Gratitude and Grief

It’s been 7 years since we lost our first child.

Selah.

She was just a small wisp of a person. We discovered her existence and then mourned her parting in the space of a week. Easter week. One bright blue pregnancy test, then another, weaker, a few days later. Then the blood. It was so jarring. We were having Easter dinner at a friend’s tiny apartment. Their bathroom opened into the kitchen/dining/living room where 15 people were seated around a long makeshift table eating ham and potatoes. I sat on the toilet on the other side of that thin door, holding in moans and noiselessly rummaging around the vanity for a pad. I cleaned myself up, checked my face in the mirror for any evidence of what was happening inside me, practiced a smile and opened the door. I remember so clearly the smell of their stairway once we pulled the door closed behind us and the dry lump of guilt in my throat about our awkward departure. I remember breathing through contractions on the subway and then the bus, holding in the sobs, collapsing in our tiny apartment an hour later.

It’s all still so vivid in my mind’s eye, and also it feels a lifetime away. Every year I mark her passing by reading through old journal entries and blog posts, tracing the heartache and anger and questions from me at 23 to me at 30. This year I’ve been surprised to note the emergence of gratitude. I felt hints of it in years prior but I am struck by the abiding peace and fullness that has begun to replace the confusion and doubt. Not that the grief is gone, exactly, but it feels different. Less anguished. I know that’s a loaded idea. Our culture places so much moralizing, shaming weight on the notion of grief. We are uncomfortable with pain. We want to rush people through the unpleasantness and back into their shiny, easy-to-manage selves as quickly as possible. We expect emotions to be linear, always moving onward and upward towards “stability” and “peace”.

So let me be clear. I’m finding these new feelings of gratitude on the far side of a lot of mucking around the in the awkwardness of grief. And it’s still here. In the shower this morning I felt the flood of feelings rush in. (Why is it so much easier to cry in the shower? Is it because tears wash away without a trace? Is it the comfort of the warm water? The satisfying echo of sobs off shower walls?) My social programming met them with a wall of questions. “Are we really doing this again? How often do you even think about her, anyway. Is this just performative? Was she even a she? Can you really mourn a blueberry sized person? Are you sure those tests were even positive?” 

That’s the grief, of course. She hurts, so she puts up a fight to protect the fortress of her feelings. She’s afraid her story is not acceptable. Afraid to be judged. Dismissed. Forgotten. She thinks she’ll beat me to the punch, say all the awful shit before I can unload it on her.

But here’s where the gratitude emerges: I’m finally learning to look on her with compassion. Instead of getting swept up in her fight I’m allowing myself to feel my feelings and explore the what ifs and notice what my heart is longing for without shame. I welcome her as a friend, honor her story, and settle in for the rest we both crave.

There is so much to grieve right now. The world is uncertain and full of fear. New grief calls old grief to our minds and bodies, a disorienting feedback loop of sensations and emotions that feel out of place with our boring new lives stuck indoors, working from the couch and fumbling along as we learn to be educators for our kids. We may be tempted to dismiss our pain, to rush past the anxiety and grief of what is and what might be. We might find ourselves looking at the stories that other people are telling about themselves and weaponize them against our own. There will always be someone to compare to. Some grief we deem more “legitimate” than our own. Some harder daily reality.

But what if we gave up the fight? What if we could look on our own bodies and hearts with compassion? What if we were softer, gentler, more emotive, less controlled? What if that is the path to surviving this? What if that is the path to thriving in our own souls?

Last night I lay on the couch with my two almost-6-year-olds stretched out on top of me. With their heads on my chest, their toes reach almost to my own. Tears stung the corners of my eyes as I felt the weight of their bodies – bodies that I could not have grown or held today if Selah had been here instead. My daughter traced her fingers down my cheek and told me she was sad she doesn’t have a sister to play with. She asked if we could bake a cake to celebrate the birthday Selah didn’t get to have. My son put his small hand on my soft, squishy belly, nuzzled into my neck and said, “It’s so cozy here. I wish she could cuddle with us.” More tears. Their little faces pressed close to mine. I breathed them in.

Grateful.

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