Time and time again I hear about expectations regarding grieving parents. We hear about how they “should” or “shouldn’t” act, what they “should” or “shouldn’t” do, what they “should” or “shouldn’t” talk about. One valuable life lesson I’ve learned is that expectations can choke the life out of even the happiest of people. Some expectations can be okay if they are simple and resemble basic human decency. For example, I expect my family and friends to treat me kindly and with respect. My husband and I can expect each other to do our best to be good life partners. When they go further than basic decency though, they can create a huge headache and even more grief.
Loss parents often can’t seem to win or “get it right” when it comes to certain expectations. We get told we’re not sad enough or we’re too sad. We’re told to celebrate our child’s life but then get questioned if we seem too happy too quickly. We’re told that we should be crying or that we should not be crying. If we don’t react the “right” way to a pregnancy announcement or act the “right” way at an event or gathering we are chastised.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
Loss parents often feel backed into a corner with no way out when society puts unrealistic and often contradictory expectations on them. We are left feeling like we’re going out of our own minds. Sometimes our own friends and families can unknowingly contribute to that feeling when they don’t quite understand the nature of grief. It’s unbelievably painful to have grief be invalidated or be told to “just let it go.” That’s not the way grief works. Love for a child does not fade, period. In the very least, the love for our angels deserves to be validated.
The plain and simple truth is that grief is not black or white. It is every shade of every color. Many people who haven’t experienced grief assume that you can’t feel two or more contrasting emotions at the same time. Well, that is false because you absolutely can. You can feel things you never thought were possible. Grief can cause people to feel sad and happy at the same time. You can feel grateful yet cheated. You can feel weak but also strong and scared but still empowered. Grief is an overwhelming flood of emotions. It’s like being on a ship in the middle of the ocean alone in a hurricane with no captain to steer you to calmer waters. It can feel like being suffocated.
I’ve heard loss parents themselves say they’re not sure it’s okay to feel what they’re feeling. They don’t know if they should be laughing or happy a few weeks after their child died. They worry they’re crying too much or not enough. They worry about worrying! They fret that they’re dishonoring their child through the emotions they feel.
Loss parents, hear me when I say that it is okay to feel whatever you feel.
You have been through hell on earth. You will probably feel every emotion under the sun… anger, bitterness, jealousy, confusion, sadness, hopelessness, helplessness, happiness, joy, gratitude, and many more. You may experience a handful of them in one day or even in one hour. It’s not fun to ride on this particular emotional roller-coaster but it’s a normal part of the journey.
If I look back at a single day, I might think I’ve gotten nowhere but when I look at all the days I’ve survived in the last year I realize that slowly the emotions are getting a little less tumultuous. I’ve made it a point to look for peace within the grief storm.
I remember one of the first “fun” outings we had after Elijah’s death. It was for my birthday which was only a few weeks later. At first, I had decided I didn’t even want to celebrate my birthday. My family later convinced me it might be good for me to get out so we went to a local amusement park for mini-golfing and riding go-karts. I walked around in a mental fog the whole time. My brain could not fathom how just a few weeks earlier I had given birth to my dead son and now here I was doing such trivial things. I wrestled with my emotions until I finally just allowed myself to smile and laugh a little. Inside I was still screaming but for a few moments, I could breathe a tiny bit easier as I was not completely consumed with the pain. I’ve since learned that the little happy moments are what have carried me through this last year. I spent a lot of my life living for the big events… vacations, holidays, birthdays, milestones, etc.
What I did not do was pay much attention to all the days in between. Elijah taught me that each day matters. Each day is a fresh start filled with new happy moments waiting to happen. The challenge for us is to look beyond our pain in order to see them. Sometimes happiness comes to us when we aren’t expecting it but a lot of times we have to seek it out. This can be extremely difficult for people who are grieving but I discovered that it isn’t impossible.
Brad and I are slowly crawling our way back up from rock bottom. One of the most helpful things for my own personal healing has been giving myself permission to heal the way I need to and not letting expectations get in the way. Also, we acknowledge that our beautiful son understands the grief storm his parents are experiencing and is not hurt, offended, or dishonored by whatever we are feeling. I tell myself that laughter is some of the best medicine. It doesn’t mean I miss my child any less if I’m laughing or smiling. Our bodies and minds can only take so much sadness. Eventually they’re going to start looking for relief whether we realize it or not. Happiness will probably feel foreign and strange at first following a loss but in time it will feel more normal again. Giving yourself permission to heal in the way that works for you might offend some people. Those people may even be family members or friends. That is a very tough pill to swallow. I know, I’ve been there, but it is important. The more you try to live up to expectations, the more you will stunt your own healing.
I spent many years trying so hard to live up to others’ expectations and in the process lost much of my own identity. It’s okay to have the desire to please people you care about but it can’t come at the expense of your own mental health. It can’t prevent you from being who you really are. It also can’t come at the expense of having to deny or hide the angel child you love so deeply. Have the courage to stand up for yourself, respectfully, and help to educate those around you about your needs. Assumptions on both sides (loss parents and the rest of the world) are just as dangerous as expectations. Open and honest communication is the key to avoiding assumptions. If you’re not sure how someone is feeling or what they’re thinking, the only way to know for sure is to ask.
There’s a lot of talk in the stillbirth and pregnancy loss community about having to “put on an act” and “be fake” for others. Most don’t feel free to be themselves outside of support groups. Many don’t even feel free to be themselves inside support groups. We need to stop judging others and we need to stop judging ourselves. Judgment accomplishes absolutely nothing and only perpetuates negativity. As I said in my last post, we need to stop hiding in the shadows. We also need to take off the masks. Nothing can be learned or gained from our stories and our journeys if we are not truthful with the outside world. I think it’s a huge loss if the outside world can’t learn from loss parents. Even though we may feel empty, we still have so much to offer. We have become the voices for our angels. Share and spread the love you feel for your angel(s), whether one person is listening or a hundred. Keep trying and don’t give up.
Several people have now shared with me that through reading my writings they have been able to better understand a loss parent (or parents) in their own lives. They have also been able to provide more meaningful support. That is the exact reason why I started blogging in the first place. I wanted to bring about positive changes in the way loss parents relate with the rest of the world. Grief can be black, white, and every color in between. We can choose to paint our world with those colors in a way that promotes more compassion, hope, understanding, and healing. Only those things can bring us out of the darkness.
Amy Peterson lives in central Minnesota with her wonderful husband, Brad. Their beloved son, Elijah David, was stillborn at 22 weeks on June 22, 2016. They currently share their home with Brad’s service dog, Empire, another sweet dog named Baylee and a spunky cat named Peanut. In her free time she enjoys writing, reading, music, photography, being out in nature, cooking, and spending time with family and friends.
Amy is finding purpose in working for the pregnancy loss community through volunteering and charity work. This journey has led her to meet some of the most compassionate and amazing people. She is passionate about giving a voice to the issues surrounding miscarriage, stillbirth, and neonatal death. Her biggest focus now is to honor the life and memory of her son.