When Dorothy died, I plummeted. I found myself in the lowest place I had ever been to. It was far below any place I had visited before. You might know the level I speak of; a low so far down that when you look up, you see black.
There is nothing there for you. And then, one day, you start to rise out of the black. You begin to claw your way through the nothingness. The only thing fueling you is this glimmer of hope that maybe someday you will experience a high that will take you as far in the other direction.
But what happens when the highs don’t bring you to the peak? What if you never reach the apex?
After Dorothy died, I was fortunate enough to become pregnant again. The entire time I carried her sister, Frances, inside of me, I was wrought with anticipation. There was the anticipation of finally becoming the mother I once imagined myself to be, the anticipation to meet my new daughter, and the anticipation to finally experience that high everyone describes the birth of your child to be.
My birth experience with Dorothy was shadowed by her death, but there was the hope that Frances would be born alive.
I thought, perhaps naively, that the high of Frances’s birth would help to balance out the low of Dorothy’s death.
I carried this dream of balance with me throughout my whole pregnancy. The idea that I was working towards a high that could lift me out of my pain and grief, it pushed me through the anxiety and stress of my high-risk pregnancy. It pushed me and pushed me and then it was time to push. Frances was here. She was alive. I could feel her warmth, I could hear her breath, and I could see her eyes as they opened and closed.
Any moment now, I was going to be carried away by the bliss of having a living, breathing child in my arms.
The pain I had experienced for so long was going to be rewarded with unbridled happiness. I waited to be lifted up by the elation and the joy of becoming the mother I had imagined I would be. Moments passed. Hours passed. Days passed. The high was not what I imagined it would be. Frances’s birth was supposed to bring me to highest point of happiness; so why was I still in so much pain?
Over those first days and weeks, time with my newborn daughter rushed by me in a blur of emotions and exhaustion. When I was able to grasp onto my consciousness, a realization became apparent. The high I wanted to achieve was not possible.
There was simply not a counterpart for the place I had been before. One simple moment was not going to provide me with the balance I craved, because Frances’s ability to take a breath in this world was not equal to the fact that Dorothy never experienced life outside of my womb.
The parents of multiple children often fall into this trap; we want our children to even each other out.
However, our children do no exist to even each other out. Both of my daughters bring me moments of sorrow, and both of my daughters have brought me moments of incredible joy.
Even though Dorothy no longer lives with us, she continues to impact my life from wherever she spends her days. The same way that her sister will impact the rest of my life for better or for worse. It was not fair for me to expect that Frances’s existence would lift me out of my pain. it wasn’t fair for me to hold Dorothy’s death solely accountable for the pain I was in. My daughters were not here to save me. It was time for me to take more ownership of my experiences and stop waiting for the high to come and rescue me.
My propensity for joy has changed since the birth of my daughters.
My heart often needs more encouragement to let go and just experience happiness. Losing a child does that to you. But when I feel joy in my heart and in my life, I feel as if I’m soaring. Loving a child does that to you. You feel like you’re flying.
Rachel Whalen is a mother, wife, and Kindergarten teacher from Barre, Vermont. Her life’s work is to keep the memory of her daughter, Dorothy, alive through words both spoken and written. Rachel shares her family’s journey through loss and all that has come after on her blog: An Unexpected Family Outing.