A Few Tips For Surviving The First Holiday Season After Loss

In the days approaching my first New Year’s Eve after my husband died, good friends reached out and invited me and my kids to celebrate the night with them. We received invitations to large parties and small get-togethers. We were invited to spend the night or just spend a few hours. I weighed all the options and delayed getting back to anyone. The truth was, I didn’t want to do any of it. I wanted to stay home. I didn’t want to usher in a new year at all, but if I had to I wanted to do it only with my two children. I didn’t want to pretend to be okay and I didn’t want to bring anyone down by not pretending. I wanted to curl up under a blanket with my kids and let the night be whatever it would be. Ultimately, I didn’t have to get back to anyone. Fate made the decision I couldn’t make. My daughter came down with the flu and we stayed home from all of it. We watched movies and baked brownies and grieved and celebrated and survived.

Ever since I started publicly writing about my grief, my young widowhood, I’ve been receiving messages and emails from other grievers and other young widowers. Often, the people behind the message are just seeking a space to share their story, and I’m happy to listen. After all, that is why I write too—simply for a space to share my story, to feel seen and heard in a world where it’s easy to feel invisible.

But frequently, especially around the holidays, I receive messages from grievers and young widows and widowers seeking advice for the holidays. The question is always some iteration of how. How do I survive the first holiday season after a loss that has devastated me? How do I make this easier for my kids? How is the world still spinning and time still moving forward when it feels like it should have all fallen apart a thousand times before?

The answer that comes to mind is always the same: I don’t know.

I don’t know because that first holiday season is hard–cruelly hard–and my heart breaks for anyone who has to experience it. I don’t know because I know only what I have lived and I don’t even know if I lived it right. But then, saying I don’t know isn’t exactly helpful. And the whole point of writing my grief is to help, to create a little light in the darkness loss has left me with.

And maybe I can’t offer professional tips, but I can offer advice that has worked for me, without promising it will work for anyone else.

Remove the word “should” from your vocabulary and listen to your heart.

There are no “shoulds” in grief, especially in that first year after loss. There may be pressure from family and friends to act a certain way or do a certain thing, or even pressure coming from yourself to make the holiday what it’s always been, but don’t let “should” dictate your holiday season. The moment I stopped telling myself I should go out for New Year’s Eve (thanks, of course, to the intervention of fate—my daughter was fine, by the way!) I felt more at peace than I had in weeks. The next year, when New Year’s Eve came around, I didn’t even pretend to “should” myself. I packed our bags and escaped the “shoulds” and ushered in the new year with my kids in a way we never had before.

Give your grief space and also make room for more.

Grief demands to be felt. I’ve tried to outrun and outmaneuver and push aside my grief more times than I can count. Each time, I thought I’d beaten grief, thought I’d cured myself of it. Each time, grief came to pull me under with a fierceness I should have expected. Now, instead of fighting grief, I make space for it. I know I need time alone in grief, and I plan to make sure I have it.

But also, I’ve learned to make room for the joy. If you know loss, you also know that tomorrow isn’t always promised and if you have a reason to laugh or smile or be excited, then take it. I know that first laugh feels like a betrayal—it’s not. I know that first flash of excitement for something that is purely yours feels like a desertion—it’s not that either. It’s simply part of surviving, of living after loss.

Say their name. Tell stories about them. Bring them with you into all the moments.

The first New Year’s Eve without my husband, my kids and I talked about their father, my husband. We talked about the last holiday we spent with him, when he was too sick to be himself and all the holidays before. We made him cards and cooked his favorite foods, and kept him with us in whatever way we could. It didn’t fix the grief, but it helped to have him here in some way, in any way.

Surviving the holidays after loss is hard and it hurts, and there are no mix of words or tips that will make that statement untrue. That sounds harsh, but also, hopefully freeing. Because the real truth is that you survive the holidays after loss because you do. Because your lungs take in breath by muscle memory, and your heart beats by instinct, and you survive because you’ve survived so much to get here. The real truth is you’ll survive again and again, and then one day you’ll look up and realize you’re thriving, right alongside all that surviving.

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The Biggest Regret of My Life Was Taking Ten Minutes For Myself

I remember the morning of the day my young husband was transferred to a hospice facility with perfect clarity. I remember walking into the house after the bus picked up the kids for school. I remember the way my hands trembled and my heart beat too fast and my head was too full of noise. I remember how tired I was in my heart and soul and body.

I remember how I just needed ten minutes. Ten minutes to let myself feel tired and scared and sad. Ten minutes to let myself break down and fall apart—because I knew I wouldn’t give myself the chance again. My husband and my kids would need me to be their steady presence in the darkness that was coming for our family.

I lay down in a little circle of sunlight on the kid’s playroom carpet. I lay and let the depth of the word “hospice” sink in. I stopped running on auto-pilot after twenty months of fighting a disease that beat us at every turn and let tears roll down into my hair. I took ten minutes to think about that final, nightmarish spinal MRI, that sometimes, even years later, haunts me in that space between awake and asleep. I took ten minutes to fall apart.

Ten minutes because I thought I had time to fall apart. Ten minutes that I didn’t realize I’d want back.

