I used to listen politely as people made references to the loss of an aunt, a mother, or even an adult child. It was an attempt to connect with me, to identify with me about the loss of my 14 months old daughter, Zoe. Beneath my smile, I would tune them out and in my mind say “You have no idea what you’re talking about, my loss is so different than yours.” And, early on, I admit I would also think “My loss is much more tragic than yours.”
There is no question, a loss is tragic. Losing someone you expect to live with and watch grow for years to come is so backwards, so upside down. It doesn’t make a bit of sense. It has been five and a half years since Zoe died and I now see how intertwined loss is from one person to the next. As a mom who has lost an older baby, I can find support from others with very different losses. After all, the tie that binds is love.
I recently had dinner with a friend who lost their husband some years ago and she said something that struck a chord. She told me very plainly “I loved him more than anything. Do I miss him? Of course I do. Do I wish he was here? Of course I do. But I can’t change the fact that he’s gone. Nothing I can do will change that fact. So I choose to live a life of gratitude. I choose to be thankful. I don’t mean I’m thankful that he died. What I mean is that I choose to be thankful that I know what it feels like to love and I know what it feels like to be loved.”
There it was. So simple and, oh so, true. In that moment I realized that losing someone you love is just that…Loss. It is heartache, it is grief, it is awful, and we don’t like it. What we have in common, the loss of a 14-month-old baby and the loss of a great and loving husband is that we know what it feels like to love and we have a choice to make: to be thankful or to be bitter.
A few weeks ago, I sat in my therapist’s office and she asked if I had ever written letters to Zoe.
“Of course,” I replied.
“What is the tone of them? What do you say to Zoe?” she asked.
“Typically, they are apology letters,” I responded.
“I want you to try something for our next session together. I’d like you to write a letter of gratitude to your daughter. I’m talking about the bigger picture here. Do you think you can do that?”
As my foot began to jiggle and I scooted my hands underneath my legs to keep from biting my nails, I replied, “I think so.”
So, here we go. My letter of gratitude to Zoe, no apologies, no guilt, no should- haves, no regret. Just gratitude for my gift that was taken away.
My dear Zoe,
Where do I begin? It has been 5 years and 8 months exactly since you left this world and my how life has changed. As a kid I loved to play the board game called “Life”. You’d get this little car to travel along the twisting roads of life, there were choices to make and unexpected setbacks at each turn; do you go to college or do you start a family? Medical school or become a teacher? I think about that now and how if I had been given a choice 15 years ago of two different lives, one where all the difficulties and heartache would be on open display ahead of time and the other a fantasy of the “perfect” no-problem life, I would have wanted the fantasy. The easy life, no job issues, no fertility problems, no prematurity and, of course, no losing you.
But, with all the choices we make in life we don’t have options with guaranteed outcomes and on the surface I would have never wished to go through what we’ve been through. But as I look deeper and begin to uncover the gift of circumstances out of my control, I am thankful. I am thankful that you graced my life for 14 months.
I am thankful that I got to see you smile, hear you laugh, and look into those gorgeous eyes. So many parents, parents I’ve met in these last 5 years, never got that chance with their babies.
I’m thankful that because of you I know what true love is, this love envelopes me with an awe-inspiring sense of completeness. I’m thankful that I pushed through the fear of losing you when you were first born, a mere 1 pound 10 ounces, and allowed myself to fall in love with you.
I feel immense gratitude for God allowing me to see your life through His lenses, to see that you were much more than a baby with special needs. You were meant as a gift to so many people. You brought people together and showered joy upon them. Most of the world never got to know you, but for those doctors and nurses in the NICU, you will never be forgotten.
You alone taught me that gestures don’t have to be sweeping and grandiose to make a difference. Your smile, your laugh, that twinkle in your eyes is all it took to turn someone’s day around. I know, because I’ve loved you, that simply saying a baby’s name and lighting a candle in their memory is all it takes to make a difference in a grieving parent’s day. Spending an hour of my time having breakfast with parents whose baby is fighting to live, means more than their words can express me, but the gratitude in their misty eyes says it all.
I’ve learned to be courageous, to trust in God, have faith that no matter what happens or which way life goes, what obstacles we may face, He will provide. Not in monetary ways, but in ways to survive spiritually. Because I’ve loved you, I love God. His love has covered me and sustained me these many months. I don’t have to like the fact that you died, but I can be thankful because I have loved you I know God’s love, I’ve felt it and I’ve lived it.
Because of you people from around the country find happiness in seeing a ladybug. Thank you for sending those sweet little round bugs at just the right time on just the right days.
Because I’ve loved you, I’m a better parent to your sisters than I think I might have been. I think I might have gotten so caught up in the day-to-day of therapies, appointments, evaluations, and medications that I would have forgotten to stop and be in the moment with Avery and Lily. Of course daily life does fog my glasses from time to time, but when I’m pushing them in the hammock on a perfect fall day and their laughter joyfully spills out of them, I stop. I stare at them. I smile and laugh with them and I thank God for them and you.
I am beyond blessed to be your mommy. Each day I will promise to shed another ounce of guilt. You soldiered ahead with grace and purpose and that is the example I want to set for your sisters. I want to show them that awful, terrible, heartbreaking things happen in life, but life does not have to be ruined because of it. Life can truly be beautiful again and can have meaning deeper than you imagined. I am thankful I have felt the deepest emotions known to mankind…love, grief, and joy.
Zoe, I will always miss you. I will always wish life had gone differently and that I was holding your hand in the morning as we walk into school. But this is the life that was given to us and living in the past, full of regret is no way to live. Thank you for showing me how to live, how to love, and how to find happiness no matter what challenges we face.