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.

brigitte-tohm-210081Courageous Mama who has lost so much –

I see your pain.

Though you may present the world with a smiling face and statements of “I’m fine,” I still see the broken and battered heart you carry. The heart broken by the devastating loss of your precious child.

I see how you cry.

I see the hours you spend in the shower, where your tears mix with falling water. I see you under the blankets, curled in the fetal position as sobs shudder through your body. I see you stagger out of the office or the grocery store or your family’s home, barely closing the car door behind you before the tears course down your face.

I see how much you ache.

That unbearable ache of your empty arms that long to hold your beautiful child. The hollow bitterness of seeing so many other women getting pregnant and having babies. The blinding pain of seeing family after family, innocent and intact while yours is forever missing it’s most precious members.

I see the envy and the jealously that lingers.

I see the waves of jealously and bitter anger that flood through you with every new pregnancy announcement and every perfect new “rainbow” baby presented. I see the guilt you feel for not feeling happy for family members or other loss families who get what you may never have – a beautiful living child to raise and nurture.

I see your doubts and fears and inconsolable sorrow.

The uncertainty of knowing if you will ever have another child, one who lives and gets to stay here with you on this Earth. The inconsolable grief of knowing there will never be a living child for you to hold and teach and parent. The fears of feeling empty and broken and incomplete forever. The doubt that you can find hope or healing without a child to raise.

I see your everyday longings.

The longing to hear your baby cry at night. How silent tears stream down your face when you realize there is no baby crying, it was only a dream and your baby is forever silent. The utter quiet of your home without the laughter and noisy play of your child. The first day of school pictures you don’t get to take and the birthday candles you don’t get to see your little one blow out.

I see all of this. I know all of this.

But I also want you to know that I see how you love.

You, beautiful courageous mama, are the fiercest of mothers. You love beyond time and space, beyond death, and beyond the weight of your grief and tears.

You, Mama, love and remember and honor even when the world tells you to be silent, to move on, and to forget. You refuse to listen to the world. You might stagger and stumble at times under the burden of loss and grief, but you always stand up. Your love always outlives your grief.

Keep on, courageous mama. You have something the world and death can never take away.

You are a mother. You love with a mother’s unbreakable love.

And I see you.

blowing-leavesMy friends, I am tired.

I’ve been wrestling lately with my writing. I struggle with sharing the brutal honesty of what it’s like to live with this grief after the loss of a partner and children.

Generally speaking, people don’t like the brutal honesty of it. They much prefer a sugar-coated journey from grief to sparkly joy again.

It’s not that there isn’t joy and gratitude and beauty in my life. There is buckets of it. Mountains of it.

Yet grief still remains. There is a tinge of sadness to even the most joyful moments of my life – because they are not here with me.

And I am tired.

Tired of pretending that it doesn’t hurt every single day. Tired of pretending I don’t still miss them, ache for them, and long for them every single day. Tired of pretending that getting up in the morning doesn’t take pausing for a moment to take a deep breath and gather the strength to face another day longing for them.

Some days are easier than others. Some days, I can live in the joys of all that my life currently is – the work I do, the people I love, the accomplishments I’ve made, the person I’ve become. There is richness and beauty and gratitude.

But even on those days I ache for them. I miss them unbearably.

Other days, carrying the weight of my longing for them and missing of them wears me down. Some days, it breaks me. The holiday season, in particular, and Mother’s Day require extra time in the morning to gather the courage to face the day.

People don’t like when I talk about this.

These people tell me to remember that our loved ones never really leave, their spirit stays with us.

This may be true, but I don’t want to just feel their spirit. I want to hold them. I want to touch them. I want to hear them laugh and cry and play. I want to wake up next to my partner and feel his warmth. I want to hold my children in my arms and wipe their tears and hear their laughter.

Yes, I feel their spirit all around me. And I physically ache for the absence of them in my arms.

My spirit is tired. Tired of missing them and aching for them. Tired of being without them here in this lifetime in physical form.

They tell me that – one day – the pain of the holidays or Mother’s Day or whatever else will eventually pass and I’ll be able to focus on the joy of what I have.

Pretty much everyone who tells me this has someone still – a partner or other children left to hold. Their experience is different than mine.

Hear me, different, not less. I have no doubt that their pain and grief is great – and in some ways it’s probably even more difficult to grieve when you have to be present with family still here needing you.

