t know that her legacy would eventually become the catalyst for a project that honored the brief lives of over fifty babies.

Never in a million years.

And so as 2016 comes to a close, and Aria’s first birthday inches closer, I can’t help but wonder what unfathomable goodness the next year may bring. That is my hope and prayer for the coming year. Dear Lord, let it be good.

The mystical (and nonexistent) band aid called time.

As the days, weeks, and months have gone by, I have begun to sense a false belief that every passing second is creating a pathway for us to get over the loss of our daughter. There is an expectation that the magical band aid of time is making us better, and bringing us out of the darkness.

To a certain extent, I get it. How many times have you heard the phrase “time heals all wounds?” But here’s the thing – time heals broken bones, not broken hearts. Depending on my mood, there are times when I actually take offense to that well meaning phrase. You see, I’m not just sitting here patiently waiting for time to heal me.

I am healing me.

Grief is an active process. I am grieving with every cell in my body. I don’t run from my thoughts and emotions. I allow myself to spend hours sobbing on the floor of my daughter’s empty nursery. I frequently find myself running to the nearest restroom seeking refuge, and a place to shed a few tears in the middle of my day. I think about my daughter as I sift through apples at the grocery store. I think of her as I catch a glimpse of other moms pushing their babies in shopping carts at Target. I am constantly allowing myself to remember her, and process it all.

Many people in the “time heals all” camp often encourage me not to think about it, and to completely avoid the painful thoughts. This is because they operate under the assumption that one day I will wake up and it won’t hurt so much. But honestly, that is terrible advice. Ignoring your wounds only makes them worse. Most will agree that it isn’t healthy to bottle things up when it comes to anger, but the same is also true for grief. Attempting to avoid dealing with the pain only makes it worse, just as ignoring a literal wound would likely lead to infection.

You have to honor the process of grief. You cannot rush it by restricting it to a certain span of time. The truth is, no matter how hard you try to say that you are done, and time alone has healed you, you will end up dealing with it at sometime or another. There comes a point when those pent up emotions will become so destructive, and all consuming that you no longer posses the power to ignore them. This is how grief finds a way to swallow you whole without warning, years after the fact. If left untouched, time has the ability to completely destroy your wounds.

However, I do think there are still moments when it’s appropriate to postpone your grief. One really good example is the workplace. I know breaking down in the middle of a staff meeting is certainly not my idea of a good moment to grieve. It’s fine to tell those thoughts to come back later, once you are in a place where you feel comfortable embracing them. But that is the key here – you have to come back and process it.

There are also moments when I have said not now because I am desperately trying to find joy again. Sometimes, I have to allow myself to relish in the brief moments of peace, so I can recharge and build my strength. There is a very delicate balance between grief and joy that is a vital part of this process.

But having said all of this, it is important to admit that there will never be complete healing. Wounds of this magnitude tend to leave behind many scars and weak spots. For a while, I really resented that. I wanted to be made whole again so I could go back to being the person I used to be. On the other hand, this everlasting ache for what will never be stems from an undying love for my child. I am so deeply affected by her passing because I am her mother, and no one else on the face of this planet shares this specific bond with her. That is something worth embracing.

The bottom line is this: Although time has passed, and I have begun to heal within that time, the catalyst for healing is not found in time itself. It is found by allowing the process of grief to mold me.

As toilsome as it may be, the jagged rocks and relentless waves will guide you to where you need to be.

**I wanted to add a little disclaimer because I know the grief process is very unique and different for everyone. This post is written with knowledge I have gained from my own process and from speaking with others. I hope it encourages and helps you as you navigate the waters of grief, but I understand that these words may not be true of everyone. I wish all of you the very best in your journey through life.