After I’d gathered up the pieces of myself, I looked at the time. My husband’s transport from the hospital to hospice was to leave at 10 a.m. I knew that if he left on time, and if I left right then, there was a chance I’d miss him, that we might very well cross paths going in opposite directions on the highway, and that I wouldn’t be there for his first moments in hospice. For twenty months, I’d been his caretaker, his constant in a sea of unfamiliar nurses and doctors and specialists, and I didn’t want to fail him this final time.

So I made a decision.

I decided not to drive to the hospital. I decided instead to pack pillows and blankets, picture frames and stuffed animals, and drive to the hospice facility to set up the room that would be my husband’s last. To make it feel like home. To let him know he was surrounded by love.

I should have known that 10 a.m. didn’t mean 10 a.m. in hospital time. I knew hospital plans were always subject to delays—nothing ran on time; I’d learned that lesson a hundred times in the twenty months since his first brain surgery. But somehow, for some reason, I thought in this, for this, for a man—a young father and husband—being transferred to a hospice facility, the timeline would hold. 10 a.m. would mean 10 a.m., if only because the hospital was short on rooms and overrun by patients in need.

I waited. For hours. Frozen in indecision, wanting to go and be with him, afraid that if I left, he’d arrive and I wouldn’t be where he needed me. For not the first time since he’d been diagnosed with a terminal illness, I wished I could be in two places at once, and despaired that I couldn’t be.

When he arrived, so much later than I’d expected, he was asleep or sedated or comatose—I still don’t know. He didn’t wake as he was transferred from stretcher to bed. He didn’t wake to see the pictures the kids drew for him hanging on the walls or the pieces of home warming every corner of the room. He didn’t wake as the afternoon faded to evening, and as evening stretched into morning, and as the kids and I—and various friends and family—sat vigil in his room for the next nine days; the room I had made feel like home, the one I had hoped would feel like love. The room that I had set up after taking ten minutes to myself.

Ten minutes to be scared while my husband was speaking his last words to strangers, to doctors who didn’t love him the way I did. Ten minutes to fall apart, while he was falling into a coma from which he wouldn’t wake.

Ten minutes during which he needed me to be strong, and I wasn’t. Ten minutes to regret for a lifetime.

For a long time, I’ve been working to forgive myself for those ten minutes, for making that bad decision. I’ve tried to convince myself that I couldn’t have known that his last morning at the hospital would be his last awake hours—after all, just a week earlier he’d had a successful brain surgery to remove the majority of his third brain tumor. Just the day before the doctors had told me he had weeks, not days, left to live. Just the night before he’d eaten a Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich and been as engaged with the world as I’d seen him be in months. And I have largely forgiven myself, because there is no shame in being human, in having nothing left to give, in needing to recharge and take ten minutes.

But the truth is, even if I have forgiven myself, I will probably always wish I’d made a different choice—chosen to go rather than stay, chosen to hold on tight to the pieces of myself rather than fall apart. But also, I will always be grateful that the choice I made allowed me to have the strength to set up a room, which, in retrospect, was as much for my kids sitting vigil over their father as it was for him; the strength to be the first voice he heard in hospice, even if not consciously; the strength to be the steady presence my kids needed when their world flipped inside out.

Regret is a dangerous thing. It’s a poison that can spread and corrode an entire life if left to its own devices, if allowed to take over. But, regret doesn’t define my story. It exists, certainly, but it’s only one small part of a story that is filled with so much more. Regret exists in my story, but I won’t let it be my whole story.

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A ‘Harmless’ Dinner Party Ended Up Killing My Dad

When the pandemic started, my parents were very concerned.

They limited their social interactions.

They cut back on attending all but the biggest family events.

Over time, life had to continue.

Mom and Dad started going to the store.

They attended a few more of their grandkids’ little league games.

They always wore masks when they went out.

Then, someone from their church small group was put on hospice for a non-COVID related illness.

The small group, some of whom had met monthly for 35 years, wanted to see their friend.

The numbers of cases and hospitalization were dropping.

No one knew anyone who had died from the virus.

So they decided it would be okay to have a dinner party.

They got their new house ready.

After all, Mom and Dad had finally downsized into their new home after living in the same place for almost 40 years.

This would be their first time to entertain in the new house.

My brother, the lawyer, objected to them holding the dinner party.

But you can only object so loudly before you start sounding like a worrywart.

I didn’t see anything wrong with Mom and Dad having their friends over.

Neither did my youngest brother.

Courtesy of Tony Wright

The group gathered for a dinner party and a Bible study, just as they had every month for many years before the virus shut everything down.

It’s hard to wear masks at a dinner party.

They hadn’t seen each other in more than six months.

And one of their friends was dying but was able to attend the party.

It seemed like old times.

No one was particularly worried about getting the virus.

After all, virtually no one they knew had gotten it.

If they did know someone who had the virus, it acted a lot like the flu. They were fine after a week or so.

These people were their long-time friends.

They were safe with these people.

Hugs were given. Hands were shaken. Masks were taken off.

But it wasn’t safe.

Someone at the party had the virus but didn’t know it.

That person worked at the church.

She wasn’t feeling sick at all.

But she did start feeling sick the next day.

She got tested and promptly let everyone who was at the party know she was positive for COVID-19.

I remember getting a call from Dad while my family and I were dining at a restaurant.

He told me that he and Mom had been exposed to the virus.

