“My loss doesn’t define me.”
Over and over I have heard this nugget of wisdom repeated by people who have lost a child. It pops up in memoirs, interviews, blog posts, and even in discussion with other grieving parents. Spouting this line seems to be viewed as something to be applauded; a sign of defiant bravery in the face of horrible tragedy. But could it possibly be true?
I understand why people like to say it. It gives them the sense that they have taken control of a life which has been horribly altered by events out of their control. And I also understand why people like to hear it said. It makes them feel that, should they ever experience the unspeakable, they too will be able to get through it intact and without losing the essence of who they are. But you know what? As nice as it sounds it just isn’t true.
The reality is that we who have experienced great loss will never be the same as we were prior to our loss. We may continue the relationships, careers, and hobbies that we had before our loss, but never in the same way that we would have had we never woken one day to see the sky fall down upon us. If our loss doesn’t define us, it certainly becomes a large part of the new definition of who we are.
And you know what? That’s okay. Part of coming to terms with loss is accepting that, in addition to losing your loved one, you have also lost the person you were before. Once you do that you can then begin to make the most of your new life, one which, if not defined by your loss, nevertheless exists in the shadow of it.
Rachel Langer says:
Poignant and well stated Mike. As always, my heart hurts for you and Heather, and though I know we can say nothing to change it – you have a world of people out there who have been impacted in some way by your loss, and share your burden of grief.
We walk in that shadow with all four of you, just one of whom gets to see it from the other side.
Very wise, Mr. S.
I think it’s quite a common problem for people who’ve experienced grief, especially in the extreme circumstances that you and Heather suffered, to tell themselves that they WILL be happy again, they WILL feel normal. I think it’s far healthier to accept that, actually, nothing is ever going to feel normal, or even entirely happy, ever again, but that that’s okay.
So many people convince themselves that it will all go away after a set period of time, and are almost disappointed when it doesn’t and that’s where many problems with mental health arise. You guys seem to have a much healthier outlook, and have amazing support in each other.
Love, as always, to all five of you xx
The loss of my four day old daughter, Ariana last year, changed my life. Since then life has gone on, the world kept turning and somehow my husband and I have not only dealt with the pain together, but actually ended up closer than before. But I would never say that her loss hasn’t defined me. Her loss has changed me, I’m more compassionate, more empathetic, more patient. I’m different. I have a new “normal”. Ariana changed every facet of my being. I would say my grief doesn’t define me, but her loss certainly has.
So very well said, as was the comment from Tam above. My daughter died, and the loss of her certainly defines me. I can’t see how it couldn’t. But they, that’s just me. Good to see I’m not alone.
Great post, and I’m sure many grieving parents will relate.
I’ve just spent half an hour reading your beautiful daughter Hope’s story. I am so deeply sorry for your loss, she is a beautiful girl, and I can’t even begin to imagine the heartbreak you have endured. xx
i have actually said the complete opposite…my losses DO define me. they have made me what i am today. i don’t think this is a bad thing.
i have seen so many people that have let their losses define them…but in a positive way. they have started foundations, they have donated their time, money, and heart to the memory of their children. their lives have become focused on remembering and honoring the tiny life that forever changed their own life.
i think that many people let their living children define them, so why shouldn’t a child that has passed away also define them? even after a loss, a mom is still a mom, a dad is still a dad. i am the mother of four. that is who i am. it doesn’t matter that only one is living.
my heart goes out to you and your family…
Beautifully written Mike. I wish so much it didn’t have to define you b/c I so wish it NEVER happened. However, some wishes can’t come true I guess and that will always make me so incredibly sad and full of sorrow when I look at pictures, watch videos and/or listen to your and Heather’s utter heart break over loosing your perfect, beautiful 1st born daughter.
I had never had the honour of meeting Maddie….never held her, played with her, read to her, made her laugh or cuddled with her. Yet, the loss I feel when I look at her or hear about her is so grand. I cannot even imagine the profound grief you both feel.
All I can do is keep being “here” for 2 people I have never met but consider my friends. 2 people who have earned my respect on such a profound level. 2 people who I cry with and for and 2 people who will be forever in my prayers, my thoughts, my heart….just like their perfect little girls, Maddie & Annie will always be.
Always With Love & Friendship from Canada
catherine lucas says:
The minute I read the title I doubted it… Loss DOES define who you are. You ARE not the loss, there is more to a person then loss, but nevertheless, as you say Mike, loss changes you like nothing else in life will change you.
