For me, the holiday season starts with Halloween. It begins when the costumes and candy and pumpkins begin to fill the shelves and stores.

Along with it, comes that dull aching and longing for the missing pieces of my life that will never be. My daughters.

No pumpkins carved and lit on the doorstep.
Empty chairs at the holiday tables.
Missing handmade ornaments made by tiny hands.
No letters to Santa.
Gratitudes left unspoken because their little voices will never speak.
No cookies or treats will be stirred or decorated by sticky fingers.

And dozens of doorbells will ring one less time on Halloween because my girls aren’t here to push the bell.

Two costumes will remain on the store shelves.

Two plastic pumpkins or brightly color bags will sit empty without candy collected with excited “trick or treats” giggles.

Two caramel covered apples will stay standing on the tray.

Two half-scared, half-excited screams will be missing from the crowd of kids in the haunted house.

There will always be an empty space where they were meant to be.

I will never know their favorite candy treats.

I will never hear them say as I used to, “Here, Mom, I don’t like this one. You can have it cuz you do,” as they dig through their bags of candy.

I will never know if they would eat themselves sick on sugar or if they would be like me and eat just a few, leaving the rest to lay forgotten in a drawer until next Halloween.

I will never know if they would have been ghosts or princesses or superheros or kittens or witches or zombies or what else their little imaginations might have created.

Though I fill this pumpkin-orange and candy-filled holiday with friends and fun and life, every time the doorbell rings and little ones call out, “Trick or treat,” I always think of the silent doorbells and empty steps that would have been filled by my girls.

Halloween will always have two empty spaces where they were supposed to be.

 

*Originally published on Still Standing Mag.

It has been 14 years since my daughter, Grace was born still and 9 years since her sister, Lily joined her.

Life has ever been the same.

I am not the same.

I think it’s safe to say that this kind of loss changes all of us in irrevocable ways. Life is different after loss. How I see life is forever altered. Sometimes, those thirteen years of grieving my daughter(s) feel like an eternity. Other days, it feels like just yesterday I was saying good-bye.

In my thirteen years post-loss, the grief and the joys, the love and the heartache, the messiness and the healing have all taught me a few things about life after loss:

Don’t Risk Waiting for “Someday When…”

If loss has taught me anything it is to not to wait in life, because the “someday when…” we too often wait for might never come. Something those of us who have lost so much already know.

We never know where life will lead or what will happen at any given moment.

We can choose to live, really live – fully, wholeheartedly, and completely. This life as we know it can end at any moment, without warning or preparation.

So, live. Say I love you. Be honest. Dive into your dreams. Go all the places you want to go. Do the things you dream of doing. Give your whole heart. Go on adventures. Learn whatever you can. Give all you are to relationships. Leave behind what doesn’t serve you or the things that hurt you. Be bold.

“Someday when…” might never come. The life you plan might end in the sudden stilling of a heartbeat. Don’t risk waiting for a “someday when…” that might never be.

We’re All Doing the Best We Can

Sometimes this thing called life is hard.

And sometimes we screw up, all of us do. Sometimes we aren’t there for people when we could be. Sometimes we aren’t as compassionate as we could be. Sometimes we lash out in our grief or our fear or our anger when we don’t really mean to.

Sometimes we fall apart. Sometimes we judge (ourselves and others). Sometimes we do things in the moment that we later regret.

Sometimes we hurt others.
Sometimes we hurt ourselves.
Sometimes we hurt each other.

We are human and we make mistakes. It’s okay.

I truly believe that most of us are simply doing the best we can in any moment with the information and/or the skills that we have. There is always more going on underneath the surface of life than any of us know.

People get upset or angry for things we do or don’t do when they have no idea weight of the grief we are simply trying to function under. Some goes for them, often they act or don’t act due to circumstances or situations we know nothing about. We’re all doing the best we can with what we have, whether anyone else can see that or not.

So, maybe we could all give ourselves and each other a bit of grace and acknowledge our mutual humanity. We’re all in this together, one moment at a time. One mistake at a time. Then perhaps, next time, our best will become better.

There Truly Are No Rules or Timelines

When it comes to loss and grief, there are many similarities. That’s why these amazing loss communities are so powerful and soul-healing – we can connect in the similarities of our experiences and find others who get it on a deep level, in ways that non-loss parents can’t.

Yet, there are also differences. No two journeys are the same – not even if the exact circumstances of the loss were identical.

