Grieving Honestly: Parenting After Loss
By: Brooke Taylor Duckworth
A few weeks ago, I was ushering my daughter out of a crowded waiting room where she had been making small talk with an older woman. I overheard her talking about her little sister. As I opened the door and reached for her hand, she turned to the woman, who was now across the room, and said, her clear voice ringing above all other conversations, “And we had another baby sister. But she died.”
The room fell silent. Faces stared up at me. I nodded, grabbed my daughter by the hand, and we kept walking out the door. It was a dramatic exit.
My first daughter, Eliza, was stillborn seven years ago. I thought losing her would destroy me. Seven years later, I can tell you that surviving her loss created the family that we have now. Eliza has two younger sisters who are five and three and just beginning to understand the meaning of “rainbow baby.”
They have definitely not unpacked the potential awkwardness of making an announcement that we had a baby who died.
In spite of awkward moments between my five-year-old and random strangers in public, I have come to understand that one of the gifts we can give our living children is honesty about our grief.
There is a relief in not pretending that things are okay, in not insisting that sadness never clouds our days. Our society tends to make grief unspeakable, which makes it feel shameful. But we, who are so close to it, who hold grief and love as two sides of the same coin, who cannot separate the joy of parenting from the sorrow of loss—we have a different perspective on grief.
We can teach our children how to abide with someone who is grieving, how to acknowledge and empathize with pain.
We can teach our children that grief is an integral part of life, that we will all experience it, that it will not break us (even when it feels as though it might). We can teach them eventually that the inverse of grief becomes gratitude, as we appreciate the unconditional love we have for our children—living or dead.
We also owe it to our living children to do the hard work of not letting our grief for what might have been overshadow the joy that comes from what is.
Khalil Gibran has a frequently quoted line from The Prophet, in which he writes,
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
It took me many months and years to wrap my head around that possibility, but I can now say that this measures my experience of parenting living children after mourning the death of my first child. The sorrow of losing Eliza carved into me so deep, and now that space has been filled with joy.
That’s not to say that her sisters have replaced her, or that they ever could. I will always miss Eliza, and a part of my heart will always ache for her. My hope, though, is that the life I create after Eliza is one that honors the love we have for her, in part by pouring that love into her siblings.
I want my daughters to know they had a sister who died, because that reality has shaped the person that I am and the mother that I try to be.
At the same time, I can’t expect them to mourn Eliza the same way that I do—a sister they never knew, a baby who only existed before they were born. I err on the side of talking about her often and casually because she is part of our family, because she is often on my mind, and because I want them to feel free to talk about their sister, to understand the ways her life has shaped our family.
I want them to feel free to talk about their sister—even in moments where I feel uncomfortable—because it is a loss that affects them, too. I wonder how their feelings will evolve as they grow older, and I hope that being honest with them will be enough.
I tell them that they are our rainbow babies, which means that in the storm of my sadness, they brought light and color and happiness to my life. It never fails to make them smile.
But after those rainbow babies were born, I also kept trudging through the rain. We can’t simply rely on the magic of a living child to make things better.
In fact, we often find that our joy and delight in them is underscored by that dark, sad truth that all the things we get to enjoy with them are the very things we missed out with our child who died.
Parenting after loss requires us to keep grappling with grief. Contrary to what many people seem to assume, a living child does not “fix” or pain or fill the gap in our hearts. We have to do the hard work of grief that cannot be escaped. We have to find a way to embrace it and carry it with us, shifting its position so that we can also carry our living children and the joy that accompanies them.
Grief doesn’t stop being heavy. But we get practiced at carrying it.
What I hope my children will understand is that love is big enough for grief and hope and joy. I hope that as they grow up, they realize that a beautiful life is not one untouched by grief; in fact, it may be profoundly shaped by it.
And so I talk about our daughter Eliza, and I don’t silence her sisters when they mention her. I take them to visit the tree we had planted in Eliza’s memory in Forest Park. We talk about the sister that we miss, the same way we talk about grandparents who have passed away. Sometimes conversations are awkward and sometimes they are incredibly rewarding.
My daughter’s announcement in the waiting room made me uncomfortable, but it was honest and true.
We had another baby sister and she died. But there is more to the story of Eliza and her family, and we continue to write that story each day.
Thank you for such a heartfelt & honest article! Such truth in your comments. Our late granddaughter is forever in our heart & mind. I enacted a simple gesture in her memory by wearing costume owl rings, as her nursery had been decorated in this theme. I am asked almost weekly about them & I take the opportunity to share her story, albeit briefly. It always brings a smile. May God bless you & your family!! I will include Eliza in my prayers for the wee Holy Innocents
I loved this article, beautifully written and I can totally empathize with a lot of what you said. We lost our first little girl Madalyn Rae at 37 weeks on 5/2/17, we are expecting our rainbow baby girl in one week, Madalyn will forever be a part of our lives and we intend to share her memory with our little girl too. Hugs to you and your family.