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Will You Get Bitter or Better?

“Instead of complaining that the rose bush is full of thorns, be happy the thorn bush has roses.” ~Proverb

I am a member of a mercifully small subset of society. I am the mother of a dead child.

Twenty years ago, my daughter Grace—my first child, my only girl—was born prematurely and died 32-minutes later. As I write this, I am astonished that it has been twenty years since I met my daughter for the only time.

Time stopped for me when Grace took her last little breath. And I was certain that my life could never start again. 

I was wrong.

Here’s what made all the difference in my healing:

Over time, I learned to bless the thorns in my life. I began to see that the thorn and rose define one another. Since, one cannot exist without the other, we can only enjoy the rose when we embrace the thorn.

As a society, though, we make healing from loss very difficult. We unintentionally tell each other lies about suffering and the healing process.

One of those lies is that “Time heals all wounds.”

If time healed all wounds, why do so many people suffer their entire lives from things that happened decades ago?

As one of the bereavement experts I studied explained, it’s not “time” that heals all wounds. It’s hard work. And hard work takes time.

Here is some of the hard work of healing:

Choose to Heal

When great tragedy comes to your life, you have just one decision to make that will determine the whole of your remaining life:

Will you be bitter or better?

Your future happiness depends on the choice you make.

On the surface of it, this seems like a “no brainer” decision. I mean, why would you choose bitterness over joy?

Well, here’s one reason: When a child dies, your entire future dies—at least the future you envisioned for yourself. When that child is an infant, you believe your sorrow is the only tangible evidence of her brief life.

The choice to get better means making the choice to move past your sorrow.

As strange as it sounds, the loss of your sorrow can feel like an additional death. Worse, it feels like the final death, because it feels like you are choosing to deny your child’s entire existence.

(As it turns out, I was wrong about that. Lots of other tangible evidence came from Grace’s life—this piece, for example.) But those roses bloom at some future point, while your suffering is immediate.

Let no one say that healers lack courage.

Choosing to heal means letting go of the immediate reward of your suffering for the possible promise of future insight. 

It is a risk that all who heal take, and it is not an easy choice to make while you are in the hell of acute loss.

I urge you to make it nonetheless.

The Thorns Make Community Possible

Joy can be an individual experience. When you are joyful, I am happy for you. But I don’t necessarily feel enlightened by your happiness. When you let me see your sorrow, however, then I feel an affinity with you.

It is our shared suffering—our thorns—that make empathy possible.

It is our thorns that make us protective of one another. In this way, thorns are the pathway to community and peace.

Suffering Brings Wisdom—If You Choose to Heal

It used to bother me that people complimented me for my “wisdom” or “courage” after Grace died.  Somehow, it felt like the Spiritual Booby Prize. To this day, I would trade that wisdom for the return of my daughter. But I don’t have that choice.

If I refuse to celebrate and share that hard-won wisdom, I essentially cut the rose from the thorn bush. 

In my case, Grace would have been the rose I would have preferred. But that rose is not available to me. The rose of wisdom is.

I share that wisdom because it is a gift of grace. My Grace. The rose of my wisdom is made possible because of the thorn of my sorrow. Grace’s legacy is manifested when I share the wisdom she left me.

You Sorrow Makes You Free

Once the “worst thing” that can ever happen to you in life actually happens—once you decide to get better instead of bitter—then you get to live the entire rest of your life without feeling paralyzed by fear. After all what is left to fear?

But what if the worst thing hasn’t happened to you yet? Can you still live a life less controlled by fear?

Absolutely!

Here’s how: Remember that suffering makes community possible. That means that you can “borrow” my suffering and use it as a balm to heal your fears.

In my case, the suffering and death of a child would be the “worst thing” that could happen in life. What is your “worst thing”?

Whatever that thing is, I can assure you that some human being in the history of the planet has survived that thing.

And triumphed!

All you have to do to be break free from fear is determine that, if your “worst thing” ever happened, you would make a study of how others have triumphed over that thing.

Once you make that decision, you have a “worst case scenario” action plan in place. You are now free to live life without feeling weighed down by fear.

If you decide.

To get better.

Instead of bitter.

The tools of choice, celebration, community, and study are ways that I have learned to become a better mother to my daughter, Grace. Twenty years later, I see these to be the tangible manifestation of her 32-minute life.