I wasn’t too worried.

Dad had some underlying health issues that could cause some issues, but he probably didn’t have it.

The next day, we found out he tested positive.

Mom was negative at first.

Then she started losing her taste and smell.

She was tested again, and they both had it.

I bought them a pulse oxygen reader.

We contacted our family physician and other doctor friends.

Dad did accounting for many doctors for many years, so he had lots of medical advice.

I talked to Dad on the third day after his diagnosis.

He had a slight cough and a very slight fever.

Mom couldn’t smell or taste anything.

Dad told me, “If it stays like this, I’m going to be happy.”

It didn’t stay like that.

One week after he was exposed, he had to call an ambulance because his oxygen levels dropped down to 88.

I was at his house, helping with some yard work, and had just left.

I came back to see him loaded into the ambulance.

It was the last time I ever saw him conscious.

We thought he would be home shortly after they gave him some oxygen.

But the hospital was filling up.

It took him almost two days to get a bed outside of the ER.

At first, we would talk to him while he sat in the hospital bored.

They wanted him to lay on his stomach, but the hip replacement he had a few years back made that difficult.

His oxygen levels were getting worse.

Chest X-rays showed he had pneumonia caused by the virus.

He started having trouble speaking.

After a week in the hospital, he wasn’t getting better, no matter what the doctors tried.

They tried every breathing apparatus at their disposal.

They pumped him full of oxygen.

His lungs were damaged.

They moved him to the ICU.

He could hardly text and couldn’t talk on the phone without his oxygen levels, dropping to dangerous levels.

We couldn’t see him.

They were just about to put him on a ventilator.

They told us if he went on a ventilator, he had a very slim chance of survival.

We all got on the phone with him.

We said our goodbyes.

It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, to tell my father goodbye over the phone on a conference call.

They actually let my mom visit him for a little while.

Then he rallied for one day.

We saw some improvement. The doctor even said so.

He started texting us.

He was able to text the grandkids.

They told him how much they loved him and wanted him to get better.

I talked to him on the phone. He told me he didn’t want to die.

I told him he was going to get better.

The next day, I got a call from the hospital.

The doctor — one I hadn’t talked to before, wanted to talk about putting Dad on a ventilator.

I was confused.

He was doing better the day before.

But overnight, his oxygen levels had dropped.

I asked the doctor for some time to get my Mom up there again.

He said no. He had to do it now. Dad was in danger of coding if he didn’t.

I got Mom and my brothers on the phone.

Dad couldn’t talk. We had to take the doctor’s word that he was nodding his head.

We told him we loved him.

We told him to fight.

We all headed up to the hospital.

I hoped we could get there in time for Mom to see him before they intubated him.

We weren’t that lucky.

But we did get to see him.

And it was the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

He looked like a ghost.

He was in distress.

Doctors and nurses were all around him.

His room was pure chaos.

I don’t think they were supposed to let us back there.

We soon found out that as they put Dad on the ventilator, his lungs collapsed.

Both of them.

They were able to insert chest tubes to get him stable.

The doctor told us he was stable.

We left the hospital.

There was nothing we could do but wait for Dad to get better.

Mom didn’t want to be alone.

We all went to dinner on a patio that night.

I drove Mom.

As soon as I got home, the hospital called.

They said that Dad had no blood pressure, and we needed to come up there right away.

I rushed back out to Mom’s house and got her.

She cried all the way to the hospital.

When we got there, my brother had already arrived.

He told me.

Dad was gone.

Please, when you are planning your Thanksgiving this year, remember this story.

I would never tell anyone what to do for their own family. I know that even a month ago, the thought of not having a family Thanksgiving — which happens to be my favorite holiday — would have been met with resistance, probably flat-out ignored.

But this year, Mom will be coming over. And that’s it.

Because a dinner party killed my Dad.

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Chrissy Teigen Shows How Luna Is Honoring Her Brother Jack

Chrissy Teigen has Jack’s ashes at home with her now and Luna has her own way of spending time with her little brother

Chrissy Teigen shared a very personal, very sweet video on social media showing her late son Jack’s ashes and her daughter Luna’s precious response to them.

Teigen shared two videos, one showing a gift her daughter, four, left for Jack and another of her talking to him. They are equal parts heartbreaking and wonderful to watch. “im just thinking a lot about jack today. our house is very open about life, death, grief, everything really. we try to explain things well and answer every question imaginable in a beautiful, spiritual but literal way,” Teigen wrote. “I know this is a weird post but I just wanted to share these to always remember my incredibly empathetic little mini. life is infinitely better with her in it. I miss u, jack. we miss you a lot.”

In the video, Teigen showed a thoughtful tribute Luna left for Jack on top of the ashes, as well as a clip of her speaking to the ashes. Jack, Teigen and husband John Legend’s third child, was stillborn in late September.

“This is the cutest, most beautiful thing I have ever seen,” Teigen says in her first Instagram video, filming the box containing Jack’s ashes next to a teddy bear. “We just got baby Jack’s ashes back, so they’re in here for now with some blessed holy Thai string.”

