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'It's the third year that's the hardest.' What I learned after losing my teenage daughter.

The first year.

There is no timeline for grief after the loss of a child. That’s one of the first things I learned after I lost my 15-year-old daughter, Ana, to cancer on March 22nd, 2017.

It’s been 32 months since Ana died. At first, it was impossible to believe that she was gone. I used to obsess over her last breath and the cold, sombre funeral home where I saw her body for the last time, just to prove to myself that it was real.

In those first early months of grief, I learned how to carry the pain. I spent the twelve months following Ana’s death trying to make sense of my life and attempting to connect with her spirit rather than dwell on the last, terrible months of her life.

Watch: Sophie Smith on coping and parenting after loss. Post continues below.

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Celebrating holidays, birthdays, and events were out of the question. Celebrating anything at all was impossible. Navigating the world as a family of three, instead of a family of four, also presented a tremendous learning curve.

Losing a child is not unlike bringing a new baby into the world. There is a period of disbelief. There is a reevaluation of your worldview and your priorities.

The key difference (besides the obvious) is that most people can relate to the joy new parents experience. They understand that it takes time for young families to adjust to their lives together. Society supports and celebrates this in a variety of ways — baby showers, parental leave, playgroups, ongoing family and community support.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” as the saying goes. When I had Ana, my first child, I became part of the village. But when I lost Ana, there was only silence. What happens when a family shrinks? I learned the answer to this during the first year.

After her memorial and the much-needed support we received in the first few weeks, we were on our own. The world moved forward without me, at least for a while.

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The first year was terribly hard. It’s the year I learned how to put one foot in front of the other, the year I discovered that walking in the woods, something I’d only done occasionally before Ana died, brought me closer to her.

my child died cancer
Ana, age 11. Image: Supplied.

I learned to find companions who understood the depth of my pain. Some had lost children decades earlier and some, like me, were taking their first shaky steps into the world we all refer to as “after.”

These new friends, and fellow travellers, helped normalise what I was going through. Some of them carried a warning: “The second year is so much harder,” they said.

The second year.

The second year wasn’t harder, at least not for me. By March of 2018, I’d begun to create rituals that helped me feel connected to Ana. I asked people to fold cranes on the anniversary of her death and leave them in obvious places for people to find.

I visited Ana’s favourite park on her birthday in May and cultivated two new hobbies — bird watching and photography, both of which gave me excuses to be outside more. I began celebrating holidays again, though not fully. That wouldn’t come until year three.

I wrote, a lot, about grief and how I struggled each day (sometimes each hour) to find meaning in my life. The world stops making sense after you lose a child. The universe broke a promise. It perverted the normal sequence of life events to such an extreme degree that I couldn’t understand who I was anymore.

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Writing connected me with fellow grieving parents. It helped me sort through my confusion. And it enabled me to reach out to my support system, the people that had been so present for me during Ana’s long illness and immediately after her death.

Mia Freedman sits down with one of Australia's top grief counsellors, Petrea King, to discuss navigating the holidays when you are grieving. Post continues below. 

Perhaps the most important thing I learned in the second year was acceptance — not of Ana’s death, but of the true depth of my grief. In March 2018, a few weeks before the second anniversary of Ana’s death, I was ready to face (and try to correct) some hard realities — that I was deeply depressed, that I was extremely isolated, and that I needed to change the way I worked, lived, and thought in order to move forward.

In August of that year, I decided to shift the nature of my freelance business to focus on writing. This change was scary, but necessary. It’s not that I thought changing the focus of my business would help me get over losing Ana or somehow go back to normal, whatever that means. But I no longer naively believed that one year or two (or five) would soften the ache.

Accepting grief as my new normal, as something that needed to be managed like depression or chronic pain, gave me the impetus to begin reshaping my life so that I could accommodate my new burden of grief.

The third year.

At the start of year three, I fell into another deep depression. I felt a sense of foreboding as I recognised that the clarity of Ana’s physical self was beginning to fade. It seemed as if I was losing her all over again, but returning to the clearest memories, the ones where she was in pain and dying, had become impossible.

I reached out to a friend who had lost her nine-year-old son shortly before I lost Ana.

“I have a terrible feeling that year three is going to be the hardest one yet,” I’d said.

“Yes,” she agreed. “He feels so distant.”

My depression lasted from the third anniversary of Ana’s death in March 2019 throughout the summer. I went back to therapy, recognising that some part of Ana was disappearing, and I wasn’t quite ready to let it go.

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Ana, Age 8. Image: Supplied.

What was shifting was my physical connection to Ana. It had begun to sever, like a cut umbilicus. Her clothes were all gone. There was no trace of her smell at all. Her bedroom, which I’d turned into my home office about five months after she died, was more mine than hers. I had to look at photos to recall the exact shade of her hair.

It’s still year three and I’m still learning. I’ve changed so much. I now understand that I will always need space and support to grieve for my child. I am also learning how to connect with Ana’s spirit more fully and to let go of the physical connection I had with her living body. In doing this, I am learning how to bring Ana forward with me into this new life of “after.”

Year three has taught me to embrace my grief when it comes, but also how to fold Ana into my heart where she exists, fully realised and whole.

This transcendent connection with Ana has, for the first time, provided real solace. It’s enabled me to celebrate again and to begin to look forward to a future that, one way or another, will include Ana’s memory and her spirit.

Feature Image: Getty.

For more from Jacqueline Dooley, you can find her on her Medium profile, or on Twitter.

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