One Year

It’s been one year since we lost Jackson.

No warning, no build-up — just gone in the night, stolen from us by some unknown cause.

For two months, we didn’t have an official explanation — so everything was suspect in our minds; any conspiracy seemed convincing. Fear for our own lives (or any future child) was creeping and persistent.

We were near-drowning in grief. The waves were fast, frequent, and terrifying. It was a struggle to make it day-by-day.

Yet despite all of this, we were immensely fortunate in several other ways. We were surrounded within minutes by family and friends, who’ve held us close ever since. Natalia and I had each other, in good health, side-by-side. We had careers that let us take as much time as we needed. She had years of training in trauma and recovery. We had a roof over our heads, and time to sit with our feelings and try to make some sliver of sense of it all.

With this first year behind us, I feel like telling you some of what I’ve learned: how I think about surviving a loss of this magnitude.

I don’t know of a better metaphor for grief than ocean waves.

Before September 2017, it’d been smooth waters for us.

Grief arrived in a surprise wave, and left us struggling for air. We’d come up for a gasp, then get plunged back below. In the early months, we learned to find the bottom and push back up.

With time, we noticed patterns with the waves. They really are waves: they rise, crest, churn, and fall back into quiet. A wave always returns to calm - and it was important to remember that when we were getting tumbled and dragged along the coral seafloor.

At first, they arrived every 20-40 minutes, and would knock me flat. Later, they became less-frequent, and we could tell when we were “due” for one — which meant they didn’t catch us off-guard as often.

Like a child learning to swim, we were initially completely overwhelmed - but as we got stronger in the surf, the waves that used to terrify us became familiar, and we learned to prepare ourselves, to duck-dive under some, ride-out and really feel others, and find time to catch our breath in the calmer moments.

There’s a concept from Bearing the Unbearable that has helped us make sense of our suffering. Grief ranges from zero-to-ten, and your ability to cope with that grief also ranges from zero-to-ten. Suffering is the difference between the two. Or, to put it in a little formula: Suffering = Grief - Coping

Grief is a variable that’s out of your control. The waves may be less frequent, but they still appear, sometimes as strong as ever.

Coping, though — you can work on coping. And with time, you strengthen the ability to cope with that grief — and as a result, suffering isn’t nearly as high as it once was.

Grief is going to visit all of us at some point. Death is a part of life, and if you’re close to any number of people, odds are you’re going to lose one of them at some point.

I write this not to drag you down under, but rather to set some expectations for whether-and-how you might approach grief when it appears in your life. If our culture would talk about grief more openly, then maybe it would feel less isolating and terrifying.

This morning, as 8:12am arrived, I could see myself exactly a year earlier, scrambling, my world shattering. I wanted to tell my year-ago self that, one year later, we would still be here.

If my year-ago self heard that, he would’ve rejected that idea completely. There is no way that a year ago, I would’ve been able to imagine myself functioning and grieving in this way. I would’ve felt that I had betrayed my memory of Jackson — because how could I carry on in any capacity after this loss?

And yet — I also know that a very quiet, calm part of my mind was telling me to hold on. I didn’t want to believe it, but I knew it was there. I knew that people survive trauma, and that there was probably a way through that - even if it felt like a betrayal to believe it.

Milestone dates often bring waves. We see Father’s Day, birthdays, or this anniversary on the calendar, and we brace ourselves.

One year out, we’ve certainly had our waves this month — and yet they are fewer and smaller than we were expecting. In many ways, we welcome them. We feel less-distressed when the wave tosses us, because we’ve been through so many.

There are also calm periods, and that can bring up guilt. If we’re feeling calm, especially on a milestone, does that mean we’ve forgotten him? Does it mean we’re not doing this properly? Of course not — but it’s a feeling that comes up.

It’s important to remember: on these milestone dates, our responsibility isn’t to make the waves; it’s to paddle out and sit there. If a wave comes up, we’ll ride it out, like we’ve done a thousand times. If it’s calm, we’ll sit there together, and find other ways to honor his memory.