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We are shocked and in the kind of deep pain you only hear about, the kind of pain we’ve never felt before. We were never able to stop the bleeding and give our baby the fluids he needed, despite bags and bags of blood transfusions. It just wasn’t enough. . . We never decide on our babies’ names until the last possible moment after they’re born, just before we leave the hospital.  But we, for some reason, had started to call this little guy in my belly Jack.  So he will always be Jack to us.  Jack worked so hard to be a part of our little family, and he will be, forever. . . To our Jack – I’m so sorry that the first few moments of your life were met with so many complications, that we couldn’t give you the home you needed to survive.  We will always love you. . . Thank you to everyone who has been sending us positive energy, thoughts and prayers.  We feel all of your love and truly appreciate you. . . We are so grateful for the life we have, for our wonderful babies Luna and Miles, for all the amazing things we’ve been able to experience.  But everyday can’t be full of sunshine.  On this darkest of days, we will grieve, we will cry our eyes out. But we will hug and love each other harder and get through it.

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She explained it was her daughter that brought the stuffed animal to Jack. “Luna put a little therapy bear around him, and the best part is, I came down and she gave him a piece of her favorite snack. A tiny piece of Pirate’s Booty,” Teigen continued. “I can’t… I don’t know, she’s amazing.”

In the second video, Luna sits next to Jack’s ashes and introduces herself. “I’m Luna. How you doing today?” she can be heard saying.

Teigen has been selflessly open about her pregnancy loss. She shared pictures from the hospital on the day it happened and penned an emotionally raw article weeks later describing what the couple endured. Teigen described the medical situation that led to the loss of their child after a partial placenta abruption wouldn’t heal and led to intense bleeding.

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I didn’t know how to come back to real life so I wrote this piece for Medium with hopes that I can somehow move on but as soon as I posted it, tears flew out because it felt so….final. I don’t want to ever not remember jack. . . Thank you to everyone who has been so kind. Thank you to the incredible doctors who tried so hard to make our third life a reality. Thank you to my friends and family and our entire household for taking care of me through all the adult diaper changes, bed rest and random hugs. Thank you John for being my best friend and love of my life. A lot of people think of the woman in times like this but I will never forget that john also suffered through these past months, while doing everything he could to take care of me. I am surrounded, in a human therapy blanket of love. I am grateful and healing and feel so incredibly lucky to witness such love.

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“Late one night, I was told it would be time to let go in the morning,” she writes. “I cried a little at first, then went into full blown convulsions of snot and tears, my breath not able to catch up with my own incredibly deep sadness. Even as I write this now, I can feel the pain all over again,” she wrote in part.

She also shared how much having Luna and Miles around in the days and weeks after Jack passed meant to her healing. “I find myself randomly crying, thinking about how happy I am to have two insanely wonderful little toddlers who fill this house with love. I smother them with love while they ‘Moooooooom!!!!!’ me. I don’t care,” she wrote.

It looks like little Luna is still taking care of her mama.

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My Husband’s Digital Life Haunts Me, But It’s All I Have Left

A few weeks ago, I received a notification on my phone’s lock screen that my husband had received a new email. The email came from Tinder, a dating app that I have always (maybe wrongly) associated with fast, no-strings-attached hook ups, and alerted me to the fact that someone was trying to sign into an account under his email address. The email went on to say that no such account for that email could be found, and if the sign in attempt wasn’t made by me, I could ignore it.

First, phew. I’m glad to learn that my husband didn’t have a Tinder account, especially because we got together long before Tinder existed.

And, also, ouch. Because my husband has been dead for nearly three years and emails like that bring fresh waves of grief.

But emails and incidents like that are not uncommon.

Because though my husband died, his digital life remains…well, not exactly alive and well and flourishing, but active and seemingly undisturbed by his actual death.

Prior to the attempted Tinder sign in using his email address, someone—a hacker probably—tried and succeeded in getting into his Instagram account. I changed the password and checked the account and didn’t see any vulgar or new posts—just the ones he’d last posted: five years ago of our game night, and our kids, and our blissful, naïve happiness. Armed with a reason to be wading through his long stale Instagram account, I looked at every photo he thought worthy enough to share and every caption and hashtag he thought witty enough to publish, and let myself reminisce and ride the wave of grief that hacker’s successful attempt at hacking had prompted.

There have been other, less successful attempts from strangers at breaking into his digital life. For years I’ve been protecting his Steam account, a platform that, until his death, I didn’t even know existed. Every few months I receive an alert informing me that an attempt had been made to sign into his account and every few months I log into the system and change the password.

He’s received job opportunities and countless requests for interviews through a LinkedIn page that was outdated years before he died.

A few years ago I memorialized his Facebook page. Seeing the birthday reminder pop up in my notifications that first year nearly undid all (if any) forward progress I’d made that year, and I couldn’t bear to see that reminder again. Besides, I didn’t need a reminder. If somehow the date crept up without my mind recognizing it, my body would remember all on its own. Those of us who know grief on an intimate level know that grief lives in the body, even without any input from the conscious mind. But I didn’t delete his page. Choosing to memorialize his page was hard enough.

Now, I periodically check his inbox and junk mail. Before he died, I never looked in his inbox—it was his space alone. In the days and weeks after he died, I did and this periodic checking was necessary. Most of our bills and home vendors emailed him. Our home service providers and automatic payment accounts were linked to his email. It took more time than I would have guessed to switch everything to my email address while navigating the grief of young widowhood. Even now, years later, I’ll randomly find an account that is still emailing him, rather than me.