Loss changes the way you look and live at and in the world. And loss changes the way the people and families around you for sure. I think that getting to grips with loss is one of the most hard things we ever have to do in our life, maybe even more so if the loss is a child.
BEAUTIFULLY said, Mike! I could not agree more. Thanks for putting what I’ve thought in such a succinct, clear way.
Exactly. The loss may not define you entirely but it certainly changes the definition of who you are. Coming to terms with that, I think, is an important part of the grieving process.
I completely agree with your post. I have never lost a child but I did lose my father very unexpectedly when I was 22 and he was 46. His death most definitely has helped define who I am today. I know without a doubt things would be different if he were still here and I hate that I’m different than I would have been. In that same token I know that I am more sensitive to loss, more empathetic to those in the throes of grief, and take life and all it has to give less for granted than I did before. Loss may not make up all that I am but it certainly shaped the person I have become.
The loss isn’t who we are entirely but it certainly changes us. Just as our children are so much more than how they died.
We both are, and can be, so much more than that … it is our choice. I think we can all think of people who have lost a child and who have chosen to live in the loss and the pain of it for the rest of their lives.
As Dr. Phil says time doesn’t heal anything, it’s what you do with the time that matters. It takes time and hard work to get to the place where you are willing to reinvest in life again.
My daughter died at the age of 20 in 2003 from a fire while attending college. I decided pretty early on that the best way to honor her was to live a good life – to laugh, to love and to find the joy again. Everything I do — I do in her honor and it brings me a great sense of peace and satisfaction. I know she is looking down and smiling … and that makes me very happy.
So beautifully and powerfully written.
So well said Mike. Your loss has defined you but not at all in a negative way. Love to you all.
Thank you so much for this post. I have suffered from recurrent miscarriages and do not have any children, and there is a high likelihood that I never will. Even though I was never someone who defined herself as needing to be a mother, the idea that the decision is not mine to make has been much more difficult than I ever would have anticipated. I keep trying to get back to how I used to be, how I used to feel, even what I used to do with my time — but this post has helped me to realize that I do not need to try to go back to being that person. I need to embrace my life now and all that it may bring, not all of which is negative; my increased capacity for empathy has been a pleasant surprise, and I feel like a gentler person. Also, you and Heather live the example that having a sense of humor and a positive attitude are key, even as one may be grieving. So no expenses on children means more luxury for me — instead of lamenting my fate, I need to adopt more animals and start shopping for a country house!
I’m so sorry to hear of your miscarriages. Miscarriage is an awful and isolating thing that steals from us the lives of children so young but still so embedded within us. Be kind to yourself, sometimes the “new’ you can feel foreign, especially in those first days and months. “Different” doesn’t mean bad. It will just take some time to find your footing.
Peace to you. x
i know i don’t know you, but i just wanted to say that i’m sorry for the loss of your babies. it is something that no one should ever have to go through…and those of us that do will never be the same.
again, i’m sorry…
Very nicely said!
I can’t imagine that being true. I will never be the same since we lost our daughter. My life has been altered eternally, and yes, it is because of her life and death. I agree with your statement, “If our loss doesn’t define us, it certainly becomes a large part of the new definition of who we are.”
very well written.
Mike, what do you do for a living? If you are not a professional writer, why not?
red pen mama says:
I agree with this all the way. No matter what else I do, how many other children I have, Gabriel’s death is indelibly stamped on me as a person, as a mother. Thanks for being brave enough to say this. Of course I am not *only* the mother to a still baby, but I am that as well as a writer, wife, mommy, and more.
Deb Hauer says:
AMAZED! Yes, that is me…amazed…. at this post! I have had loss in my life, not loss that I could compare to anything or anyone because each loss is unique. However, this post can relate to many situations and it is SO true! Thank you for this insite. Sometimes there are feelings in life that are hard to put into words but you hit this one right on! So thank you for this post.
Two thumbs up!!
Absolutely true. I continue to be defined by my own loss almost 24 years later. And I’m just now learning that I don’t have to feel guilty when I’m not sad about it.
Very true. While I obviously wish my daughter was still here, I am glad that she continues to shape my life and help me to be a better person every day. I feel I have a new purpose in life and that is to make her proud.
My parents have not been the same since my brother’s death at age 25. They are still wonderful, loving, fun parents and grandparents, but they are changed. I am too, but it is easier to see change in others.
