January 22, 2019 marks ten years since my beautiful Jenna died. In many ways it feels like she was just here—I remember her last days with us so clearly—but it also feels like it’s been an eternity since I kissed my little girl goodbye. She was only five years, six months, and twenty days old. As time goes by, I miss her more. I wonder who she would be. This quote by Jodi Gilliland resonates in my heart: “The death of your child is a loss you never get over—it just becomes part of who you are.” So who am I now, and what have I learned? I have learned many things about myself, and here are a few of them.
1. Healing is an individual journey and has been more work than I can convey. Losing a child touches every part of life, and every part has to be rebuilt. I have done it all, from support groups to wellness coaching, gardening, writing classes, tons of exercise, and lots of tears. I have accomplished so many difficult things and am proud of the many ways I have honored Jenna’s memory.
2. Keep clinging to hope. Some days, especially in the first few years, it was hard to see the light through the darkness, but I kept hoping to be a good mom to my son, that my marriage would make it, and honestly, that I could even survive without Jenna in my life. Last year I tattooed the word HOPE on my wrist to remind myself to focus on the power of hope and the joy of seeing Jenna again in heaven.
3. It’s ok and healthy to fall apart, to scream and sob, and miss my daughter with all my soul, but I need to have a plan to climb out of the hole. Healing ultimately, to some degree, is a choice.
4. I am a more compassionate person. I have experienced deep sorrow and tend to take on others’ pain just as deeply. Sometimes that can be overwhelming, but it is also a gift.
5. C.S. Lewis once said, “No one ever told me grief felt so much like fear.” It took a huge amount of courage to watch Jenna suffer and die and to tell her that she could leave us, and then after she died, I had nothing left. I was scared to go to the grocery store alone; I was scared my remaining child was going to die; I was scared to go to sleep because I only had nightmares. I’ve acknowledged and worked through many fears with great courage.
6. I see Jenna everywhere. It’s not the same as having her physically in my life, however seeing her beauty in a different way fills up my heart. My eyes are always open for glimpses of her in pink sunrises and sunsets, rainbows, pink flowers, and dandelions. Oh, and smiley faces. ☺ She loved those.
7. I remember in one session with my wellness coach, I was expressing that whenever I felt gratitude, I’d negate it with a “but” because Jenna wasn’t here to experience the moment. She proposed that I have two buckets—one for things I’m currently grateful for and one for my gratitude for Jenna. One does not negate the other. This freed me from the guilt of attempting to find joy again without Jenna. I read this quote (author unknown) often to remind me of this fact: “Healing is not the absence of pain, it is the recognition that sorrow and joy can co-exist.”
8. There is no reason to compare losses. We all have experienced a loss. Maybe some are bigger or smaller than others, but they all cause pain and have changed us. Our job is to offer a listening ear without judgment or comparisons.
9. I miss the everyday moments the most—watching my kids hold hands, reading books as a family at bedtime, Jenna’s dimply smile, or when she’d ask for a cheese omelet with salsa on the side. Don’t worry if you can’t take the big trips or do the expensive outings. The little things truly do matter the most.
10. On days during Jenna’s treatment when we were home from the hospital, at naptime I’d sit on a bench on the front porch and sing the song from Psalm 46, “Be Still and Know That I Am God.” It offered me peace and reminded me that God is in control. After Jenna died, we built a pergola and planted Jenna’s Garden. During my son’s naptime, I’d go sit there. One day I was crying to God, asking all of those “why questions.” He answered me with the words from Psalm 46. Sometimes that moment is comforting, and sometimes it hurts a lot, but God has assured me that He knows my heart and accepts all of my emotions. He loves me just the way I am.
About the Author------------
Michele VanRheenen Westerholm is a tutor for elementary aged students, volunteer, and mom. After three difficult years of cancer treatment, her daughter, Jenna, died from rhabdomyosarcoma at the age of five years, six months, and twenty days. In her memory, she, along with her husband Chris, and son, Braden, founded the Jenna Westerholm Pediatric Help$ Program (Jenna Help$), which is administered by the Northwest Sarcoma Foundation. This program provides financial assistance grants to pediatric sarcoma patients, offering them support and hope during a very stressful journey.