My husband and I drafted wills early in our marriage. We bought cemetery plots after our first child was born, but we didn’t talk much about the logistics of death, about funeral arrangements or what he hoped my life as a young widow would look like. Which means we almost certainly didn’t talk about what to do with his digital life after death.

All that means I keep his Instagram page, despite the hacks, and despite the fact that I have all the same pictures on my phone, probably somewhere hidden on my Instagram, too. It means I guard his Steam account, though nothing of him remains on that platform save for the avatar he chose to represent himself. It means I read every job opportunity sent to him on LinkedIn and imagine the mountains he might have climbed but for death. It means the act of checking his email, once an act I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing, is now an important part of protecting what I have left of him.

The truth is, it would be easier to close all of his accounts. His LinkedIn and Steam serve no purpose. His Instagram and Facebook pages are little bits of heartache preserved over the Internet. His email is largely spam—and a handful of vendors who seem incapable of updating their files. And yet, I cannot bring myself to close those accounts.

They feel like little bits of him. They are little bits of him. And I’ve lost so much of him now, that whatever bits I have, I hold onto with all my strength.

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When A Toxic Family Member Dies, You Don’t Have To Mourn

I ignored a call from my mother a few days ago. When I saw her number blare across my screen at such an early hour, I knew what she was calling to say: My grandmother, her mother, had died.

She followed up with a text telling me what happened and asked me to call her. I didn’t.

I responded to her text saying I was sorry and sent my condolences.

She told me she’d be hitting the road in the morning to take the ten-hour drive by herself to attend the funeral and said she’d keep me updated on the plan.

I wanted to ask her not to, but I deleted the text as soon as I wrote it.

You are a horrible daughter. This is her mother. Are you this heartless that you don’t even feel bad? She’s driving ten hours alone to go attend the funeral, and you literally don’t care. What is wrong with you?

I’d sat with my mother the day before and she’d told me about how sick her mother was and how they were moving her to hospice. She rubbed my arm and she told me the story and looked sad.

My stomach turned and I wanted to run and scream, “I don’t care what happens to her!”

I didn’t, though. I just resorted to my usual breaking out in hives and not having an appetite for the rest of the day. That’s what happens to me when I swallow my feelings.

My grandmother called me one night when I was sixteen to tell me what a horrible person I was. She called me a liar and told me there was no way she’d ever believe a thing I said and I was going to hell. 

My mother knew why she was calling and made me take that call.

I’d just broken my silence and told my family my grandfather (my grandmother’s husband), had been sexually abusing me for as long as I can remember. 

I was supposed to keep it a secret. In fact, he’d paid me to do so over the years. But I couldn’t take it anymore.

I went from having a close relationship with all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins on that side to them abandoning me and thinking I was making it up to get attention.

I don’t how I expected them to react because I never thought I would tell anyone about what happened. It just came out of me one night and I still remember how hard it was to swallow for hours after I screamed it out.

Nobody wants to believe that their husband, father, or uncle touches little kids inappropriately. I can’t imagine being in that situation, and for all the family members that were hurt because of my news, I have compassion.

But it was his news; his fault; his doing. My grandmother covered up and lied for him. She didn’t do anything to protect the poor children who were enduring his abuse. It didn’t matter if they shared the same blood. It didn’t matter to her if I was suffering.

The burden was never mine to carry or fix. I know that now.

I also know what my limits are. I know when I talk to someone from that side of the family, it brings up a lot of stuff for me. Feelings, fury, and a hole in my heart that I always think I’ve patched until I see a relative and we act like it never happened.

Abandonment still hurts, and the feelings never go away. But I refuse to bring up old shit and suffer through it to look like a loyal daughter, or a good niece, only to come crashing down for my kids.

I have not let this ruin me by any means. It is not a reason for me to not have what I want in life. 

I don’t feel sad that my grandmother — someone who knew exactly what her husband was doing because I wasn’t the only one that came forward — is gone.

I don’t mourn her.

I can’t act like I do, and I cannot be there for my mother while she goes through this if I want to preserve myself. I can’t.

I can’t even talk about it with her, or be there for her, or act like I know what to do. I don’t.

I’ve given enough of myself away trying to keep the peace so I would still have them in my life, and in a desperate moment when I needed them, they all left me. Including my own mother.

Not mourning a toxic family member when they die is confusing. I feel for those that have lost her. I have empathy for my mother because she lost her mother.

But I can’t be there to support her. If I did that, I wouldn’t be supporting myself.

It’s okay to give yourself some major self-care by walking away from a situation and not being the strong and mighty one who comes in and is there for everyone.

You don’t have to mourn a toxic family member when they pass. You don’t have to feel guilty about it. And you certainly don’t have to explain yourself to anyone. 

You aren’t a horrible person; you are a brave person, someone who is daring to put yourself and your mental health first.

Remember that. 

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Waves Of Grief Can Last An Entire Lifetime

When I sat to write this piece, the theme I had in mind to write about was that grief is a lifelong battle. I thought maybe I’d write about how grief doesn’t disappear after the year of firsts is done, which is what I had naively thought after my own year of firsts ended, or how there is no cure for grief, despite how often I’ve subconsciously searched and hoped for one.