Bubbo, we miss you every day. We miss your snorting giggles, your little songs, hearing your little slippers clomp around, and watching you explore the world around you. You brought (and continue to bring) so much love into all of our lives, and we are so thankful for the time we had together. You are loved, you are cherished, you are missed, and we will always hold you in our hearts.

One of my last photos of Jackson. September 17, 2017 at Bastille in Ballard.

Mothering Jackson and His Memory

According to Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, there is no “self”. He says “true self is non-self, the awareness that the self is made only of non-self elements.” According to this idea, we walk around every day experiencing artificial boundaries; we think we are separate from others and others are separate from us. But if we force ourselves to observe these boundaries with microscopic precision, we find that they do not exist. For example, a flower is not separate from the seed, the water, or the sunlight. Similarly, a flame is not separate from the wax, the oxygen, or the heat. Take away any of these components and the flower or the flame could never have existed. 

This is about the closest I can get to the idea that “Jackson is here with us.” In many ways, he is most definitely not here with us. I no longer get to touch him, hold him, smell him, or kiss him. In fact, it has at times felt downright infuriating when well-intentioned people tell me he’s “with us” because he simply is not; yes, I carry his memory in my heart, but that is different from carrying his body on my hip. Then I started reading about the concept of “interbeing”, or interconnectedness, and it has changed the way I relate to the idea of Jackson’s continued presence. While I don’t believe that his spirit is watching over us, I do believe that if I relax my boundaries of what it means for him to “be here”, I can feel him everywhere. 

Simply put, I am filled with this sense that I am not really separate from Jackson’s life; everything I do is touched by his existence. And I am not really separate from his death, either; I am a different person because he lived and because he died. Looking back over the last year, I see so much evidence of this: our Kindness Project, friendships we’ve forged, books we’ve read, tattoos we’ve inked, trips we’ve taken, and gardens we’ve nurtured. None of these things would exist in the absence of Jackson’s life and then subsequent death. Although I wish he was still here, I see that he is still here. His life and his death simply cannot be extricated from everything that came after, and his presence continues to manifest in new ways.

The notion that we’ve been changed by both Jackson’s life and his death can bring up complex feelings. We just came back from spending a very special weekend with another SUDC family we’ve become very close with and, although we could picture Jackson sitting at the table with us, we realized that it was an impossible vision. We both wished Jackson could have joined us on this trip, and recognized the trip only existed because he died. We are weeks away from meeting our next son and, although Jackson “should” get to meet his brother, that too is an impossible vision. We both wish that both our boys could appear together in a family photo, and realize that this new baby is only alive because Jackson is not. While we would of course reverse the tragedy of losing Jackson, it’s complicated to realize that special and beautiful things have also grown out of his death.

The impact of Jacksons life and death is not only complex but also evolving. He has not simply left a permanent one-time imprint on our lives. His impact on me and the world around us, is constant, ever-changing, ongoing, and in flux. As a sweet mama friend wrote to me on Mother’s Day, “Even though Jackson isn’t here, I know you are still mothering him and his memory.” Yes. There is something quite active about how I want to keep mothering Jackson and his memory because his impact on living, changing things by default means that he continues to live and change. This also means that Jackson will continue to impact this world in ways I have yet to see. I may not get to watch him physically grow or make new memories (I don’t get to watch him learn to swim, ride his bike, graduate, or get married), but I will watch his impact grow for the rest of my life. The quote on back of our kindness cards captures this idea exactly: “A life that touches others goes on forever.”

Like the very dandelion “puff balls” he loved to blow on, Jackson has scattered his own seeds in the wind, germinating his impact farther than the eye can see. Jackson has fed and clothed the homeless, furthered the education of refugee children, put hair on the heads of cancer-survivors, fed the birds outside our window, bought coffee for strangers, and contributed to critical research on SUDC. Jackson has also taught us and others about grief and love, brought people together who otherwise wouldn’t know one another, and changed the way we all look at life and helped us stop taking a single day for granted. It has become part of our meaning making to continue spreading his impact in these ways. 

