William Shakespeare once said, "Expectation is the root of all heartache." I'm fairly certain there's not been a truer thing ever written. For myself, expectations can lead to disappointment and feeling lost when there are no right answers to be found. Grief goes hand in hand with this. It is a tenuous process of unknowns and unmet expectations that will never be fulfilled. When talking to moms who are new to loss or friends/family of someone who has experienced loss, I often tell them that you never move on, you simply move forward. I stand by that statement, but I want to clarify that certain times are easier than others. Lately, I've had an easier time with grief. I think the pandemic has taken my mind off of the experiences missed with Colton, and I have been very focused on a quiet existence as a homebody for the last few months. However, I realize that for many people, the pandemic has unearthed a host of unknowns, unmet expectations, and generally terrible feelings. Essentially, what you're feeling is grief. Grief over all of the unmet expectations, the normalcy that we took for granted, and the traditional experiences that aren't able to happen. In light of this, I want to focus on how to make choices when they seem impossible during this pandemic, but first, I must share a story with you below about an experience a few weeks ago with Avery where I had expectations and was nervous about making the right choice.
On a hot July day, Avery was sitting in our master bedroom jumping up and down on our bed. All of a sudden she shouted excitedly, "What's in that pretty box, Mommy? Can you please get it down so I can see it?"
Normally, I would immediately and enthusiastically say yes and let her see whatever it was she was wanting to hold. In this instance, I realized she was talking about Colton's memory box that sits beside his ashes, and a moment of panic struck me. Just to be clear, I rarely get down the precious box myself because it's hard for me to see his tiny feet and hands, his lock of hair, and other personal items. I immediately became anxious of the unknown. How would I explain to her how we made decisions, what Colton's last moments were, and even whether she would shatter every item in that box accidentally. What if I accidentally lost it and sobbed uncontrollably, scaring her? Nevertheless, she really wanted to see it, so I placed it on the bed, untied the box, and hoped for the best.
As you can see from the photos above, she was exactly the opposite of what I expected. She traced his tiny fingers and toes. She looked at his little lock of hair; holding it and telling me how beautiful it was. She pretended to read the papers that were inside of the box. The only questions she asked were about his hair color and the size of his hands and feet, and before we put everything back, she told me that she loved him and this was the neatest box she had opened. Her reactions made me realize that sometimes our expectations hold us back. In our race to shield ourselves and families from negative experiences, in our race to uphold normalcy, we hold ourselves and them back from adapting to different situations, confidently choosing something, and moving forward with enthusiasm.
So, let's talk about making choices when there are no right answers. Let's discuss expectations when nothing is normal. Here are three things that have been said or are regularly said to me about life and child loss, and they all lend themselves to situations that all of us are experiencing right now:
"There's no way I could be strong enough to go through something like that."
Child loss is hard. Losing a parent or grandparent is hard. Pandemics and the choices that come along with them are hard. This is not the Pain Olympics, and I promise you that when something is thrown your way without a choice, you will rise up to tackle it. Not because you can, but because you must. Each one of these situations you have to summon your strength and have faith that you're doing the right thing. Essentially, when we go through something undesirable that makes us uncomfortable, we either find out whether our coping mechanisms work or we learn new coping mechanisms. Strength is like a muscle that must be exercised, so the more you test your strength in situations, the greater your capacity to be strong. Even if you don't feel strong, you are stronger than you know.
"I wouldn't have been able to make those decisions. I would completely break down and not be able to function."
I hear this one often when I have to explain that I made the decision to sign a DNR for my son, make hospice care decisions, and watch him pass since the machines were taken away. It was absolutely heartbreaking to make those decisions, and I won't lie, for quite a while, I didn't function. I spent a long time wearing the same pair of sweatpants, eating cookies on the couch, and hazily making it through a funeral service. Until my husband pushed me out of the house by saying that I needed to go out to eat with friends. Two things about this one:
1. It's okay to wallow in the suck-i-ness of the situation for a bit. Seriously. Maybe you had every hope for school to resume normally. Maybe your hope was that college and professional sports would resume, and they're not. Do what you need to do... eat some of your favorite snacks, Netflix as much as you need to, write in your journal for a while, but then...
2. Come back with an open mind about the new situation you will encounter and be FLEXIBLE. I tell myself it's okay to feel things fully for 24-48 hours, but then I need to move forward. You don't get to choose to not function at all because life moves forward even when you're not ready to. I know it may not seem the same, but if you're struggling with making pandemic choices, just remember the school year and time in general is moving forward no matter what. You are the best person to make decisions for your family, and inevitably will choose what is the most desirable course of action. Have faith and realize that whatever you decide to do, you should move forward enthusiastically with that choice. I'll say it again that FLEXIBILITY and ENTHUSIASM is a choice you make every.single.day.
You're so calm.
I've heard this in my life related to many things, but particularly to child loss and within my classroom at school. Each time I hear it, I laugh, and think to myself that I must be doing a good job with "fake it til you make it." No one is "so calm" and I always connect this statement with the following analogy: Calmness is like a duck on the water. On the surface of the water the duck looks to be gliding along with little to no effort, but under the surface the duck is frantically paddling their feet. I can assure you that the people who look calm all of the time, have many moments of frantically paddling their feet that you don't see. In short, don't feel bad if you're frantically paddling because everyone is doing the same thing. However, make sure that you have moments of calm for your own personal mental health. Whenever I feel anxiety, I try to go for a run, do some yoga, or spend time with family and friends. During this pandemic, and long after the pandemic has calmed down, make time for yourself to do activities that bring you some semblance of calmness.
None of us could have predicted that this is what 2020 would look like. The grief that you feel over the loss of normalcy is valid, disorienting, and unfair. Unfortunately, we did not get to choose. However, fear of the unknown and unmet expectations are hallmarks of life that will never go away, even after the pandemic has been won. Not only that, but there is a beauty sometimes in things not going to plan. Always remember that you are stronger than you know, you're the best person to make decisions for your family, and try to do your best to approach life with flexibility and enthusiasm. I have no doubt that you are, and will continue, to do amazing things in the face of adversity and those actions will carry you through the pandemic and everything else that comes your way.
You are an unstoppable force. The more that you show up that way, the more you inspire others to be unstoppable forces as well. We are better together, and nothing, not even a pandemic, will change that.