Life After Anna

_wow_shes_cute_17squareIt has been thirty days since we lost Anna. Tomorrow, August 26, it will be one month. It is still hard to say — or write — “she died.” “We lost her” is all I can manage. How are we doing? I don’t know. When we are able to step outside ourselves for a moment, we can acknowledge that this tragedy has not only brought great pain, but also great love, great generosity, great faith. We have experienced the support of our friends, family and colleagues as we never imagined possible … and never imagined necessary.

The progression of our grief over the past thirty days has been momentous. In the first days, we were truly in a fog. The grief was debilitating. When we weren’t crying, we felt Anna’s absence emanating from every inch of the house. At one week, we went to Target. (We bought car seats for the kids, because amidst all the activity, they inadvertently got delivered to Goodwill.) At two weeks, my pain at having to suddenly stop nursing abated (although the milk is still not gone). At three weeks, we could sing again. Last Saturday, I dreamed about Anna for the first time. Steve was holding her and I kissed her. I awoke feeling peaceful. Yesterday, we went for a walk, our first without Anna. Still a family of five, but only four on earth.

There are times we can laugh. I have learned that laughter — true, unexpected laughter — feels like breathing in sunshine. Light, clean, beautiful. It probably always felt that way, but I only just noticed because it stands in such contrast to my prevailing emotions. There are times we can forget for a moment. Or, not really forget but rather place our sadness to the side … move around it. But it is always there. This is hiding-around-every-corner grief … punched-in-the-stomach grief. Losing Anna is physically painful. My heart literally aches. In the first weeks, for a just a millisecond before I could stop myself, my arms would tingle and I would feel an adrenaline rush thinking, “Oh no! Who has the baby?” Because as mothers we are biologically programmed to protect our children … and my circuits were misfiring.

The morning after we lost Anna I picked up a card we received when she was born. It related support for the tough time we were having with Anna’s health. And for a moment I thought to myself, “Why were we upset before? Why did people feel bad for us?” For that second, I honestly didn’t remember. Momentous loss instantly puts life in perspective. Instantly. But that reaction also was an indicator of how Anna had already changed us. She truly taught us to love without limitation. We were beyond the pain of any diagnosis she had received. We were ready to care for her for the rest of our lives if that was what she needed. We were getting her early intervention services and tackling her issues one by one. We loved Anna completely, completely as she was. And to lose her in that moment was — is — excruciating.

This experience has also fundamentally changed our outlook on life. I have lived my personal and professional life knowing there is a solution to every problem. Steve is the same way. Nothing was impossible. And now we are stuck in the middle of an agony we never could have imagined. And there is no solution. There is no way to get her back. There is no end to this suffering. Except to wait for it to abate. That’s the only hope we have. That this pain will subside. That bit by bit, normalcy will regain a foothold. But at the same time, we do not want to feel less pain at her loss. Though it is not the “right” response, part of me feels that Anna deserves our total devastation.

It’s hard for me to speak for him but I think Steve and I are about in the same place, which is to say we’re just stumbling through this darkness from moment to moment. He is strong, I am weak. I am strong, he is weak. Sometimes, we’re both a mess. And there are times when life almost seems normal for little while. An old friend wrote to us the other day to say that she is praying for us, and specifically praying for our marriage. I like that. Because while Steve and I are doing fine, I can see how either of us could easily become lost in our own grief. The anger and frustration at being caught in such despair could easily be misdirected at each other. I know I have been less patient, even though I try not to be. The kids end up on the receiving end of that, too. It’s hard. So we appreciate the prayers.

Nora and Henry are each handling Anna’s loss in their own way. Nora really absorbs the emotions of Steve and me. She cries when we cry and is sad when we are sad. But that’s not to deny her own experience. She misses Anna. The other night, I went into Nora’s room because she was crying. She asked me to tell her again who is in heaven with Anna. I told her about her great grandparents, the dogs I had growing up, my friend Angela’s kitty. Nora listened to all this and started crying again. “But now Anna won’t match.” I said, “You mean her healthy body in heaven won’t match the one she had here on earth?” “No,” she said. “No one will dress her to match me.” It is small, but for Nora it is big.

It’s harder to know what’s going on with Henry. Steve and I discussed in the early days how little Henry truly seems to grasp about the whole situation. We thought that if we brought Anna in the door tomorrow, Henry would probably ask a couple of questions and then go on like she had never left. That was reinforced last week when Henry watched the Anna video with Steve. I asked Henry how Daddy was doing. Henry said, “He’s sad about Anna. But it’s OK. She will be home soon.”

