Giving Yourself Grace

March 23, 2022

Guest Blog by Michelle Valiukenas, founder of The Colette Louise Tisdahl Foundation.

Those of us who have experienced loss, obstacles, and challenges on our paths to becoming parents know that too often, the rest of the world wants you to put on a brave face when in actuality, you are ready to fall apart.  Or the reverse happens, everyone expects you to be curled up in the fetal position, unable to move or function and so when you show up differently, they think you are not handling things well.  And since the pathway of grief and loss is not a straight path at all and you can go from feeling one thing to quickly feeling the opposite to bouncing back and forth and stopping at various points, it is hard to truly recognize ourselves and where we are in life.

When dealing with these complicated triggers and emotions, the party line in the grief world is often to give yourself grace.  I know that I have heard this countless times and I have said it many times to other loss moms, but recently, I started thinking about this word.  What does grace mean?  Why do we say we should give it to ourselves?  Has the overuse of the term made it just a flippant term we use but don’t understand?

Instead, I decided to look at grace as an acronym, to take each letter and make it mean something in the grieving process.  I share this look with you all in hopes that some of these lessons may inform your own journeys.

Grant yourself permission to feel what you are feeling.

Obstacles, losses, hits that occur during our journey to parenthood hurt and the emotions involved are complicated in and of themselves, not to mention if we are hopped up on hormones from fertility treatment, failed cycles, pregnancy losses, stillbirths, and infant deaths.  The grieving process does not happen in a straight line and so feel whatever it is you need to feel whenever you need to feel it.  The world will pressure you into shutting it off, to burying it deep down, to shrinking back from the harsh realities, but let this be your permission to say to yourself and others, this is what I need right now and then let those feelings wash over you.

Rest and take care of yourself.

Grief is exhausting.  Grief is intense.  Grief is unrelenting.  Most grievers will tell you that in addition to all the things that normal everyday life takes out of us, there is an increased intensity of energy that grief brings on.  Take the time to rest, to take care of yourself, to say no, to recharge in whatever way is healthiest for you.  Grief is lifelong and although it morphs and changes, it never goes away completely.  Grief is like having a tiny person that you always carry with you, that sits on your shoulder or on your back or wherever you may feel it and that additional weight makes even simple tasks harder and more draining.  Allow yourself more rest than you may think you need and don’t feel guilty about it.

Adapt to what you need now.

The grief you feel today will not be the grief you experience tomorrow or next week or next year.  Grief changes based on times of year, triggers that are present, and where you are emotionally.  So while today, you may need that extra nap, it does not mean that you have to move heaven and earth to ensure you have an extra nap everyday. Or today, you may say I’ve got this and feel on top of the world only to have that come crashing down at a later date.  All of it is okay, there is nothing wrong with the grief changing, just change your take and approach as you need it.  For example, May is a terrible month for me.  It was the month in which I miscarried not once, but twice.  It was the month that I was hospitalized during my daughter’s pregnancy.  It was the month that had me giving birth to her via an emergency c-section that was traumatic and scary and that I did not think I would wake up from.  It was the month where I looked at my tiny daughter in a NICU incubator for nine days before she died.  So, I know that as April starts to wind down, I have to give myself additional patience and time.  I plan ahead and schedule less things during the month and I give myself more time in my schedule to allow for the breakdowns, particularly on the specific days that are anniversaries and memories of years past.

Create your toolbox.

In my opinion, this is the most important because it encompasses so much of everything and also allows for those moments when it all goes wrong.  The toolbox is all the resources that you can think of to help you through this.  Just like when you’re building a house, you cannot do it all with just a hammer—you need other tools.  Your personal toolbox is all those things that you need or may possibly need.

For me, my personal toolbox includes weekly individual therapy that occasionally becomes twice weekly when I need it, couples therapy, friends that I know are always there when I need to vent, when I need to talk, self-care strategies like taking a walk and putting my headphones in to listen to 90s grunge on full volume or taking a nap or directing my energy into something else.  The toolbox has morphed and changed over time, but it’s all the strategies and go-to’s I have for support and for comfort.  Your personal toolbox is not going to look like mine and my toolbox today is not going to look like the one I had last year or that I have in five years’ time.   

Enjoy the moments you can without guilt.

After my daughter died, it was hard to ever imagine enjoying anything ever again.  I felt like I was living under water and the world was moving forward and I was just treading water.  Then, one night, my husband and I went out to dinner and the food was really good and our moods were lined up just perfectly and the waiter was funny and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.  We laughed and we ate and enjoyed each other’s company in a way that we had not in the last few months or honestly, probably the last few years before that as we dealt with infertility and miscarriage and all the stress and grief that goes along with it.  That night, when we were going to bed, I started crying because I felt so guilty for laughing and enjoying myself when my daughter was not here.  But, my husband said this to me, “You did not die.  You are here and you have a life to live and yes it is going to be hard and there is a lot of pain, but you cannot live this life forever in pain.”  I remember those words and I share them with you.  It is okay to enjoy some moments and it is okay to not feel guilt about it (it is also okay to feel guilty about it too).  But, free yourself from the idea that you must always feel guilty and you must always be miserable and actively grieving.  Grief is not something completely separate from joy.  You can and will feel them simultaneously and that is okay.  If one day, the grief overwhelms the joy, then let it and feel that.  But, just as importantly, on the days that the joy wins out, let it, embrace it, feel it, and know that it did not mean the grief went away, it did not mean that you no longer mourn or that you forgot, just that in the grief process, grief was more subtle and silent at that moment in time.

Grief is difficult and is not something we deal with well or talk about enough, but know that you are allowed to feel whatever you need to feel and that your loss matters no matter what the loss was.  You can handle whatever spins and turns the grief rollercoaster sends you on.  Maybe just with a little bit more grace for yourself.

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