The Other Life

I imagine that other pop culture enthusiasts will remember the film Sliding Doors in all its late-90s glory. While this movie is largely solidified in our collective memory for Gwyneth Paltrow’s trendsetting hairstyle and questionable English accent, in addition to its underrated soundtrack feature by euro-pop sensation Aqua, I’ve been returning to this film for a host of other reasons since Leah’s death.

For those who haven’t seen it, Sliding Doors explores how drastically our lives can change in a solitary moment. For the film’s protagonist Helen Quilley, this moment occurs when she narrowly misses (or catches) a subway train, after which her life unfolds as two different parallel narratives. I assume that many of us will be confronted with a similar moment at least once in our lives, when we can suddenly see two distinct life trajectories unfolding before our eyes: The life we have, and the “other life” that could have been.


Sliding Doors Image Source via TorrentButler

This time last year, I assumed my foray into “the other life” began when I laid eyes on the bold pink lines which confirmed my surprise pregnancy. In that moment I could suddenly see two divergent paths materializing before me: There was the life that I had planned for as an aspiring academic, wherein my abstract ideas about motherhood would manifest at a later time, after my husband and I had purchased a home and were settled in our careers. But I immediately accepted that this orderly life would simply not be mine, and in that moment I was ready to plunge into all the uncertainty and messiness that the other life of imminent motherhood would bring.

Last year it seemed like life had thrown me the ultimate cosmic curve ball, but I now understand that my pregnancy only coaxed me into a new normal that would be slightly less predictable than the life I had planned for—after all, I assumed that I would be a mother eventually, and while my current circumstances would not allow me to approximate our culture’s economically privileged ideals of good motherhood, I did have enough social and financial resources to make the arrangement work. In short, while Leah’s unexpected presence in my life presented a slight detour from the linear path I had envisioned, I could still incorporate it into the larger autobiography that I had penned for myself.

Fast forward to June 21, 2016, and the nature of my story changes drastically. Try as I might, I cannot make peace with the injustice of Leah’s unlived life, thereby reducing it to some momentary plot twist in my own life narrative. After all, while we expect to outlive our grandparents, parents, and perhaps even our spouses and friends, a child’s death is simply different. Likewise, as the passing weeks usher me further away from the life I had envisioned with my daughter, the possibility of salvaging a new normal seems less and less likely. Instead, it feels like I began a different life entirely the moment Leah died—one that feels more like a dream than a new reality.

On one level, for the past two months I have confronted the surreal nature of this “other life” when I go to my new private sector job each morning. After festering in my grief at home all summer, I decided to start testing the waters for career opportunities outside of an academe that I had only been halfheartedly committed to throughout my doctoral studies. Then, following a surprisingly brief job hunt, I suddenly found myself employed in a permanent, salaried position that was a far cry from the precarious teaching contracts I was prepared to chase upon completing my PhD. It is the exact sort of challenging and rewarding job that I spent countless days during my graduate studies worrying that I would never attain. Sometimes I still cannot believe that I stumbled into this opportunity as quickly as I did, and each day I am cognizant of how privileged I am to have done so at all.

But I also understand that acknowledging this privilege is not synonymous with mustering gratitude. Before Leah’s death, the latent prosperity theologian in me would have thanked God for providing me with this opportunity, chalking my good fortune up to the omnipotent Creator fulfilling His divine purpose for my life. Some Christians might still reason that this opportunity is a blessing from God in some way—after all, He supposedly works in mysterious ways—but I would beg to differ. You see, each day I am also acutely aware that the only reason I have this job is because my daughter is dead. If Leah was alive, I would still be caring for her at home, vacillating between unadulterated joy and extreme exhaustion as I navigate the messy terrain of mothering an infant. Moreover, any job hunting on my part would have been for the contract academic work that I have now left behind, since such positions would have given me the flexibility to earn some semblance of an income while still spending the majority of my time at home. In short, it is difficult to be thankful for an opportunity that has only come into my life because Leah’s life was cut tragically short.

