Like many mamas who have walked the devastating path of infant loss before me, one of my most helpful coping strategies during the weeks following Leah’s death was to immerse myself in other women’s stories of loss. As soon as I was physically mobile enough to leave my apartment two days after my cesarean section, my first outing was to the local library, where I proceeded to scour the shelves for any books that would help me feel less alone in my grief.
It may or may not be a coincidence that the first book I stumbled upon was a lesser-known text in the loss community called A Piece of My Heart: Living Through the Grief of Miscarriage, Stillbirth, or Infant Death by Molly Fumia. In this beautifully written memoir, the author recounts her experience of losing her firstborn son, Jeremy, to a sudden infection several days after his birth. This book continues to resonate with me for a number of reasons, including Fumia’s use of liberation theology to emphasize the shared experiences of grief and loss that humanity holds in common. Yet at the same time, she explains how the death of a child is unique from other types of loss. Whereas the death of an adult marks the end of a life narrative with a definitive period, the death of a child can only leave a question mark, reflecting the plethora of unknowns that define an unlived life.
It seems that this is an aspect of my grief that many people fail to grasp. When a spouse, parent, grandparent—or any dear one who was able to fully experience all the love and beauty that this life has to offer—passes on, there is no doubt that their absence leaves a painful, gaping hole in our lives. When this happens, we grieve for the lost relationship, yet we can also look back fondly on the memories we shared with them and celebrate their legacy. But the grieving process is different when a child dies. My daughter did not get the chance to forge her own relationships, fall in love, have her own children, or make a broader difference in the world. She never had the opportunity to be more than a dark-haired, porcelain-skinned baby whose life was cut tragically short. And as her mother, this can never simply be “okay” with me.
This is why it frustrates me to no end when bereaved parents are expected to “move on” and reach a peaceful resolution with their grief. Sure, I can choose to change my state of mind by being thankful for the time I got with Leah, just as I can purposefully reflect on all the joy she brought me during her brief life. Similarly, I can choose to look toward the future and hope that I will eventually have a living child to bring home, rather than dwell on the daughter I lost. I can engage in all of these mindfulness techniques in an attempt to make myself feel better, but at the end of the day, such practices only diminish the injustice of Leah’s experience by making her life and death all about me. Yes, I lost out on a relationship with my daughter. But Leah lost so much more than that.
Think about this for a moment: Generally speaking, it is expected that parents will actively bear witness to any pain and hardship that their children experience. We assume that parents should live their lives for their children, sacrificing their own happiness and comfort along the way. So why do we expect parents to grieve for their children in purely selfish terms? All too often, bereaved parents are advised to focus on the positive, perhaps by being thankful for any living children they have, or by looking toward the future with the hope of having more children—anything to detract from the fact that a person they created was robbed of an entire lifetime. Such platitudes ultimately deprive the deceased child of their humanity, reducing them to an object that can be easily forgotten and replaced.
Now, I understand that this may be a moot point for those who believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that these children are in Heaven (or another similarly idyllic afterlife), celebrating each day in the presence of their divine Creator. To those who believe this…well…to be frank…I envy your certainty. As noted previously, I struggle with the idea of Heaven, despite my Christian faith and my aching desire to believe that I will see my daughter again someday. To be sure, an unshakable belief in the Christian conception of Heaven would simplify my grieving process by allowing me to focus solely on my lost relationship, while otherwise drawing comfort from the knowledge that Leah’s spirit lives on in a place with no pain or suffering. However, the INFJ-analytic within me inevitably questions if this belief is merely an attempt to absolve myself from fully confronting the brutal reality of my daughter’s death.
Regardless if Leah continues to exist in a spiritual realm, the question mark that defines her existence in this present life haunts me each and every day. While I certainly grieve for the mother-daughter relationship that I have been deprived of, mostly I think about the experiences that Leah will never have in her own right. Many of my own most treasured memories involve my first tastes of independence on the road toward self-actualization. It pains me to think that Leah will never get to strike out on her own in this world and forge her own identity. She will never huddle together with friends at a sleepover party, snacking on potato chips and giggling wildly about nothing in particular. She will never get the chance to discover a social cause that ignites her passions and inspires her to make a difference in the world. She will never become immersed in a gripping novel, be moved to tears by an exquisite piece of music, find herself breathless at the simple beauty of a bright summer’s day, or feel the warmth of a lover’s embrace.
Leah will always be my beautiful and much-loved daughter, but she should have had the chance to be so much more than that. She never got the opportunity to make her mark on the world as a friend, a student, an artist, an activist, a spouse, a mother, or any other identity that might have suited her passions and skills. She deserved to be all these things and more over the course of many years. Ultimately, she deserved far more than the question mark that will always define the parameters of her unlived life.