Little A loved waving hello. Her chubby little arm would shoot out with fingers outstretched whenever she’d see us. Even our dog Zola would get an enthusiastic wave whenever they’d cross paths. Waving goodbye, on the other hand, was a different story. She just wouldn’t do it, even though it was the exact same gesture.
Then on August 19, 2018 (exactly 11 months after I brought Little A home from the hospital), Miss M arrived at our house to pick up her daughter for the last time. She had accomplished all of her responsibilities, and they were being reunited for a trial return home.
The day before, I wrote a list of things I thought might be helpful to know, such as Little A’s favorite foods, her daily routine, and other random tidbits (my last act of being Little A’s other mom). My hands and voice trembled as I showed Miss M the list. I tried to keep my composure, but I just couldn’t hold back the tears. Miss M with tears in her own eyes, reached out and gave me a warm, consoling hug, which I’ll never forget. We were two moms united by an unshakable love for this little being.
I dried my eyes and looked up to see Jason holding Little A on his hip. She watched us intently and quietly. She might not have known exactly what was happening, but she was taking it all in. I know she could feel the grief, the beauty, the love—the Everything. She was okay.
I gave Little A one last squeeze with every fiber of my being, before passing her to her mom. As Miss M walked away, Little A watched us over her shoulder. This was always difficult for me, as Little A would usually cry all the way to the car, but this time was different. I almost didn’t believe my eyes. She wasn’t crying. Instead, she gave us one of her big gummy smiles, and for the first time ever, waved goodbye.
At that moment, a strange peace washed over me—mixing with the worry, fear, grief, and joy of witnessing this monumental reunion. That first wave goodbye was a gift to us. It was a reminder of what we shared and what we taught each other. It wasn’t an abrupt severing. It was the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.
Facing the loss
After Little A left, I collapsed into the couch and cried the most gut-wrenching tears I’ve ever felt. I knew the goal of foster care is reunification. I knew this was going to happen. I knew this was all part of her path, but the pain still consumed me.
Jason wept quietly next to me, mourning his own loss while stoically comforting mine. The house was eerily quiet. No clashing and babbling of a rambunctious toddler. Not even a hum of an appliance. Nothing. The silence was excruciating. I wished the fridge or the water pump would kick in—anything to break the silence and stop reminding me that Little A was gone.
The surreal emptiness was amplified by the reminders of her time with us—smudges on the glass between the dining room and my office, where we played countless games of peekaboo. Bits of peaches, potato, and chicken scattered around her wooden high chair. Every room held some reminder of her presence as if frozen in time.
Underneath the grief and heartache, something was brewing deep inside of me. An intolerance of sorts. The feeling of no longer being able to ignore what was most important in my life: love, family, home, community, health, and happiness.
I’ve always valued these aspects of life, but I sometimes let less important things take center-stage—like busy-ness, unrealistic expectations, and a skewed sense of what’s “good enough.”
There’s something about grief that makes me keenly aware of the passing of time, mortality, and the temporalness of life. It shoots straight to my core—making it impossible to ignore what’s really important (and what isn’t).
In the Five Element tradition of Chinese medicine, grief connects us with our “value system,” which is integral part of a healthy, fulfilling life. If we don’t feel grief in all of its heart-wrenching, puffy-eyed, snotty misery, we may never experience the sheer beauty that’s waiting on the other side.
After Little A left, I gave myself permission to do absolutely nothing but grieve before taking action or making any new decisions. Isn’t it odd that we have to give ourselves permission to do something so natural and critical to our wellbeing? I think so.
I spend four solid days buried in a heap of blankets and soggy tissues on my couch, barely able to talk with my own family. I filled pages upon pages in my journal, hoping to find clarity under the heartache, worry, and bouts of self-pity. “What do I do now?” I’d ask in writing. In response, I’d hear simple things like, “Brush your teeth,” or “Get dressed,” or “Eat.” Each time, I honored the guidance, no matter how mundane it seemed.
Eventually, I felt ready to ask deeper questions like, “How do I want to live my life?” and “Who do I want to surround myself with?” or “How can I help others without forsaking my health?” Slowly but surely, I received deeper answers, and not long after, I felt more clear than ever before about what my priorities are, and what I needed to do to support them.
I still feel waves of grief from time to time. Sometimes it’s the little things—like finding Little A’s missing binkies when we moved out of our home recently. Even sharing this story makes my heart ache, but I know if I make space for it without judging, rushing, or denying, it will continue to show me what’s most important.
If you ever find yourself buried in a heap of soggy tissues or feel a heavy ache in your chest, don’t push it down or minimize it or think you should be over it already. Grief is your heart’s way of reminding you what you value, so you can shift your priorities and create a more meaningful, fulfilling life. And that’s a beautiful thing.
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I’m a practitioner of Chinese medicine, specializing in digestive health and self-care. When I’m not teaching or writing, I’m most likely changing diapers, plunking my banjo, or making an impressive mess in the kitchen. Learn more here