November 2010, I celebrated my last blissfully untainted Thanksgiving. It was the final big holiday before my innocence was lost to profound grief. Sitting around my mother-in-law’s dining room table, we all took turns saying for what we were thankful. When my turn came, I lovingly placed my hand on my slightly swollen belly and said, “I’m thankful for this little one. I’m excited to meet the baby and to have her with us for the next Thanksgiving.”
As I uttered those words, I had no way of knowing that our daughter would not make it to her May due date, let alone the new year. Only four weeks after that family meal, we learned our daughter had severe abnormalities. Within minutes on that ultrasound table, we went from a healthy baby girl to a tiny human riddled with developmental issues.
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The high-risk doctor stated the dreaded words: “this fetus is not compatible with life.”
Our daughter would never join the family in a tangible way. We would never pack her small suitcase and load her into the car for a road trip to her grandparents’ house. We would never peruse the aisles of the toy store finding just the right doll. We would never see her pile heaps of mashed potatoes and turkey on her plate or hear her giggles as she licked the whipped cream off her pumpkin pie. We would never hear her cheerful cries upon seeing the presents Santa left for her. We would never watch her learn to love giving more than receiving.
Yet, despite her noticeable absence, her spirit in my soul defies death itself.
From the moment we lost our daughter, I had a choice. I could loathe every holiday and drown in the pitiful fantasies of what could have been. Alternatively, I could honor my daughter by remembering her, acknowledge and embrace the sadness that ravaged my soul, and work toward finding that elusive peace I once held.
Her unknown disorder, premature birth, imminent death, and the obligatory grief were all out of my hands. The external events that invaded my world were now dominating my thoughts, feelings, relationships, and my life.
As my rational mind, my peace, and my happiness floated further away from my grasp, I wondered: Do I control my brain or does it control me?
Thoughts are lucid; I form them at will and make hundreds of choices a day. Allowing a truce with my broken heart was greater than just one more choice–it was my most important one. Permitting myself to find peace with her life was crucial in knowing that I was in control again.
Holidays are superficial; capitalism mandates that we spend extravagantly on items we do not need or want. Our self-righteousness demands we fight with family over what movie to watch. Our egos worry that our decorations will not measure up to our neighbors’ or our baking skills will not match our colleagues’ in cookie exchanges. Having participated in this holiday culture, I was no different. I loved presents, decorations, and all the materialism that followed. But it was the loss of my daughter that was the gift I did not know I needed–one that few of us receive.
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With this gift, I fully comprehend that life is so much more than a few days, designed to make us happy, splattered throughout the calendar. I dug deep, found kindness for myself, and discovered the purest love for a baby that was never meant to be here on earth. I realize, that even if I do not like it, it is okay that she is no longer with us; I keep her alive in my dreams, my memories, my thoughts, my writing, and my heart. She had grown in my body, found refuge in my womb, and died peacefully in my arms. For these things, I am proud.
When I chose to see just how exceptional of a mother I was, I could extend kindness to myself.
This self-benevolence makes me realize I no longer rely on external experiences for happiness. I now trust myself to nurture my own well-being.
As this holiday season approaches, so does the seventh anniversary of our daughter’s death. I began the process of making my choice to fight the hurt and anger the night after our daughter passed. That first evening home from the hospital was unbelievably lonely. Yet, it was still her birthday and we chose to honor it. My husband and I scrounged up two drinks from our barren kitchen and clinked our glasses. Our grief was still fresh, but we found the space to usher in the love.
Each year, we bring out her pictures, her memento book, and the only miniature dress she ever wore. Choosing to be kind to myself does not dismiss the sadness. As it is impossible to completely diminish the “what-ifs”, the grief hangs on. Choosing happiness does not erase the anguish. Heartache shows up unexpectedly, and sometimes it hits hard. Choosing to be kind to myself does not mean I deny my right to cry. The grief is still welcomed because without it, I would not be the mother that I am.
Being kind to myself means it is okay to feel it all.