This Is What Grief Is Really Like

by Leslie Froelich
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Content warning: child loss

Five years after losing my three-week old daughter, Hannah, to a congenital heart defect, I have come to recognize the triggers for my grief and sadness. These can be as expected as meeting someone with her name, which will immediately cause my heart to split in two. Or they can be random things, such as the sterile, soapy scent of a hospital or clinic, which has the unsettling power to transport me back to the two-month bed rest stay I endured while pregnant with Hannah and her surviving twin sister, Elizabeth.

It is during the days and moments when I’m moving forward and, for all intents and purposes, everything is going fine, that my grief tends to catch me off guard and torment me. When it shows up uninvited and proceeds to rip open the old wounds of loss and trauma with no regard for my well-being.

It happened a few weekends ago, during an otherwise pleasant visit with two of my oldest friends in the world. We had decided to get together for the day, for no specific reason other than to catch up and enjoy each other’s company. A challenging feat when you live in different cities and when children and spouses are involved, and life just generally gets in the way.

As we sat around, chatting and reliving old memories, I noticed a photo book sitting on my friend’s ottoman where I was lazily resting my feet. I picked it up and began leafing through it, quickly realizing that it was a beautiful collection of pictures and recipes loved ones had compiled as a gift for my friend before her wedding several years ago.

Considering that I have known this woman for over two decades and I was one of her bridesmaids, it immediately struck me as strange that I hadn’t provided a recipe as well. I had no recollection of this book.

“I don’t remember this,” I said, confused. “Why didn’t I send you a recipe?”

My friend’s response came gently, and quietly: “That was in October, when everything… happened.”

It was almost as if the air had been sucked out of the room. The sadness washed over me immediately.

My daughter passed away on October 4, 2012, so the minor detail of contributing a recipe to my friend for her upcoming nuptials had naturally escaped me. The fog of grief and depression that consumed me at that time had evidently rendered me unable to participate in an otherwise lovely and touching gesture for one of the most important people in my life.

I had a wonderful visit with my friends, but I can’t deny that unexpected moment rocked me to my core. It was a reminder of that dark and terrible time of my life, and no matter how much time passes or how much healing my heart does, I will always feel a profound sadness in my soul. I will always feel incomplete and, on some level, bitter, because I was robbed of my child. Robbed of first smiles and laughs and birthday parties and the amazing and unique experience of raising twins.

But grief was not done haunting me that day. When I arrived home in the early evening, I helped my husband put our daughters to bed for the night, and I grabbed the mail out of our mailbox. My heart momentarily stopped when I saw the seemingly innocent white envelope lying on top of the pile of bills and sales ads.

“To the family of Hannah Froelich.”

I knew what is was even before I opened it: the invitation we receive every year from the hospital for the annual children’s remembrance ceremony they organize for families who have suffered the loss of a child at their institution.

I stared at the piece of paper blankly and immediately discarded it. We attended this event the first year after Hannah passed, and while it was beautifully done and I appreciate the effort to help parents honor and remember their little ones, we have not returned. And yet there it was, another painful reminder of our loss.

That night, like many others, I cried myself to sleep. Grief had been sly that day; it didn’t show up in the form of a song or scent or some other obvious type of trigger. It came unexpectedly and ruthlessly. Because that’s the thing about grief and loss: they don’t stay in the past. And while we can – and must – choose not to let grief dominate us, its shadow lingers. It is always right there on the periphery of our lives, lurking and striking when we least anticipate it.

In my loss journey, I have come to understand that, sometimes I will be strong, and sometimes I will stumble. Sometimes I will rise above, and sometimes grief will swallow me whole. I know that grief will continue to pierce my life in the most unexpected of ways, and, when it does, I will do my best to search for the light and try to make it through the day.