Guest post by Jess McCormack
This image has greeted me each morning for the past couple of months. A thoughtful Christmas gift from one of my favourite shops with a fairly common seasonal message: “be joyful.” Only some mornings, most mornings, it feels like an instruction, a demand, a monumental task set before me. It should be simple to find joy, I have so much to smile about, but the daily reminder to do so can feel overwhelming, so much so that I have been known to whisper to my shower gel to fuck right off and leave me alone.
I am aware that life philosophies generally aren’t best taken from toiletries, however this one is significant, because the message is everywhere… be happy, don’t take anything for granted, seize the moment, live life to its fullest… and, regardless of underlying helpful intentions, with each emphatic urge to “be” something comes the pressure to achieve the potentially unachievable. A request that can be swiftly followed by a sense of inadequacy, impending failure looming with its backlash of guilt.
The message to be joyful, to find healing and rediscover life pervades the child loss community too. It’s there as a beacon of hope to the newly bereaved, as well as to those further into their journey still wading through the deepest sorrow, or sliding back to darker places. I am glad and grateful that those inspirational messages exist, but I think it’s important to acknowledge their potential harm too. Where one person sees light at the end of a tunnel, another might see an impossible mountain to climb. A grieving soul could be pounded further by the sense of inferiority in their own journey, given the impression of failing at grief, at bereaved parenthood, because of not being as evolved, or as “healed” as those high on the pedestals of rebirth after loss.
When we are thrust into this world of child loss, it can be like starting a new job, but secretly (or not so secretly) having no idea what we’re doing. So we look around us, closely, examining the fine detail of how others in this situation behave, what they say and do in this strange new world. Only much of this world, this community, is online. So we look for ‘likes’ and ‘shares,’ popularity determining the norm, the aspirational, illustrating how we “should” be behaving. But that ignores the quiet, silent majority, the thousands upon thousands of grievers sitting behind their screens, some, maybe many, afraid to say how it really is, worried it would reveal that they’re doing it wrong.
My wish for all of you is for the pressure to be washed away. For there to be no urgency to feel happy again or be “healed.” I’m not saying that we shouldn’t read and share stories of survival, my goodness I don’t know what I would do without them. I just wish for the feelings of failure, of panicked urgency to stop. I wish for no other bereaved parent to sit and fearfully wonder if they will ever get to where it seems they are “supposed” to be. This is not a criticism of the inspirers, but a hand reaching out to others who feel alone in their battle to be where they need to be in their own grief, while being pulled in a direction they are not yet ready to travel.
This message comes very much from my own struggles with self worth, with being a good enough mother to my baby girl who died. It is born from my desperate need to do this well, this bereaved mother thing, and my fear of failing at this life in the way that I failed her. Right now I’m just not ready to move on, I have found a strange comfort in my grief, a beauty. I am not ready to transform. I am my grief and I am learning to love the me in its throes.
So I am writing this to reach out to anyone else who feels as I do, anyone who is not ready to move forward yet, who finds that the powerful stories of amazing survival sometimes cast a worrying shadow over your own steps along the path of grief. My wish is that you feel less alone. And I want to give you permission to be however you need to be right here in this moment.
And the word “should”… let’s remove it from this community, from the message boards and online posts, and most importantly from our internal dialogue. Let’s replace it with affirmations of our worth, our strength, messages of love for how we are each doing here in the present. Our paths are unique, the speeds at which we walk them, individual to us. You are doing amazingly, wherever you are. There is no hurry. Even when life feels unbearably dark, trust yourself, trust that you will come through that darkness in your own time and that that is ok. Grieve without shame, without feelings of inadequacy.
Take your time. You are enough.
I write these words for myself too. Because until someone makes a shower gel called, “today might suck, but you’ll survive,” I need the reminder that to “be joyful” would be great, but if it doesn’t happen today then that’s ok, I haven’t failed. For one thing I’ve showered, and that’s always something to be proud of.
Hang in there brave, beautiful warriors. Be where you need to be without fear or shame. I stand with you.
Jess McCormack became both a mother and a bereaved mother in April 2013, when her
beautiful Maeve died during labor. Now she is so grateful to have Maeve’s little sister to hold
in her arms, while both her daughters have a hold of their mom’s heart.