Child Loss Grief

This Simple Word Radically Changed the Way I Grieve

Written by Rachel Whalen

Five weeks after my daughter Dorothy died, my nephew was born. I remember going to our weekly therapy session and sharing this news with our therapist. Of course, she wanted to know how I was feeling about his arrival. I replied that I was so happy that he was safely here but I was also happy that he lived across the country so I didn’t have to see him yet. “And,” she replied. I looked at her puzzled. She continued, “And. You are happy he is here AND you are happy that you don’t have to see him right now. Rachel, you don’t have to choose.”

After we left our session that day, I couldn’t stop thinking about that one little word. Ever since Dorothy’s death, I had found myself trying to separate my emerging feelings of happiness from the steady depression I was in. Much like a child trying to keep their peas from touching their mashed potatoes, I wanted my feelings of devastation to be untouched by any glimmers of joy I might be feeling. I didn’t think it was possible for them to co-exist. Three simple letters changed that.

I began testing out this powerful little word. Whenever I had been feeling differing emotions, I had used the word “but” to keep them distant. What if I used “and” to bring them together?

It’s a beautiful day outside AND I just can’t face the world today.

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That new picture of my nephew is so adorable AND it reminds me of how much I miss Dorothy.

I’m looking forward to seeing my family AND I’m anxious to be around them.

I want to talk about Dorothy AND I’m nervous about what others will have to say about her.

“And” was slowly changing my world. That one word was giving me the freedom to experience the storm of emotions that had been quietly raging inside. I didn’t have to wait for each feeling to pass over me completely, I could start feeling them in connection. Before “and” there had been so much guilt about the happiness that was sneaking it way back into my life. Now, I had permission to let happiness start to color the darkness of my grief.

Over the next weeks and months, I exercised the power of “and”. With the recent birth of my nephew, I found many opportunities to use my new magic word.

I’m so happy that my sister-in-law is a mother AND I wish that was me.

I want to send my nephew this cute new outfit AND I wish I could be buying clothes for my own child instead.

I want to be included in my nephew’s life AND sometimes it’s just too hard.

I’m so excited to be an aunt AND I’m so worried that Dorothy is going to be forgotten.

It wasn’t a solution or a remedy, but it was a tool. The burden of Dorothy’s death was a heavy one. I was struggling under the weight of the emotions I had been trying to ignore and I needed help. My grief for Dorothy was never going away, but I needed something to help me carry the load throughout my life. Without a tool, I was going to be crushed. “And” helped alleviate some of the pressure. I felt like I could breathe again. I felt like I was remembering how to live AND love.

My husband and I recently “graduated” from therapy. (To be clear, I will probably go back to therapy many times in my life because it is extremely important for my family and our well-being.) At our last session, my therapist asked us if we had any feedback for her. I thanked her for “and”.  She smiled and said that was glad I found it helpful in my healing.

“I have found it helpful,” I replied. “And I still have a lot of healing left to do.”

About the author

Rachel Whalen

Rachel Whalen is a writer and Kindergarten teacher who lives and loves in Vermont. She is the mother of two daughters; Frances who is 14 months old and Dorothy who was stillborn two years ago. Her daughter’s silent birth has inspired her to use her voice to share about grief, pregnancy loss, and parenting after loss.