What blows my mind even more is that, despite our urge to be active in the spreading of "Jackson", his memory and impact truly seem to have a life of their own. There is something “viral” about the way his memory is spreading, even when I am not actively spreading or cultivating it. I got my haircut last month and learned that after my sister chopped and donated her hair to “Wings for Kids”, another client came in weeks later looking for a fresh chop and our hair stylist convinced her to donate her hair in honor of Jackson, too. I keep learning about people who “pay forward” our kindness acts and pass along our website and podcast link beyond the “intended” audiences. It’s comforting and moving to know I can at times rest from spreading my son’s impact, and still have the ripples continue to propagate without my effort. Like a mother who actively nurtures a child and then sends them off into the world, I am learning how to balance actively nurturing his memory while allowing it to grow on its own. 

Thank you to all who have supported us in staying connected to Jackson in so many ways. If we’ve been the water nurturing the seed, you have been the sunlight that has further allowed his memory to thrive. The seed, the water, and the sunshine are all necessary conditions for the flower to grow and we are grateful for your role in remembering and honoring Jackson.

[For more on interbeing: Hanh, T. N. (2003). No death, no fear: Comforting wisdom for life. Penguin.]


Jackson's Little Brother is On the Way

I didn’t think I could be brave enough to have another child after losing Jackson. The day he died I told myself “never again”; it was too risky to love that fiercely with the knowledge that it could all be taken away from you in a moment without warning, without fault, without explanation. Over time we realized that this had always been life’s contract, and that living without fierce love was not a life we wanted to live. We knew having another child would never be able to bring Jackson back, but it could bring back opportunities for that fierce love we were so desperately missing.

The words of Dr. Paul Kalanithi in “When Breath Becomes Air,” an incredibly honest and moving physician’s memoir on life and death from the perspective of both doctor and patient, resonated deeply with me as we contemplated the risks and benefits of trying again. He heartbreakingly describes battling stage IV metastatic lung cancer in his 30s and the painful decisions he is forced to make with his wife, Lucy, about whether to have a child. A friend asks him “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?” He responds, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?”. Lucy and Paul learn, in the most painful way, that “life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”

We decided to go for it, but it wasn’t an easy road. After two early miscarriages, we learned that suffering one loss doesn’t preclude you from further loss. Each passing month took us farther away from the last time we held Jackson. And each passing month that I didn’t get (or stay) pregnant took us farther away from the first time we’d get to hold our new baby. It’s as if we were stuck in some warped universe where we were simultaneously falling away from both of our children at the same time.

It was tempting to feel victimized, like the universe was out to get us, but we know that the universe doesn’t keep score. We just kept rolling the dice. We’ve learned there is no such thing as “fairness” or “deserving” when it comes to loss. In fact, the expectation of fairness or the idea that we are “owed something” at times just made it all the more painful. But longing to be a parent, especially when we felt repeatedly blocked from being parents, did felt torturous.

And then it happened. That second pink line came and it stayed. It didn’t bring Jackson back, but it brought back some much needed hope. It also brought so much gratitude that I was able to pretty easily dismiss my 24/7 nausea, because we were getting another chance. Some expressed concern for this joy at such an early stage of pregnancy (especially given the prior miscarriages), and that’s when I realized I was fearless. Not devoid-of-fear, but rather freed-from-my- fear. Although there are traditional “in the clear” milestones with pregnancy, like hearing a heartbeat, making it through 1st trimester, and clearing genetic and ultrasound screening, I had the painful but freeing awareness that we are never fully in the clear. I knew mothers who had stillborn babies in their third trimester, and mothers who had lost their infants shortly after birth. And I knew my own story of losing a perfectly healthy and thriving toddler. The painful wisdom that comes with surviving this kind of loss is there is no clear – so enjoy what you get, for however long you get it. From the moment that second line turned pink, I pledged to love and appreciate this little life whether they stuck around for 2 days, 2 weeks, 2 months, or 2 years – and hopefully, much much longer than that.