I thought maybe I’d write about how I’m crawling into my fourth year as a young widow and a person intimately acquainted by grief, and that I’m still not free of my grief. The heartache is still there—most days as nothing more than an extra deep inhale against the now dull pressure on my heart—but today, as something more. Today, the grief is heavy and an extra deep inhale isn’t enough to ease the pressure, which has turned sharp and jagged.

But as I sat to write, I got stuck on the word “battle.” Because I didn’t feel like I was battling grief today. Despite turning my phone to “do not disturb” and canceling plans, despite scrolling through old emails and digging in boxes to retrieve memories, despite heartache and heaviness and a pervasive sense of despair, I didn’t feel as though I was battling.

A battle is at heart antagonistic. It’s a conflict between two opposing forces. And my grief isn’t an opposing force. I’m not trying to fight my grief, to vanquish it, as I might have done in the earliest days of grief. I’ve learned the more I battle with it, the harder it attacks, because grief is patient and demands to be felt.

Instead, I’m learning to co-exist with grief. I’m learning to accept it and find grace for it. Because though grief isn’t a lifelong battle, grief can be a lifelong experience.

There’s an oft-used analogy when it comes to grief: that it comes in waves. The waves come fast and furious in the beginning. They are wild and huge and unrelenting. All of your time and energy is spent just trying to claw your way out in order to get a breath, find some light. And then slowly, without warning, the waves begin to lose some power. They come less often. They grow smaller each time they come. The grief waves are less heavy, less intense. You can breathe through them. You can still see light.

Huge waves come still. Once in a while, whether triggered by a memory or the date on the calendar or the change of seasons, a huge wave clobbers you and drags you down just like those first wild and vicious waves, but the time between every wave, big or small, begins to lengthen. But the waves never truly stop.

And, if given the choice, I wouldn’t want them to.

That might sound like an odd thing to say—especially as I’m writing while currently submerged in a grief wave that was triggered for a reason I can’t quite pin down. But grief is the last connection to your loss, the last connection to that life that was ripped away from you without your permission. Grief is a reminder that you loved deeply, that you still love, and that you are living and loving despite losing.

I write often and publicly about my grief. At the same time, I frequently struggle with whether or not to write publicly about my grief. My husband passed away nearly four years ago, and some part of me thinks I should be over my grief, that people will judge me for the grief waves that still come so many years after my loss. Other times, I think I need to write about my grief, and I need to share it, because otherwise people will think I’m over my grief—and like I said before: my grief is my connection to my loss and I don’t want to be finished with it. I don’t want others to think I’ve finished with it, either. The reality is: maybe it’s time to stop caring what other people think about grief.

Grief is so largely misunderstood in our culture, and unless you’ve lived it, it’s hard to understand how grief and joy, and looking toward the future while holding onto the past, can coexist. But they can. And they should. And no one should shame anyone for how they are or aren’t feeling grief. Some losses you can’t just “get over.”

I started this essay planning to write to the theme that grief can be a lifelong battle. The truth is, it’s not a battle. More than that, I can’t even say for sure that grief is lifelong. I’ve lived with it for four years—and in the grand scheme of things, four years is hardly any time at all. And yet, I feel confident enough to say that the waves will always come, even if only as ripples with long breaks of calm water in between. The waves will come for a lifetime.

But I can’t be sure.

I can only be sure that if given the choice, I wouldn’t take anything less than forever.

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What A Butterfly Release Taught Me About Grief After Losing My Son

I recently attended a grief retreat for bereaved mothers. On the last day, as a closing, we did a butterfly release.

I expected that when we opened our envelopes, the butterflies would all spring free to a chorus of ooohs and ahhhs, as we watched them soar and fly away, in a perfectly synchronized metaphor for hope and transformation even in our walk with grief.

That is not what happened. Not at all.

Some butterflies didn’t even move, while others fell to the grass when they tried to fly. It was a bit anticlimactic, and the opposite of the uplifting celebration of rebirth and new life we hoped for to mark the end to the retreat.

However, as I reflect on it, this experience of watching the butterflies haphazardly try to find their bearings in a new environment is a much better metaphor for living with grief.

I think about this in three key ways:

Losing someone you love is like waking up, disoriented, in a new and unfamiliar place.

While handing out the envelopes, one of our retreat leaders cautioned that the butterflies might take a little while to wake up.

This allowed me to consider my butterfly through a different lens.

I reflected on what the experience may have been like for him.

Aside: I don’t actually know if the butterfly was male, but after losing my son eight months ago, I tend to see everything in nature as a little boy.

I wondered what it was like for the butterfly to feel and smell the air of a new and unfamiliar place. To take in the new sights.

He probably felt disoriented and confused, displaced and lost.

One moment he was in a place he knew — whether a good or bad place, there is comfort in the knowledge of the familiar. Now, he was waking up to a new and uncertain reality.

And he did not get a choice in this new reality.

Grief is like that.

Preparing to emerge into a new life with grief is slow and deliberate.

After a reading, we were instructed to open the envelopes that contained the butterflies. When I opened the envelope, my butterfly just sat there.

Just sat there.

Slowly, he raised his wings to point then towards the sky, and with deliberate movements, he opened and closed them. He stretched his spindly legs, each one individually and intentionally. Next he uncoiled his long tongue to its full length, and retracted it slowly.