But their experience is not my experience. I hope that one day my experience of the holidays and Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day and other ordinary days is different than it is now. I hope that I can experience these days without crippling grief and sorrow again – to feel the joy and lightness of them.

But for now I wake up on those days alone. I wake up to an empty bed and an empty house with no one to tend to but myself. I have no one here to hold. Those days set aside for celebration and cheer are raw and painful reminders of the partner and children I don’t get to hold, that I will never get to hold again in this lifetime.

My friends, I am tired.

Tired of aching.
Tired of longing.
Tired of grieving.

This thing called grief and loss is hard. This thing called life after loss is hard.

Life is beautiful and messy and complex and full of layers of gray. I love it. I love it deeply and wholeheartedly and completely.

I take that deep breath every day and gather my strength to get up and embrace life as it is because I love life. Because I am strong and devoted and courageous in this life after loss. Because I am committed, fiercely committed, to finding beauty in the ruins, light in the darkness, joy in the sorrow.

But my friends, I am also tired.

Because I miss them.
I ache for them.
I long for them.

Today and every day.

cimg0260Someone I work with commented recently that she thought I was brave for choosing to work at the agency where we work together.

I don’t know about brave, but there is truth in the fact that the environment where we work is pretty much always painful for me to be in. See, I’m a mama without any living children. While my primary work is in supporting other grieving mamas and families, I also work at an agency that supports pregnant and parenting mamas finding their way through substance use and mental health challenges.

So, I spend many of my days surrounded by pregnant mothers or mothers and their living children. It’s not an ideal environment for a mother of dead babies.

It’s an environment full of constant reminders of the children I will never get to birth alive, never hear them cry or laugh, never watch them grow, and never know who they would have been. There are times when the sorrow of being in that environment feels unbearably heavy and raw.

This woman that I work with has asked me more than once why I have chosen to work in this place filled with painful reminders.

I haven’t really had a concrete answer for her. It would, probably, be easier to avoid being in environments like this – to avoid being around mothers and living children, to avoid painful reminders, and create a world in which I might be shielded from the constant exposure to a life I will never have with my children.

She thinks it’s brave that I choose not to avoid those things.

Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. One could probably just as easily say I’m a stubborn idiot to keep exposing myself to that pain. 🙂

Regardless, her question about why I choose to do the work I do has stuck with me. And I think I finally figured out my answer – an answer to why I do all the work I do with both grieving mothers and mothers with living children.

See, when my fiancé and my oldest daughter died, I did the avoidance thing. I ran from that grief and that pain so hard I nearly killed myself rather than face it. I lived for a lot of years trying so hard to avoid the pain of the losses I’d experienced that I existed in dark abyss of grief and depression.

Then when my second daughter died, I realized that I had a choice. I could choose to leave and be with the family that was already gone or I could choose to live.

I chose to live.

I chose to live and since, by nature, I am not someone who does things halfway, choosing to live meant choosing to embrace all of life – the pain, the grief, the joys, the sorrows. All of it.

Of course, I had no idea what the hell that meant. Or how to do it.

I fucked up a lot in those early years. I got lost in the darkness. I ran away from the pain. I struggled to find any light or joy or reason worth staying. A lot of days I gave up. Most days, the only thing that kept me trying was the promise I’d made to myself and my family to live. For them, I stubbornly kept fighting.

I remember the first time I felt joy after their deaths, real true joy.

It was my 30th birthday party – a silly, outrageous night of laughter and fun thrown for me by friends. It was that night that I realized those friends had become family.

That moment was the first moment I realized that I could hold both incredible joy and terrible sorrow at the same time. I would never have the family that I lost and they would always be missing from me, that was sorrow. However, I had created a family for myself full of love and support and celebration, that was joy.

Learning to hold both simultaneously is why I do the work that I do – the work with grieving mothers and the work with mothers of living children. Because I have discovered that life isn’t about joy or sorrow. Life has to be about both. Life is about embracing both.

I used to think that healing meant getting over the pain, having the grief end someday, or having that terrible ache of longing disappear.

It doesn’t. I will never stop longing for them.

Healing, and life, isn’t about getting rid of the pain. It’s about opening up enough to hold both life’s joys and life’s sorrows at the same time. Choosing to live and to embrace all of life means that I can go to work in a place where I am constantly reminded of the magnitude of what I have lost AND allow myself be there and feel the joy of holding a tiny, squishy newborn baby or watching a mother and child learn to navigate life together.