In the beginning, Henry was just trying hard to process everything that was going on around him. He wouldn’t talk about Anna, but he liked to watch her video. He has also reverted to his previous separation anxiety and would not go to his last two dance classes. Yesterday, we stopped at the playground halfway through our walk. Nora and Henry were on a big tire swing. This was their conversation:

Nora: We could fit one more person on the tire swing
Henry: Yeah, like if Anna grew up
Nora: That would be good.
Henry: Yeah!
Nora: Yeah, but she’s in heaven … too bad, right?
Henry: Yeah.

And they went on swinging.

We thank God every day for Nora and Henry. They get us out of bed. They make us laugh. They make us make breakfast. And lunch. And dinner. And several snacks. They want to play. They want to go to the pool. And always, Henry wants to go to the zoo. So … we do. And just by the mere act of doing normal things, we become a little more normal. New normal. Normal that encompasses loss. Normal that does not forget but does function.

Eleven-and-a-half weeks with Anna was not long enough. And yet it was so long. The words Steve used to describe Anna’s life in her eulogy ring in my ears, “Eighty long days.” I can imagine people thinking that maybe we didn’t really know Anna. That she was so young … that her personality had not emerged. And that is my biggest fear. Because we did know her. She was a real person. A unique person. She was sweet and smart and funny. Our lives realigned around her. And we loved her. And she loved each of us.

Her life had meaning because she was part of this world. She was part of our goodness. Part of our tragedy. Anna was — is — part of each of us. I said in my last update that Anna changed the world. I said that when our immense sorrow faded, we would be united in goodness. We need this to be true. So we are specifically asking every person who reads Anna’s story to add to the goodness in the world. Magnify your talent. Eliminate a vice. Help someone. Make sure the people you love know you love them. Say something. Do something. Be something. Do it for Anna.

Steve created a Web site, www.schellpodoll.com, and soon you will be able to record there how Anna changed your life. We hope she did.

I said in the beginning that we are overwhelmed … awed … by the strength and generosity of our family, friends and colleagues. We can never, ever thank you enough. You truly sustained us in this first month. We’re going to need you for a long time. Amid this disabling grief that we never expected, we feel oddly blessed, too.

Love,
Jenn, Steve, Nora & Henry

Don’t be afraid for I am with you. Do not be dismayed for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
Isaiah 41:10

P.S. For the next year we’re going to write a weekly blog that can be accessed through our site, www.schellpodoll.com/blog. I hope that in some small way it will help us get through this. On our site, you can also see Anna’s whole story, pictures of the small miracles we’ve witnessed since she went to heaven, and other things from our life with her.

P.P.S. We also have two ongoing projects. One is to fill our yard with natural tributes to Anna. We received a magnolia tree that is planted in the side yard, there is ivy from a flower basket growing in the back and we planted the hydrangea tree we bought for her memorial service on the fence line. Many of you have asked about giving us money for a tree or something else to plant. Because we have a small yard we would like to pool those donations and plant a blue spruce or another evergreen in the corner of our yard. I envision decorating it every Christmas, and hiding eggs under it every Easter. (I realize the kids will catch on pretty fast.) So come visit the yard — and us — any time.

The other project is the card map. We have been supported and uplifted by the sheer volume of condolence cards we have received. We were humbled that first day when Steve opened the mailbox and found a dozen cards. And then they kept coming and coming. It is a testament to the power of one small life. The stories and messages of support from friends and even strangers is amazing. It started us thinking that maybe we have gotten a card from every state in the country. We’re going to create an online map on our site this week to record all those letters. Take a look. And if it turns out that we’re missing a state, would you forward Anna’s story to someone you know there? I know it is small, but somehow the process feels therapeutic.

3 comments.

  1. What a beautiful, blessed life Anna had. And we are all now blessed by her life and by your eloquently heartfelt writing about her life and how all of you have been affected. I love all of you so very much and am awed by your faithfulness, strength and most of all, your love. Praying for you always. – Gayle