The thorn of my loss illuminates the resplendent rose of Grace’s legacy—the message that “all healing is possible,” for myself and others.

Photo by Hamed Saber

About Jennifer Boykin

Jennifer Boykin helps women recapture their Mid-Life Mojo. She speaks and writes as the Creative Visionary and Chief Rabble-Rouser of the MidLife Reinvention site, Life After Tampons. As of TODAY, Jennifer has launched registration her first small-group workshop, Craft Your Comeback. Learn more HERE.

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  • angel1873

    just what i needed to hear…a cliche but true.Today when I grapple to come to terms with my decision to be better and my tendency to slip to bitterness in my unguarded moments,your experience strikes a chord .It just helps me strengthen my belief to be better and gives me courage to strive for the same.I can assure you that i am gonna visit this article time and again in all those moments when the bitterness oozes out unexpectedly.A heartfelt thanks

  • Orfhlaith

    My son’s 20th anniversary is also this year. I still think of him, and there is still pain, but the sharpness of it has eased. Time is a healer, if only to let you know that you have survived this loss and life can still be good. Different from what you expected, but still good.

  • Jennifer

    This is my truth as well, “Time is a healer, if only to let you know that you have survived this loss and life can still be good. Different from what you expected, but still good.”

    I’m sorry for your loss.  I wish I had known you then.  We could have helped each other.  All the best, Jennifer

  • Jennifer

    Hello, Angel.  Thank God for cliches.  How else would we remember anything.  These days, I aspire to live WAY past the bitterness.  We are all about Mid-Life Mojo over at Life After Tampons.  Come visit.  Jennifer

  • Wow. I wanted to acknowledge your story, but I’m finding myself speechless. Just… well, thank you for sharing your story.

    Grace: what a wonderful name, and it’s surely also the name of the gift she has given you, her mother.

  • Jennifer

    This is for Kate — Wow, back at you, beautiful Kate, for this: “Grace: what a wonderful name, and it’s surely also the name of the gift she has given you, her mother.” Love, J

  • Wow, your wisdom and words are truly transformative.  I ‘study’ people who have risen above their adversities (not in a formal way) but it’s always been a keen interest of mine.  Hence my niche area of working with people as a life coach – people working to create good lives despite…. their loss, adversity, challenges.  
    My middle daughter miraculously survived a medical crisis and I’ve searched for that one big thing to do with my miracle.  Having found no one big concrete manifestation to represent the awesomeness and gratitude of a miracle witnessed, I ‘resort’ to working to (hopefully) provide inspiration and wisdom, and of course help to others to live well and to create good and meaningful lives despite their misfortunes.  
    Having sat for 3 months listening to every beep of the respirator that kept her alive, being a first-hand witness to the fragility of life has driven me to live life with an incessant urgency;  an urgency to live in the NOW and to constantly bring fun, joy and meaning into life.  There is NO EXCUSE! 
    Thank you for this Powerful and beautiful piece.  
    I wish people could ‘borrow’ one’s suffering and use it to live their lives better.  I do monthly interviews (for my blog) with people who’ve successful risen above their losses for this purpose – to inspire and show others how to live well despite…     

  • Jennifer

    Hi, Harriet.  I’m so happy your daughter made it through.  We’re learning about legacy and Mid-Life Mojo at our site.  I think that’s the good stuff that comes ONLY because of the bad stuff.  It’s almost like the entry ticket, don’t you think????

    The problem is, we get STUCK at the bad stuff.  I’m glad you’re helping folks with that part.  Love, J

  • Redhen45

    Thank you for sharing your story, Jennifer.  You’re my hero for today.  Everyday I find inspiration from the example of heroes and champions such as yourself who have taken their pain and suffering and unveiled the gift hidden within.  Having read your post, I checked out your website and joined immediately based on the “laugh out loud” sense of candor and humor that you’ve infused and empowered your mission with.   Kudos!!! You go, girl <3
    love''n'light
    Patty

  • Jennifer,

    Motherhood for you did not stop when Grace said goodbye for a time. I see your nurturing spirit in this post and in your work to change lives, to help others grow, and to make a difference in the lives of women worldwide.

