Today I had the wonderful opportunity to hold a sweet, tiny 3 week old little boy. He is the new baby of one of my student’s families. Holding that little baby, the sweetness of a newborn’s smell and little movements , was the great joy of my day. As I held him and listened to the new parents talk about sleepless nights, discovering new things everyday, and learning how to ask for help, I was struck again how very much alike the first year of being a parent has many similarities with the first year of grieving the loss of someone dear to you.
Oh the strongest thread of that first year might be very different – joy for first parents and sadness for first year grievers – but there are so many other threads woven into the first year that are quite similar. I’ve been reflecting upon this quite for some time and today’s holding of that adorable baby boy was the final piece that needed to settle into place leading me to share my musings. It’s fascinating to me what can be the final necessary piece that I need each time before the compulsion to write settles so heavily upon me that all else falls away.
The first year is one of constant newness. Absolutely everything is new and unknown. Every day, every holiday, every thing to learn, every interaction with people, all of it is new. As a first time parent and in the first year of grieving, absolutely nothing you do is like it was before the moment of birth or the moment of death. It is all new, strange and unknown. Even simple things can have a newness to them that can make navigating these new, unknown paths quite challenging.
This newness leaves one feeling a myriad of emotions and experiencing life in radically new ways..
*Confusion as you try to sort out how to handle each new situation. Even the things that you used to know how to do without having to think about can no longer make any sense. It can be confusing as everyone around you has some wisdom to share and there are more books about each topic than anyone could ever read. Discerning which voices to listen to and which ones to block out can be a confusing process.
*Confusion can be compounded by the fact that exhaustion is probably one of the most common, constant things you experience. Sleepless nights, nodding off at odd times and in odd places, bone deep weariness, all of these are present in almost every moment of every day. Physically, mentally, emotionally exhaustion seems to wrap around us like a fog that you just can’t see through.
*New definitions of ones self that sometimes takes much longer than that first year to settle into believing is true about yourself. I remember the first time I named myself as Kateri’s mother. It felt so stunning to my ears. And I believe it wasn’t until she was several years old, and Soren had joined us, that I truly felt like the definition of myself as mother was strongly entrenched. This same thing is ringing true for me as I name myself as widow. I have spoken this word out loud very few times as it feels like such a shock to my entire system when I speak it. It’s as if someone has dumped a giant bucket of ice water over my head and I can’t process what has just happened. The layers upon layers that are within each of in the ways we name ourselves is only now becoming clear to me as I try to honor and sort through the new layers of who I now am.
*Sadness at the ways in which we are no longer who we have known ourselves to be. And sadness at the radical ways in which our lives have changed. Even as a new parent, with all its joy, there were many things in that first year that I felt sad about. I couldn’t sleep whenever I wanted to. Sleeping in was definitely a thing of the past. Being spontaneous and going away for the weekend was no longer an easy task. There was sadness at no longer feeling like my body was just my own. As I walk through this first year of grieving the death there are many more sadnesses and senses of loss than I’ve ever experienced as a parent. A constant thread that runs closely alongside the one of missing Russell is the one of missing knowing who I am and knowing what my life path is. It is all turned upside down and inside out and I do feel sadness at this.
*Wonder at the ways in which your life has been turned upside down. The flipside of the sadness is the wonder at looking at a life upside down. It is a wondrous thing to know that I can rebuild myself into a new, deeper understanding of who I am. And there is great wonder in looking at the world with a new lens. This year is radically like the first year of parenting in this sense. When I can simply sit back and observe what is happening within myself I do find great wonder in this time and in this moment. I am experiencing the world in such a stunning, new way that it is very easy to feel wonder in it.
* Gratitude for the gifts that you can see present in your life. The only other time in my life, besides the one I find myself in right now, that I’ve felt such upswellings of love and gratitude for the gifts of the time were in the first year of parenting each of my children. There are so very many gifts of love, others being present to me, and feeling connected to my children (then and now) that I feel gratitude every single day, even the hard ones. Maybe more so on the hard ones.
*Change is one of the most operative words. Everything changes when you become a parent and everything changes when you lose someone. Even the simplest of things are no longer the same. How you find the time and energy to prepare a meal changes. How you spend time with other people changes. The things you are interested in doing and talking about changes. What you want to do in your free time changes. The things you worry about changes. The things you don’t worry about anymore changes. All of it, everything about your life, changes in some way, shape, or form.
*Being blindsided happens easily. Just when you think you have something figured and you are on a certain path something new will fly in, hit you upside the head and it all changes again. And honestly it is usually the littlest things that can blindside us – a picture of your loved one when least expected, an infant sleeping longer than expected or shorter than expected, a song on the radio, a certain smell – so many little, unexpected things.
*The energy we bring to each day is radically different than it was before. Some days we can be high energy with lots of ability to tackle all of the newness in our lives. Other days, we can be so low energy that we just don’t know how we are going to pull ourselves through until the end of the day.
*We can often feel as if no one else could possibly understand what we are going through. As public as much of our journey can be, everything feels very private and even reclusive at times. Hiding away from the world can become an easy thing to do.
Until we get through the first year of parenting or the first year of grieving there is no way that we can have any idea how we might handle each new thing that comes our way. The first year provides a new foundation for how we will approach our world from this time, this moment forward. I am confident that the second, and third, and every year after in this healing/grieving path I am on will bring as many challenges as each consecutive year of parenting has brought me since I first became a mother. I do very much hope that my survival through this first year will at least give me a little more confidence that I can handle all the new things that will come my way as I walk my life without Russell physically by my side. Each new thing that I make it through basically still intact is another solid brick I put down in my new foundation and new understanding of who I am now.
I am choosing to walk this healing path slowly and with great intention, just as I walked the path of new time parent. I choose to listen primarily to my inner self and learn to trust my instincts about what is right and true and needed for myself. I choose to embrace all of the emotions of this time. I choose to give voice to my experience as authentically as I can. I choose to live this journey as deeply, as honestly, and as truly as I can. And I choose to believe that each new step along this path is making me stronger. By going through it, I know that I WILL get through it.