Nathan and I have gotten into a habit of checking in with each other every night before we go to bed. As soon as we close the bedroom door, we enter our “safe zone” where we can say anything, talk about anything, let our guards down, and get real. We’ve started doing this because we’ve gotten better and better at pretending everything is okay, even in front of each other. Sometimes we fake it through the day, just to make it through the day. I went through a period of feeling really guilty about this. I felt guilty for faking it, in front of Nathan, in front of our friends. It felt like I was betraying myself, my baby girl, and everyone around me by pretending I was okay. I expressed these guilty feelings to a good friend, and she told me exactly what I needed to hear. She told me I’m not being fake, I’m surviving. I’m learning how to function again. I’m learning how to put one foot in front of the other, and make it through the day. It’s survival, it isn’t faking it. She was right. If I acted how I felt on the inside, I would never make it out of bed. It’s okay to survive.
Checking in with each other every night helps Nathan and I understand how the other person is doing. It helps us process the day, identify good moments, and talk through the bad moments. It has been four weeks and two days since Ayden was born. That is really hard for me to wrap my mind around. Some days it feels like she was born yesterday. Some days it is hard for me to believe that this is our story – this happened to us. We are still living it out, and it doesn’t even feel real. And some days it is a mix of so many things I don’t know what it feels like. For so long, every day got harder and harder. This was absolutely terrifying to me, because I kept thinking “this was the worst, hardest day yet. How long can it keep getting worse? What will ten days from now feel like? How on earth am I going to survive this?”
Then the day came, the first day since Ayden was born, that I did not have a meltdown. Now, this doesn’t mean I wasn’t missing her, longing for her, and utterly broken that she isn’t with us. It simply means I made it through the day without bursting into tears at any point. When Nathan and I checked in with each other at the end of that particular day, I had so many confusing emotions regarding the fact that I hadn’t had a meltdown. I’d heard about this day and read about this day. The first day you don’t cry after you lose a child. It comes eventually, and everyone reacts to it differently. There was a very, very small amount of relief. Part of me was relieved, because it felt like maybe, just maybe, things would start to get easier. And then there was guilt. So much guilt. Guilt that I was already moving on, that I was moving on too quickly, that this meant I wasn’t thinking enough about Ayden throughout the day, that I was already starting to forget her.
Guilt is a monster. An evil monster that can quickly overcome you, and destroy you.
I knew in my mind that I should not be feeling guilty for having not had a meltdown that day. Knowing in your mind, and feeling in your heart are two very different things. I knew I shouldn’t feel guilty, but I felt so, so guilty. This is so common for anyone who has lost a child, to experience this guilt, and to feel they are betraying their lost child somehow. I felt this way the first time I didn’t have a meltdown after her initial diagnosis, but for some reason the guilt wasn’t quite as strong, because I knew she was still with me and I should focus on the moments I still had with her. I knew that the real pain was still yet to come.
Then I started to feel angry that I felt guilty. I felt angry because I knew how many other mothers in situations like mine were feeling guilty as well, and how it was so wrong that any of us should feel guilt. No one should ever feel guilty for having a day with no tears. It wasn’t even a good day, it was just a tearless day. There is absolutely no reason to feel guilty for that. So why do I?
Here’s what I told Nathan, as I processed through this guilt and anger. I hope that if nothing else, this helps you understand what a mother (and/or father) is going through during a time of loss, so you can better be there for them during that time.
Losing a child is hard enough, without the guilt of feeling like you are moving on. One of the biggest fears a mother who has lost a child can have, is that her child will be forgotten. Forgotten by friends and family, and most of all, by herself. I’m not saying this is rational. I’m saying this is a reality. Biggest fear = child being forgotten.
A tearless day does not mean a painless day. However, despite how painful, a tearless day convinces a mother that she is moving on. “Moving on” are two words that are horrifying, terrifying, hated, and fear-instilling in times like this. Moving on suggest leaving something behind. It means moving beyond something, forgetting, and continuing on with life.
Parents who lose children do not move on. It may appear that we do, but we absolutely, do not.
There is a big difference between moving on, and healing.
I never want to “move on” from Ayden. I do not want to move on from having her, from losing her, from knowing her, from loving her. I do not ever want to move on. And I won’t. There won’t be a day in my life where I don’t think of her, miss your, wish I still had her. I will never move on.
But I do want to heal.
Sometimes, it’s hard to distinguish between moving on and healing. We convince ourselves that if we heal, it means we are moving on. That is a lie, that so many of us fall into, and that we should never, ever believe. Healing is necessary, healing is important in order to continue to live. Healing is vital. And healing is not the same as moving on.
Healing means we have accepted our circumstances, despite the fact that we will never be okay with them. Healing means we allow ourselves to feel, but we do not choose to live in a constant state of despair. Healing means we learn to live again, but we never forget. Healing doesn’t mean we will never experience side effect or pain of what we have gone through. Healing doesn’t mean there aren’t scars. Healing doesn’t mean we won’t feel anymore.
Healing means we can keep living and loving well, in spite of what we have been through, and what we still carry with us.
Losing a child rips out a part of your inner being. It is like losing a large piece of yourself, an important piece, like your heart or your soul. Just like any medical procedure, like open heart surgery, you can heal to the point where you can function normally in everyday life, but you are forever changed, forever altered, and forever drastically different than you were before. A piece of who you are is missing, but you have found a way to heal in spite of that. You will never replace that missing piece. But you will heal.
It was so good to express all of this out loud to Nathan. He had been feeling the same way. It was good to reassure each other that healing is good, and it is not the same as moving on.
If you know someone who has lost a child, please be easy on them. Let them talk about their little one. Understand that no amount of time will take away all the pain. Be gracious to them, and let them feel what they need to feel, and never pressure them to move on. Help them heal, by being affirming, loving, supporting, and kind. Help them learn to live, but also help them by letting them remember and cherish their child. Nathan and I have the absolute best support system in the entire world, and we are so grateful for that. Some moms and dads are going through this completely alone, and they feel that their pain is a burden to those around them, they are lost and hurting, and they cannot see any hope. Know that even if they look okay on the outside, they are shattered on the inside, and often times have no idea how to begin putting themselves back together. Instead of telling them what they need, maybe ask them how you can help.
Be kind to each other. Love each other. It’s that simple.