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.