It’s 2023, and the start of a new year brings with it a lot of pressure to make changes, to start anew, to make resolutions and stick to them. It’s a lot of pressure for all of us, but for loss parents in particular, the turning of the calendar page may feel like a loss. The reason for this? It feels as though each time you turn the calendar page, you are just that much further away from your loss and from your child. Plus, the added feeling of “newness” and leaving a year behind feels so much heavier when your child is in the past, and the rest of the world is stressing you out about moving on and getting over it.
Having gone through five New Year’s celebrations now, I have some idea of the things that I have to remind myself of regularly, and I hope that other loss parents may draw some hope and inspiration from.
So, in no particular order, I have my yearly “New Year’s Resolutions of a Loss Parent.”
1. I will accept that what happened is not my fault, but I will also accept that feelings of guilt and self-blame may still come up for me.
I have never found out an exact reason why my child died when others younger than her have survived. I have never found a conclusive, oh, this is what happened. And believe me, I wanted an answer, something tangible that I could say, okay, we’ll do this differently, and the outcome will be different. I remember insisting upon getting tested for blood clotting disorders and then talking to my sister, telling her I was upset that I did not have a disorder. My sister shot me back to reality and told me you are so desperate for an answer that you want to be sick, to have a reason why. In that moment, I had to accept that it was not my fault and that I likely would never have an explanation or cause for what happened.
But, accepting that in the moment does not mean that those feelings just went away permanently. They still creep back in, and I hold them, remind myself it is not my fault, and honor that those feelings still are there. This means tears, screams, and any other emotions I feel about this are okay.
2. I will share my story and my child’s story in an effort to keep my child’s memory alive, but I also know that I get to decide who hears my story and what portions of my story I am open to sharing.
Talk to most loss parents, and they share the struggle about how to answer the questions that, unfortunately, society still thinks are totally normal and not problematic, like how many kids do you have or don’t you want a girl/boy or you need to have kids or your child needs a sibling. When you get these questions, you have three real choices—to be honest and direct, to answer without really answering, or just ignore and not mention your angel. And all of those options come with consequences, but it is a choice we get to make and whatever choice we make is okay, and we should not have guilt over how we addressed the situation. Mentioning your angel(s) may mean that someone else is uncomfortable for a little bit, but they will move on, and not mentioning your angel(s) does not mean that you have forgotten them or sullied their memory and existence.
3. I will accept that some people will not be able to handle my grief and emotions, that I get to choose the terms of our relationship, but I will also accept that I can mourn for the change and end of relationships.
One of the most shocking things to me in the aftermath of Colette’s death was how many people stayed mute and still, almost five years later, have never even acknowledged my daughter let alone my loss. And for me personally, those people no longer have a place in my life. I accept that decision and know it was the best decision for me, but I also mourn those relationships and what I thought the relationship was.
4. I will not apologize for my feelings nor shrink or make myself small to comfort others, but I also will accept that some people will have their own opinions about how I should handle these feelings.
Those who know me know I have a big mouth, and I say what I think, and I am very honest. I have continued this pattern when it comes to talking about grief and its impact. But, there are a lot of people who have made comments to say, “We don’t talk about that,” or “You don’t need to talk about this,” or “Move on.” And those comments hurt, but they have never deterred me from continuing to share my story and my feelings. At the end of the day, it is about what makes you most comfortable, and for me, I love talking about my daughter, who is no longer with us, just as much as I love talking about my son, who is very much alive and active.
5. I will accept that grief is a lifelong process and that everyone’s grief is different, but I also will look for community, for support within the loss community, to help with my grieving process.
Prior to losing Colette, I really felt like grief had stages and a process, and once you went through that, you would “get over it” or “move on.” I have not done either, and that idea is no longer on my radar. Accepting that has been part of my healing and my grief management. But, at the same time, finding a group with PALS and forming relationships with other loss parents has been so incredibly helpful. Knowing that I can reach out with whatever feelings I have and get empathetic responses from people who understand those feelings is a big reason why I get through those tough days and times.
6. I will accept that grief is fluid and that you can feel grief and pain at the same time and in co-existence with a wide variety of other emotions such as gratitude, joy, and happiness, but I also will accept that others will have expectations of how I should act and feel.
A few months after Colette died, a friend of mine reached out to me when her son was born. She did it very respectfully by emailing me on my own, telling me the applicable news, and then acknowledging that this information might be difficult and giving me the freedom to choose what I wanted to do with this information. She mentioned that I did not have to respond and that she accepted that whatever I was feeling was okay. But, as I processed this news, I remember my mom telling me, “You have to be happy for her.” And what I learned then and continue to learn is that it is possible to feel pain and grief at the same time as being happy for someone you love. In that moment with my friend, I was happy for her, I was thrilled for her, and continue to be, but those feelings were also surrounded by grief and frustration, and pain. The grief did not take away from my happiness for her, and the happiness did not take away from grief. They co-existed, in tandem, to reflect what I was feeling.
Parenting after loss has also reinforced these feelings. I can be so happy and grateful for my son, for my rainbow baby, but at the same exact moment, feel grief that his older sister is not physically with us or that I will not get to be a girl mom or fear that my son’s health and safety could be at risk.
7. I will accept and honor that I will have good days, that I will laugh, that I will enjoy myself, and that is completely normal, but I will also honor that I may feel immense guilt about those feelings.
I can remember the first night after Colette died when my husband and I went out to dinner and had a lovely evening. The food was good, I felt hungry and enjoyed food, and we laughed hysterically and enjoyed each other’s company. It was one of those random nights where it felt like it did when we were first dating and did not have the baggage and trauma and experiences we were still dealing with. When we got home, I started to feel so incredibly guilty for having enjoyed myself so much. How could I laugh and eat and enjoy myself when my daughter died? I learned and continue to learn that it is okay, it is normal to have these experiences, and that you simply cannot spend all of your time sitting in grief and pain.
8. I will accept that whatever my final family picture turns out to be is good, but I will also honor that the picture I imagined is not the reality, and it is okay to mourn those expectations.
We were lucky that we were able to go on and have another child, our son Elliott who, at the writing of this article, is a happy, vivacious, mischievous, loving two-and-a-half-year-old. But, that road was difficult, and bringing him home reopened and reactivated a lot of feelings. And just about as often as I look at this amazing kid and smile, I also think about what our life would have been like if Colette was here, and I mourn that life, that alternate universe in which all of my babies are with us in the house.
A new year can be tough for all of us, but especially for those of us who have lost a child.
Please remind yourself that you carry your baby into the new year with you. And if you love a loss parent, especially those where the loss is very recent, hug them or reach out to them a little bit more than usual. They may be really struggling.
- Dear New Year, my baby died and you do not feel happy or new
- Miscarriage, Stillbirth, Infant Loss, and Pregnancy After Loss: It Takes a Village, and a Sisterhood
- Courageous Parents, A Wish for a Gentle End to Your Year
- Parenting After Loss: This Is Our Year…Or Is it?
- But this could be the year, so cling to hope