    You wrote something very profound here that I hope women really see the transformative power in, “Choosing to heal means letting go of the immediate reward of your suffering for the possible promise of future insight”. THIS may be the hardest thing for most people to do, but it is the very essence of living an aligned life!

    In every moment we must have an intention to live fully. Sometimes that means to experience sorrow, and sometimes it means to get up and wash your face then turn to the world so you can empower them.

    You have certainly empowered us Jennifer.

    Thank you for your beautiful words. The thorns give us the contrast we so desperately need so that we can see how exquisite the roses truly are.

    Much love. Please keep up the magnificent and ever so important and vital work!

    Margo DeGange,
    Women of Splendor

  • Beautiful!

  • Jennifer

    Okay, I’m TOTALLY in love with you, Patty.  Is there anyone who will be threatened by that?  On my end, there’s a pretty Hot Italian, but he’s okay with me having dear blogger friends.  I so LOOK FORWARD to helping you with Mid-Life Mojo.

    Love, Jen

  • Jennifer

    How lovely and Kind, Margo.  I hope you will come visit our Life After Tampons site.  We’re all about the Mid-Life Mojo, which, for me, might not have been possible had I not been blessed to be Grace’s mother.

    I don’t know if I’m a Woman of Splendor or not, but I’m kind of fun.  I hope we meet again.  Jennifer

  • Of course you are a Woman of Splendor Jennifer. You are Splashing your Brilliance wherever you go, and that includes into the many happenstances of Life After Tampons!

  • Kristin

    Thank you. Such beautiful, heartfelt words. Jan, 3rd was the 2 year anniversary of my son’s passing. He was 12 and fought cancer for 8 long years. When you talk about letting go of your sorrow feeling like another death…..wow there are no truer words. I read all these things about how happiness is a choice and I think, how can I choose to be happy now? My son is gone, the love of my life, choosing happiness is not something I could consider. I continue to keep going, I try to help others, be there for my 20 year old daughter, I smile and laugh, but happy? Happy is something that is gone forever. Reading what you wrote has helped me see what I need to work toward. I need to figure out how I will let go of my sorrow without feeling like I am letting go of my son. Much love and many thanks. Thanks also to Grace, without her I would not have heard this message today.

  • Wow Jennifer … I can’t even (and don’t want to) imagine the loss of a child. What I can imagine is the strength you need to heal from that kind of grief.
     
    I’m reminded that grief comes in many forms – loss of loved ones, but also loss of a relationship, loss of job, loss of friends … and so often people allow time to make them bitter (love how you pointed this out) instead of being courageous and working through the grief to heal. I actually think that ignoring the healing process is harder – it becomes harder as time flies by.

    Love your message Jennifer – all healing IS possible – and LOVE your courage. xo 

  • Jennifer

    Beautiful, Kristin.  I am so sorry for your loss.  If you can, try not to put rules on the possibility for future happiness.  Here’s why:

    1.  Your son is gone, and being unhappy won’t change that.
    2.  If you stay unhappy, you will lose a part of the beautiful gift he has left you — an opportunity to incorporate your experience of being his mother as part of your legacy.
    3.  You’ve been through a horrible, horrible thing.  There is no minimizing that.  But, BECAUSE you have been THROUGH it, you are uniquely qualified to serve in some capacity.  I don’t know what that way is, but we can help you find it.

    Make sure you are not suffering from any physical  depression as the result of living a decade of hardship.  That is a lot for a woman to take physically.

    I hope that you will visit us at my Life After Tampons site.  I promise you, we can find a way to make your experience useful, and even meaningful.

    It will never be enough, though.  AND, it will never be fair.

    But, just now, between you and me and NOBODY else on this planet — WE are able to connect, to provide understanding and support to each other.  And that WOULD NOT have been possible without your son and my daughter.

    There are so many others, dear Kristin, who are not strong enough to reach out as you just have.  They don’t have even this much mojo.

    It’s not our job to save every unhappy person in the world.  For me, there would only be gloom in that future.

    BUT, I DO know how to make today fun.  And I commit to that.  Because that’s the mom I would have wanted to be for GRACE, and EVEN MORE important, that’s the mom I want for her brothers.

    You already get it — you mentioned your daughter.  The more you can heal and show her how to rise from devastation, the better equipped she will be to live “life on life’s terms” after you are gone.

