All These Years Later, Grief Still Catches Me By Surprise Sometimes

by Nancy Mello Miller
Originally Published: 
Aliaksandr Liulkovich/Getty

Trigger warning: child loss

E.E. cummings once wrote, “I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart).”

My mom gave me the poem as a board book for the youngest poet in the house awhile back, and as I read it, the words stuck in my conscious as only the strongest memories can.

Today, the quote came back to me again as I was suddenly confronted with my grief. Like a wind that gently changes direction on a sunny day to bring in the clouds, the grief came in. I found myself crying in the most particular of circumstances: at an otherwise ordinary meeting. I wasn’t sure when the wind had shifted direction or when the clouds had come in, but all of the sudden, there I was, mourning my daughter.

There was nothing I could do but let the tears drip out of my eyes. I breathed deep and pushed the grief back in, down into my heart. I could have chosen to continue to cry, but it was not the time nor the place to reflect. It’s been five in a half years since I last held my daughter in my arms.

I have made a habit of telling my children that it is okay to cry. I am telling you, that it is okay to cry. Cry on the subway. Cry in a movie. Cry during a conference call.

Let it out.

It is when our emotion is released that healing continues. Yet today, I didn’t do that. I stuffed it in. Now, five hours later, I’m still hurting. Perhaps if I had let it out a bit more, grief would have lessened it’s grip. The thing is, I knew what I was doing when I stuffed that grief down. I fell into old patterns of trying to be strong for the sake of everyone else. It never, ever helps. I can’t name one person that has ever hurt less by trying to be strong for others.

If you’re the type of person who does this, please stop. I spent the better part of the first month after my daughter died trying not to cry because everyone was crying around me. I felt like I had to be a “Role Model Loss Mom” yet no one assigned me the role besides myself.

I was strong for the nurses when I was in labor, I was strong for my husband as she was born silently into this world. I was strong when I held her lifeless body in my arms, a warming blanket under her to keep her body warm. I sang her songs and talked to her about the life that would have been. We watched the sunrise together. If you had been walking by my room you never would have guessed that she was born still. The only thing that gave it away was the singular butterfly hanging on the door. For only the briefest of moments, she was me and I was her. We were together in this odd dimension of life and death.

I remember asking my husband, “What else can I do?” as I held her. Wires were still connected to me letting the staff know of my heart rate. The IV line for the pitocin that had induced labor pushed her into this cold world was still in my arm.

So, I sang. I marveled at her long feet (just like mine) and her stubby nose. I felt her long finger nails and I smelled her scent. Her face was a perfect round, and I couldn’t stop looking at her. I had been so afraid of what she was going to look like. I thanked God openly for her features, the features that would have clearly told the world she had Down Syndrome.

My perfectly-imperfect Daughter (as I often refer to her) was a poster child of the physical traits of someone with Down Syndrome, and in the most tragic moment of my life it gave me such joy to see.

We all carry someone in our heart that is no longer physically with us. Maybe it’s a parent, maybe it’s a sibling. Maybe it’s your loyal dog from when you were growing up. Whomever it is, I promise you something.

They are waiting for you.

They are living in a land that far surpasses the beauty we have on Earth. They are joyful. They are loved. They are surrounded by loved ones from a thousand lifetimes (or however many they had) and pets from every time they were on Earth: goldfish, horses, parrots, hamsters, snakes. Whatever they loved — it’s there. They are playing cards, eating pasta (not worrying about gaining a pound) and skiing down mountains where the snow never melts. It is their paradise, and it is very, very, REAL.

Every once in awhile, they look up from the latest painting they are working on, and decide to come and visit you. They give you a hug while you are washing the dishes. They kiss your forehead as you sleep. They give your hand a squeeze as sit in a meeting. They see you living. Then, they are gone. Back to paradise. Their personality hasn’t changed. They haven’t stopped being your dad, your mom, your child. They are just in a different dimension right above ours. They are within a call away if you need them.

Don’t discount what young children tell you. If your three-year-old nephew tells you that the Uncle Jake who died when you were 12 says, “Hi,” don’t say, “he couldn’t have possibly!” A reasonable answer would be, “thank you” but simply acknowledging it, is good enough. Allow the Universe to send you messages. It’s waiting and willing.

So, whomever you are waiting for a message from or about, know the Universe is always working. Allow yourself to feel whatever emotion you are feeling: grief, frustration, exhaustion, sadness, joy. Accept it. Experience it. Allow yourself to move through the motion like a river that is flowing.

My grief will always be next to me. Sometimes it’s more silent than other times, but it’s always there. I’ve made friends with it, but I haven’t allowed it to fully bloom. I blamed myself for a long time for not being able to save her. I’m starting to accept the bigger role it’s starting to play as I continue working as an intuitive. I accept that I wasn’t meant to save her. I accept that her role is being played right now, as I continue to learn lessons from her short life.

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