Of course, in addition to joy, hope and gratitude, we have experienced grief and sadness, too. It’s very painful to know that Jackson won’t get to meet his baby brother. And although we intend to teach his baby brother all about Jackson, that falls painfully short from watching their relationship flourish and grow. These are the secondary losses that come with pregnancy after child loss; where there used to be singularly giddy excitement, there is now grief-tempered joy. Where there used to be happy tears, there are now happy-sad tears. Ultrasound visits, pregnancy reveals, and setting up the nursery are just going to be different this time around. We have learned that although we can experience genuine positive feelings, these emotions sit alongside, rather than eliminate, our sadness and longing for Jackson. In fact, finding out three days ago we were having a boy brought tidal waves of emotion. But in spite of all of this complicated joy, I experience the very strong and genuine comfort in getting to mother a son again. Best job I ever had, and I can’t wait to have it again.

So here we are, 13 weeks into a new chapter of our parenthood. January can’t come soon enough! I don’t know how I’ll put our new baby to sleep, or how I’ll sleep while they are sleeping, but I trust we will figure this out, as we have learned to cope with so many unthinkable challenges already. Can’t wait to meet you, Jackson’s brother. ❤️ 


Natalia’s Interviews with Dr. Charlie Swenson

I had the great privilege of being invited to speak on Dr. Charlie Swenson's podcast, called "To Hell and Back". Dr. Swenson is a psychiatrist in Northampton, MA, and a renowned expert and trainer in DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy). In my graduate school program at UW, I have also come to specialize in DBT, as well as exposure-based therapies for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One of my supervisors, Dr. Melanie Harned, learned that I was interested in sharing our story from the perspective of a DBT and trauma therapist, and introduced us.

"To Hell and Back" is a very approachable podcast series focused on how people cope with "hellish" life experiences, drawing from DBT and other forms of treatments. I was invited to talk specifically about how we've coped with our loss of Jackson. 

In the first episode, I share our story and we talk specifically about the natural recovery process, the power of acceptance, and permission to function after trauma and loss. 

In the second episode, we discuss "avoiding avoidance" and the importance of social support and how to elicit and shape that support in one's community. 

In the third episode, we discuss the changes to relationships and to the "self" after trauma, making meaning after trauma and loss, our "Kindness Project" in memory of Jackson, and the ways in which Jackson's presence and impact continue to live on. 

The links to the podcast are available below. Thanks to Charlie and Melanie for the opportunity, and thanks to everyone who listened in! I felt Jackson right by my side the whole time during this precious, shared mama-son project. Although I wish he never had to die for me to learn and share these things, I am grateful for the opportunity to not let our suffering go to waste. `

Surviving the Death of a Child (Episode 1 of 3)

Surviving the Death of a Child (Episode 2 of 3)

Surviving the Death of a Child (Episode 3 of 3)

Functioning and Grieving

About a month after Jackson died, I talked to a mother who several years ago delivered a full term stillborn baby. She was a friend-of-a-friend, someone I’d heard about but never met before. Yet she he was the only person who I felt could remotely “get it”, the only person I could imagine talking to who wouldn’t say “I can’t imagine.”

We talked for over an hour. Perfect strangers and yet completely bonded over the most horrific thing I could ever expect to share in common with someone. Our stories were different in some ways, but fundamentally the same. We were both high-achieving planners who had carefully crafted our lives – career, husband, family – and were living in our prime when it all came crashing down in an instant. Both of us lost our children suddenly and unexpectedly, through no fault of our own, and for no identifiable reason.

