Living with the loss of a loved one is an incredibly hard thing. Even though there are countless books with ideas about how to move forward, I have found there really is no “one size fits all” approach to living life again after a loss of such magnitude.
We lost my only daughter, Olivia, to brain cancer when she was just a baby in October 2013. Even though she had been battling cancer for nearly a year and a half there was still nothing to prepare me for the magnitude of losing her so quickly and then for learning how to live life again without her.
This year will mark 9 years since I said goodbye to my little girl. The grief still hits me hard, and often, but there are some things I have learned about how to live with the magnitude of her loss. Here are a few of them:
1. Live With Their Memory In A Way That Is Comfortable For You & Your Family
I have developed friendships with many other mothers who have lost their children and what I have learned is there is no one size fits all approach to living with the memory of your child. You have to find what is comfortable for you! For instance, I find it comforting to know where Olivia’s clothes and belongings are in my home, but I can’t be surrounded by them either. That would be too much for me to bear on a daily basis.
We also have a few pictures of Olivia in our home that are visible, but we also have many more pictures of our family today. Living with too much of a reminder of all that we’ve lost would be way too hard for all of us, and it wouldn’t be fair to my living children and the memories we are making together today. I want my boys to know that while I miss their sister tremendously and think about her every day, I am equally as happy they are alive and I enjoy each moment with them.
2. Few People Will Understand Your Loss - Be Prepared To Educate Them
Thankfully the majority of our population won’t have to know the tremendous devastation that comes from losing a child. It’s a club that no one wants to join, but if you do, you will also find it is filled with the most compassionate and amazing people. For those who haven’t experienced this kind of loss though, there are some who will say things that are insensitive or unkind. Usually these comments come from a lack of understanding however, and not because they mean to be malicious in any way, so if you can, be willing to educate them.
For example, I’ve had people tell me I was lucky Olivia made it to 20 months. That was easier than if she had died at birth because “at least I had the chance to know her.” I’ve had others who have assumed that because I run a nonprofit in Olivia’s memory I must live my entire life with nothing but her on my brain, which “must be so hard for my other children.” These comments are just two examples of countless comments I’ve gotten from people who didn’t intend to be hurtful, they just didn’t understand. And how could they when they haven’t walked through this same path!
I could get angry, but instead I choose to educate. I’ve explained that all losses of children are incredibly hard, regardless of their age or the circumstances surrounding their loss. There is no “at least” when you’ve lost a child - there’s just the loss and the need for support and remembrance of that precious life.
I’ve also explained that while my work life is absolutely dedicated to Olivia’s memory and my work here at OCF has given me the ability to keep being her mom in a very tangible way, my home life is different. My family and I talk about her, we remember her, we love her, and we process our grief together when needed, but we also spend far more time choosing to focus on our family now. I want my kids to know that I love them just as much as I love their sister. They aren’t second-fiddle in my heart and I get great joy out of being their mama. It’s also important to me that they learn from my example of how to live with grief without letting it steal all of your joy.
3. Be Okay With Not Being Okay Sometimes -
The final piece of advice I want to share today is that it is perfectly okay to not be okay sometimes! I had always been the person who would keep it together no matter what for the sake of those around me and to guard my own heart. I would stuff and stuff my own grief partly because I had to be strong for the rest of my family, but also because I was worried that actually feeling the fullness of my grief would do me in.
I went to counseling a few years after Olivia’s death and my counselor told me something that still sticks with me today… “Katie, you have to learn to be okay with not being okay sometimes.” She also told me that on the days when I am not okay I had to learn how to let myself feel it, process the emotions, and then take care of myself to get through it. That was super hard to learn how to do! But I will tell you that doing it changed my life and my ability to deal with this tremendous loss.
At first, feeling that grief was debilitating. For those first months I spent many a day in a dark hole where I would cry and live in my pajamas because it was hard to do just about anything. Sometimes I would have a few days like that in a row or several in a month, but each time I would diligently allow myself to work through it. And then before I knew it I realized that I was having less of them, and when I did have a day like that it didn’t take me as long to recover because I knew what my heart needed to get through it.
Find out what you need when you aren’t okay. It could be a good cry in a bubble bath or a long walk. It could be curling up in bed under a heavy blanket alone or it could be time spent processing with a loved one. Just figure out what it is for you and know there isn’t a right answer and each bout with grief might require something a little bit different. It just needs to be something that is safe and that helps you heal your heart little by little.