Our experiences change us. How could such a profound loss not define you in some way?
This is my first time visiting and am so relieved to find another blog that speaks my language. I lost my daughter as an infant and wanted to first take a moment to say how sorry I am for the loss of your daughter as well.
I think that loss, in many ways, has defined who I am now, I hope that people don’t look at me and say “there’s that woman who lost a baby” but I do hope that people see the way that we live our lives now and the way that our loss has made us appreciate each moment with our living children that much more. Saying goodbye to my daughter was life changing and I’m not sure how it could not define some piece of who I am now.
Thank you so much for sharing thoughts that ring true for me.
Sad, beautiful and true.
Seems like loss doesn’t define you, but it does re-define you. [just an opinion, of course]
I haven’t experienced a loss of this magnitude, but I’ve always felt that any enormous change in life shapes a new definition of “you.” You don’t solely become that “something” (whatever the life-altering event was), but it does permanently change you.
::internet hugs to you and Heather::
Perhaps the word we are looking for is “refine”, more than “define.” We are changed unutterably by this experience, in the hot fires of life’s refinery, and, if you are lucky, much of the dross of life will go. It can take a very long time to readjust one’s self to a new reality, with the best help there is. But it’s how we define this experience to ourselves (not how others define it) that makes the difference. And that is, of course, a lifelong process, with our feelings shifting over time, or in the space of an hour. When my severely deformed and brain damaged child was born, all changed in the moment I was woken from the anaesthetic–and I didn’t want to see him, so dire were the descriptions, and so quickly was his death predicted. I was still a “civilian”, still part of the normal world where such aimless strokes of fate weren’t part of my view of my life, I couldn’t imagine embracing such a frightening image. Twenty-two years later, when he died, my husband and I had been through many transformations. I learned that severe grief can frighten other people, that I could cause awkwardness simply by entering a room, that there was great great good in many around me, as well as tenderness and insights. I learned that I could do much much more than I ever expected, that I could fight on behalf of my child, that doctors and nurses could be ham-fisted and awkward, as well as upfront and supportive. I learned to be brave. I learned to reach out. These were all things that taught me new things about myself (and, yes, most were immensely painful in the learning) and certainly changed my definitions of myself. How the world defines me? Frankly, who cares, really. I know we gave this frail child as good a life as he could have, and managed to keep our marriage together (a terrible threat to many grieving couples). We were immensely lucky in having two normal girls, each conceived with a high chance of the same fate as their brother, and I learned from them the natural empathy and kindness found in children. The only two erosions, not scars, in my mind, I think, are these: I still feel, at the baseline, instantly connected to people who have gone through something similar. And that moment, when I walked my three year old daughter, born 18 months after her brother, to nursery school the first day, and saw the other parents towing their offspring, proud as if they were proffering a bouquet, my first thought was, you parents don’t know–but you are holding hands with a miracle.
Any major change in life – whether it be a tremendous loss, becoming a parent, even getting married, moving, what have you – defines you. It’s not the entire definition, but it is surely part of it.
This makes perfect sense to me. So often people want to talk about moving on, but I think it’s really about moving through. I have not experienced the loss you have, but I can very much appreciate the sentiment that these life-changing moments do, indeed, change us. Thank you for saying it so beautifully.
Beautiful post. I agree with you and wish none of us had these enormous losses. Take care.
It’s all of a piece, isn’t it? The sum of our parts and all. Thanks for your candor. Always sending well wishes to you and your family.
Thank you, Mike. And Heather. And Maddie and Annie and Rigby. Because to so many grieving and lost people this acknowledgement means SO much.
I have never had a child, nor lost one. I have never felt the horror and tragedy that you live through every day. I have not lost a parent, a spouse, a sibling. I have not had death rob me of a loved one, not really. But I have had life and circumstances rob me. And I live with that every day. It has been nearly 10 years since I lost my first true love and that loss has defined my adulthood, my entire life. And it truly is moving through loss, not getting over it or past it or forgetting/forgiving it. It is merely through. I can’t imagine the type of pain that you live with, but I surely can’t comprehend how it could possibly NOT be part of what defines you. Because my lost love is part of what defines me, and that is so much less.
So thank you.
katie allison granju says:
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. This week marks the first anniversary of Henry’s death (after he spent 5 weeks in the hospital), and at this point, the loss of my sweet son does define me. I feel like a martian a lot of the time – so different from other people, and other parents in particular…. I know I have a long journey ahead.