The Changing Tides of Grief

Yesterday my husband and I commemorated the seven month anniversary of our daughter’s birth. As has been the custom on the 21st of each month since Leah’s brief life came to a tragic end, I lit a candle in her honour while combing through the contents of her photo album and memorial box, crying heartily all the while.

I have since been wondering when exactly the daily ritual of looking through her photos and mementos was reduced to a monthly event. To be sure, my grief has hardly been contained to a single anniversary date every few weeks. I still have mornings when I shed pain-filled tears before heading to work, and the photo of her that I keep at my office desk often threatens to undo my composure at the seams. I frequently break into sobs as soon as I reach the emotional safe haven that is my apartment after busy workdays, and there are many weekends when all the trauma that time and circumstance will not allow me to process throughout the week suddenly hits me afresh like a tidal wave, decimating my will to get out of bed.

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Seven months of missing you

Yet there is no question that my grief has changed, and that I have changed along with it. As previously mentioned, it often feels like I began a new life the moment that Leah’s life ended. As I now enter my seventh month as a bereaved mother, more than ever I am acutely aware of how my daughter’s death has changed me—both for the better and for the worse.

First, grief has hardened and softened me in equal measure. Having a firsthand taste of tragedy has made me far more responsive to the tragedies experienced by others, and it is now a regular occurrence for me to cry when I read the news each day. While I could always connect with others’ hardships on an abstract level, knowing how it feels to have my entire world torn asunder has given me a newfound resolve to purposefully empathize with others’ suffering, even if I cannot fully understand what they are going through.

Yet at the same time, experiencing this depth of loss has also decreased my willingness to empathize with…well…just about everyone else. Geez, 2016 was a terrible year for you because your favourite celebrities died after leading long, full lives with prolific careers? The agony! Oh, your children are being rowdy and keeping you up at night? Such a terrible injustice. Goodness, your plan to have a medication-free vaginal childbirth fell through when your caregiver decided a cesarean section was necessary to ensure your child’s safety? And you and your child are now perfectly fine, but you must live with the disappointment of not having a “natural” birth experience? Life can be so unfair. 

Now, it is not lost on me that if Leah’s fetomaternal hemorrhage had never happened, I would most likely be echoing these first world lamentations while performing the tiring and largely thankless work of mothering an infant each day. I also understand that it does no good to dismiss the experiences of those who are more fortunate than I—it is the rhetorical equivalent of telling Western women not to complain about sexist cultural norms like the the gender wage gap, because women in other countries have it so much worse. Still, for now, few things provoke the volatile grief monster within me to rage like hearing other people complain about “problems” that I would be oh-so-grateful to have.

Second, I swear now. Yes, I do. This is a dramatic departure from the first 30 years of my life when I rarely used expletives to express my thoughts and feelings. It is fair to say that I have been strategically launching a lifetime’s stockpile of f-bombs throughout the past seven months when there are simply no other words to convey the excruciating pain, anger, and isolation of my grief. I have embraced the fact that, on occasion, only the crudest words we English-speaking humans have concocted can do justice to the most devastating type of loss one can possibly experience.

Third, I now know the bitter taste of envy. This foreign emotion has been especially difficult for me to navigate. My ongoing ideological commitment to simplicity means that material goods, as well as the approval of those who place stock in conspicuous consumption, have never mattered to me—if they did, I would have chosen a far more lucrative way to spend my twenties than pursuing my PhD. To that end, as soon as I discovered I was pregnant with Leah, I knew that love, compassion, patience, and attentiveness were the keys to providing her with a happy childhood, and I was confident that my husband and I could provide these in abundance. As such, I never felt a twinge of jealousy when I compared my modest resources to the large homes, designer nurseries, and cornucopias of baby-raising “must-haves” that other parents had.

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Kiwi testing out Leah’s travel-friendly bassinet two weeks before my due date

However, this all changed the moment that Leah died. While I still don’t envy other people’s material goods, the grief monster within me turns a spiteful shade of green each time I am confronted with an otherwise innocuous family going about their business with live, healthy children in tow. Logically, I know this makes no sense. These people are not responsible for my daughter’s death, nor did they ask to be a walking reminder of all that I have lost. Likewise, I do not want their children; in fact, their children have nothing to do with me or my family at all. Yet each time they cross my path, I can barely suppress the urge to yell out to the heavens: Why? Why do your children get to experience all the beauty, love, and laughter that this life has to offer, but my daughter does not? Why do you get to spend your life with your children, telling them how much you love them each day and hearing them say it back, but I don’t? Why didn’t I get to keep my daughter, who is still so very wanted and so very loved? Most frustratingly, there are no answers to these agonizing questions beyond the fundamentally unfair nature of life itself.

Fourth and finally, for the first time in my life, attending to the needs of other people is not my first priority. I have always been a habitual people pleaser who will do just about anything under the sun to avoid conflict, just as I have always dedicated copious amounts of emotional energy to nurturing my relationships, regardless if the other person responds in kind. If my grief has changed me for the better, it has been through my new commitment to self-care. Each day I give myself permission to feel the full range of emotions that come my way, whether they be logical or not, just as I have allowed myself to let go of the relationships that have not been a source of support during the most difficult period of my life. And, perhaps most importantly, each day I choose to honour Leah’s life by speaking her name and sharing her story—even when it makes other people uncomfortable. For me, keeping my daughter’s memory alive is far more important than protecting other people from the devastating reality that I and so many other loss parents have to face on a daily basis.

As each new day continues to hurl familiar and unexpected challenges my way, I continue to learn more about who I was, who I am, and who I want to be. Needless to say, navigating the changing tides of grief—both the subtle ripples and the crushing tidal waves—will remain a lifelong journey, much like the eternal love that I carry for my sweet girl.

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