I have been a parent for over 2 years now. I stand by my belief that I became a parent the moment I found out I was pregnant with my first child, in April of 2012, as I watched one line turn to two and a plus sign form. From then on, I spent the next nine months nurturing, worrying, loving, and taking care of my unborn daughter. I parented her.
Unfortunately, she died before she was born in December of 2012 at 40 weeks gestation. When she died, a piece of me died with her, but my role as her parent lived on and I continued to love her and foster our relationship with her even in her death.
Fast forward 22 months past her death, through nine months of another pregnancy (even though those months of pregnancy didn’t seem fast), and seven months of holding my breathing daughter in my arms, and here I am learning how to parent another child–this time a living one.
Parenting my second daughter has been different mostly because she is living and my eldest never breathed outside of the womb. However, the death of my first child has taught me to be more mindful in parenting my second.
One might say that I don’t know what kind of parent I would have been before losing a child because I never got the chance to experience parenthood without death. But, I can tell you that I knew myself before parenthood and I was not a patient person. My mother always said, “When they were handing out patience in heaven before you were born you didn’t have enough to stay in line.”
You see, I loved my gadgets and Facebook, and I never wanted things to be ordinary. I always sought for life to be extraordinary–which to me meant busy, always in motion, and never living in the here and now. Life was always about the next thing. It could never move fast enough.
Now, after losing a child, my perspective on life and the kind of parent I think I would have been (as I see glimpses of her impatience and need of instance gratification at times still) versus the kind of parent I am turning into is vastly different. I credit this all to the lessons learned about parenting after losing a child.
Here are some ways being a bereaved parent has made me more of a mindful one:
1. I try to stay in the present moment – There are so many times when I’m struggling to stay in the present while parenting my daughter. Feeding her at night, I am tempted to scroll through Facebook or sitting beside her on her playmat I begin to do work on my computer or try to watch TV and not really being in the moment with her. It’s at these times when I make a conscious effort to put away the phone, set aside the work, let the dishes sit in the sink and tell myself I’ll get to it later. Where I want to be is in the ‘here and now’ with my child. I want to be really present for her life because I didn’t get to have that with her sister. Sometimes this fact makes it even harder to be in the present moment because it reminds me of what I didn’t get, but then I just remember that these little moments are what life is really all about.
2. I don’t rush things – I used to rush through the stages of my life. Always wanting to get to the next big life event. Getting engaged, check! Now I need to get married. Getting married, check! Now I need to have a baby, check! Baby dies, wait what? Okay, baby dies, now I need to get through grief, check! Wait–grief you don’t just get through! Okay so move on and get pregnant again, check! Now get through this new pregnancy after loss. Okay, check! Now I have this baby in my arms, check! Now let’s get through night feedings, sleepless nights, postpartum body insecurities, and make sure the baby gets through all her milestones on time or sooner and gets to her first birthday so the risk of SIDS is gone so I don’t have to worry because I couldn’t possibly handle something else going wrong!
Having this crazy-making thinking process night after night is when I realized I needed to SLOW DOWN. Since the death of my first daughter I have learned to no longer ‘hurry up’ life away. My husband says, “I wish she was older and would just sleep through the night.” I start to nod in agreement and then stop myself and in my mind repeat the mantra, “Don’t rush this.” Because in a moment it could all be gone. This is the exact moment we have worked so hard to get to, that we have strived for and wished for. Don’t hurry it away. If anything, please linger a little longer.
3. I detox from technology – This relates to #1 but I think expanding on it is important. In the first months and year after my daughter’s stillbirth,I craved connection through the internet. It was safe to join a support group on Facebook or read a blog all from the comfort of my own bed. Technology was the way in which I could still connect with the world that I so much wanted to turn away from. It was where my grief could be heard and my heartache didn’t need to hide. But since my second daughter arrived I have been feeling a pull to be away from the virtual world. I make a conscious effort to be with her and my family experiencing life again offline. I think part of this has to do with being a working mom too. So, on the weekends you might be hard pressed to find me scrolling through Facebook, answering e-mails, or writing for my blog anymore and it feels freeing to just soak up those in-person moments with my daughter, husband, family, and friends.
4. I accept all emotions–mine, my child’s and my husbands – Parenting after loss is HARD! Parenting in general is hard, and when you add on a huge heap of guilt, grief, second guessing, and anxiety? It’s straight-up challenging. How I have learned to deal with the whirlwind emotions of parenting after loss is by accepting everyone’s emotions–mine, my husbands, and my daughters–as they are. As Rumi would say, “Meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in…because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” I let my emotions guide me in my grief and it led to a healing. I believe if I let my family’s and my emotions guide me in parenting after loss it will continue to let me live a more deeply connected, healing and fulfilling life.
5. I say “this is enough”…this job is enough, the amount of money we have is enough, the amount of sleep I get is enough, this moment with my child is enough – Because the striving for more is what gets in the way of enjoying the now. I’ve wished for this time with my child for so long. I don’t want to spend it wishing for more and then look back on my life and realize this was enough. I feel like I did this with my first daughter’s pregnancy. I looked so forward to my future with her that I looked past that the moments in pregnancy with her that were “enough” and then when I had no more moments in the future, I felt robbed of both the future moments I would not get and the past moments that I did not savor. This time around every moment, gift, job, etc. is enough.
6. I don’t text and drive – Or take other silly, and dare I say reckless, risks with my life anymore. I think this is true just by becoming a parent in general. However, the other day I was talking to my loss mom friends and we brought up how we don’t have a desire to go skydiving anymore or bungee jumping like we did in our youth. Someone said, “I think it’s just becoming a parent and realizing how much you have to lose.” Then someone added, “Especially after you have lost a child.” Which is true because the reality is that we know how precious life can be and how quickly it can change, literally in the blink of an eye.
7. I don’t take life, my child, or this moment for granted – I revel in as many moments of joy as I possibly can with my baby and with my life. I soak in the sweetness of life like a sponge soaks up water. And I practice gratitude for all the memories and moments I get to keep and make. Even the crappy, not so sweet moments. I am grateful for them too, because at least I get them this time.
8. I forgive…mostly I forgive myself – Another thing I have learned and practice is that If I’m going to be a mindful parent then I also have to be a forgiving parent. And when I mean forgiving, I mean mostly of myself. There are times I realize that I just can’t be as present and as grateful as I want to be and in those times the way I continue to practice mindfulness is to be forgiving of my shortfalls because after all I am only human. This lesson originally stems from my guilt and grief journey over the death of my daughter as I had to forgive myself, sometimes almost daily for her death even though it was not my fault. I will continue to bring in the practice of forgiveness into parenting after loss.
9. I am grateful for the mundane, the hard, the broken, the struggle– I don’t want to imply that the death of my daughter in any way, shape or form is something I wouldn’t change. However, I am grateful for the gifts it has left behind. That SHE has left behind in the life that came after her. The struggle of grief, my broken life and heart of loss, has given me a new perspective on living which has made the mundane of parenting, the changing poopy diapers, washing tons of laundry, and the monotony of the routine comforting. Without experiencing this great loss I don’t know if I would appreciate the luxury of the mundane and the security of the ordinary.
It’s almost as if my changed world-view of having more patience, being more mindful, and living in the present are gifts my first daughter has left my second.
I like to think so at least.
photo credit Kerry Kresl Photography