Those of us who have been through child loss know as well as anyone the power of a moment in time. Grasping those moments with the child you know you may not have long, and trying to survive in the meantime and the after. It’s so easy to slip into a depressive cycle after losing your…
Five years and five months ago, my daughter Peyton lost her life to leukemia. She was only a month old.
She was beautiful and full of grace and taught me more about the purity of love in her too-short life than I can ever hope to teach others.
I wish I only looked back on our time together through the rose-colored glasses of a doting new mother, but the reality is that Peyton’s life and death were extremely traumatic. We had no idea she was ill until after her birth, and what she went through fighting her cancer was something no person, especially not an innocent baby, should ever have to endure. Cancer is unkind beyond words. Chemo is, in many ways, worse. There is no way to sugar coat that.
I struggled with flashbacks a lot after Peyton died. Nightmare-like images replayed over in my mind and I knew I needed help. I was lucky to find an amazing therapist and together we worked through the most difficult moments: Peyton’s diagnosis; the many surgeries and procedures she went through; the details of what chemo did to our sweet baby’s body.
PTSD can be a curse and a blessing for a bereaved parent. The blessing in that I can clearly remember how she smelled or felt or looked on a given day/hour/minute. The curse in that she was fighting an unwinnable battle every moment of her life, and that was a black cloud that hung over every single moment that we shared. It makes me feel both sad and ashamed to admit that I don’t have any purely happy memories of Peyton.
By working with my therapist, I was able to numb some of the pain without losing my memories in the process. Over time (a lot of time), the flashbacks became less and less severe, until finally, I felt myself begin to breathe again. I don’t know where I would be today had I not had the early intervention of a therapist so skilled in trauma, loss and grief, and though I have found ways to move forward, trauma like mine (and sadly, I’m sure, yours) leaves us forever somewhat open to painful triggers. Recognizing and accepting this is half the battle in preparing ourselves for them before they come.
In the early years after Peyton’s death, the triggers seemed to be everywhere. Some of them were from expected places: walking into her empty nursery; a smell that I associated with the soap from her NICU; any story about childhood cancer; a song from her funeral; seeing a baby the same age as she would be. These things could send me right back to being in her room. To the overwhelming sadness I felt looking down at my beautiful, blue-eyed baby, and knowing that no amount of love was going to rid her blood of the cancer that was killing her. Knowing that she would never be coming home, or even experience one moment with the sun on her face or breathing fresh, non-hospital air. Other triggers were more unexpected, like when I saw a small bird crash into our back window.
When you lose someone you love so much, the reminders of just how fragile life can be are seemingly everywhere.
Today, though I can’t fully avoid all triggers, I’ve come to recognize areas where they may lay so that I can at least try: medical dramas (yeah thanks but no thanks Grey’s); the nightly news with its infuriatingly high number of stories about neglected/abused/unwanted children; and even letters or telemarketing calls from childhood cancer related charities. Of course we donate. Of course I want a cure. But if my day is going well, that call or envelope or late night infomercial about St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital can sometimes bring me back to the feelings of being in that hospital room. To the sounds of her monitors beeping and the looks from the nurses that told me they knew from the day she came in that she would never be leaving.
When Peyton first died I needed to be in that darkness. I needed to scratch at my wounds and bleed out that pain over and over because it was how I processed what had happened to survive. I needed to feel every emotion-grief, guilt, anger, confusion, despair. I needed to shout at God and the universe that things were unfair because the loss of her was poisoning my system and needed to come out. Now, however, I’m somewhere different and I’ve accepted that stepping away from that pain in no way negates my love for my child.
I don’t need the nightly news to tell me that the world can be an ugly and cruel place. I’ve experienced this firsthand and so while I have long considered myself a news/politics junkie, I’ve found that it’s better for me–healthier even–to NOT stay up-to-date on every news story. Will I be less informed at the next dinner party I attend? Maybe. But let’s face it, with three year old twins I don’t attend many dinner parties these days as it is. There is no shame in recognizing your limits and exercising a little self-protection.
I’ve moved on to a sort of resigned acceptance of what has happened. I have three children who I love with my whole heart, but only two whom I’ve been given the opportunity to raise. I can’t change this and so I’ve welcomed the mantra of the Serenity Prayer into my heart:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
There is wisdom and comfort to be found in those words, even for someone who struggles with their faith as I do. Especially in the words:
The courage to change the things I can…
For me this translates into trying my best to focus my efforts on finding the joys that come in every day moments. Some days I am more successful at this than others, but each morning is a renewed opportunity to try again. I also try not dwelling (too much) on the fact that this version of me, this post-loss version of me, is somewhat perpetually tired and will always carry that vulnerability that makes me feel more deeply than I might like to, or cry more easily. I’ll never feel 100% whole without my daughter Peyton here, but this is the life I’ve been given, and we all deserve to live as joyfully as we can, despite our heartaches.
I saw a commercial preview for that new show Resurrection showing a little boy returning from the dead. That thirty-second snippet was enough to tell me that that show was NOT for me. I wish my daughter would come back from the dead—she won’t. I wish some change in the universe could mean that we’d all be here together—it won’t. I know better than to intentionally put myself in a triggering situation because, though five years have passed, the level of despair and grief and sadness and heartache that I feel when triggered have not, and I consider each moment not spent in that place where I dwelled for the better part of three years a blessing and a mercy.
I can’t change what has happened, and I can’t avoid the fact that from time to time my broken heart will go back there, but trigger myself intentionally after working so hard to crawl back up into the sunlight? No thank you.
I’d rather turn off my TV or shut down that news site, and breathe in the smell of my rainbow children’s hair.