Parenting after the loss of a child is amazing. You have a beautiful baby in your hands. This child breathes, blinks, coos, laughs and cries. Every day is a miracle and you count your blessings. At the same time, it can also be ripe with inner anxiety.
I remember giving birth to my first rainbow baby, Eden. His life brought me so much joy. I write about my pregnancy with him in my book, Expecting Sunshine: A Journey of Grief, Healing and Pregnancy After Loss. What my book does not go on to discuss is the fear that is also birthed with your rainbow. I think there was a part of me that hoped all stress would disappear once Eden was born healthy. That part of me did not realize that I would be entering a new stage altogether.
What I discovered is that parenting after loss is a balancing act between fear and faith.
Faith is believing in that which is yet unseen. Every day I hope and pray and have faith for the continued health and safety of my living children – but it’s not easy. Many days I succumb to the fear. Here are some ways I try to cope with parenting after loss:
Monitor thoughts. Being an artist and writer, I have an over active and visual imagination. Sometimes I will be getting ready for bed and want to compulsively check on my children as they sleep when I’ve just done it half an hour before. It’s easy for me to picture all kinds of scary scenarios. I try to immediately stop my train of thought and take a deep breath. I speak encouraging words to myself, like, “My kids are sleeping well. They are okay.” I have never told my husband this, but sometimes I don’t even feel at ease when he checks on the kids; I want to go in after him to see for myself. This leads me to my next point…
Surrender to mystery. I have come to accept that there are many things outside of my control. Zachary dying at birth from a cardiac tumor, for instance, was a random anomaly. There was nothing I could have done to change what happened to him or our family. Life is ripe with mystery. We cannot always account for why or when things swoop in and take us by surprise. While I may do everything in my power to keep my kids safe and happy, I also recognize that feeling pain is a part of life. I struggle with surrendering to the reality that I will likely always fear for the wellbeing of my living kids – even when they are no longer kids but functioning adults – yet surrender I must (or go crazy, which is not a great alternative).
Choose joy. This is one of my life mantras. I came up with this phrase, “Who controls your joy?” when canoeing with my family. I say it to myself often. It reminds me that no one but me can fill my life with happiness and peace. That is a gift I give to myself. I must claim it. Living in the victim mentality is a quicksand pity party. It is all too easy to get deeply stuck there. We can be victims of all sorts of things, but when we adopt that as our identity, our circumstances and inner life spirals downward. One of my friends, Larry Louie, is an international documentary photographer. He goes into dangerous areas of developing countries and photographs children playing on rivers of garbage beside towering shanties built out of the city’s rubbish. The children he photographs are often smiling. Larry and I talked about this. The children don’t know any different so they are happy with what they have; even though life may seem stacked against them, they still find joy.
As you wake up each day, choose to be self-aware as you parent after loss. Monitor your thoughts. If you can’t control them yourself, find help. Let go of all the unanswerable why questions and make mystery your welcome companion. And ask yourself, “Who controls my joy?” Your answer will make all the difference in the world.