As another holiday season approaches, I find myself with a conflicted heart. With its messages of light and magic, this time of year holds so much promise. Love and joy abound, and yet I am, at times, overcome with the sensation that I am sinking, being pulled down into the trenches. Deep-seated longing for what might have been takes me captive without notice, and I can only surrender to the sorrow. This will be our second Thanksgiving and Christmas without our youngest daughter, and I can’t help but wonder if I will always feel raw during this time of year. I long for the days when I was blissfully naive to the pain that humans can be made to endure, when the holidays filled me only with joy and generosity. But our world has been transformed into an after, and there is an eternally empty place at our table.
There are times when I cannot see past the pain. I dream up new family traditions, only to fall apart when I realize how incomplete they will always feel. I observe the wonder in our three-year old’s eyes, only to wish that her sister could be here to share in her joy. I am left to wonder what these family milestones would hold if we were here and she was here, all together, in the same place.
The holiday season is filled with expectations of joy and gratitude, and at times, this can be more than my grieving heart is able to muster. But on occasion, I notice a lightness taking hold. I notice anticipation replacing dread. I notice the fear subsiding, and in its place, life returning. What is it that can pull me from the trenches and lead me back into the light during this daunting time of year? It can only be gratitude.
The path to gratitude in the wake of child loss has not been without challenge. I feel surges of irritation every time I encounter trite sayings about gratitude that oversimplify the human experience. “The struggle ends when gratitude begins.” “Positive mind, positive vibes, positive life.” “Stop focusing on how stressed you are and remember how blessed you are!” My heart cries out in protest: “But my daughter died!” For months, I was desperate to validate my emotions, to make clear that any amount of gratitude did not negate my grief. Beyond confirming this for myself, I needed other people to know this as well.
Ask me to name the things for which I am grateful, and I will provide a lengthy list without hesitation. But being grateful for the beautiful things in my life does not minimize my tremendous sense of loss. Gratitude is not a bandage for the wounds caused by grief, and no amount of it will fully heal my scars. I could count endless blessings and still, none could fill the space in my home where my youngest daughter should reside. In the seventeen months since our daughter’s death, I have learned that grief and gratitude are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are cut from the same cloth. One must first find value in something in order to experience either of these responses in its wake.
Related: Unlikely Gratitude This Thanksgiving
Though my daughter’s death has caused insuperable despair, though it has left me broken and breathless, the twelve hours and thirty-six minutes that she lived will forever be included on my list of things for which I am grateful. When I remember her tiny body in my arms, I feel a surge of grief, but gratitude is not far behind. I would choose this incredible little spirit a million times, no matter how brief her time here. But this gratefulness for her life, this intense appreciation for the minutes I held her in my arms – this is also what leads me to grieve her absence so deeply. Yes, experiencing gratitude allows me to rise to face each day. But my grief lives on, alongside those things for which I am grateful. After all, my gratitude for my daughter’s life will always persist, and thus so will my grief for her death.
This holiday season, I will do my best to let the light in. I will not take for granted the special moments I spend with my family. I will open my heart to gratitude and to the magic of the season, but I will not apologize for my grief. I will wear it openly, for it is as great a part of me as my gratitude. To my friends in loss, please be gentle with yourselves during this bittersweet time of year. May you treat your grieving heart with grace and acceptance, and may the children you grieve surround you with their presence and fill you with warmth.
Sarah Burg is a wife, writer, and mother of three beautiful children. Following a heroic battle with congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH), Sarah’s second daughter, Willow Grace, died in her arms shortly after birth in June 2016. Willow’s death has transformed Sarah into a writer with a reason, and she hopes to offer healing and kinship to the child loss community through her words. Sarah also blogs at The Rising (www.sarahjburg.com), where she explores life after loss.