When my son Cullin died unexpectedly, life as I knew it ended. Life B.C. (Before Child loss) had concluded, and life A.D. (After the Death of a child) had begun. His death had become the catalyst for my rebirth: I had to learn to stand on two feet, to put one foot in front of the other, to walk again. I had to learn how to socialize, to talk. To connect. To care. To live again. Before he died, my little world was vivid, brilliant, safe, and completely full of hope. After he died, my world imploded. I saw no color. No hope. I had to do something. I had to discover ways to flourish during this awful “after”, one heartbreaking “now” at a time.
I had to search for inspiration. Night after grief-stricken night, I had to search for wisdom and deep thoughts from mothers and fathers who have endured the death of a child because life A.D. is riddled with questions that, before child loss, would have been easily answered without skipping a beat or shedding a tear. “HOW MANY CHILDREN DO YOU HAVE?” Sometimes I proudly answer, “FIVE!”. Other times my mouth silences the truth and spits out, “FOUR” which causes my heart to scream, ”LIAR!” At just the right moment the comforting words of Franchesca Cox resound within my soul, “A mother is not defined by the number of children you can see, but by the love she holds in her heart.” I had to release my guilt of omission and realize that Cullin is my first answer, my first thought. When asked how many kids I have, he is counted. They are all counted. Whether I choose to speak or withhold my truth, he is my truth, my inspiration. My before, my during, and my after.
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I had to redefine myself. Even though his heart stopped, mine kept beating. I had to keep moving forward because there was no going back. “Moving on” with life A.D. takes more than strength and determination, it takes all of you. Grief leaves you emotionally, mentally, spiritually, physically, and socially drained, and as the initial shock fades and the fog clears you see but a shell of yourself remaining. It is during these troubling times that the words of author Nathalie Himmelrich speak to my soul, “The journey of grieving parent isn’t so much about what you go through on a daily basis, but who you become in the process of continuing your life without your child.” I had to decide to forge ahead, redefine myself, my purpose. I had to become more than my former, despite grief and in honor of love.
I had to reassess my parenting style. A once carefree life B.C. is now overshadowed by fear, uncertainty, and paranoia. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but grief will forever change you. Your parenting strategies, your life philosophies, and your coping mechanisms change. After the death of a child, there is a greater need to over mother, overcompensate, and overprotect the other children without completely going overboard. I had to get my emotions under control, to model healthy grief practices to my kids. I had to keep going for them. They lost their baby brother, and now some days, their mother seems absent. Some days grief wins, but every day our love prevails. I had to teach my children how to search for glimmers of hope within the dark trenches of grief. Really, they taught me.
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I had to retrain my brain. Before child loss, an optimistic, organized way of thinking came as naturally as breathing. These days my thoughts must deliberately be changed from negative to positive, dark to light. I had to affirm, set intentions, reaffirm, and follow through with an action. I had to create lists, check them twice, three and four times because grief rewires and short circuits your brain and can leave you unable to focus, maintain, or follow through with tasks. I had to realign my intentions and actions, reaffirm my dreams, set new goals, and write them down. As life coach guru Leoni Dawson says, “When you don’t get clarity around where you’ve been and where you want to go, you can get stuck in the same old place, the same old routine.” The same old grief. I had to embrace the paradoxes of grief, the sweet within the bitter, the blessings within the life sentence. I had to take that which holds me back and use it to propel forward, to channel the pain into passion. I had to methodically switch my thinking. To retrain my brain.
I had to succumb. I had to give in, to let go. To let grief be grief. I had to sit in the darkness and let it swallow me whole, to succumb before deciding to overcome. I had to feel the hell to begin the lifelong journey of healing the hurt in order to create a beautiful now despite an ugly before.
I didn’t want to. I had to.