Yet this new career trajectory and daily routine are only the tip of the iceberg; more fundamentally, it is my worldview and guiding life mantras that have been unceremoniously turned on their heads. Before Leah’s death, I used to be one of those people who believed that every wonderful and challenging life event serves a larger purpose, and I tried to view each struggle as an opportunity to learn and grow. Long story short, I now understand that it is very easy to adopt this ontological lens as long as one is relatively healthy, fed, and housed, and has never watched the person they love most suffer and die before getting the chance to experience any of the beauty that life has to offer. For me, a world that was once imbued with meaning is now a capricious cocktail of privilege and random chance, an epiphany that is equally sobering as it is terrifying.

Similarly, since I have always been a compulsive planner, my levels of life engagement can generally be gauged by my levels of control-freakishness. For instance, throughout the first half of my pregnancy I struggled to make plans for my daughter’s life because I knew they could be undone in the blink of an eye. I did not create a baby registry until I approached the 30 week mark, at which point I cautiously waded back into my default planning mode. By the time I reached my self-designated “safe point” of 36 weeks, I plunged ahead into my future plans with renewed vigor. Never before was I so fully present and engaged: Suddenly the sun was brighter, the grass was greener, and the seedless red grapes that I was eating by the fistful each day tasted sweeter. Every moment I experienced was simply bursting at the seams with love, joy, and possibility.

But that life is gone. In contrast, as I now peer ahead into the other life that I am forced to lead without my daughter, I only see a vast, empty space. While my old life was full of purpose and definitive plans, I no longer see the point of being fully engaged in a world that Leah will never get to experience. For the first time there is no envisioned future on my horizon; I can no longer place stock in the mystical promise of God’s provisions or derive assurance from science and statistics, and so I take this life day by day. I have accepted that this life is an unalterable force that is going to happen to me whether I like it or not, and any successes or hardships that the future may hold do not matter nearly as much as they once did. While it may sound like a defeatist declaration, the compulsive planner in me finds this pragmatic apathy to be strangely liberating.


Image credit via Imgur

More than anything, however, this other life is one where truth and fiction blend together so seamlessly that I have a difficult time discerning one from the other. Each day I go into the world projecting all the vital signs of a functional human being: I smile, laugh, and engage with the people around me, and I am frequently awestruck by how normal it all feels. Yet each evening when I return home to the deafening silence, I am reminded that none of it is real. In this other life, I can only live my truth during the scant hours that I spend in solitude, weeping over photos of a baby girl with dark hair and porcelain skin. Rather than settle into a new normal, this life mostly feels like a dreamworld, as if the life I should have had—the one I envisioned so vividly during my pregnancy—is unfolding in a parallel universe that is almost within reach, if only I could rip through the invisible axioms of time and space to touch it.

In short, each moment of joy that this other life has to offer is invariably tethered by grief, just as each moment of beauty is a painful reminder of all that my daughter will never experience. It is a life where death is no longer an abstraction, but a concrete force that shadows every inch of my reality. Still, I try to take solace in the generic wisdom that, eventually, things must get better. After all, the concluding moments of Sliding Doors hold the promise of a happy ending for Helen Quilley, even though she loses a baby along the waybut I suppose that is another conversation entirely.

Dear Fellow Loss Mama: A Message of Solidarity

Here we are—both members of the involuntary club that non-bereaved parents can only hope will never drag them, screaming and weeping, into its fold. It’s a curious task to spend each day living a nightmare that causes the world to shudder and then turn away, preferring to carry on as if we don’t exist at all. It is with this understanding that I purposefully acknowledge you, your child, and your grief.

In this message of solidarity, I am not going to commend you for being brave, strong, or inspirational. Of course you are all these things, but we both know that such accolades ring hollow when you are really just doing what you must to survive, and that you continue to move forward each day simply because there is nowhere else to go.

