Losing my daughter is the worst thing that ever happened to me – but it made me a better person

We are honored that our friend and frequent contributor Karen shared her story with us today ~ Whitney and Heather

One mom's story of infant loss and maternal grief

6 months ago, I was 8 1/2 months pregnant with my second child and having a routine checkup in what had been a mostly normal pregnancy. That day, the doctors found a problem with my baby’s fluid levels and wanted keep an eye on things to make sure everything progressed well. The following week I was checked in to the hospital so I could be monitored around the clock. The problem worsened, but the doctors were relatively confident that despite the fluid, an early delivery and some serious time in the NICU would give the medical team the chance to fix what was wrong, and the baby would pull through.

Once she was born, it was a different story; they couldn’t figure out what exactly was wrong, and nothing they tried seemed to improve her situation. After six days of being the sickest baby in the NICU, my baby girl died in my arms.

I was in shock. I had been so sure that like so many other people with scary NICU stories and now-healthy kids, that this would be a hard time we got through, but that everything would be OK, that one day she would triumphantly come home. But that never happened. She died. And me, my husband, and my son had to figure out how to move forward without her.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that it was awful. Words cannot describe what it feels like to lose a child. Even now, I am sobbing as I write this, and I still get choked up and teary-eyed every time I think or talk about it. In the throes of my deepest grief I never could have imagined that anything remotely good could come of her death. And finding positives in a loved one’s death can bring up feelings of guilt and doubt. Still, with some distance, I have made a startling realization, which is that the experience has changed me, and it has actually made me a much better person than I was before.

I am not saying that I was a total jerk before this, but I honestly feel that the person I am today is a kinder, more caring, more useful person than the person I was 6 months ago–and I have only my sweet baby girl to thank for that.

I am more sympathetic and understanding.
This is probably the least surprising outcome, but it’s really noticeable. I remember when the wounds of grief were very new for me, I wished I could wear a sign out in public saying something like “Be Nice – I Have Been Through Hell!” I find that now I tend to treat pretty much everyone with a kinder, gentler manner–because who knows what kinds of hell they may have been through. I am so much more patient with people, and more likely to give strangers the benefit of the doubt. Whether it’s the annoying guy hemming and hawing over every single avocado at the supermarket, the woman who cuts me off on the freeway on-ramp, or any other minor social offender, I find I’m far more likely to just let it go and move on. (Full disclosure: I did get pretty catty in the airport security line last week, but I’m only human.)

I am a better mother.
I used to think of having children as a given, as something inevitable that everyone got to do and that I would get to do. And I did! I had a son with very few complications. Taking the ability to conceive, deliver, and raise a child for granted was naive and careless. Now I feel that being a mother is remarkable, miraculous experience, and this realization has made me a more thoughtful, caring, patient, appreciative mother. It has changed the way I approach my relationship with my son, because I have learned to be grateful for the opportunity to be his mother instead of just expecting that I would always, and will always, get to be his mother.

I no longer envy others (much.)
After my daughter died, I felt terribly envious of every pregnant woman and new mother that I came across. It made me irrationally angry to see a little baby out and about. Why did this woman have a baby and I didn’t? I will admit that those feelings still bubble up now and again, although less with anger and more with sadness for what could have been. But the general, global envy I used to feel about other people’s lives–when I browsed people’s Facebook pages or heard about some great thing they had done–has pretty much disappeared altogether. I met a woman about two months after this all happened and she commented that I was so lucky to have a new house and a flexible job and the chance to travel and a nice husband. I smiled and thanked her, but all I could think was “I bet she wouldn’t think I was so lucky if she knew I had just lost a child.” Who knows what other people are going through? Despite outward appearances, underneath it all, everyone is dealing with their own issues and problems, too. I realized that my own life’s positives and negatives are just that–my own–and I would rather have mine than anyone else’s.

I am not afraid to be generous and effusive with love and caring.
I remember when the sister of a woman in my book club passed away. I wanted to send a card but I felt awkward because I didn’t know the woman well and I had never met her sister. Now I realize that was such a silly thing to think! When my daughter died, the outpouring of love and caring for me and my family was overwhelming. We received cards and notes and gifts and text messages from people we didn’t know well, or hadn’t spoken to in ages. And every single one of those gestures was like a virtual hug and an affirmation that despite the loss of a dear person, there were all of these other dear people out there in the world sending their love. I have learned never to be stingy with love or caring because it doesn’t matter how well you know a person- what matters is that you share your warm thoughts and kindness with others as much as you possibly can. And I find that now I do just that.

I am inspired to do more for others.
One of the things about losing a child is that it made me (and my husband, so he tells me) about a million times more sensitive to any tales of child death or suffering. Whether it’s a friend of a friend, a refugee child, a kid caught in a war zone, or anything else–I now feel that suffering and those deaths in a profound way every single time. As you can imagine, it’s exhausting and can be an enormous burden to relive the deep, dark feelings of your own child’s death every time you read the newspaper. I figured out that one way I could attempt to alleviate this burden would be to do things to help these kids and parents. Channeling this energy into positive actions has helped a lot. I started a Facebook campaign to raise money for refugee children. I have increased my own donations to child-centered organizations. And most significantly, I have, at age 38, started school again with the goal of becoming a nurse midwife.

I look at it this way: my daughter died after every single medical option was exhausted and her body was simply not able to live. Hundreds of thousands of dollars, one of the best NICUs in the country, the most well-trained staff, and an inexhaustible supply of state-of-the-art equipment was employed to try and save her life. And yet, on the other side of the world–and even in our own country, in some places–other women’s children are dying of preventable diseases, from lack of clean water, from mosquito bites, from dehydration, from poor prenatal care. I realized that I could become a person that could help other women avoid losing a child or make their mothering experience better. I hesitate to say it’s a “calling” because that sounds a little cheesy, but that’s truly how it feels to me. And suddenly, re-starting school and a new career path at age 38 seems like no big deal at all. Because of her death, my daughter could end up indirectly saving the lives of other babies–and the hearts of other mothers. That would be a pretty amazing legacy for a girl who only lived six days.

I know that I am still early in this journey of grieving and loss, and I’m sure there are still more surprises to come as I adjust to this life-altering event. It has made indelible marks on my heart and mind, and the emotions and actions that follow continue to change and reshape as more time passes. But for now, I can find some peace in knowing that my daughter’s legacy is not one just of sadness and loss, but of strength, inspiration, caring, and honesty. And while I wish every single day that she was still here with us, I know that the mark she has made on me, on our family, and in the ripple effects of what has come from this experience, my tiny little girl made her mother a better person.

If you know someone who is grieving, or if you are grieving yourself, I want to share a few things that have really helped me. I still use all of them…
– A book called Healing After Loss by Martha Whitmore Hickman – someone gave it to me and it was really helpful and comforting – I plan to give it to others I know as they grieve.
– Meditation apps: I used both the Mindfulness App and the Headspace App to do a few moments of meditation each day. It helped with the anger and overwhelming sadness, and also helped me sleep.
– Amino Acids: I saw a doctor specializing in amino acid therapy and it helped balance my emotions and equipped me to better deal with the grieving process (which is still ongoing.)

photo: Karen Merzenich

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