  2. Jenn,
    Your blog is hard to read. I’m trying not to cry loudly because my son and baby are sleeping down the hall. My milk is also drying up right now, but not because we have lost Emma, but because she has switched to the bottle. There are a few reasons that the loss of Anna feels so real to me even though I never met her. One is because of Anne’s grief. I know that she has never experienced grief like this before, and she is in my prayers. Another one is when I see Anna’s picture, my immediate response is, what a beautiful baby, followed by a punch in the stomach as I realize she had died. Whenever I think of Anna, I’m torn between thanking God that my baby is still alive and terror that she, too, will die. When I was Henry’s age, my infant brother was diagnosed with Lymphoblastic Leukemia. I had regular nightmares from which I would wake screaming because in my dream I was somehow left responsible for him and he would be taken. At that time I still had no real understanding of loss, just the possibility. For me, his whole life was a series of terrifying relapse and miraculous remission until finally, after every attempt, experimental treatment and prayer was tried, he died at the age of 8. At 11, I had lived in fear (and denial) of his death for all I could remember of my own life. A few months later, my father and sister were killed by a drunk, stoned father of 3 out to end his life on the wrong side of the freeway in the middle of the desert where my father was driving my 13 year old sister to a doctor for physicals so she could play in sports at the high school she had just begun to attend. My life ended, adolescence took over for a while, suicide attempts and other risky behavior ensued, as I experienced what I now understand to be post-traumatic-stress disorder. When my mom took me to a psychiatrist and they gave me prozac for my depression, I read the back of the bottle. It said to take one every other day, as they were very strong. I thought, wow, that must really do something and took half the bottle, followed it with a bunch of other pills (decongestants, incidentally) and went upstairs to die. I woke up later from a very nice nap. God saved me that day through my ignorance. And kept saving me. It wasn’t until I met my husband that my life seemed to reconnect with the child I was at 11, before things got really bad. Still, I live in fear of future loss. When I had my first son, I had narcotics-induced nightmares about every way I could possibly lose him. As I mentioned, I have 2 kids, and part of the reason I don’t think I will have a third is that every time I get pregnant, I feel like I’m playing Russian Roulette. Will this one have Leukemia? (there’s nothing genetic about it) Will they miscarry, be still-birth? I have a very happy marriage and family life. It scares me. If I am happy, will it jinx everything? Is there meant to be no happiness on earth? Will they all die because of my happiness. I guess you can see that I too have not recovered and never will. But I’m better. I bought pajamas in memory of Anna. I force myself to look upon your grief because she deserves that. And so do you, Steve, Nora, and Henry. When my brother was first diagnosed, other families with children distanced themselves from us as if illness and death were contagious. I will not do that to you. You and your family are wonderful people. I know we don’t know each other well, and I haven’t met Henry yet, either. But I know you through Anne and our families are at very similar stages of life, with two children, plus one deceased (we lost our first one when I was 3 months pregnant with her). You and Steve have always seemed to have a great marriage, as I consider ours to be great. We are similar. What I am trying to say is that I will not avert my eyes from your grief, from your loss. You are valuable. Anna is (yes, is, she is still alive in heaven) valuable. You (all of you) matter to me despite the distance. I know that you knew Anna, her needs, her ins and outs. I know because that’s how I know my 7 month old Emma. Sometimes I reflect that I don’t know who she will be when she is older, but then I realize that she is who she is now, and if I were to lose her before she grows up, she will still be the baby I have known this whole time. Anna had a significant life. She is in heaven playing with Jesus right now and it will be wonderful when you see her again, all of this pain will lift and you will be whole again. Maybe my sister will carry her around for awhile. Maybe she will commiserate for a while with my brother about that bothersome illness. Or maybe they will only speak of wonderful things like their parents and siblings. While we were at seminary, I went to a counselor who revealed that I had never allowed myself to grieve because I was trying so hard to be strong. All my tears were still locked inside. She assigned my homework– go watch a sad movie and cry. I tried. I really did. At the end of all those movies I was dry-eyed and annoyed. Their hearts broke so easily, so phonily. They were so unreal. Finally I gave up. It was impossible. I still broke down a the most inopportune times, attacked by memory and unreasonable guilt. I could not grieve conveniently, when I opened myself up. I wasn’t brave enough for that. I blocked the memories whenever I could; I blocked memories that might lead to thinking about those memories, and so on and so on. My mom wrote a book called, Beyond the Rainbow. When it was published, someone said that I should also write a book to share my experience. I’m sure you know how many memories that would open up. I was sure I never could write the things I just have. I hope I have not offended you by responding in this way. Anna has opened this up. She was a wonderful little girl and I’m so glad she had parents and siblings who loved/love her as much as you do. Thank you for sharing her with me. I will pray that God will hold you and Steve right now as you go through this. With his Love, Shiloh.

  3. Thank you, Shiloh. You are an amazing woman — not because you have experienced tragic loss in your life (what choice did you have, after all? And who would ever choose to be tested in this way?) but because you endured … survived … and became the beautiful person you are today. That is amazing. I can sense the depth of your pain and I grieve your losses with you. Thank you so much for sharing your story. –Jenn

Post a comment.

RSS