By Mandy Hitchcock
Being broken-hearted also makes me more open-hearted and prone to approach every situation from a place of kindness, because l understand better than many that life is short and it is precious.
“Cherish every moment!”
“It goes by so fast!”
“You’ll miss these days when they are gone!”
Parents hear these refrains from every corner these days, especially when their children are small.
I know better than most how fast it can go, how quickly it can be gone. In 2010, my seventeen-month-old daughter Hudson died from a sudden, aggressive bacterial infection. If anyone were going to tell parents to cherish every moment with their children, you’d think it would be me.
But what I really want to say is this: it’s okay if you don’t.
In the early days of my grief, I felt a terrible resentment toward parents of young children, even close friends, as their children turned two, or potty trained, or graduated to toddler beds—I was so heartbroken that Hudson would never get the chance to reach any of those milestones. I didn’t want to resent my friends, but I did. I flinched at their Facebook photos, which showed an intact family enjoying a life I would never enjoy again. And now, five years on, I still flinch when I see a family with three living children like I should have, or my friends’ children all turning seven in the coming year like Hudson would be, all of them looking so grown, while Hudson will never be any bigger than the chubby-cheeked toddler I last saw lying on a bed in the pediatric ICU.
What I’ve never resented, though, are my friends’ frustrations about parenting young children. After my daughter died but before my younger children were born—during the long year when I was a childless mother—I often saw Facebook posts or listened to friends’ woeful stories about children who wouldn’t stop crying, or potty-training lessons gone wrong, or strong-willed toddlers refusing to do what they’d been asked. When I heard these stories, I’d first think that I’d give anything to be dealing with these problems myself. But the next second, I’d remember that if I were dealing with these problems myself, I’d have many difficult moments, too. I’d complain and express frustration. It was only when held up against the unimaginable crucible of the death of a child that the ordinary, everyday experiences of parenthood might seem like they should not be so hard. The last thing I ever wanted was for any other parent to feel guilty for feeling frustrated or overwhelmed or short-tempered with their children—solely because my child was not here for me to experience those same emotions.
Now, seven years into the journey of mothering small children, one dead and two living—Hudson’s younger siblings Jackson and Ada—I can say that the ordinary, everyday experiences of parenthood are unbelievably hard for me. Are they as hard as losing my daughter? Of course not, but just because they are not hard relative to the death of a child does not mean that they are not hard in absolute terms. There are many moments when my kids can drive me to the precipice of fury, when I have to clench my jaw and speak to them through gritted teeth in order to keep myself from flying over the edge directly at them. And during those moments, it’s rarely the memory of my daughter that pulls me back from the brink—instead, it’s the small, warm body right in front of me, my child who, in his or her own exasperating way, is asking for my attention or my love or my help.
My daughter’s death changed me, irrevocably, but it did not make me superhuman. It did not magically endow me with equanimity in the face of poop smeared all over the crib after my two-year-old decides to remove her diaper during naptime, or in the face of my four-year-old’s nonchalant but persistent “No” when I ask him to take his plate to the sink, or in the face of the rapidly intensifying shrieks of “MINE!” from both of them as they struggle over some suddenly coveted item that neither cared about until the other picked it up.
I’ve been so grateful when others have shared that Hudson’s story has changed how they look at their lives, and their relationships with their children. I say often that the only consolation I have after Hudson’s death is knowing that her life can continue to have meaning in the world that she loved. Sharing her story with others is one of the only ways I can still mother her, so I take great comfort whenever another mother tells me that she thought of Hudson during a frustrating parenting moment and found a way to pull her own child closer. At those times, it feels like Hudson’s spirit is somehow still doing important work.
And I, too, am grateful to Hudson, every day, for pushing me to be a better, kinder parent. Her absence does help me better appreciate even the most mundane moments with her siblings. And being broken-hearted also makes me more open-hearted and prone to approach every situation from a place of kindness, because l understand better than many that life is short and it is precious.
But life is also life. A healthy dose of perspective is helpful, but it is relative. There is little value in downplaying our feelings because we think someone else has it rougher than we do. Someone else will always have it rougher than we do. I survived my daughter’s death, but having to clean up poop smeared all over the crib (not to mention all over the child who did the smearing) is still really hard, right now, today, in this moment.
Living in the moment means actually living in the moment, not taking ourselves out of it or stopping ourselves from feeling our feelings. Among the many things I’ve learned on this long road after my daughter’s death is that it’s not only possible, but totally normal, to experience deeply conflicting emotions at the same time. Extreme grief and extreme joy. Deep anger and deep love. Incredible frustration and incredible gratitude. Parenting both living and dead children at the same time is a constant lesson in that kind of emotional duality.
Mandy Hitchcock is a writer, bereaved mother, cancer survivor, and recovering lawyer. Her essays also appear in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Modern Loss, and elsewhere, as well as in the forthcoming HerStories anthology So Glad They Told Me. She lives with her family in Carrboro, North Carolina. You can find her at mandyhitchcock.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter.