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After My Infant Daughter Died I Never Thought My Grief Could Transform into Anything Positive

Monday, September 20, 2021

By Lily Dulan

Photograph by the author

Have you ever heard the saying I thought I was buried, but it turns out I had been planted? Memes with this phrase on social media usually include an image of a dark and claustrophobic space, symbolizing the grief we feel before we find our way through it. That picture is typically followed by a colorful flower, its petals outstretched and blooming with possibility, demonstrating the bright future that takes root, rises, and finds its way out of the darkness.

It was 2009 when I first saw something like this.

My infant daughter had just died. Bullshit, I thought to myself as I sat at my desk. Every time I scrolled and saw a post with a similar sentiment, I felt sick. I was hopeless in the early stages of grief; death had left me feeling foggy and lifeless. And when the fog did lift, I was flooded with intensely painful emotions.

Our precious firstborn child died in the night at the tender age of two months. SIDS was the cause of death. Her death felt like a cruel trick, like a punishment. I couldn’t get the horror of her passing out of my head. All I could see was the blinding lights of the firetruck and our precious angel’s face streaked with death. The warmth of life had left her tiny body as my husband futilely tried to revive her by doing mouth-to-mouth.

I played the scenes over and over in my mind — I couldn’t stop. In the world of psychology, this is called rumination. I can still see myself running out to our gate in my soft pink bathrobe, screaming at the EMT who was responding to my frantic 911 call. “Hurry! We don’t have enough time!” I knew she was gone, but, like my husband, I was still praying for a miracle.

In the wake of such devastating loss, those clichéd posts on the internet felt like a punch in the gut. Images of hope-filled flowers emerging from the darkness were lost on me. I felt severed. In the aftermath of my daughter’s passing, I couldn’t embrace the idea that positive change was a possibility. Yet somehow that change has happened over the past twelve years.

Our precious Kara left this world on July 29, 2009, and I can say unequivocally that I have bloomed. I am not the same person I was before she came and went: I have a beautifully meaningful life that I once thought was next to impossible. How did I get here? I don’t have all the answers, but I will say that giving myself time and space to heal has been part of my transformation. And eight years after Kara’s death I finally found the strength to write my first book, Giving Grief Meaning, a flower that emerged from the darkness.

I recently traveled to one of my favorite locales to find that space for myself: the Sonoran Desert. It’s typically dry and hot, but this trip I experienced what seemed like an unusual amount of rain for several days. I was disappointed that I couldn’t go hiking without getting soaked.

When the rain finally stopped, I went out on my regular path, grateful to hear my boots crunch against the gravel. A white-winged dove called out as a roadrunner scooted past. I tread along the familiar path until a glimpse of my favorite clearing stopped me in my tracks. Hundreds of flowers were in bloom. One cactus, in particular, was in full super bloom, like a showstopper in a chorus line. I was awestruck. I didn’t know such a prickly plant could birth such a brilliant flower!

I had traveled to this same spot many times — I started visiting regularly a few months after Kara’s death. I found peace there in nature, its rattle and dry hum a familiar tape. Usually, it was sweltering, and the hundreds of cacti stood dry and burnt, often flowerless. Now, twelve years later, I marveled at a completely different scene.

And in that moment, I understood the miracle of the desert rose.

It can take thirty years for a cactus to come into full bloom. As I stood there transfixed by the flowers, I felt the power of infinite possibilities. From my once-limited perspective, I would not have thought that it was possible for a cactus to bloom in that way. Yet there she was — a desert rose, risen from the dry land. It felt miraculous, even biblical.

Despite the times I have felt as dry and bristly as a cactus, I still hold within me the miracle of life. We breathe until our last breath. When I embrace my breath and life, I become more at peace with my grief. The seemingly small act of stopping, breathing, and taking in a message of hope is a step towards life. When I read literature on grief, seek support, and simply put one foot in front of the other, I am committing to growth whether I recognize it or not.

A few months after my daughter passed, my friend and teacher Michael Beckwith said, “You can choose to grow or shrink from this tragedy.” I felt buried in darkness, unable to understand his words like I do now. But I made the choice to grow and, ultimately, transform. I chose possibility over nihilism.

It still was painful; I was unable to write for a long time. Yet today I can testify to the truth that we can transform through our grief if we hold on for one day or even one moment at a time. We can make the conditions right for our own inner bloom by learning to view the universe as a friendly place, even when we don’t believe it or can’t see it. In the recovery world, this is called taking contrary action.

It may not be easy to imagine that we will move through it, but acting as if we will is a step towards the path of grace and dignity. Viktor Frankl, the late psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, shared how people planted roses in the prison camps, moving towards the beauty and the light, to imbue life with positive meaning. It may take time for things to change, but we can acknowledge the possibility that they can and will.

May we stretch towards the light even in our darkest hours.


Lily Dulan
is an MFT Psychotherapist with a master’s degree in Psychology and an MFA in Creative Writing. She is the author of Giving Grief Meaning and is a certified Heart of Yoga Teacher. She started a foundation in loving memory of her daughter called The Kara Love Project, which has joined with local, national, and international organizations to serve marginalized youth. Lily facilitates The Name Work workshops and educational events in the greater Los Angeles area for universities, organizations, corporations, and small private groups. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters.