We’re back with another round of “Mom Talk”, where we invite some incredible mothers, from all walks of life, to share their personal experiences and journeys through motherhood, whether it be struggles, triumphs, or anything in-between—nothing’s off limits when it comes to topics. This week, Abby Hantel Schwartz navigates love and loss through the death of her parents and the birth of her firstborn. -JKM
I got the call at 7:00 a.m. and could tell from my brother’s cracking voice that something was wrong. I silently shuffled through every possible tragic scenario until he broke my thoughts with the news, “Dad died in his sleep. It was peaceful.” Shockingly, this tragic scenario hadn’t even occurred to me. In that moment, all I could think was, “No, this isn’t right.” Not because of his relative youth or his good health, but because he was supposed to have grandchildren. Playful, infinitely patient, and so full of love, the man was born for it. I was still about a year away from getting pregnant, but the thought persisted on my flight back home, during his funeral, and in the ensuing weeks.
The persistence stemmed from my mom’s death, which happened when I was eleven years old. Losing her so early in life, I found I had taken my dad’s presence for granted. My broken logic was that the tragedy of my life had already happened, so I was somehow safe now, somehow vaccinated. I figured that my dad would always be there to field my late-night phone calls with comfort and advice; would be there to laugh with me when I got from my future teenagers the karmic retribution I deserved for my own petulant teen years; and most importantly, would be there to share stories about my mom to keep her memory alive. As her high school sweetheart and soulmate, he would share the stories of their youth that only he remembered. He would share the stories of how my arrival had made them parents, and he would detail how I came into this world. He would share the stories that he had kept locked away since her death as a means of self-preservation and would help us all heal.
So, when I got the 7:00 a.m. call, I mourned the immediate loss of my father, but I also mourned the now permanent loss of my mother, in my own life and those of my future children.
The next few months were a haze of impenetrable grief and identity crisis that slowly lifted as my now husband and I planned our wedding and talked about starting our family. We decided to start trying at the beginning of the next year, so I suddenly had a healing mission. I went to yoga. I went to reiki. I went to acupuncture. I went to both new and full moon circles, and then I got pregnant. Ripe with life and hormones, I prepared myself for a new wave of grief that strangely did not come. Of course there were days I felt devastated that my parents never got to meet my amazing husband or see me pregnant or feel their granddaughter kick. But, overall I was overwhelmingly happy, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. One evening my husband asked me, “Are you excited to get to meet your parents again?” And, it all became clear: in birth there would be also be rebirth.
That moment completely changed the lens through which I saw the loss of my parents. I was so prepared to mourn the loss of their presence in my daughter’s life, but instead I began to celebrate the myriad little ways they showed up in—and for—her. Certainly, there are hard days when the lens shifts and my mind gets lost in that all too familiar rolodex of tragic scenarios, but I try to stay focused on all of the love instead of all of the loss. I go through family photos with my six-month-old daughter and share memories of my parents and my childhood. I keep pictures of all of her grandparents in her nursery, and we say goodnight to everyone before bed to celebrate all the iterations of love by which she’s surrounded. I write little letters to her about my parents and the musings they’ve inspired in these early months, so that we can both look back on them one day when she’s older. My most recent letter felt like a summation of the mixed emotions of parenting through loss and the closest I’ll ever come to explaining—to her and to myself—the bittersweet experience of simultaneous love and loss, both nearly indescribable in their heft. It reads:
“This morning I studied your little hands as you fell asleep next to me and noticed that your fingers are mine in miniature. It made me wonder if mine are the same as my mom’s, and it made me sad that I never took the time to memorize her hands. I remember that they were long and slender, but the details are forever gone. It’s a hard thing to miss her so viscerally everyday and not let it affect how I mother you. I don’t want to burden you with my grief. I don’t want you to spend idle hours memorizing my hands because children shouldn’t have to do that. I don’t want to take future teen angst or arguments to the dark place of ‘I would have given anything to have had a mother to argue with!’ I don’t want to do that to you. Because my experience is mine and yours is yours, and I want to give you the freedom to live yours without comparison or judgement. I want you to know my memories of my mom and dad intimately, but I don’t want you to carry my grief. I want you to carry their spirits and celebrate their legacy by sharing those stories with your children and their children. I might never remember the details of their humanity, but it’s just proof of the emptiness of form, and the desire of the ego to make the ephemeral permanent. Those details fade away to teach us that they weren’t as important as the memories and feelings that persist and keep those we’ve lost alive forever.”
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