A few weeks ago while doing the dishes I turned on the Ted channel for a little background noise. I was only half listening to an effeminate man named Andrew Solomon praddle on about his lifelong journey of accepting himself as a gay man with social anxiety. The talk was entitled How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are. The essence of the talk was a call to action to forge meaning out of our biggest struggles. He refutes the idea that “meaning” is somehow this attainable thing just waiting to be found. Rather, he asserts that forging meaning is more practical and empowering than simply finding meaning, because forging meaning is entirely within your control.
“After you’ve forged meaning, you need to incorporate that meaning into a new identity. You need to take the traumas and make them part of who you’ve come to be, and you need to fold the worst events of your life into a narrative of triumph, evincing a better self in response to things that hurt.”
When I first found out we were losing Abby, I expected to travel down a long steep path of sadness with clear signs marking the 5 stages of grief. I don’t have nearly enough fingers to count the number of times I’ve heard the words, “Everyone grieves differently, so just feel whatever you need to feel.” This seems like such sound advice until it’s 2 am and you’re sitting straight up in bed from a recurring nightmare in which your blood somehow escapes your veins and manages to kill everyone you love.
“Feel what you need to feel” is a very silly mandate, in my opinion, because it presupposes that you have the tools at your disposal to accurately decipher which things you need to feel and which things are just unnecessary road blocks on the path to healing.
Yes, it is important to allow yourself to feel pain and sadness sometimes, but what about guilt? Is it normal to feel repulsed by your own blood – that statistically anomalous life substance that somehow allows you to continue living every day, while savagely claiming the life of your firstborn child? Is it healthy to literally hate your own blood and the invisible little auto nuclear antibodies that parasitically swim through your veins like time bombs?
I have learned that there is nothing black and white, clear, or predictable about grief and it’s so called 5 stages. It is a lifelong process of taking an elephant the size of a room and slowly managing to whittle it down to the size of a precious gem that can fit in the palm of your hand. The whittling takes lots of patience and can seem futile at the beginning when the elephant is much bigger than you, but even the biggest elephants can be tamed.
“Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.” – Isaiah 49:16
I struggle a lot with feeling guilty about positive things that have come out of Abby’s death. It wasn’t part of the plan for me to go back to work full time, but as a result, I found a job that I love. I’m not supposed to be doubling our income, but as a result we are moving into a 2 bedroom condo in a few months. I shouldn’t be able to travel, hike, rock climb, camp, eat sushi, or drink cherry coke, but sometimes life changes on a dime.
Of course I would rather be a stay at home mom in our abundantly cozy 600 square feet basement apartment. I was fully preparing myself to trade in my full time job for the life of a sleep deprived, stretch marked, frazzled, but happy mom living on a single parent income and changing diapers all day. In fact, it was a deliberate choice.
Some days I feel almost normal and I even get excited thinking about moving to the new condo, getting a dishwasher, all the extra money we’ll have for concerts and eating out, all the places in this grand world we’ll still be able to travel, and just in general how easy life will be.
These moments are always followed by intense moments of guilt for allowing myself to be excited about things that came about as a direct result of Abby’s death. On average it takes about 30 seconds for the self loathing to consume me and remind me that even with all the money in the world, life would not be easy.. and Abby would still be gone.
I know it is irrational to feel guilty when good things happen, but grief induced guilt is anything but rational. As I’ve tried to forge meaning and build identity out of the complicated loss of my baby, I have found great strength in this quote from Mr. Solomon’s Ted Talk.
It seems like such a cliche, but service usually is the best medicine for a broken heart. I found so much peace in raising money for The Angel Watch program and running with Team Abby in the 10th Annual Running with Angels 5K last month. The money I raised will help fund the support groups and in home services that Angel Watch provides to bereaved mothers for free. Giving back to this program that helped me in my darkest hours, was not only good for my own heart, but benefited other mothers as well. With the support of my friends and families, Team Abby raised $805!
After the race (in which Team Abby came in first place for both donations as well as the physical race) my mind became infected with optimism. Brainstorming ways in which I could forge meaning by honoring Abby’s life through service.
Through a stroke of divine inspiration and moments spent holding Abby’s precious feet molds, The Littlest Feet Project was born. I have teamed up with a non profit organization called Soles4souls and created a website where bereaved mothers (or anyone mourning the loss of a child) can donate a pair of shoes in their honor. The shoes are then distributed to children in need all over the world.
Yesterday was Abby’s original due date, so I donated these little pink sandals in honor of her. Some lucky little girl out there in this big world will strap on these sandals and leave footprints on this earth in honor of Abby.
Life is short, but love is long. And the beat goes on and on.