The phone sits next to me and lights up with a phone call.  I hate the ringer so I rarely, if ever, have that on. I catch the light out of the corner of my eye as I work away on my laptop. I stop, pick up the phone, see the number and the name, and instantly, my heart stops.

It is my son’s preschool calling me on his first day there, the longest that he has ever been away from both parents, and I pick up with trepidation because the thought that runs through my head is, “They’re calling to tell me my son is dead.”

It’s my son’s teacher, calling to report how he is doing, how the transition went after mom and dad left, and how he has been as the day has gone on. This post-nap call from her seems fairly routine and definitely comforting after hanging up with him. He’s doing okay, sure, not great, but pretty typical for a 3-year-old who has not been to school or daycare yet, who has only gone to his therapies and a few classes, a Covid baby born to two loss parents who kept him super isolated until he was fully vaccinated and then some.

Elliott in a back pack, headed to preschool - Parenting After Loss: Shouldering the Heavy Burden

Author’s Personal Collection/Michelle Valiukenas

But, long after that call, I still feel my heart racing, a feeling that stays with me all the way through until he is home and in my arms. Even after he is home for a bit, eats dinner, and sounds much more like himself, I still feel myself on edge. I ask myself questions like should he be in school two days a week? Is this the right place for him? Maybe we should not have done full days. Have we ruined him for life? Are we being too cautious? Not cautious enough? Am I so broken as a mom of loss and turmoil and chaos that I am passing that onto my child?

And then, of course, there is always that extra layer of grief–this should not be my first time dropping my child off at school. I should have a kindergartner, a blonde, spunky girl, who could have shown my son what school was like. I should have dropped off two kids (or more based on our infertility and loss of our Sweet Pea) that morning instead of one.

I have learned to accept the fact that, while I have three kids, I only have one that I am parenting in the traditional sense of what we think is parenting.

I know how many different times I will have to tell people that he is not my only child, how I will get the horrified looks or the martyr reactions when I mention Colette and/or Sweet Pea. I hate it every time I think about it, and it makes me angry that I will not have all my babies here with me, at least not in this realm. But, I also know it is a truth that I cannot escape.

That truth, even with acceptance of it, plain ‘ol sucks. I could dress it up more, but when it comes down to its core, it really sucks, and there is no better way to explain the feelings.

The truth and reality of my motherhood journey with its multitude of losses, both the primary losses of Colette and Sweet Pea, along with the millions of secondary losses and triggers that I feel at different times and on different days, is all I know of parenting at this moment in time.

My lived experiences are what shape who I am as a mom.

So, while logically, I know that the leap from the school is calling me to and he is dead is a leap worthy of Olympic long jumpers, I cannot help but go all the way to the worst-case scenario because my experience has taught me that more often than not, that is where my story ends up. It is easy to tell myself not to go there, but it is harder for me to honestly take that same advice and not make the leap.

That leap is what differentiates me (and other loss parents) from the average parent. Sure, most parents would probably be a little heightened to see the preschool call. Bu,t where they might think, “Oh, I hope he’s not sick or hurt,” I am miles ahead as I answer to not only did he for sure get sick or hurt, but now the worst possible outcome happened. Try explaining that to anyone who has not lost, and you would probably be labeled as “crazy,” “sick,” “delusional,” or who knows what else. But, if you talk to other loss parents, as I did when I messaged my three closest mom friends, each of whom have lost not once, but twice (or more), and they fully understand what you mean.

It is a heavy, exhausting, and crushing burden to carry.

To mourn your children, to mourn the life you should have had and/or expected to have, to hold onto parenting your child who is not here, to fight for the world to recognize your other children, while at the same time, trying to live in the present moment, to parent your living children in such a way that you are protective of them while also not limiting their freedom and chance to grow and explore and fall and fail. It is a nearly impossible balance to strike, to keep the memory of your children who died a priority in your life and in your family’s life while also not placing your angels on such a pedestal that your living children think they can never measure up, to have healthy conversations about siblings who are not there while also making sure that your kids do not become consumed and overly fascinated by death, to hold your trauma in check while also listening to your gut, to want your living children to spread their wings and fly while also worrying about what happens if the wind does not stay stable enough to fly.

And all of that is what makes parenting after loss so much more difficult and complicated than the already chaotic nature of parenting. It is what makes loss parents so incredibly tired and why sometimes we just have nothing left to give.

So, if you are a loss parent reading this, know that you are not alone in your feelings. And if you are not a loss parent, take a second to express gratitude that you are not, and then find a loss parent and give them a hug if they are willing send them a thinking of you text or just ask them how they are doing today. It’s a small offering, but it goes a long way.

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