Furthermore, we had both blamed ourselves in the absence of an explanation. We had both wished we’d done things differently, even though we traced and retraced each step (and walked backwards and traced it again) and knew we had done things “right”; she did her kick counts and I put my sub-fever child to sleep in a safe room after a bit of dinner and ibuprofen. Both of us would have been crazy to show up to an ER, and yet we both wish we had. Both of us felt angry at other parents who weren’t as careful and yet still had growing, thriving children. We had thought ourselves “untouchable”, only to find ourselves slapped in the face by the worst tragedy. This perfect stranger knew the most intimate details of my experience – not from hearing my story, but because it was also her story.

A lot of this phone call resonated at the time, but even more of it resonates now. One thing she said has particularly made increasing sense to me over this year: “I wouldn’t say I’m a ‘happy’ person. I wonder if others can see how deeply I’ve changed. I’m sure to most people I appear to be high-functioning and back to my normal self.”

Ask anyone in my life – family, friends, students, clients – and they will probably tell you I am pretty high-functioning. I went back to teaching two weeks after Jackson died, back to my research one month after that, and back to clinical work one more month after that. And it’s all going well – very well, actually. I took it easy at first, balancing self-care with a need for scheduled activities and participating in meaningful work. After three months of meal train we are not only back to cooking but are hosting gatherings in our home. We shower and get dressed every day, are productive at work, feed ourselves, keep a clean house, take care of Stella, and even keep up with things like timely birthday cards. By any measure, we are functioning more than well.

But I wouldn’t say I am a happy person. And I would not say that I’m back to my normal self.

What is hard to see, and what is not captured on my social media accounts, is the silent and invisible struggle we face each day, many times a day. The slow and steady drip of grief is always in the background of every smile, every functional act. In addition to smiling regularly we also cry regularly. I wake up each morning to an indescribable flatness. I walk about my day without that skip in my step. I park the car when I get home and just sit there for a moment, gathering the strength to get up and get out. I lie in bed each night feeling hungry for something that I simply cannot find. I hunger for Jackson.

Although I am immensely grateful for my ability to function so well (and the crucial social support that has allowed this), I also know that it sends an overly simplified message to the outside world: “She’s doing fine”. But it’s the in-between moments that continue to gut me; all the stuff that happens between the feel-good gardening, fundraising, internship matching, tattoos, traveling, and kindness acts. My Instagram feed reads: “Look how well she is coping with her loss and doing meaningful things to honor Jackson.” Although this isn’t false, it also leaves out the chronic aching in my heart and the dozens and dozens of daily stings.

A couple years ago, long before this phone call, long before losing Jackson, I remember learning that this very same mom who lost her stillborn baby gave birth to a new child. I remember thinking “Thank goodness! She finally got her baby.” I felt uncomplicated joy and relief for this friend-of-a friend. What I now know and understand is that nothing can erase the tragedy of losing that child, not even the joy of this child. And what I wonder if others understand is the degree of my brokenness and emptiness even though I can smile and laugh and function and live. No superglue will ever be able to cleanly mend what has been so permanently shattered. We continue to pick up the pieces and glue ourselves together, but even the most careful repair job shows the lines of trauma and loss. To an observer these lines are subtle and easy to miss, especially from afar. Even those who care to look closely may see the lines but fail to grasp their significance. Looking back at my ability to empathize with child loss before-and-after losing Jackson, I remain convinced that the frequency and intensity of this pain is impossible to describe and equally impossible to understand secondhand. I accept the solitude that this brings.

Although “I can’t imagines” generate pangs of solitude, they also convey respect for an unrelatable experience. And just as it’s hard to understand the depth of the loss, it’s hard to understand the complexity of the recovery. Just as I accidentally projected my own relief onto my friend-of-a-friend, I know that others project their relief onto me. People who love us are always thirsty for positive signs and seem quick and eager to drop us in the “doing ok” bucket. This is understandable but also unintentionally dichotomizes our recovery. We’re not doing poorly, and we’re not doing great; we’re just “doing” – moving forward and through our lives, and thankfully not stuck. But also forever changed in every way.

As W.S. Merwin puts it, “[His] absence has gone through me like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.” Highly functioning and deeply hurting. All of the time. All at the same time. 

