Birthdays. Death days. Holidays. As a loss parent, I know to anticipate these days and to prepare myself (often unsuccessfully) for how hard they will be. But some days, like Tax Day, surprise me.
Our second born child – our first daughter – Grace, was born in early September 2016 and was diagnosed with Trisomy 18 when she was two days old. She died nearly five months later in late January of 2017.
In the intervening months, we were fortunate to get to know her and hold her and love her. We got to witness her achieve things her diagnosis – one that often gets labeled “incompatible with life” – said she shouldn’t. She made it through birth. She came home from the NICU.
She underwent open heart surgery. She spent more time at home with us. She enjoyed the outdoors during an unseasonably temperate late fall. She taught her big brother Miles what it meant to have a little sibling, and he blossomed in his new role.
Grace changed us all – she made us braver and better. She was small and seemed so fragile, but she was the strongest person I will ever know. And after she left us, she left a big hole in our family. In the place of sweet baby snuggles were arms left empty.
Later in that year, her little sister, Greta, joined us. And that hole was still there. Out in the world, we look like a family of four. But whether it seems like it or not, we know that we are, and always will be, a family of five.
Some moments, like Tax Day 2018, bring that contrast between appearances and reality into sharp relief. I knew it was coming, but I didn’t realize how hard it would be. When I did our 2016 taxes after Grace died, reporting her birth felt affirming.
She was here. She lived. She still matters.
But I had to report Grace’s death on our 2017 tax return. I had already reported her death so many other places: the specialty pharmacy that called (after her death) to get information about filing for a refill of one of her medications, our health insurance, Medicaid, my employer. Every single time, it was hard to do.
Removing her name from things over and over was incredibly painful.
But I had done it (though I’ll admit I hung on to an old, out-of-date health insurance card just because it lists her name among those who are covered). I knew how to report her death. And I could do this. I could do this.
When it came right down to it, though, I cried when the software prompted me to indicate whether someone in our household had died in 2017. I most definitely cried as I typed in her name and the date: 1/23/17.
And I cried again when the Turbo Tax software said it was sincerely sorry for our loss.
I learned something new about the world that day – someone has the job of programming Turbo Tax’s online software to tell me that it’s sorry for our loss. Someone has anticipated this situation and has made sure that the software can extend its “sincere” condolences. It is extraordinary to have such a personal exchange with impersonal tax preparation software.
But it would have been worse if our loss, reported with just a handful of keystrokes, had gone unacknowledged.
Moments like this, mundane moments that we all dread for their tedium (I mean, really, who likes doing their taxes?) turn into major milestones and markers of our strength. “I did it,” I told myself in the days and weeks following that April evening. “I managed to report Grace’s death on our taxes.”
I collected another badge for my sash in the Club No-One Wants to Belong To and kept going.
Related: This Crappy Club Called Child Loss
Now, as I move toward Tax Day 2019, I find myself holding my breath a little. Preparing for the fact that, as hard as it was to report Grace’s death last year, this year she won’t be on our tax forms at all. I will have to click “two” when I indicate the number of dependents I need to report.
Everything on our tax form will look “normal.” Nothing to see here. No pain, no continued grief. No longing for the sweet girl we miss. No “what ifs” or “if onlys” – just a simple number: “two.”
But I will learn to do this too. I will learn to do our taxes as if we are a family of four while sitting at my desk, on which rests a picture of me with Grace when she was just a couple of weeks old. She has a little tiny grin on her face as she sleeps soundly and I am leaning over her, smiling tenderly, aware that I am bearing witness to a miracle.
She may not be on our tax forms this year, or any year in the future, but she is here. She is an essential and meaningful part of our family.
My perspectives on life and love have been forever changed. I see the world with different eyes because of our dear gal, and those eyes are, I hope, more compassionate and more loving than they were before.
These new eyes see the emotional hardship of something like Tax Day.
These new eyes see that behind every smile or scowl or smirk may be pain.
These new eyes look toward heaven and to the day that our family will be reunited.
But until then, I press on. One step at a time. One mundane milestone at a time.
And I learn to prepare for the things I’ll never actually be prepared for.
Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash
About the Author: Brooke is a mother of three: a son and daughter here on earth, and another daughter in heaven. She teaches English at Creighton University.