All of us have to say goodbye to our old selves, our lives before (medically fragile) child. It hit me when I broke my favorite blue and white patterned plates. The visions I had of dinner parties, book clubs, a fun and relaxing home full of guests…just shattered by the intensity of the first year in the NICU and home.
I know the pain of grief can be shattering. I’ve felt that pain, and worked through that pain quite a few times.
Up until I was a mom, I was a counselor. I applied art therapy to the the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance of reality, and meaning. Knowing all of this did not exempt me from my own grief and healing process. I expected the universe to give me opportunities to feel broken and whole. When that plate smashed, and I exploded in tears, I looked up and thought Ok, I get the hint! I’ve got to manage my grief, and reflect on my life.
In therapy language, we call these “emotional triggers.” You’ll know when one hits you – the smell of that hospital, a siren wailing, vent and pulseox alarms, hurried footsteps down a hallway. It will raise your emotional level. Someone could exclaim about your baby being so small, and tears will well up. Most of us get triggered by insensitive comments about our preemies, unmet milestones, or parenting skills. I was away from all of those triggers, so I was handed a new one – a smashed plate I attached a lot of dreams to. Adulting was harder than I thought! It wasn’t all about serving food with style. It was about survival, and how to do that with style.
So I did what any artist would do: I saved a part of my broken plate, and swept the rest away. I had to set aside almost everything I had planned for my adult life and plan anew. I remember in class, we wore safety glasses and smashed up dollar store plates and created mosaic tiles. Even though pieces will be missing and it won’t look the same, what you once had can be transformed.
Life with a preemie is like this! We will always have those missing pieces, the “normal” things we did not get to experience. However, what we have, in spite of those missing pieces, is still beautiful, meaningful, and valuable.
Somehow, starting fresh helped me build a different lifestyle that turned out to be something I’m enjoying. I reprioritized everything – needs versus wants, what I buy, how much I work, what I research. I began to trust my intuition more. I became a stronger advocate for my daughter’s health, and my own. I made new friends online and in person. It’s a mosaic when you meet someone new, putting together who they were in the past, and who they are now. They became part of my new life’s story, who can share my challenges and triumphs with a knowing way. Without the struggles of the past, I never would have met them.
My old friendships remain valuable to me, too. There’s less time for spontaneous get-togethers and alone time. My old friends understand the person I was before child. They are like that small piece of plate that I saved of my old life. And I honestly found that it’s just enough. I don’t have to have it all the way I envisioned. I just need a small chunk of time with them to feel revitalized and connected.
Embrace what you do have. Honor your old life. Pay tribute to it. Mourn losses. Re-envision your lifestyle for yourself, create new goals. Shift around priorities. All of this will help restore your mental health, and help manage grief. Make mementos about this step in your journey, if it helps you see how brokenness can have meaning and beauty. Know that you are continuing to piece together a new life.