Finding Yourself After a Loss
The other day someone mentioned a little girl we know is going to start Kindergarten in the fall. My first thought was, wow – time sure does fly – and then BAM, it hit me. Jenna would be too. Our eldest. I threw that into the conversation, awkwardly, I might add. “Jenna would be starting Kindergarten this year too.” I don’t really know what I expected in return – sympathy? sadness? a nod? or a conversation about how things could have been? I really don’t know. I think I did it for her, and for me. To speak her existence into the world again, if only for a second. I wasn’t the kind of why-didn’t-you-remember-my-daughter kind of sad, just sad in a way that was more like a tinge of anger. I lost this too. I didn’t just lose a baby. I lost an entire lifetime with her. The conversation drifted, as I knew it would, and I was okay with that but it reactivated something that lies dormant a lot these days. That intense grief, the sharp pain and the love that looks a lot like sadness. Yet, I was not bursting into tears. I was physically, and mentally okay. I wasn’t in shambles or weeping the entire drive home. I was able to enjoy the day with this person, and eat without wanting to throw up.
Life looks and feels so different than it did a few years ago.
At some point after a loss, you stop waiting. You stop waiting for people to react to your loss more intensely or more knowledgeably, you stop waiting for the person you lost to come knocking on your door [grief either has you convinced you dreamt this nightmare up or even more bizarre that someone can actually fake their own death, funeral and still pull off the worst prank known to man], you stop waiting for the grief to feel like anything less than a tsnumani over your fragile heart – but most of all – you stop waiting to become you again.
It takes a long, long time for the waiting game to finally turn into the acceptance pill. And no matter how many people walk away and enter your world, nothing is more apparent that the old version of yourself died too, than when you wake up to your reflection in the morning one day and don’t recognize yourself. You become ill, frustrated and even angry at the idea that you have been on this road of grief for so long already and still seem to have no direction. And you feel mostly alone by now.
The only thing is, you are not alone.
Finding a new identity, and for some, reconnecting with previous identities, is a huge part of healing. Feeling a little lost is part of being found, or rather finding yourself again.
Not all those who wander are lost – J. R. R. Tolkien
If you are feeling a little lost after facing the death of your child, I hope you’ll find something helpful in this list, and my heart truly goes out to you.
1. Open your heart to the idea of happiness. Being happy is scary business. It feels violating, betraying and callous to the death of your loved one. Just open your heart to the idea. You don’t have to jump right into party planning and festivals again. Take small steps, which leads to the next point.
2. Find your happy. What is your happy now? Is it something that has come from your loss and grief, like photography, painting, writing or journaling? Is it something else altogether like yoga or exercise? Is it visiting a certain place or watching the sun set at dusk? Start brainstorming ways to carry this new thing into your everyday life. Let yourself explore this thing [or things!] and lean into it, even if you begin feeling more relief than sadness when you partake.
3. Cry big and cry often. This seems contradictory, but I assure you it isn’t. If you feel like you need a good cry, go for it. Let it all out. Don’t feel guilty or convince yourself that you are too far along to be feeling this way.
4. Let the opinions and expectations of others go with the wind. Almost every griever has a person or circle of people who would like to see them hastening a little faster to a “better place” after their loss. What they don’t often realize is that grief is so personal, and so complex that there is no formula for getting to that place, [if it even exists the way they think it does?]. Take your time. Rushing through grief will only postpone what you are feeling right now – for ten, twenty or even thirty years down the road. Grief is to be respected as much as any other human emotion. Give it all the time it needs to do its work in your heart.
5. Don’t compare your grief, your feelings, your loss, or anything about yourself or situation to someone else’s. Even if it might be remarkably similar. It does not matter. You are the only YOU in this world. And only you know what makes you tick. Trust your own instincts that just as the body can heal itself, so can your heart. You will never be the same, and yes, there will be many painful scars, but your heart knows its way to healing and oneness again.
6. Don’t be afraid to nurture your grief as often as you feel the need. Whether this be by visiting the cemetery, or speaking about your loved one, or drawing their name out on a napkin or simply listening to a song that makes you feel something.
7. Expect triggers and listen to your body. One thing anyone can tell you who has lost someone they love is that there are going to be reminders around every corner, for the rest of your life. Nearly everything in your life is a trigger, at first and possibly for a very long time. Never how I lived more intentional and in tune with my spirit and soul than right after our loss. I don’t know if I lived passively or just sheer naivety before loss, but I was astounded how keenly I could FEEL certain things for the very first time. It felt good to learn more about myself, though at an unimaginable cost. Listen to your body, watch for signals and triggers. Own your own skin and say no every once in a while, if you just don’t feel up to going to the dinner party, or baby shower.
8. Own up to your own brave warrior heart. One thing I absolutely HATED is that people would say something along these lines,”You’re so strong, Fran. I could never do that (referring to losing a child).” Aside from a million inappropriate remarks that flew through my brain, I just wanted to grab the person and say,”Look, this isn’t strength. This is the epitome of weakness. I am barely standing, and mostly because my prayer didn’t get answered to die right along with her.” But okay, five years out – most of that pent-up rage has been harnessed and I get why they were trying to pour perilous optimism over this horrible situation. THIS isn’t easy. Grief IS hard work. And they saw that. And while you’re fighting for the will to live, and not even positive you want to love your life again, you can’t see it but you have the heart of a warrior. You possess the wild and catastrophic love that knows no boundaries, and that recklessly dares into the darkest places on Planet Earth – the grave. Your warrior heart finds strength to not only survive but desire an attempt to rummage through the aftermath, hoping in some distant future you might find traces of who you were before and what you might be when the dust settles.
Don’t underestimate your heart journey. Opening your heart is the first step, and actually taking this step is monumental. Take all the time you need and most of all realize you do not walk alone in this very unforgiving road of life after loss.