It was as if the butterfly was feeling every part of his body for the first time. And he took his time to get to know himself again. This was his awakening.

I think that in grief, even our very own bodies feel foreign. We may look the same, but we have taken on the invisible weight of adapting to a world we no longer know.

This process is slow and deliberate, and you should take all the time you need.

Give yourself grace when you fall, and someday you may fly again.

My butterfly attempted his first flight, and plummeted into the grass before he got too far. I hate to admit it, but I felt let down. I wanted this butterfly’s emergence to be a beacon of hope for my life, as I prepared to leave the retreat.

I wanted him to fly, not fall. I expected him to fly.

I think our grief-illiterate society has this same expectation after a major loss — that we quickly pick ourselves up, not stumble, emerge strengthened and in triumph over grief.

We even impose this expectations on ourselves, and beat ourselves up when we cannot be the same or are not “better.”

I walked over to the place where my butterfly had landed, and watched him try to reorient himself in the grass. I sat next to him, in solidarity, and let the uncertainty we had woken up to settle in. I know I will stumble and I will fall too, even as I just try to figure out how to walk side by side with my grief.

The butterfly wasn’t ready to fly yet, and neither am I.

In that moment, I decided to give myself and the little butterfly grace to just sit and be for as long as we needed.

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What I Wish I’d Known About Marriage Before I Got Married

My twelfth wedding anniversary is coming up this weekend. Twelve years married, but he only lived for nine of them. He lived for nine of them, and died months before our tenth anniversary. He died and, in the eyes of the law that had bound us together, my marriage ceased.

With the anniversary coming up, grief and nostalgia have me looking through our wedding album and digging through the boxes I’d stacked away in the closet. I’m not sure why. I don’t need help remembering. In fact, sometimes I feel as if I remember too vividly and too much. And yet, I dig.

My most recent find is a box filled with cards that belong to a game I played at my wedding shower. Each guest filled out an index card sized piece of parchment paper and told me their best marriage advice. The cards read from the cliché, “don’t go to bed angry” to the smile-worthy “always remind him that a happy wife means a happy life.” (My late husband took a particular liking to that piece of advice—and fine, I’ll admit, I supported it, too.) But none of that advice really reflected what I truly wish I’d known about marriage.

I thought marriage was easy, an extension of living together with a lot of legalese making it official. I thought marriage was filing taxes together and arguing over whose turn it was to take out the garbage. I didn’t know.

What I Wish I’d Known About Marriage Before I Got Married
Courtesy of Elaine Roth

I wish someone had told me it’s not easy. I wish someone had told me that weaving every part of your life together with someone else is hard. That it’s a daily study of patience and compromise and checking your own ego. And yet, I wish someone told me that it’s also effortless, as easy as breathing, as easy as simply loving the person by your side. I wish I’d known both things can be true, and the tension between effortless and effort is the heart of marriage.

I wish I’d known not to be disenchanted by real life, that the day to day rarely feels like butterflies and shooting stars. I wish I’d known it’s smelly socks and budgeting and the logistics of figuring out which relative’s house you’re going to on Thanksgiving. I wish I’d known it can’t always be beautiful, but the mundane moments are necessary and can be the groundwork for something extraordinary. I wish I’d known it can’t always be magic, and yet also, I wish I’d known to look for magic even in the mundane.

I wish I’d known that words matter, even in marriage. I wish I’d known to always say the words on my mind, because I’m left now wondering whether I said enough. Also, I wish I’d known sometimes there are no words, sometimes there is just showing up and being there and holding their hand, and that’s enough and more meaningful than any words ever.

I wish I’d known to take more pictures, and to print them out. Not necessarily only of the best posed moments, but of the messy ones, too. But also I wish someone had told me to put my phone down, because some of my favorite memories could not be caught by technology anyway. I wish I’d known that pictures would be all I’d have left, and also that pictures would never do justice to the memories in my mind.

I wish I’d known that sometimes you can’t save them no matter how hard you try. I wish I’d known that through sickness and health means more than handing out medication and monitoring symptoms. I wish I’d know that it means being the person who they search for in a room full of doctors, bearing the immeasurable responsibility of knowing you are their soft landing and grounding force when the world is jagged and upside down. And yet, I wish I’d known that they don’t need you to save them; they just need you to stand beside them as they try to save themselves.

What I Wish I’d Known About Marriage Before I Got Married
Courtesy of Elaine Roth

I wish I’d known to make the most of every moment. Also, I wish I’d known that advice like “make the most of every moment” is unrealistic, and too high a benchmark. Some moments fade, some blur. Some moments are better lost to the tapestry of memory. But also, I wish I’d understood what it meant to make the most of every moment—even the ones better lost. I wish I’d known that making the most meant being authentically yourself in every moment and letting someone else see that and love that, and also seeing and loving that authenticity in someone else.

I wish I’d known how it would end before it all began. I wish I’d known to be prepared for how hard everything would come crashing down so I could brace myself for the fall. And yet, I wish I’d known that knowing the ending wouldn’t have made me change one moment of the rest, because you can never truly brace yourself for the fall, so you might as well soar while you have the chance.

I wish I’d known it will never feel like enough time no matter how much time you get.

