There are certain situations in life when the phrase ‘It could be worse’ seems absolutely absurd. For parents, losing a child is most definitely one of those moments. In the days, years, even decades after losing a child, this sentence might make most of my fellow angel moms cringe. Cry. Scream. I would be neither surprised nor offended if it quite literally made them want to hit someone, to hit me for saying it. Because I get it.
Our daughter was born critically ill, diagnosed with congenital Spinal Muscular Atrophy. She passed away 78 days after her birth, while cuddled in our arms on a small couch in the NICU.
Hear me loud, and hear me clear: losing our daughter is without a doubt the worst thing that I have experienced.
But in my own moments of grief, I force my mind to dissect the nuances of this thought. I try to distinguish between the worst thing that I have experienced, and the even worse things that could have happened, but didn’t. To overcome my own grief, I tell myself it could be worse.
This is admittedly a strategy of self-preservation. One first encountered while reading a transcript of Sheryl Sandberg’s commencement speech at the University of California at Berkeley. As I sat on the couch in my daughter’s NICU room – the same couch on which she would later take her last breaths – one paragraph in particular stopped me in my tracks. Sheryl says:
“One day my friend Adam Grant, a psychologist, suggested that I think about how much worse things could be. This was completely counterintuitive; it seemed like the way to recover was to try to find positive thoughts. “Worse?” I said. “Are you kidding me? How could things be worse?” His answer cut straight through me: “Dave could have had that same cardiac arrhythmia while he was driving your children.” Wow. The moment he said it, I was overwhelmingly grateful that the rest of my family was alive and healthy. That gratitude overtook some of the grief.”
From that day forward I’ve held on to the idea that at any given moment genuine gratitude can be stronger than grief – even very real, very deep, very dark grief. Acknowledging what I have to be grateful for instantly and almost unconsciously softens the sadness. And even if the sadness is lifted for only a fleeting moment, when strung together over time these moments are what help me move forward after loss.
So I say it to myself. I say it to myself when a dark day begins to creep up on me. I say it to myself when I’m sitting in the depths of my sadness, struggling to find the strength to stand again. I will say it to myself over, and over, and over again. I will hold on to these words as one of my many mantras that help me maintain a sliver of sanity at a time when it would be so easy to feel otherwise.
At first it was difficult for me to think of scenarios worse than my own, but the ideas slowly surfaced.
It could be worse. I could have been seriously hurt, or died during labor. Like Sheryl’s moment of clarity, I was immediately grateful that my husband and I were both alive and well and able to support one another during this nightmare. It could be worse. My daughter could have been born into another family. My husband and I drenched our daughter with love every single second of her short life. I was honored and grateful that I got to be her mama. That I was able to show her love and happiness despite being born into a perfectly imperfect body. The idea that she could have been born into a broken or absent or heartless family sent searing pains through my body. It could have been worse. We could have struggled with infertility and never had our daughter. I stared at my beautiful daughter, and felt immensely grateful that she was here. I cherished the fact that we were able to get to know her, laugh at her wild hair and sassy personality… that we were given the opportunity to meet and love her. I was grateful for her, no matter what her life’s plan looked like. I was simply grateful for that moment.
And now even as our daughter’s nursery sits silently at the end of our hall, as the medical bills pile up, and I realize despite one’s best efforts the world does not stop when you want it to… I remind myself it could be worse and I force myself to count the ways.
Because I know that I have so much to be grateful for – my daughter’s life, love, and legacy sits high on that list – and I’ve experienced myself how genuine gratitude really can be stronger than grief – even very real, very deep, very dark grief.