Secondary Losses

As if losing Jackson wasn’t painful enough, we have also experienced many secondary losses – those other things you lose along with the primary loss of a loved one. Some are immediately apparent, others become apparent over time, and others I have yet to fully grasp or understand. 

My very first secondary loss was my loss of breastfeeding. For two years, my mornings began the exact same way: the sound of Jackson stirring awake, sometimes crying, sometimes chatting, sometimes “Dada! Mama! Jackson wanna get-a out!”, followed by Bryan swooping him from his crib and plopping him into our bed for a morning cuddle and breastfeeding. We’d lay there, “all four of us” as I’d often say, tired but in utter contentment. Everyone, including Stella, under the covers safe and sound with nowhere to be except wrapped up together. We knew, even then, how special and fleeting this precious time was bound to be. Someday soon this two-year-old would opt for “milk in a cup” and mushy morning snuggles would turn into morning struggles to get him out of bed and off to school. The loss of breastfeeding, once gradual and distant in my mind, came to an abrupt stop in the worst, most awful way. I had read so much about weaning process; then BOOM, it was me that was immediately weaned. Suddenly, permanently, overnight. 

Tangible secondary losses – like his toys – were also painful. I’ll never forget the day we returned to our house and saw his toys strewn around, as if they were waiting for him to come back. His beloved kitchen and the fruits and veggies he loved to “chop”, and the mugs he loved to make “tea” in, were scattered about. The realization that he’d never play with them again knocked the wind out of me. Almost worse – I knew they were headed to the shed for storage, maybe I’d never see them again. Same with his multi colored toy-bin, trike, pink vacuum, and Melissa & Doug broom set. Saying goodbye to his cars (the wind-up ones that made him erupt into giggles), his shape-sorter blocks (and the pride on his face when he got it right), his pop-up animals (the ones he’d name and then kiss all in a row), his toddler cell phone (which he’d often use to call up his best friend, Cohen), and his IKEA pop up tent (where we’d play hide-and-seek, or where he’d go to read a book), was more heartbreaking than I’ll ever be able to describe. 

We also said very reluctant goodbyes to bedtime routines and stories with Jackson. Goodbye to the face Jackson would make when Mama Llama was running through the house, the way he imitated the zoo animal sounds in “Dear Zoo”, his own sweet rendition of “Firetrucks”, the way he chimed in with Blub, Blub Blub in “The Pout Pout Fish”, his excitement in spotting the matching balls in “Snuggle Puppy”, his attempt to sing along with “Barnyard Dance”, the way he grabbed his feet in “Ten Tiny Toes”, and his sweet concern for the baby doggie in “Daddies are Awesome”. It was so painful, in fact, that for a few days after losing Jackson, Bryan would go to a chair and read these books at Jackson’s bedtime. We said goodbye to Daniel Tiger, Mr. Rogers, Casper BabyPants, and all of our favorite songs. Goodbye to the Zoomaseum, the Children’s Museum, and the Aquarium. These were some of our very favorite activities; these were not things we were prepared to lose. 

Beyond the tangibles of routines, toys, and books, over time we started to take-in the secondary losses of future life experiences and opportunities. Although we take comfort in the incredible number of trips, adventures, and experiences Jackson cherished during his short life, there are of course many things that we lost. Among the most painful was the loss of Jackson’s big brotherhood. Jackson adored babies. Every morning on my way to drop Jackson off in the Toddler 1 classroom, we’d stop at the window of Infant 1 to wave hello to the babies. I’ll never forget the way he looked at babies, as if they were so much younger than him, or the way he’d say “Baby is sooooo cuuuuttte” to his baby doll. I couldn’t wait to give him a little sibling and I am certain he would have been such a wonderful, loving older brother. What I would give to see him enact a mental image I hold so clearly and dearly in my mind: Jackson as a four-year-old boy holding his baby brother or sister wrapped in a hospital blanket, kissing their forehead softly, looking at them with sweet interest and adoration. It’s both lovely and heartbreaking how clearly I can see this when I close my eyes. 

