A day in the shoes of a bereaved mother: settling into “new normal”

I have heard hundreds of times “I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child.” Perhaps someday I’ll attempt to put that feeling into words, but for now here’s a glimpse of my “new normal” life as a bereaved parent two years after my daughter’s death. In the eyes of the world I should be “healed” by now and should be “moving on” but you’ll see that’s far from my reality.

I’m startled awake and my eyes are wide open. The clock says 5:05 AM. “Here we go” I think as I begin to flash back in time to that cold February morning in 2018 when I lay in this same bed at this same hour of the day. That morning I was jolted out of bed by the rush of warm fluid which I quickly discovered was blood from my daughter who was now bleeding to death inside my womb. I try to bring myself back to the present and not let the flashback drag me through the entire replay of my journey to the hospital or my daughter’s emergency birth. Thankfully it’s over more quickly than the last one and I now lay in bed staring at the ceiling. I guess I’m finished sleeping for today, although my alarm won’t be going off for a while.

Before I know it, it’s time for me to head to work. I kiss my husband and oldest daughter goodbye and begin the 25 minute drive to the hospital. This is the same hospital where my Ellie was born and died and so many memories are contained within those four walls. The hospital where I work is made up of 5 interconnected buildings, referred to as individual hospitals. I don’t venture near the Women’s or Children’s Hospitals often because I know the memories are strongest there. It’s been a hard morning already and I want to focus on my work day without any surprise interruptions.

I head to the hospital watering hole (also known as Starbucks) to re-fuel after an early start to my day. I grab my coffee and am heading out the door when I pass Ellie’s nephrologist heading in to work. This physician is skilled, intelligent, and was so very kind to us, but seeing her today makes my heart ache for my little girl who no longer lives. She smiles warmly at me in the hallway and asks how Adam and I are doing. We chat briefly before I head back to my office in the Cancer Hospital. I plop down in my chair, relieved that I’ve decided to pack my lunch so I don’t have to leave the protection of “my hospital” and venture into “Ellie’s Hospital” to get lunch later. It’s taken time, intentional effort, and the patience of a great therapist to be able to continue to work in the same hospital where my daughter lived and died. I know that the Cancer Hospital where I work is my “safe place” and I’ll need to stay as close to there as possible if I want to avoid any more triggers today.

I spend the morning seeing patients one after another. The first two appointments were pretty straightforward and I feel like I’m regaining some momentum after an emotional morning. The next patient is new to me so we spend some time getting to know one another. “Do you have any children?” she asks me innocently. “Yes, ma’am, I do.” Maybe this will suffice as an answer with out THE dreaded question. “How many children do you have?” she asks. And there it comes. My mind spins with the possible answers. It’s amazing how a question so simple can be so difficult to answer.

She probably doesn’t want to hear about my early loss of Ellie’s twin or the two miscarriages I had, so my default answer should be two children: Audrey Kate and Ellie. When telling a stranger about your deceased child, things can become uncomfortable pretty quickly. (Apparently it’s taboo in our culture to talk about death, especially dead children). If I tell her I have one child, we avoid the awkwardness but then I live with the guilt of feeling like I’ve denied my daughter’s existence. “I have two girls” I tell her, again hoping we’ve reached the end of the questions. “How old are they?” she asks. “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!” I think to myself. Here it goes, lady…I’ve tried to spare you: “My oldest is 4 and my youngest is deceased.” There. I said it. And here comes the awkward pause I had been trying to avoid. She replies “Oh gosh, I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. I know exactly how you feel – I lost my nephew a few years back.”

Well, now I’m the one who is speechless. Although I have thankfully never experienced the loss of a niece or nephew I can imagine it would be heart breaking as is the loss of any loved one. I can say for certain there is NOTHING comparable to losing your own child, so we will have to just agree to disagree. I offer condolences for her loss and finish up the appointment so I can have a few minutes to myself. My other appointments that day are status quo and I finish my day unscathed and head home.

I decide to take the long way home from work because it takes me right by our church. I pull into the parking lot and get out of my car, making the short walk to the playground. After Ellie died we started a memorial fund through our church and used the funds to purchase a large play structure that was named “Ellie’s Place.” I feel closest to her when I’m there and I want to have a few quiet moments with her before I head home. She would be two years old now and I can imagine she would love to play here. I pray over the the children who will play here for years to come, feeling the sting of knowing that she won’t be one of them. I walk back to my car and drive away.

It’s my turn to put my daughter to bed and she insists on me snuggling with her until she falls asleep. I used to lay in bed beside of her thinking of all the things I could be doing with this precious time, but ever since her sister died, I’ve realized there is nothing more special than these moments together. She snuggles up sweetly on my chest and looks at me with tears in her big brown eyes. “Mama, I wish heaven were right next door so we could go visit Ellie any time we want.” Gut punch. “Yeah, baby. I wish that too,” I reply. Not only do I spend each day working through my own grief, but I also find myself holding Audrey Kate’s hand as she navigates her own journey through loss. Her heart is tender and her questions grow deeper and deeper as the years pass. I ask her what she would do if she were able to visit Ellie and I lay there quietly and listen to her stories of the adventures they would have together. Her breathing pattern changes and she falls fast asleep. I lay beside her a little longer and let my mind envision she and Ellie playing together. My smile fades into tears because I know this will never be a possibility on this side of heaven.

I leave her bedroom and collapse into my bed, exhausted from the events of the day. This journey is challenging even on the most average of days like today. My heart remains heavy every single moment as it holds the pain and the joy of mothering my girls on both sides of heaven. This is not the path I would have ever chosen for my life, yet I wouldn’t trade all this pain for the moments I was able to spend with Ellie before her death.

I fall asleep quickly, which is a great escape since I rarely dream anymore. Today was okay; it was average; “new normal.” There was a manageable amount of grief. I hope tomorrow will be just as kind to me.

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