Certainly you know by now how exhausting the work of grieving is. Ultimately this grief is your cross to bear—after all, nobody could have possibly known your child as well as you do. Still, don’t be afraid to lean on others for support during this time. Of course, this can be tricky; people are funny creatures who may suddenly exhibit the emotional intelligence of a tree stump when confronted with the death of a child. Non-bereaved people with orderly lives might view your grief as a problem that needs to be solved or a pathology that needs to be treated. Such people don’t understand that your grief is simply a reflection of the deep love you have for your child, and that it is a completely healthy and fundamentally human response to loss.

Similarly, you may find that some people feel inclined to offer “advice” to help you along your journey. They may encourage you to find solace in work, exercise, or hobbies, not understanding that such momentary distractions are not a remedy for grief. They may also try to offer you “perspective” by comparing your experience to the hardships of others, trying to convince you that life without your child cannot possibly be as terrible as you say it is. Such people do not understand that you are not merely mourning the loss of a relationship with your child; rather, you are also grieving for all the beauty, love, and laughter that your child will never get to experience in this life.

Likewise, people may encourage you to “look for the positive,” perhaps by urging you to be thankful for any living children you might have, or by reminding you that you can always have more children (as if they can somehow guarantee this outcome for you). These people do not understand that your children are not replaceable or interchangeable like a pair of shoes. Sometimes you may have the energy to correct them, but other times you may simply be too exhausted to respond. Either way, don’t listen to them—you know that your child was their own unique soul, and that no other person can take their place in the world or in your heart.


Other people may try to console you with empty platitudes, perhaps by telling you that everything happens for a reason. When this happens, you will wonder what reason there could possibly be for your child to miss out on an entire lifetime. If you are braver than I am, maybe you will sardonically ask such people to enlighten you as to what this reason is—really, you would absolutely love to hear it. There may also be people who try to ease your pain by proclaiming that your child is with God, and that this somehow makes everything okay. Even if you do believe in Heaven, you also know that love demands connection, and that abstract notions of spending eternity with your child in another life do not quell the crushing pain of your empty arms and broken heart.

Alternatively, there may be people who look the other way and remain silent, rather than face the discomfort of being present for you in your grief. They may wait for you to reach out and solicit their support, believing that offering their love and kindness will not make a difference in the wake of your tragic loss. This will hurt. But I very much hope that there will be people who rise to the challenge of building your support system one tear-filled conversation at a time, and that they choose to actively love you during what will likely be the most difficult experience of your life.

Finally, as time goes on, it is likely that some people will become impatient when you do not reach a peaceful resolution with your grief. These people do not understand that you began a new life the moment that your child died—the “other life” that you are now forced to live as a bereaved mother. Some of these people may disappear from your life completely when they realize that the “old you” is never coming back. There is no way around the fact that this will be a painful pill to swallow, but accepting their absence is the best thing you can do to help mend your loss wound. You will find that the people who truly love you will stick around and do what they can to support you through your ongoing grief journey. They may not always say and do the “right” things, so be patient with them. Tell them what helps and what hurts, because the ones who matter will listen.

The difficult truth is that you must learn to navigate a new normal that will ultimately be a shadow of what your life could have been if your child was alive. Yet in this darkness, I hope you find a glimmer of solace in knowing that there is a compassionate, engaged, and all-around-amazing community of loss mamas who understand your pain and want to support you. There are more of us than the world at large would care to acknowledge, but we remain a fierce bunch that refuses to grieve in silence, shame, and isolation.

Your fellow loss mamas want you to know that your child matters, as does your grief. Don’t be afraid to love your baby just as ferociously as you did during the brief time that you shared with them before they left this world too soon. Despite what others may tell you, your love for them will not wane—not after five years, or ten years, or twenty years—nor should it. So do what you must to honour their memory and your motherhood: Speak their name, share their life, and with each new day, continue to give them all the love they deserve.