Another experience I mourn the loss of is graduating with my Ph.D. without that photo – you know, the one with cap and gown, diploma in one hand and kiddo in the other. That “we did it!” moment I was so eager to share with him next year, and then reminisce about years down the road when I told him about my adventures as a graduate student mama and so many lessons I learned along the way. It was also in the plans to take him to Disneyland, a very special place for my family, next summer. I don’t know how many times my Dad has asked me “When are we taking Jackson to Disney?!” and my response was always “Soon! Once I get this Ph.D. and he’s old enough to remember it!” Summer 2019 was going to be the perfect time – just after my Mom’s 60th birthday and my graduation, and just before Jackson’s 4th birthday and the next baby. The perfect plan — how on earth could it go awry? Forevermore, these “hallmark card events” (graduations, birthdays, new babies) will carry a sting of grief. That pure version of joy is gone, replaced now with reminders of incomplete photos, an absent place setting, a missing brother. 

Witnessing Jackson’s friends grow up is both joyful and painful at once (I call these things “painful joys”). Joyful, because of how much we love our PEPS and daycare families and cherish their memories of Jackson – and because losing them would be another unbearable secondary loss. Painful, because watching Jackson’s friends learn to run, ski, ride bikes, write letters, and ask sophisticated questions makes us miss our son – not necessarily the Jackson we lost, but the Jackson we couldn’t wait to meet. And I have a feeling that this only gets harder with time. Imagining Jackson as a 2 ½ year old is hard enough; it will become harder and harder to imagine him as a Kindergartener, a middle-schooler, or a grown man. What would he like? What sports/music/games would he play? Who would his friends be? Who would he fall in love with? 

A sometimes confusing, but evolving, secondary loss has been my identity. Five months ago, I could have told you exactly who I was: I was Jackson’s mama, and with that came my identities as potty trainer, snack packer, sleep trainer, bath giver, comfort provider. Am I still a mama? This is a complicated question for me. I know I will always be Jackson’s mama, but the reality is that being the mama of a dead child is nothing like being a mama of a living child. Other parts of my identity have remained: I am still Bryan’s wife, daughter and sister to my parents and siblings, loyal friend, budding psychologist, liberal feminist, Boston Terrier enthusiast, scrapbook maker. Although many of these things remain true, I can say with absolute certainty and confidence that I am no longer the person I used to be. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing (though, I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t turn back into my old self, in a heartbeat, if I could). Although the “new” me is wiser and stronger, losing Jackson was a far too steep of a price to pay. Along with my loss of confidence in the safety of this world and my ability to control my own fate, I have gained confidence in my ability to survive whatever comes my way, even the eventual, inevitable death of others and my own. I am more humble in the face of nature, more mindful in my day-to-day, less of a planner, less anxious about trivial things, and more intentional about meaningful work and relationships. This is not just a cheesy new “Carpe Diem” mentality; it’s an utter and profound respect for time and life, in all of its fragility and preciousness. 

Secondary losses will continue to show up in our lives, in big ways and small ways, and even in some unexpected ways I still can’t foresee. I was cutting an onion in the kitchen the other day and had the thought, “Damn it! Jackson will never get to learn how to cut an onion!” And I started to cry – part grief, part onion. But these are the small moments that get you, mourning the seemingly trivial day-to-day lost experiences. Although Jackson loved “chopping” wooden vegetables in his kitchen, I reminded myself that cutting a real-life onion is far less enjoyable. Maybe he was spared that pain. But even painful life experiences, like a scraped knee, losing a game, college applications, and romantic breakups, are things I wish he hadn’t been spared from. These, too, are secondary losses. 

