Both before and after losing my firstborn son, Jacob, I have heard many versions of the theme that “our thoughts create our reality.” And I was generally in agreement with them. A staunch proponent of positive thinking, I experimented with gratitude journaling and generally looked for the bright side of all situations. I tried to crowd out negativity with positivity believing that would bring more good my way. But when my world was turned upside down by the most devastating loss I could imagine, let’s just say these concepts weren’t top of mind.
I’ve since wondered: Do positivity and gratitude have a role to play when facing a tragedy as crushing as child loss?
Is it reasonable to think we can choose some sort of positivity as we walk this path of grief? In this article I will share where my thinking on this subject has taken me, and what my own experience has been.
I think the answer is more complex than “yes” or “no.” The answer may be “no” for quite some time early in the grief journey. And that period will be longer for some loss parents than others. There is no benefit to rushing grief. Suppressing sadness or anger can be detrimental as those emotions, if not processed, will surface again and demand to be felt down the line.
Additionally, different loss parents will find different approaches to paving their path forward with some sort of positivity, if and when they get there.
There is no uniform grief journey. Even if your story seems identical to that of another loss parent, they are not you, their baby is not your baby, and their grief is not your grief.
In my experience, it is not as easy as waking up one morning choosing to be happy, positive, or joyful. The path to positivity had to find me. And it did when, on a random afternoon last Fall, I heard a clear message while walking my dog.
What I heard was that it was time for me to choose what Jacob’s legacy would be. Being a person of Christian faith, I felt this message came from God, but regardless of your spirituality it could come from another divine source, the universe, your intuition, a close friend or family member; anywhere you derive inspiration.
In that moment, I felt in my heart that I could choose between his legacy being “Elizabeth lost her son and it ruined her” or “Elizabeth lost her son and she became a stronger, better person because of him.” And I knew immediately that wasn’t a choice for me. That realization was the impetus to start blogging about Jacob and my experience, to reach out to my local legal aid society to volunteer, to start a nonprofit to support grieving parents, and to volunteer organizing my local Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep Remembrance Walk. In time, all of these activities have been extremely healing.
Now I’m not saying I did a 180 that day. Sometimes the tragedy of losing Jacob hits out of nowhere and knocks me back into the devastation I felt in the early days of grief. But it was a turning point, and one that has helped me feel some purpose for this life after loss that I was unwillingly thrown into.
With that decision to take positive steps and build a legacy for my son has come gratitude.
I’ve become grateful for the energy and courage to take on these new activities. I’ve become grateful for how my lifestyle has slowed down and created more room for self-care, reflection, and compassion for myself and others. I’ve become grateful for the way Jacob taught me what’s really important in life and how to pause and appreciate it. And that gratitude shows up in my life when I find myself pausing to give thanks for a particularly beautiful day, or a deeply meaningful conversation with a friend or family member. When I pause to be thankful for my supportive husband, and the ways we have grown closer and more loving toward each other since Jacob was born.
I now start my prayers by giving thanks for these things, and then ask God, if it is His will, to fulfill the desires of my heart. And all that feels good and authentic and natural to me now, though in the early days it would have felt completely artificial.
Grief is a process, and everyone’s process is different.
It’s not linear, and even if you find a positive path forward, setbacks are inevitable and that’s okay. I’s critical to give ourselves grace in those moments, accepting that it’s a necessary part of the process. In earlier days, it felt wrong to be grateful because it somehow felt like I was dishonoring my son; that implicit in my gratefulness was an acknowledgment that his death was somehow a good thing.
The moment I realized that what I was really grateful for, what really made me a better person, was loving him and NOT losing him was the moment I was able to fully embrace positivity and gratitude as parts of my journey. Sometimes a perspective shift makes a huge difference, but it can’t be forced and it has to happen in its own time.
Wherever you may find yourself on this journey, my wish for you is that you honor your grief as it exists in this moment and open your mind to the possibility of a shift – it could come when you least expect it.
Elizabeth Yassenoff lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband Erik. She writes for Still Standing and on her blog to honor her firstborn son, Jacob Dale, who passed away three hours after birth due to unexpected complications during labor. Elizabeth is a co-founder of Alive In My Heart, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides connection and resources to bereaved parents in the Columbus area, and she is studying to become an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. Jacob’s baby sister, Ella Jane, was born August 11, 2017 and has brought a lot of light and healing.