Every day, my heart bursts with gratitude for my firstborn’s life. Nearly four years after her birth, I am still in awe that together my husband and I created this little force with an affinity for dinosaurs and dance class. She fills me with love and pride, and I am so thankful for the beauty she brings to my world. You see, I am far too familiar with how fleeting life can be, as I am also the mother of a daughter who died shortly after birth.
After witnessing my sweet newborn die in my arms, I felt an incredible amount of pressure to cherish each and every moment with my firstborn, to feel only gratitude and pleasure and wonder for the living, breathing child in my home. My experience of motherhood had been molded by trauma, and I believed that of all people, I should be the most capable of finding the good in my oldest daughter’s challenging moments. After all, a difficult phase or an epic tantrum is no match for the painful alternative — a complete absence of these, and all, developmental milestones.
But here’s the whole truth: Parenting after loss is hard.
While I wanted nothing more than to be the picture of patience and grace, I quickly found myself ridden with guilt when, inevitably, I fell short.
As parents of both living and deceased, we face all of the normal difficulties of raising children. We fight bedtime battles; we find ourselves sucked into power struggles. We worry about teaching our children to be good, kind humans. We struggle to find time that is ours alone. We beg for more hours in each day. We are fueled by caffeine and unconditional love. The sheer volume of responsibility that comes with raising a child is enough to cause even the greatest parents to crack once in a while. How could I possibly expect perfection from myself, particularly in the midst of my own grief and post-traumatic stress?
Please do not mistake my honesty for ingratitude. I love my oldest daughter fiercely. I have an intense appreciation for the privilege of watching her grow before my eyes. Of course I do; I know the alternative all too well. I am a more loving and empathetic parent because of my respect for life’s delicate nature. But it serves no one to pretend that parenting after loss is comprised only of gratitude and reverence. It is hard in all the ways parenting in general tends to be, while also claiming challenges that are uniquely its own.
As loss parents, we get swept away by grief’s waves of pain and sorrow; we parent through it. We find triggers in unexpected places; we parent through them. We are plagued by incessant wondering about the children we’ve lost; we parent through it. We navigate the unfamiliar terrain of sibling grief with our living children; we parent through it. We muster the strength to parent our living children as best as we can, and despite our deeper-than-average gratitude for their lives, it is hard nonetheless.
To my friends who are parenting after loss, know this. While your love burns brighter because of the child you are missing, it is okay to feel frustrated, maxed out, touched out, like you cannot possibly keep it together for one minute more. Let go of the guilt. You have been thrust onto this unchosen path, and it is hard, and you are only human. Love yourself through it, and I promise your children will do the same.
Photo credit: Violet Lace Photography
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.