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How Joy and Grief Can Coexist After Losing a Child

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I don’t believe you “get over” the death of your child. I don’t believe you ever “move on” from losses of this magnitude.

Those seismic shifts…

The unexpected, life-altering twists we didn’t plan…
Those stay with us. Shape us.
Shape how we perceive the world.
That doesn’t mean life no longer contains joy.

The truth is joy and sorrow can coexist. And we can have a meaningful, contented, even “happy” existence while holding both. But we must learn to carry grief, accept that we must, and lead with love.

Grief is big, but love is bigger.

When my daughter, Gwendolyn, was alive this was easy. She was literally the joy I could hold and so on those tough days when my world was spinning out of control, I only had to look at her, follow her remarkable ability to bounce back, or snuggle into her as she slept. After many scares because of spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), I literally held her sweet-smelling sweaty hand to my lips and let the tears stain my cheeks as she rested. Joy and sorrow in one space.

After Gwendolyn died, with the roaring of death and the anchor of my joy no longer tangible, I grasped for ways to hold both more easily. Our life together let me know I would again, and that was a comfort, but I had to now learn how to carry this entirely new and monstrously big weight of child loss.

Somewhere along the way of processing the death of my child, her debilitating and life-limiting diagnosis, the traumas, the helplessness and losses upon losses that came with all of that, I created in my mind a visual to help me feel less overwhelmed or hung up on the unfairness. I wasn’t conscious of it, and it may seem silly, but this mental picture continues to help me focus when spiraling, as grief often does.

I imagine my grief all piled into a backpack. Mine is filled with loss and pain and trauma and all that circles around grief.

Every day I feel its straps on my shoulders and the girth on my back.

I don’t like it, it certainly isn’t fashionable, but I still have to carry it – no matter where I go, no matter who I’m with.

I don’t get to put it down when there’s a holiday or I go on vacation.

Maybe someday I will, I don’t know.

But for now it comes with me always and I must be the one to carry it. Others can help, but no one can do it for me.

Some days it is dense and feels like lead and I taste the sweat and dust as I heave it along. I curse at the weight and grow weary from the heaviness. On those days I need to rest more.

On other days, it’s lighter and I hardly notice it’s there. And, though I must still carry it, the warmth of it on my skin feels familiar and it moves with me through belly laughs. Some days it can even help propel me forward.

Along the way, I’ve picked up new tools that have allowed me to set down some of the weight I no longer need, that I have now absorbed.

And the one truth that continues to lighten the load is the weight of grief is nowhere near as big as love.

I have learned to accept what I must carry. I can’t change it entirely. It just is. But it’s mine and it’s wrapped with courage and grit and kindness and empathy and strength and the most beautiful big love in the world. And it’s mine to choose how to grow with it, how to build upon it.

Acceptance allows me to carry the pain that exists without judgment – and allows me to laugh and make new memories without judging that either. Acceptance limits the pressure of an expected timeline of healing because grief is never finite, nor neatly packaged in stages we can methodically check off as completed. Acceptance reminds me to give myself grace in the confusion of an expected future taken, a life together no longer. And acceptance has allowed me to let go of resentment and anger.

It takes enormous work to sort through grief and the pain when life doesn’t go as planned. And it also takes enormous courage to try. To keep trying when it hurts like hell and feels so dark and lonely. To unearth all the unfairness, the utter helplessness, the anger, and wrestle with all that those big feelings contain. And to do so over and over again as grief ebbs and flows and new triggers bring new facets to process. It’s much easier to choose to be resentful for the rest of your life. But resentment, while justified, will never lift us. Resentment will only press our faces down into the mud, making it harder and harder to see anything good… to recognize the gifts of each day… to breathe.

While it may not feel like a choice because what has happened or is happening to us, to our child, to our family… is out of our control, we each get to choose how we carry our grief. Every day we get to choose a new way.

What I know for sure is the love we carry in life, we continue to carry in death. For so long I didn’t know where to put that love because I used to devour it into Gwendolyn. Without her, I felt so upside down.

But I promise you, your love will find a home.

The love we carry will find its way in how we love others, in how we treat people, in the good we put into the world.

It will surface in a deeper empathy for pain, in a stronger sense of gratitude, in the way we experience the world.

Grief is big, but love is bigger.

So how are you going to carry what you must?

This story originally appeared on Gwendolyn Strong Facebook Page

Originally published: August 13, 2019
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