Because just as life is about holding both the joy and the sorrows together, so is motherhood. Mothering, of children living or dead, is about learning to embrace both the light and the dark, the challenges and the sweetness, the joys and the sorrows of loving your child.

I am a mother. I can’t mother my children here on earth, but I can be a mother of life.

That is the heart of the work all the work I do.

For my daughters. For me. For all the mothers living with the joys and the sorrows.

For life. For motherhood.

letting_go_gateLife after loss is weird.

Nothing is the way it was supposed to be. For a long time – years, in fact – nothing felt familiar or comfortable or right about my life after the deaths of my fiancé and my daughter.

To be perfectly honest and blunt, in those early years, everything simply felt fucked up.

Nothing had gone as planned.
Nothing was as I expected it to be.
I wasn’t the wife and mother I wanted to be.

I was nothing. Who I was and the life I was supposed to be living was lost in a sea of grief and confusion and not-right-ness.

At least, that’s how it felt.

Everything was moving along as expected. Then suddenly in an instant, everything normal and familiar and right was gone.

Life was irrevocably changed. I was undeniably and unequivocally altered.

I spent a lot of years stumbling around wondering,

“Who the hell is this person I’ve become?”

And other questions like:

What is this life I’m living?
Will I ever feel normal again?
Will I ever feel like me again?
Who am I supposed to be now?

I hadn’t just lost my beloved partner and our daughter, their deaths had killed who I was as well. The woman, the partner, the mother I had been – and would have become – was no longer. She died along with them.

People talk about “getting back to normal” after loss and death. Like somehow, once the funerals or memorials are finished and everyone around us goes back to their day-to-day life, somehow we’ll suddenly revert to our old selves as if nothing happened.

That’s fantasyland, folks. It isn’t going to happen.

After years of trying to be the pre-loss me that people wanted to me to “get back to,” I finally realized she didn’t exist anymore. She was a memory and she lived only in the memories of my fiancé and daughter.

I couldn’t get back to her again. I had to find a way to be familiar and comfortable and at ease with post-loss me, the me I was now.

I didn’t want to be her, post-loss me. I didn’t want make peace with my post-loss life. I didn’t want anything to do with the unexpected, unplanned ruins of a woman that had been forced upon me by death and grief.

But she was all I had.

And, try as I might, I couldn’t get away from her. She was me now. I was her.

I had to learn to love her as much as I loved the me I was supposed to be with my fiancé and our daughter.

There are things I love about post-loss me. The me I am post-loss is strong and fierce, compassionate and loving, determined and driven, motivated and generous. She lives more fully and more intentionally than the me I used to be. She doesn’t take love or life or ordinary moments for granted. Post-loss me is more grateful than pre-loss me.

There are also things I’m not such a fan of in post-loss me. I’m more anxious and insecure, more stubborn and impulsive. Post-loss me has a harder time trusting life to be safe or supportive. Post-loss me is not a fan of surprises or unexpected changes.

Some days I miss the innocence and simplicity of my pre-loss self so much it aches. Other days she feels so far away I can barely remember who she was, let alone what it was to be her.

I think it surprises people when I say that one of the hardest parts of having my family die isn’t just mourning the loss of them – it’s also mourning of loss of myself. No one tells us about the aspect of grief that includes the confusion and chaos of trying to find a sense of yourself in the midst of grief and longing and utter devastation.

I can’t say, even after all these years, that I am completely enamored with my post-loss self. At times, I still experience some bitter resentment that I don’t get to be the wife and mother I expected to be – that I don’t get to be the woman who hasn’t lost her innocence and carefree outlook to death and grief.

But, more and more I’m learning to embrace my post-loss self. I’m learning to love her – with all her imperfections, flaws, and neuroses. And for all her grit, her fierceness, and amazingness too.

The truth is that post-loss me is very different from pre-loss me. I’m finally learning to see that both me’s were worthy and beautiful and deserving of all the beauty life has to offer.

And post-loss me is finally feeling normal and familiar and comfortable. Seeing her in the mirror in the morning no longer surprises or momentarily confuses me.

She is who I am, and I get to be her because of the love, life, and losses that pre-loss me experienced. She carries pre-loss me inside of her – in the memories of love and joy and family that not even death can take away.


Beauty+Life+You

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

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