Following the death of our infant daughter, I found myself facing an opportunity to activate the immense power of personal choice. Time and time again. Hour after hour, day after day. It felt as if every moment that passed provided me with a choice: to let the grief consume me, or not. In the midst of the most emotionally complex experience of my life, my ability to survive felt as simple as that. Will grief consume me, or not?
Once I began believing that Olivia had lived out her life’s plan completely—that she had come, she had loved, she had touched countless lives, and that was God’s plan for her—I realized that it would be the aggregation of choices I made, hour after hour, day after day, that determined what shape my life would take moving forward. In any moment I could choose anger, sadness, resentment. Or I could choose grace, gratefulness, and compassion. I could choose to be jealous, or chose to be kind. Grief is a wholly individual experience, so it was through my choices, and my choices alone, that I had the power to guide my life in the direction I so desired.
As I navigated life after loss, determined to lead with grace, I made the following commitments to myself. These commitments may not fit into another parent’s journey. They may not bring peace to another grieving mom . . . but they sure brought peace to me. Some are trivial and some are transcendent, but they all kept me moving forward on the path I chose for myself: one that felt empowered, controlled, and courageous.
1. Get up.
If you have never felt deep grief, or experienced a significant loss, it may be difficult to understand the enormity carried by such a simple task. But when faced with unbearable grief, simply getting up each morning can feel monumental. The urge to stay in bed, to close your eyes and hope that the next time you wake up this is all a dream gone bad—well, that urge is strong. And it’s relentless. And you may feel it every single day.
Following the loss of our daughter I made the most simple, and most profound commitment to myself: I will get up. One day at a time, day after day, after day. I will simply get up. Because even though my child is not, I am alive. I am here. And what better way to honor someone who no longer has the choice, than to get up yourself. What a tremendous victory over grief’s hold.
2. Do one thing, every day
Because this not only confirmed that I got up, but it screamed into the ethers that I got up and I’ve got this. As my life’s to-do list lengthened, and the littlest tasks suddenly felt overwhelming, I promised myself to cross one item off my list every day. Some days that meant a shower, and other days it meant finally walking the stack of mail from inside my house to the mailbox at the end of the driveway. But you know what? Other days this small commitment to do something stirred up a burst of productivity and I found myself up and about. Showered, dressed, completing errands and proving to myself that grief would not consume me forever.
3. Keep commitments
As every planned visitor, birthday party, and shower approached in the weeks after losing Olivia, I had an overwhelming urge to cancel. I was exhausted. I didn’t want to get showered, get dressed, get ready. I wasn’t sure if I could mingle or socialize. I was afraid of triggers.
But early on I made a promise to myself to keep my commitments. It was an important practice for me to maintain relationships, merging the old me, my old life, into my new reality. I found facing my fears, and proving to myself that I could get through it empowering. Each time it felt like a victory, and a quiet way of making my daughter proud. I’d whisper to the sky, “See sweetie? Mommy can do it. Mommy’s strong. I learned that from you.”
4. Don’t create distance
In keeping my commitments, I encountered countless pregnant friends, baby showers, newborns, and full families. When our daughter was sick, the thought crossed my mind that I could not bear to be around a healthy baby. I thought about avoiding pregnant friends, declining invitations to dinner if it meant I’d have to play with children. But instead I told myself to not create distance between the people I love. Pregnant bellies, babies, children alike.
I could choose to hide from my friend’s and family’s milestones, but when would that stop? In a month? A year? The truth is, these things aren’t going to go away, and it seemed that facing my fears, encountering and embracing triggers was the healthier option for me. Sure I felt some heartache when holding a friend’s newborn son, but in the same moment I was reminded of my endless love for my daughter.
5. It’s always OK to cry
“Keeping it together” and “being strong” does not mean emotions evade you. In fact it’s perhaps the opposite. I promised to face and embrace my emotions honestly, with no shame, and no filter. That meant occasionally crying in the grocery store, and while on the phone with insurance. It meant crying when talking to my husband and crying when the wind blows just the right way. It meant a million things, but quite importantly for me it meant that it’s always OK to cry.
6. Be grateful
Be grateful that I had the honor of meeting my daughter. Be grateful that she was here for 78 days. That she was real, and that she showed us such great love. Be grateful for yesterday and for today and for every day that is to come. Be grateful for everyone in my life who shows me love and brings me joy. I was committed to being grateful for anything and everything I could name, because I really believe in the idea that genuine gratitude can be stronger than grief—even very real, very deep, very dark grief.