    Your son and my daughter and all the others?  I like to think of them playing and laughing together.  Even if it’s not true, I like to think of that.  Actually, I don’t even care if it’s not true.

    Did you realize that your daughter is the same age Grace would have been?  You get to mother a 20-year old woman.  I do not.  I imagine you taking her to tea.  Getting pedicures.

    My youngest son is 11 — just shy of your son’s age when he died.  My other son is 15, he has been home puking today.  I will take care of both boys, love both boys, in honor of your son.

    All prayers and love to you.  I am so sorry for your loss.  And, if you wish it, I see beautiful life and light ahead of you.

    Blessed be!  Jennifer

  • Jennifer, you said “the thorn and rose define one another” and within the context of your post I have to tell you it’s one of the most beautiful, heart tugging statements I’ve read in a very long time. “Grace” radiates from you and all that you do. I’m grateful that you have claimed the courage to share your story with others who may only be able to see the thorns. Your message invites them to take a tiny step to the left, to remember the rose. It’s a gift of hope, choice and possibility. You are simply amazing. xo 

  • Jennifer

    Oh, my.  Coming from you, that means the world to me.  Thank you so much!!!

  • Smalvaiz

    Jennifer,

    Mike directed me to this story because he remembered me mentioning the loss of my own daughter.  Much like you I lost a daughter Gabby when she was 2 weeks old to a rare genetic syndrome called Smith Lemli Opitz syndrome.  I understand the loss of a child, the “spiritual booby prize” of wisdom and the choice to better over bitter.   I wish I had your guidance 17 years ago, but I found my own path to better and I hope I have helped a few people on the way.  Thanks for a great article!  🙂

    Soraya

  • Redhen45

    No threats over here, Jen. I’ve got one of them thar hot Italians, meself…Salud!

  • Jennifer

    Hi, love.  I’m so sorry for your loss.  I’m so happy to see you’re a “better, not bitter” trailblazer, too.  Did Mike point you to our new site???  Come visit.  http://www.lifeaftertampons.com

  • Jennifer

    Thank you, love.  Here’s the thing — both bitter AND better radiate out to the world.  With “better” you bring joy to others.  With “bitter” each concentric circle actually forces its energy inward, so that the sufferer is more and more entombed.

    Phew!  I don’t want that anymore.

    Blessings — we’ve got The Italian making supper over here tonight, so our Blessings are manifold!!!!!

  • Jennifer, such a beautiful message. Thank you so much for sharing the journey back to healing with me. Kathleen

  • Jennifer

    We’re all doing it together, love.

  • Ianhousby

    Jennifer,
    Truly inspirational. I will remember this always and when the inevitable “worst case scenario(s)” happen (and there can be more than one in life as we know) I will remember your story.
    Remarkable!!

  • Jennifer

    Thank you so much, Ian.  Jennifer

  • Smalvaiz

    He did, and I did. Its very cool, I would love to get to a point in my life where I can live my life for me as Soraya rather then mom, daughter, etc. I don’t think it will happen but i m ok with that too.

  • Jennifer

    Well then for sure come and sign up for updates.  That’s exactly what we’re doing.  We honor our stories when we overcome them.  Thank you again for your kindness about Grace.  Let’s think of she and Gaggy being friends.

    J

  • guest.

    I love this post. Thank you for sharing such a personal story with us. Even though many of us will never know such a great loss, your story is relatable to so many situations. I think you make a great point about “time heals all”…it doesn’t, unless we make conscious use of the time to let ourselves heal. Thank you.

  • Jennifer

    It means a lot to me that you took a moment to connect.  I wish you every happiness.  Jennifer

  • Hi Jennifer, this is just pure LOVE. I lost my mom a
    few months ago, and I can’t imagine losing one of my children. This is by far;
    I believe the most terrible pain any human being can endure.

    Thank you for being WHO you are.

  • Tinarose29

    I am currently going through the worst thing that i think could happen to me. My loss of freedom to do anything. I lived in fear for a very long time and now that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel I am actually grateful that I have gone through what I have as painful and lonely as it has been. I cannot wait to start living a ‘normal’ life, but the most amazing thing I am looking forward to is being free of all the pain and misery. Amazing article!!!