Although our losses are plentiful, we keep in mind what we still have, and what we’ve even gained. And with some of these losses, we make intentional choices to “take them back”. This concept, introduced to us by Sheryl Sandberg in Option B, is about intentionally choosing and allowing joy back into your life. We now occasionally sit in Jackson’s room and read his books. We now invite his friends, and their parents, over to our house to play. I’ll still graduate and say “We did it!” and we still plan to make Jackson a big brother. And someday we will go to Disneyland, and enjoy it for him. It’s not the same, and never will be the same, but we choose these joys, for us, for Jackson. The only thing more devastating than losing Jackson would be that his legacy became our suffering. We plan to live our lives, continue our family, and always hold space for grief and love, painful joy and plain joy. All for you, bubbo.


August 20, 2017. Jackson says goodnight to his baby.

August 20, 2017. Natalia fails to coax Jackson into saying “baby is so cute” for the camera, and it goes sideways.


“No Parent Should Have To Bury Their Child”

“No parent should have to bury their child” 

I heard this a lot after we lost Jackson. We bury our grandparents, then our parents, and then our children bury us. It’s the natural order of things. People say it to validate our shock and comfort our pain, and because they have probably never heard of it happening before — and because they can’t bear to imagine it happening to themselves.

The reality is that children die all the time. Before modern medicine, this was actually quite common; my own great-grandmothers buried quite a few of their children. Fortunately, this has changed over the years with the advent of antibiotics, medical technology and improvements in prenatal care. It’s no longer common, but it is natural. Children continue to die from all kinds of things: accidents, illnesses, natural disasters, and other times suddenly for no apparent reason at all. But even then, in cases like Jackson’s, there was always a reason. And much of my sanity hinges on this very fact: that just because we don’t know the reason doesn’t mean there wasn’t a reason. Jackson died because something natural caused him to die. This matters to me.

The main shock to our system is facing the reality that we cannot always protect our children. Bryan and I are proof that you can do everything right (well, most things) and still the center of your universe can evaporate in an instant. And this reality, that despite our best intentions and precautions, our children can still die, is the most terrifying but natural thing of all.

I’ve said to some people that I felt like I died on September 20th along with Jackson. It felt like my hopes and dreams for our family and our future disappeared the moment we found him unresponsive in his crib. But over time I have come to realize that I didn’t die that day, I woke up. I became awake to the fragility and preciousness of life and the incredible illusion of control we carry in planning our futures. I have never been so acutely aware of my “smallness”, or my immense insignificance in this universe. I have never been so cognizant that even the best made plans don’t always pan out. I came to understand just how foolish we are, in this modern society, with our perceptions of invincibility. In the last few months, in my own personal circles, a hurricane decimated Puerto Rico, wild fires obliterated California, a mudslide in Montecito claimed the life and home of my best friend’s stepmother, and dozens of families lost their toddlers to SUDC. Not to mention the thousands of families outside of my immediate circles who have lost loved ones and children for all kinds of reasons. My point is that death, even when it’s sudden and unexpected, or “too early”, is not unnatural. Uncommon? Yes. Painful? Absolutely, like hell. But perhaps not unnatural.

I wish, with all my might, that Jackson was still here, that whatever took him could have spared him instead. But that’s like wishing that an egg dropped from a skyscraper didn’t have to break. Whatever took him followed the laws of nature, chemistry, physics. It was both unavoidable and irreversible once things were set in motion.

Bleak as this all sounds, these tragedies have woken me up to the moment. There is simply no time to waste in living. Bryan and I just booked a trip to Europe to visit family and friends, our siblings have re-evaluated their jobs and career paths, and our parents are considering retirement earlier than planned. This is not a coincidence; this is a shared epiphany about the short, unpredictable nature of life. What a mistake it would be to take our precious lives for granted. What a tragedy it would be for us to assume we have an entire life ahead of us, to live things up later.

We certainly can, and should, take precautions and work towards finding answers, prevention, and cures. I am all in favor of advancing health care research and working to eliminate unnecessary deaths by gun violence, domestic abuse, and drunk driving. But there is no sure-fire way to completely safeguard against "premature" death. And nor would it be living to do so, if we could. All we can do is advocate as best as we can for our children and live humbly in the face of our natural mortality. In the words of Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”