Still Standing

Waving the White Flag

Grief won the battle this week. I had three months off after our daughter’s death and decided in August that it was time to go back to work. That was the plan, anyway. Except grief doesn’t care what our plans are.

I was back at work for 5 weeks when I finally realized that I had gone back too soon. Admitting that to myself, let alone others, was one of the toughest battles thus far in this journey.

I am stubborn, and I’ve overcome difficult things before, so why should this be any different? It’s because child loss is like no other. Only people who have experienced it understand that everyday is a new battle against grief. This misery seeks to claim everything you once knew to be solid and true in your life – everyday is a new battle against sadness that you didn’t know you had to prepare for. Admitting that grief had to win this battle was hard. I felt so many emotions: relief, guilt, shame. I thought to myself ‘three months was enough time, other people have had much less than that.

All it took was having a really bad day. Nothing was going right and I was tired – the kind of tired that seeps into your bones – and my heart wouldn’t stop racing and my hair wouldn’t stop falling out in chunks and I was just done. Done trying to balance work and life and grief.

Sorrow kept sneaking back in disguised as everyday stress or a bad day and I had beaten it away until it demanded to be felt.

I felt like a failure. I worried what people would think. I was already back into the swing of work, why wouldn’t I just keep going? The thing about grief is, it will win whether you like it or not. In fact, it will beat you down the harder you fight it. The only way to win the war over grief is to occasionally surrender into it and wave the white flag. I knew that if I continued to deny my mental health needs, I would lose the war. I decided to pick my battles. I had to shake the shame that comes with anxiety and admit openly that I needed to take a giant step back and listen to what my body and mind were telling me. I had to retreat again and give my grief the attention it deserved.

I broke down to my husband that it was too much, too soon. I texted a few close friends and explained myself. I called my boss and my mom. And to my relief, nobody said ‘suck it up, you’re fine, it’s just a bad day.’

They all said the same thing: you’ve been through something truly traumatic. You’ve been asked to carry a burden nobody else would want. It’s okay to take time away from normal life and try to figure out what grief needs from you. A job is a job, it will be here when you’re ready.

I realize how fortunate I am to have a strong support group and to have a job that understands. I try to go through life the way I would want Ellie to carry herself. While I’d want her to be a strong girl, I would also want her to be brave enough to admit when things just aren’t good. Nobody wins when you try to put on a brave face. It might be more comfortable for those around you – oh, good, she’s better now – but in the long run, it leaves a wider trail of destruction.

Nothing prepares you for the loss of a child. Even receiving a prenatal diagnosis did not prepare us for the immense emptiness in our lives after she was gone.

We have to sit in silence with our grief and completely rethink everything we thought we knew about what our lives would be. We have to reconfigure what life holds for us in the future. There’s no rushing that. She was here for 30 weeks and 2 days. It’s going to take me a hell of a lot longer than a few months to be ready to face the world head on, and that’s quite okay with me. In the grand scheme of life, these few months are a small, but crucial, span of time.

So grief might have won this battle for now. I will retreat, recenter, and attack it once more when I am ready. Those who have not experienced child loss may not understand, but they don’t need to. Throughout my life, I’ve always had a plan, and when things didn’t go to plan, I worked around it. I can’t work around this grief. I have to charge right through its dark, desolate center. But mark my words, I will win the war over grief.

The loss of my daughter will not define me, consume me, or deny me the right to celebrate the richness she has brought into my life. I will not allow my undoing to be Elliott’s legacy. Grief has cast its shadow over so many moments of my time with her, but it will only get so many white flags from me. This just has to be one of them.