  • Jennifer

    Dear Tina Rose,  First of all, I am sorry for your suffering.  But you are right — how you decide to be next, what you decide to think about, what you decide to focus on — those decisions — that are ALL within your power — those decisions will make all the difference to the way your future unfolds.

    I wish you every blessing,  Jennifer

  • Jennifer

    Christine, I’m sorry for your loss.  I feel really fortunate to still have my mom.  My father was never around and then died when I was 11.  Every Father’s Day, I call my mom and say, “Happy Father’s Day.”

    I get my wit from her — she always says, “Yeah, you too.”

    Thank goodness for the strength of women.  Blessings, Jenn

  • Tinarose29

    Thank you Jennifer. I wish you all the best too!!!

  • jesse

    Very wise and beautiful article. I think it makes an excellent example of how every life is meaningful, the wisdom you shared will touch many people and live on through them.

    Myself included, thanks. 🙂

  • Jennifer

    You’re welcome, Jesse.  Blessings!

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  • Caron

    Jennifer,
    I was stunned to read your post. It’s essentially my story, too, except my daughter, Chelsea, died when she was 2 years old. Her death empowered me through a divorce, through college, and through grad school. She died back in ’95. It’s been awhile. I wonder sometimes if that power dissipates. Time has assuredly helped me to go on with my life. It doesn’t effect me the way it used to, but it was the catalyst and first domino to fall in terms of how my life, to this day, is still a product of that one profound event. 

    Currently, I am at a loss about what route to take with my life. I remarried back in 1998 and have a 5 year old son (and a 21 yr old daughter from that first marriage). Both my husband and I are itching for change and very frustrated with barely making ends meet all the time. We both want to find ourselves and the power to do so seems scarce. I wonder if I could tap into the power and poignancy I felt to overcome fear when Chelsea died back in ’95. 

    I worry about focusing too much on Chelsea’s death. I’m an artist and focus a lot on the awareness and importance of living life here and now. See for yourself … http://carongonthier.daportfolio.com/ 

    When someone says “I can’t imagine the pain you are going through right now” when a loved one dies, I believe they absolutely can imagine it but don’t want to because it would make them face the reality of dealing with loss in their own lives. 

    I want something to kick-start me again. Life is too “supposed-to” again and I know that breaking away from that is necessary in order to bring me back to life.

    Caron

  • I’m sorry for your loss, Caron.  I’d like to address the “problem” of resources.  It can be very draining to always feel under pressure financially.  But, getting your groove back begins with a mindset — a determination.

    It’s actually the same determination you had when you harnessed the transformational power of the loss you experienced when Chelsea died.

    Begin with the emptiness you feel.  But rather than view that emptiness as depletion or frustration, see it as a vessel to contain “what’s next.”

    Start with the small and free things.  Walks with your husband.  Checkers with your 5 year old.  Baking with your older daughter.  Make a fresh journal called “what my legacy will look like” and, every day, do ONE new thing that restores your spirit and write about it there.

    In your DAILY prayer and meditation time, asked to be informed on Next Right Steps and ALSO ask to be given the power to carry it all through.

    You’re not alone, love.  You already know how to do this.  You’ve just allowed yourself to get too tired and discouraged.  You already know, though, that this is “chump change” to holding your baby while she dies.

    Therefore, keep it in perspective.  It’s just a blip.  THAT — Chelsea — was the Game Changer.

    I want you to come to my site, http://www.lifeaftertampons.com and register for my free eRetreat, Reclaim the Sass.  Look for the floral aftro lady in the top right corner.  Follow the suggestions there.

    You’re already on the path, love.  Every blessings to you and your beautiful family, Jennifer

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  • Scott

    I guess I am having trouble relating to the loss of death. My mother passed a few years back and I felt nothing. I had hardly seen her for 20 years and had no ongoing relationship with her, although I was fairly close as a child. When I was 4 (I am 49), she lost her only girl child at birth due to a fall that was not properly handled (I have 2 older brothers and one that came after that.) No one spoke about it. I didn’t even know my sister’s name for 30 years.
    To me, someone dying is as inevitable as sunset. I cannot understand getting upset. If it nearly destroyed all the happiness in my family, something has gone badly wrong with how we handle it. I don’t have a solution, and I don’t have a pain. It is just a blank.
    Blessings, Scott

  • Ronald H. Card

    Read Seth-Jane Roberts.