Some are able to find light in the darkness within months and fight their way back to living in those early years after loss. Others find themselves continuing to stumble and crash in the darkness of grief for many years after loss. Many find themselves cycling in and out of painful grief over the years, sometimes buried under the weight of it and other times feeling the light on their faces.

Some of us bury our grief only to have it seeping out into our lives decades after the actual death of our babies. Others throw themselves into the messy, heart-breaking wilds of grief right from the start and find that years later the pain has faded to a quiet bittersweetness.

Any and all of these are equally valid and right. No journey of life after loss is wrong – they are all uniquely individual. My loss is not your loss, yours is not mine.

Grief, joy, sadness, laughter, tears, gratitude, and love – all of this is life. All of this is life after loss. No matter where anyone is in their experience after loss, they are living.

No Community Loves Harder Than This One

There is no community I desperately wish I wasn’t a part of more than this one – this community of parents living without their children, partners without their love, people living without those they love the most. Yet, at the same time, there is no better community to be part of.

I went a decade after my losses before I found this community of people living after loss – and in particular, parents grieving their children.

Finding others who understood the terrible ache and grief of losing their child was like breathing new life into my soul.

It’s family. It’s comfort. It’s love. It’s support.

Like any family, there are disagreements and grumpiness and arguing at times. Yet, I have never been a part of a community so willing to show up, to support, to give, and to nurture than this one.

Not everyone in this community agrees all the time – because again, we are all on our own journey of life after loss – yet there is love and support here unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

If you let us, we will wrap you in love for a lifetime. That is this community.

Life on Planet Earth is Temporary, Love is Not

At some point each of us will leave this thing called life on Earth. Some far, far too soon. Some after many decades of life and living.

I have often heard it said that the only thing we can really count on is that we live and we die.

But I disagree.

We can count on love. Love does not die.

When we lose those that we love, our love lives on. Our love keeps them alive long past their physical bodies are laid down. When we leave this planet called Earth and lay our own bodies down, the love that others have for us will keep us alive. Life is an infinite circle of love. Love is life.

Love isn’t exactly something that we can touch or hold or identify on a tangible level, but as parents and as human, we know love. It lives in our souls.

Love is the greatest aspect of our humanity and it will live forever. And those we’ve loved and lost will live forever as love.

 

*Original version published on Still Standing Mag

I was once asked to describe myself in one word.

The best I could come up with was: Contradictory.

Trying to neatly fit me into a specific label or box is somewhat of an exercise in futility and frustration!

I am a mother, yet I have no children here with me.
I fiercely love my gone-too-soon daughters, yet I have chosen not to pursue having another child.
When my fiancé died shortly before our daughter, I wasn’t exactly single yet I wasn’t considered a widow either.
I am a happy person living a joyful life yet I ache and miss for the children I cannot hold.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my paradoxical nature lately. I get asked frequently how I can be such a happy person after all the losses I’ve experienced – the deaths of my fiancé, my children, many friends and family members.

I’ve never really had a very good answer for that. It wasn’t easy. It took me a very long time to find the beauty in life and living again. I work really hard every day to live a happy and joyful life.

But exactly how I created that? I could never find the words.

Then last week a friend and colleague and I were talking about resiliency and loss, specifically the loss of children. She asked me how I defined resiliency in this area.

Screen shot 2015-08-13 at 9.55.35 AMI found myself blurting out, “It’s the capacity to allow contradictions exist at the same time.”

Our world tends to want everything to be black and white. But black and white makes the world a very hard and painful place to live after the death of a child.

Black and white means we can be grieving or we can be happy. Sad or joyful. A mother or not a mother. A father or not a father. People are supportive or not supportive. People are helpful or not helpful. We are loved or not loved.

Without the space to allow for contradictions, grief suddenly becomes unforgiving, endless, and isolating.

My contradictory nature, however, apparently came with a built-in resilience to loss in it.

I can grieve and be happy. I can feel joy and sadness at the same time. I am a mother without a child to hold. I can miss my daughters immensely and still choose to not pursue having additional children.

My contradictory nature has given me the resilience to feel sad for my losses even as I’m happy for others who are able to get pregnancy and birth living children. It has enabled me to accept that some friends and family can’t support me in exactly the way I want and be grateful for that they give the best support they know how to give. It has enabled me to realize that loved ones can struggle with not being able to handle my grief yet still deeply love me. It has helped me see that people can say careless, hurtful things yet still be kind and good people.

