Our family was blessed with the world’s happiest baby boy. His beaming smile lights up from inside of him and everyone always asks is he always so happy? Is he always really smiling?! The answer is yes, he really is that happy, and anyone who knows him will agree his smile and his giggles are infectious.
But here is the secret that I figured out early on in my son’s life. He was a gift of joy sent to me during one of the most difficult times of anyone’s life: grieving the loss of a parent. He was sent to buoy me with his joy.
I was seven months pregnant when my dad died.
There are many unhealthy ways to handle your grief, but I knew I would have to process it. I knew if I tried to outrun my grief, it would find me. But when you are first pregnant, and then a mother to a newborn and a toddler, it is not the easiest to find the time to grieve. And in the chaotic aftermath of an unexpected (yet not unforeseen) death, there is a lot of business to take care of, so I easily went into business mode and did not address my grief.
My dad passed in the summer. We still had a ton of fun left on our agenda. Days at the beach, vacations and visits from out of town friends, and I needed all of these things to keep happening. But since I am a teacher and my dad passed in August the next thing after all the fun, it was the nervous excitement of back to school. I needed the normalcy of life, but I really never stopped. I buried my grief.
I grew bigger, and it was harder to breathe. My patience started to thin with my toddler as I started the third trimester. And then it was the arrival of our son, 9 pounds, 6 ounces of joy. And it was back to the newborn phase of sleep-deprived euphoria. I had struggled with postpartum anxiety in the form of scary thoughts with our first child, and I was so relieved that this time around was different for me. I felt so much better this time, no scary thoughts. But yet, I didn’t.
Our son arrived on November 1st, the night we “fall back” and plunge into darkness. I soon felt that I was swallowed up whole by the shadows. I felt the deep pain of the grief that was catching up to me in the quieter moments of life with a newborn. I remember nursing throughout the first few weeks and crying all night long. I remember thinking that I was so sorry to my baby boy, because his mom was just so sad, and would he remember that I spent so much of our cuddle time with tears streaming down my face in the wee smas of the night?
I also knew that I needed sleep and even when I felt sad, I would think to myself before I put my head on the pillow that I would rather not cry, because my priority was rest. I couldn’t afford it. I would read on my phone until I passed out without any danger of grieving. But the tears catch up to you. I found myself crying in the shower, in the car, while reading bedtime stories to my daughter.
I would have to answer the questions: Mommy, why are you sad? Why are you crying? I would answer honestly, that it is okay to be sad, that everyone has sad feelings in their hearts sometimes, that I missed Pop Pop and it is okay to cry, but I didn’t want to scare my toddler either and would try to save my grief for a more private time. But sometimes that time didn’t come, and then my sadness manifested in anger.
My daughter took the brunt of this anger as she tried my patience in the way only three year olds can, especially a three-year-old who had just become a big sister. When she didn’t listen to me, didn’t comply, I was deeply triggered inside to the point that the level of anger I felt scared me. At the gentle prompting of the friends I disclosed this to, I finally sought out someone to talk to and worked through the rage that I knew was my grief showing up, an uninvited guest, but one I needed to confront.
It was the coldest winter we’d had in years, temperatures dropping below ten degrees. I was home on maternity leave and it was quiet and lonely as compared to my maternity leave with my daughter, a summer baby. No one was leaving their houses, and a flu epidemic was sweeping the area. My husband was working tons of overtime. I was alone a lot.
When it finally rose above eight degrees, the temperature stayed put at forty but the sun rarely came out, and weeks of dull gray skies rolled out in front of me, with very few bluebird winter days and the ground covered in dirty snow. This layer of gray covered not just the earth, but it covered me. This layer of depression was different from postpartum depression though I am sure the hormones did not help. It was one of grief, as I mourned the loss of my father. And yet my son continued to laugh, grow, and radiate smiles. He was the light in the dark. Winter receded. Spring arrived.
I attended therapy. I went back to work. I returned to yoga and found peace in the practice that joins body and mind. I wrote poetry and journaled. I learned that even when I felt like I had no time for myself at all, I still needed to carve out the time for self-care. I broke through the gray, to the other side where the sun shines, to bask in the light of my sweet little family.
Vicki Harrison wrote that “grief is like the ocean, it comes in waves, ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn how to swim.” This is an accurate description. It ebbs and flows. There are some days that are harder than others. But you learn how to live with the grief that has become a part of you, and you learn to understand this is not a process that ends, because you will always love and miss the departed. It is a process that must be tended to even if you are a mother to a toddler and a newborn, because your entire family will benefit if you take care of yourself and learn how to cope with your loss.