I wish I’d known that marriage is full of contradictions, as is life, as is loss.

I wish I’d known that no amount of advice would ever prepare me for marriage.

The truth is: I wish I had known all that I didn’t know and also I’m glad that no one told me. Some lessons can’t be learned without living them, and I’m grateful I had the chance to learn for myself.

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10 Things You Need To Know When Someone’s Baby Dies

Chrissy Teigen and John Legend announced the loss of their son. Not surprisingly, it seems that many of the comments on social media are lacking support.

You will likely not personally encounter a celebrity who has lost a baby. But you will encounter baby loss parents both in person and online.

So I bring you my top 10 list of what you need to know when someone’s baby dies:

Always be kind.

I get that many hurtful words are said with the intent to be kind —- and I’ll talk about that in a minute. But first — check your posture: Are you doing everything you can to empathize? Even if you cannot relate, do you assume this person is doing the absolute best they can under the circumstance? Before you do or say anything — first, be kind.

This loss is not a lesson. (And read that again and again if you need to.)

A parent may at some point in life after loss discover something about themselves or the world as a direct consequence of this loss. But that does not make this loss a lesson. God nor the universe puts the death of a child on someone so they can learn something. It’s tragic. Period. So if you are either trying to find the lesson in someone else’s loss — or want to teach them a lesson — full stop. No.

This is not God’s will.

Not everything that happens on this earth is God’s will. (Why would God create a life just to turn around and say, nevermind?) Things happen on this earth all the time that are not God’s will. (And if that were not the case, why does the Bible say to pray for his will to be done?) Whether we agree theologically or not — the thing is, YOU don’t ever have the right to tell someone their loss was God’s will. Not. Ever.

Say something (hopefully supportive).

You do not need to tiptoe around the loss in order to avoid reminding them about it and making them sad. They have not (nor will they ever) forget. While you don’t get to demand that they pour out all their feelings out to you — you should still acknowledge that they have feelings. As they should. If you don’t know what to say, a simple, “I’m deeply sad for your family,” will do.

Say their child’s name.

If the greatest fear of a parent is to lose a child — the second greatest fear is that once their child is gone, they will be forgotten. You do not bring distress when you mention a child’s name who has passed away. You bring a gift. The gift of remembrance. Say the name. Remember their baby.

If you are close with the person, make an effort on special dates to express that you remember their baby and are thinking of them.

Holidays, due dates, Mother’s Day/Father’s Day, birthdays — all of these days are incredibly lonely and can be distressing for a loss family. Put an alert in your phone to send them a simple message or card to let them know you’re thinking about them and their baby.

Keep the cliches in check.

In my upcoming book, I have almost an entire chapter dedicated to why platitudes hurt. Here’s the cliff’s notes version: platitudes offer quick and easy comfort … to the comforter. And they almost always distress the bereaved. A quick saying makes light of a loss, even when unintended, and indicates that there is a reason or explanation that is acceptable for why the baby died. And if there’s a reason, a parent shouldn’t have to hurt so much. And if they don’t have to hurt so much, you don’t either. But there is no reason good enough. And most certainly, you do not get to tell them the reason you think their baby died. Again, keep it to a “I’m so sorry …”

Don’t judge their reaction.

Popular opinion says, the further along a pregnancy, the more a woman and her partner are emotionally impacted. But that is not what science says. The impact of a loss transcends gestational age and is a reflection of many more factors such as the physical nature of the loss, if the loss was traumatic, the parent’s relationship to this baby and pregnancy, and more. As in — the way a couple experiences a loss and responds is profoundly unique. And their response, whether intensely private or public, is not up for debate. Honor the response and wishes of the grieving couple. And do not imply they are grieving too much, too little, too short, or too long. Let them grieve however they need to.

Your pain does not invalidate their pain.

If you’ve ever been tempted to say (or think), “You think this hurts? Try _________.” Um. Not helpful. This is not the pain Olympics. You can both be deeply hurting over different, even seemingly contradictory things. And likewise, their pain does not invalidate yours.

Don’t be the peeping Tom of grief.

I know that when a celebrity grieves, it impacts many of us. But there is a difference between grieving as a community — and infringing on personal space out of curiosity (or worse.) If someone is a celebrity — recognize that they don’t owe you anything. Sharing their talents with the world does not mean their private affairs get to be fodder for your entertainment. And if they are not a celebrity, privacy and respect are equally due. You can be appropriately concerned … and be respectful. Don’t ask intrusive questions. Don’t demand a deep emotional conversation. Listen to what they want to say? Yes. Expect all the nitty-gritty they are not ready to share? Heck no.

I know I promised 10 things, but here’s a bonus: if someone has had a baby die — show up. Go to the funeral. Bring them a meal. Send a card with money for medical expenses — or just for something nice. Send condolences. Respect their privacy, yes. But if you know of a need, or can communicate with someone coordinating their care, be a person who shows tangible love and support whenever possible.

I know my tone is maybe just a little more direct than you are used to here. But I would like to emphasize that the onus is on all of us to learn to support the grieving better — not for the bereaved to learn to grieve better.

To Chrissy and John — we are thinking of you in this time of deep grief and mourn your Baby Jack with you. He will be missed by us all. Sending our love and support to you, and we hope you are held by your loved ones as we hold you close in our hearts.

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