After losing a child: We are a family, but we grieve alone

My daughter’s absence was like a wound, raw and weeping. Everything we did together reminded us of who we had lost.

[Illustration by Emily Dooley/Al Jazeera]

Once I got married and became a mother, I understood that my whole self wasn’t just about me any more. My life revolved around the other members of my familial collective  – my husband, and my two daughters. Four was the number that felt complete.

My world was driven by this new connected identity. We did things as a family, planned holidays as a family, and made decisions for the good of the family – mainly, the children – rather than the benefit of one specific part of the whole.

And we were whole. That’s how it felt to me  – whole and perfect and never alone. Yes, it could be overwhelming, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss that time when we all fit together like a perfect, seamless puzzle.

I took life for granted. I was perennially distracted. I was too wrapped up in the day-to-day bustle of raising the girls and keeping the family machine running to worry about what the future would look like. I stopped paying attention to each individual piece of the whole. I assumed the way we existed – as a family of four – would last forever.

That blurring of boundaries set me up for a massive identity crisis. It blinded me to the fragility of my family. It left me vulnerable to the devastating soul-deep loneliness that overwhelmed me when one of my children died.

Was it ever real? Was I deluding myself even then? I’m convinced that the version of my family that I’m remembering was, in fact, a dream.

I don’t know if other families have a sweet-spot moment in their existence the way mine did – or the way that I remember we did. We were far from perfect. We were a tangle of shoes, cluttered tables, dirty dishes, and dinnertime chaos. We were bedtimes and bath times and Pixar movies on Friday nights. We were oblivious to the privilege of our own oblivion.

I sat at the helm of that version of us – navigating the constant stopping and starting of school years, riding the crest of the seasons, wrapping my dear ones in holiday trimmings, and (of course) charting the growth spurts and milestones of my girls as the years passed.

This didn’t stop when my older daughter, Ana, was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 11. If anything, we became more tightly bound through long hospital stays, home isolation, a bucket-list of dream vacations, and the constant heavy certainty that she (we) wouldn’t survive. We crammed it all into the almost-five years between the day of Ana’s first hospitalisation and the day she died.

She died. Our world fractured. It wasn’t so much that we became suddenly, brutally, a family of three. It was more like we unbecame a family of four.

During the earliest days of deep grief, I floundered for a familiar family cadence that no longer existed, grasping for a way to survive the terrible pain of losing Ana. I was desperate to stitch the three of us back together, to find ways to reconnect with my husband and younger daughter, Emily.

At 12 years old, Emily had been intent on carrying on as if nothing had happened. She was watching me closely back then, no doubt afraid that if she looked away, I might disappear too.

Losing Ana destabilised the entire foundation of our lives. It reverberated through every peak and valley, changing how we each saw the world and interacted with each other. We became a table with three legs, a map missing one direction, a tripod of grief.

We were forced to reconfigure our relationship as a family and reexamine our individual identities. This was essential for survival. Ana was gone and we all shared the bottomless emptiness of her absence, but we experienced grief separately. We could not help each other. We were adrift in our individual bubbles of agony and though we had a sense of the terrible pain we were all experiencing, there was no way to rally together as we had done in the past.

We had lost the fourth direction. We had no idea how to find our way back to each other. At least at first.

A long time ago, someone told me that I should enjoy my kids while they were still small. “It goes by so fast,” they’d said. “Cherish these years.”

I didn’t believe it would go by fast, not when I was still in the thick of it. I thought their childhood would be a slow burn. I knew our family dynamic would shift as the girls got older, but I figured this would happen gradually and we would adapt in ways that kept the four of us closely connected forever.

Then, suddenly, there were only three of us. Grief wedged itself between us and for the first time in almost 16 years, I could not get comfort from my family. I needed to talk about Ana – all the time, every day. My husband needed to mourn quietly and privately. Emily needed to pretend she had never had a sister at all. We tiptoed around each other for the first six months. Ana’s absence was like a wound, raw and weeping. Everything we did together reminded us of what – of who – we had lost.

Three place settings at the table meant we stopped having dinner together.

Reminders of how Ana had loved a certain park or food or grocery store meant we avoided all of these things.

Celebrations, holidays, birthdays, and events that we’d once anticipated and loved went by with little or no fanfare.

The house fell quiet. We suffered deeply and we suffered alone.

The fracture that occurred in my family, the ongoing repercussions of losing someone so central to our collective and individual identities, and the perpetual pain of missing Ana did not go away. This is what we’re still learning to navigate four years later.

And yet, we’ve managed to cobble together a new kind of family. We’re smaller. In some ways, we’re less connected. In others, we’re closer than we’ve ever been. I am learning to recognise the difference between grief and loneliness, but also when these two feelings intersect. I’m learning to understand and honour the fact that my grief is not their grief and that this is okay.

We all grieve differently. We experience trauma and pain differently too. This has been my loneliest realisation. I could not go with Ana when she died, but I wanted to. I ached to hold her hand and descend into the unknown with her. But, of course, she had to do this alone.

I can support Emily as she navigates grief, but the full realisation of what she has lost – something that she is finally beginning to understand now that she’s 17 – is hers to grapple with on her own. Honouring this in a way that supports Emily without diminishing the way she grieves is something I’m working hard to do. I can’t drive the ship the way I once did. Letting go of that former role – that former life – is hard. But it’s also a bit of a relief.

In the past four years, we’ve learned to accept the new shape of our family. Emily is finishing up her third year of high school. I turned 50 in May. Though we each grieve in our own way, we talk about Ana more. We accept that there is more silence in the house. We have discovered new ways to connect and I have personally begun to enjoy my solitude again.

Sometimes it still feels like we’re a family of four. We bring Ana into our lives in new, unexpected ways. Emily writes songs about her sister. She’s learning to play Ana’s old guitar. She’s begun collecting crystals and stones, a favourite hobby of Ana’s. My husband and I visit Ana’s favourite places on her birthday and holidays and on the day she died. He listens to the music that Ana loved. I write about her.

I take long walks on quiet trails and talk to her, pointing out tulip trees and downy woodpeckers. A few years ago, I started a Day of the Dead ritual for Ana. I set up an altar for her and adorn it with stones, candles, and flowers. I showed it to Emily this past November, explaining that it was difficult to find fresh marigolds – the traditional flower used for Day of the Dead altars.

This past Mother’s Day, my husband and daughter gave me some marigold seedlings to plant in our flower garden. Emily adores the garden. She waters it every day. She said she wants to make her own altar for Ana in November. These altars will be separate, but we will decorate them with the marigolds we grew together.

Source: Al Jazeera