Thanksgiving morning 2017, a clanging ringtone next to my ear jerked me awake, sending my heart into my stomach.
Was my baby ok?
Thankfully, it wasn’t my daughter’s CVICU nurse calling to urge me into her hospital room at 4 am. It was her transplant team.
“Jen, we think we have found the perfect heart for Violet. If you still want to go through with her transplant, we’ll move forward.”
Sobbing, I said yes.
Sobbing, I thanked God for the opportunity to replace my two-month-old daughter’s hypoplastic, failing heart.
Sobbing, I thought of the other mother experiencing her first childless Thanksgiving.
Through my tears, it dawned on me that Thanksgiving was forever linked to my daughter’s heart transplant. How fitting!
A year later, though, I was back home, and my precious daughter was newly buried.
Violet’s gifted heart had given us eight more beautiful months with her, a few of which had been at home.
During her nearly one year of life, her blooming smiles and joyful company had softened the pain of seeing her intubated, chest open, new heart pulsing and exposed under the thinnest, most transparent bandage.
Her new heart made everything worth it: seeing her struggle, watching her suddenly need a tracheostomy and IV nutrition because her 9-month-old body was just too overwhelmed.
With every obstacle and setback, I watched her grin through it with those sweet baby cheeks, and I reminded myself, “I have so much to be thankful for.”
Until, far too soon, I didn’t.
And so, one year after Violet’s only Thanksgiving, I found myself hiding in my bathroom, gasping through tears and replaying every horrific, graphic moment of her death.
Huddled in that bathroom, a pulsing raw nerve of a human being, I couldn’t bring myself to give thanks, despite the beautiful 5-year-old son and loving husband out in the living room.
Instead, I pictured my baby girl when I last saw her, as the casket was closing, and hated myself for even trying to celebrate this holiday – her holiday – without her.
However, as my second Thanksgiving away from Violet approaches, I find myself thinking about someone other than her.
Violet’s Thanksgiving links me to another mother, one who allowed my daughter’s surgeon to cut open her child, prolonging that awful, unsettling time when her child’s body was away from her, all alone and not yet laid to rest.
When I think of this mother, I am overcome with gratitude. I don’t know her name, and I couldn’t spot her in a crowd, but we both will go into this Thanksgiving without our children.
However, she went through it first, in hopes of sparing another mother the same excruciating pain.
Without her, I might not have gotten to watch my son play with Violet.
I might not have gotten to discover that my daughter was a stubborn little warrior who loved Christmas music, Disney lullabies, and kicking her little legs with tiny jingle bells attached to her ankles.
I’m forever thankful that I had almost a year to get to know my daughter, and grateful that Violet was able to know and love me before she passed. So many mothers I’ve met are robbed even of that.
As a grieving parent, I’ve struggled, convinced that finding gratitude after loss somehow betrays the one I’ve lost.
Violet fought every day to live with joy, and I have finally given myself permission to honor her by doing the same.
To that end, I’m saying it aloud. I am thankful that she taught me bravery: it is why I work through tears to give my son the fullest life possible.
I’m thankful she taught me that I was tough enough to care for a baby with a heart defect: when our third baby recently arrived with a minor defect, my husband and I knew we were up to the task.
Finally, I’m thankful that she introduced me to a clan of other women, ones who were willing to keep vigil in my dying daughter’s room, ones who were willing to help me wash and dress my lifeless baby one last time.
In my darkest moments, I was not alone.
This holiday season, a fellow grieving parent is here to tell you this: it’s ok to feel grateful, and it’s ok to feel utterly resentful.
Neither emotion makes you a bad person; both make you, simply, a grieving parent.
We are not alone in this if we don’t want to be, and for that I’m grateful.