This ability to hold space for the contradictions of life gave me the resilience to be open to people’s flaws and imperfects, to be open to life’s pain and gifts in equal measure.

When I could be open to the imperfection and beauty of others and of life, I was able to be open to my own imperfections and beauty. When I was open to my own imperfections and beauty, I could open to both grieve and experience joy.

In the contradictions of life, there is space for forgiveness, healing, love, gratitude, and peace.

Life and death.
Joy and sadness.
Pain and peace.
Love and loss.

Life is full of contradictions.

Maybe that’s what makes it beautiful.

 

*Originally published on Still Standing Mag.

I miss her most in the autumn.

My sweet Grace.

It’s not the day she was born still or her due date. It’s not when I discovered I was pregnant. It’s not any of those anniversary dates that can sneak up and drown my heart in sorrow.

I have never found a logical reason for why I miss her so in the autumn. It doesn’t really make any sense.

Yet when the air starts to cool and the leaves start hinting of red and orange and gold that space in my heart where she resides aches a little bit more than usual. The leaves and frost that crunch under my feet seem to whisper her name and I can almost see her playing in the falling leaves that dance through the air.

When I think of Grace, I think of autumn.

Bold and vibrant colors remind me of the brilliant light she was.
Little kids jumping into piles of leaves symbolize the joy and innocence that her life will forever be.
Sweaters and blankets give me that same warm and sweet sense of comfort that she did after her daddy died.
Quiet mornings in a world coated in glittering frost remind me of her gentle, peaceful energy.

Autumn is a brief season. Like Grace’s too short life, autumn flares brightly, drenched in color and vibrancy before quietly fading into the stark and bare winter season. Autumn is the radiant flash between the heavy heat of summer and the gray chill of winter.

Grace’s life was like autumn, a brilliance and beauty that too quickly faded into the harsh chill of grief and sorrow.

The absence of her is acute and aching in the autumn. Her would-be adolescent form is missing from the groups of kids on their way to and from school. The piles of leaves remain neat and tidy, unmarred by her playful leaps and jumps. The closet will never be filled with sweaters and socks, jeans and scarves to warm her growing body. Steaming cups of hot cocoa will never welcome her home out of the chill after school or play or activities.

Her life will always be beautiful and brilliant but all to brief. She will never grow to bloom into spring.

My life will continue to turn, passing through the seasons, ever evolving and turning through time. I always survive the gray chill of winter to once again feel the warmth of the blooming spring and heat of summer.

Then autumn will come again and I will remember, always, the brilliance of her life.

I miss her most in the autumn.

*Originally published on Still Standing Mag.

Grace Hayden.

My Grace.

Sometimes I say her name in my head over and over again and it brings me comfort. I’ve been missing her more than words can express lately, my sweet baby who would be turning 14 next week.

Grief has ebbed and flowed over these past 14 years – sometimes a quiet ache that lingers in my bones and others a gushing flow of tears and fierce longing that batters my heart. The last few weeks have been more gushing than quiet aching. This new layer of grief has taken me by surprise.

I have spent far more time in my bed, my car, the bathroom at work, choking on tears and weeping as if it was just yesterday that she silently and suddenly died in my womb. It has gotten more difficult in recent years to imagine what she might look like now. I’m struggling to picture how her sweet baby features might have aged into the young woman she would be at 14.

I can’t see her anymore and the loss of that ability to imagine her face has made her seem so very far away from me.

When she seems impossibly out of reach, I say her name. Over and over. Grace. My Grace. And then I try to remember and live what she taught me:

To always seek to find the beauty in the ruins.

When I am lonely, she taught me to look for those who make my smile.
When I feel broken, she taught me to see those who can sit with me in my brokenness and see my wholeness.
When I feel lost, she taught me to look for those people or places that brighten the darkness.
When things appear hopeless, she taught me to look for possibility – not guarantees.
When grief takes my feet out from under me, she taught me to see love in the messiness of tears.

She taught me that no matter how dark and uncertain circumstances can feel, life and hope will always sprout up in the ruins and flowers will bloom again.

She gives me hope, even when she feels so far away.

No matter how powerful the grief, hope always blooms.

My gift from Grace. Hope.


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Beauty+Life+You

Twice monthly inspiration to find the beauty in life, in yourself, and in every situation.

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