When I first wake up, there is a brief moment of reprieve where all feels right in the world. And then it comes rushing back, jolting me to remember the unthinkable. My breath quickens as I replay the entire tragedy in my mind in hyper-speed. Heaviness overwhelms my body begging me to sink back into bed. If only I could. Instead, I wish my grief good-morning, then ask it to sit tight for a bit. Get up, get dressed, pour two bowls of cereal for them, a cup of coffee for me, and start the business of being a mom.
It’s been six months since my identical twin sister, Jenny, died tragically and unexpectedly in child birth. Not enough time to make the grief feel any more distant, but enough time to have lived with heartache to feel amateurishly experienced at managing it.
I have suffered loss before. But nothing like this. Losing my best friend, who had the best yet to come despite how much she had already accomplished. The shock of Jenny’s death when she was perfectly healthy and literally enjoying the happiest moment of her life is an excruciating reality. She left her beautiful newborn son and adoring husband behind. She left her loving parents behind. She left so many close friends and colleagues behind. She left me behind. What we are left with is profound grief.
I know that I am not alone in grief. So many of us have experienced great loss – even if not in the form of death – divorce, moving homes, hardships that make our personal world spin and sometimes change it forever.
My mantra is that it’s not about moving on, it’s about carrying on.
This is what I found to be true about carrying on. By treating my grief as my new sidekick, basically accepting it’s coming with me wherever I go, I can make the time I need for it without letting it rule our household. Grief is here to stay so we better find a way to get along. I strongly believe that my 7-year old daughter and 5-year old son deserve to have the fun and laughter that filled our home a few months ago. I don’t want them to remember their childhood as how mom was before Aunt Jenny died and after Aunt Jenny died. Parents simply don’t have the luxury of grieving in a silo. As selfish and personal as grieving feels, when kids are involved, you should live the loss in a way that keeps their well-being as the priority. Their lives as also forever changed.
In no way am I saying that my strategy for grieving is perfect or can work for everyone. Trust me, there have been many times when I have lost patience inappropriately with my kiddos because my reserve tank is so low. I’ve avoided discipline just to keep things steady and easy. But as the months have gone on, I realize that I somewhat-unknowingly developed tools that I think are helping us carry on as a family.
Preserve Memories & Talk Openly
We talk about Jenny often. Remember when Aunt Jenny took me to see my first beluga whale at the aquarium? Remember when she sent us a hugest box of Jelly Bellies in the world? Remember how I took a bath in her sink when I was a baby? Will we ever visit her apartment in New York again? Let’s do a dance party to her favorite song.
We’ll be driving and my son will say, “I wish we could call Jenny right now.” I respond by asking him what he would want to tell her. Then we write it down. We write down every one of their memories in a journal so that years from now, when Jenny has been physically gone for longer than the years they had her in their life, she’ll still be with them.
I framed a series of text messages between Jenny and my daughter (more emojis than words 😊) so she has a visual reminder of how much they talked and shared.
When my kids sometimes catch me with tears in my eyes, they know why I’m sad. I wish that they didn’t have to understand profound loss at this young age. I remind myself that thankfully kids are resilient. They are also perceptive and can feel the energy and emotions that we display. So better to be open about our collective sadness then try to hide behind a façade they can see through.
Plan Time With Your Grief Away from the Kids
There is not a day, or quite honestly, rarely a few minutes where Jenny is not on my mind. If I let myself get lost in those thoughts constantly, who would do the dishes? The kids have play-dates, homework, places to be, and are eager for me to watch them do their newest tricks on the lawn. There is still a lot of living to be done. Much of it is mundane daily routine and there are also magical moments I want to be fully present for. Life is a culmination of creating memories and experiences. It is my responsibility not to let grief rob me, or my family, of those moments.
My therapist gave me a great recommendation to schedule 15-20 minutes every day for myself. Finding time for those few minutes is no doubt a challenge and sometimes literally requires hiding in the bathroom. This is when I look at pictures, focus on my prayers, listen to music, and just enjoy being with Jenny in my thoughts. I often cry. I sometimes smile. I am always glad I took the time to let my grief be my companion.
Then, just like how a coffee date with a friend ends, I thank my grief for the visit and tell it I’ll see it soon.
Smile Like Nobody’s Watching, Knowing Your Kids Are
This was a hard one for me to accept. Finding true moments of joy at first felt impossible. I felt guilty even eating crispy bacon or enjoying a good book, and most of all, the pleasure of snuggles with Jenny’s beautiful baby boy. I worried that if people saw me laughing at a joke it meant I was not missing my sister.
Over these last few months I’ve learned that there is something to that old adage of fake-it-until-you- make-it. The more I allow myself to smile and feel good when I can, the better I am at making it though the day. The better my kids are for having me model positivity. It is not disingenuous to say hi and wave to moms at school drop off, even if inside my heart is aching. It is not fake to engage in conversation that’s not about my deepest feelings. I trust that friends and family understand that I am grieving, even in the times I don’t outwardly show it.
Call on Your Village
One positive thing that has come from this tragedy is the reminder of how incredible my village is. From my husband, my parents and extended family to friends and even acquaintances, people have stepped in and stepped up for us. Asking for help doesn’t come naturally to me, so it was at first almost embarrassing to accept the kind offers coming our way. I realized early on that I could not shoulder this alone and now accept all supportive gestures with gratitude. Lasagna is welcome!
I’ve especially called on my community in the times where I can tell that my grief just can’t take a back seat. The kids get picked up for an ice-cream date while I take a nap. My mom will do homework with them while I go for a walk. My husband will come home early so I can retreat and watch mindless TV in peace. It’s not weak to accept that you need help and it’s not shirking parental responsibility to take a break.
So here I am at the six-month mark. There are some very hard days, some good days and many days in-between that feel just about tolerable. I am not fully the parent, spouse or friend I was before Jenny’s death and it’s discouraging to be at a place where I know I’m not fully functioning. I often break plans. I stare into space way too much. I take too long to complete tasks, even as simple as returning a text message. However, every day I am getting tiny bits of my mojo back and I’m able to do that primarily because of the help from so many loved ones. They are patient with me, and in doing so, give me permission to be patient with myself.
My kids and nephew are my greatest sources of comfort in the moments that feel bleakest. Not only because the kids keep me insanely busy but mostly because they provide daily reasons to smile. Grief will now forever be in my life and in our home but it doesn’t have to define their childhood.
I live with the hope that someday grief will be more of a frequent visitor than a constant companion. Until then, I throw it in the minivan along with the kids and head off to school.