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What I’ve Learned in the Four Months Since My Daughter Died

Thursday, August 04, 2022

By Jessica Fein

I’ve known grief intimately for a long time.

When I was 27, my sister, who was also my best friend, dropped dead on an ordinary Monday while playing with her baby. Years later my mother died, and then my father did, too. When my other sister was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, we both believed she’d beat the odds because, as she put it, “God wouldn’t do that to you, Jess.” But she died within two years of her diagnosis.

Each loss has its own texture: the shock of the first, the displacement of losing parents, the inevitable twists and turns of a cancer journey. But losing my daughter Dalia just one week after she turned 17 is profoundly different from each of the losses that preceded it. Here’s why:

I see my daughter everywhere.

It’s not like when my sister died and every so often I did a double take at someone whose hair fell the same way or whose laugh had a similar throaty quality. It’s that Dalia is every girl. We just returned from a vacation to Mexico, and there she was – the little girl in the ruffled bathing suit filling her pail with sand and the one who loaded her plate with piles of chicken nuggets at the buffet. She was the toddler shrieking in the pool when her father threw her in the air and the one nestled between her mother’s legs in the kayak. She could be 2 or 5 or 8, Scottish or Asian or Mayan like my princess; she was Dalia. We filled four seats on the plane, not five, yet Dalia flew along with each of us.

I’m questioning my identity.

Inside, I’m still the mother of three children, the mother of a daughter, the mother of a child with a rare disease. But my outsides don’t match my insides. If all these things defined me, who am I now? Have I reverted to who I was before Dalia was born? I barely recognize that carefree person. Now I’m a member of the club most people don’t even dare to imagine, and all I want is to find a secret passageway out. But once you’re here, there’s no way to leave. I find solace only in the ones who arrived first. They know what to say and maybe even more importantly, what not to say.

There are questions that have no answer.

“How many kids do you have?” Three, always it will be three. To say two erases 17 years. But then there’s the follow-up: “How old are they?” And that’s not something I necessarily want to get into.

Even a seemingly simple question can feel like a minefield. “How are you?” Most of the time, I have no idea how I am. I’m not even sure who I am. There are times when I’m fine – good even. But that answer doesn’t feel right either. A betrayal of my daughter, glossing over the hole in my soul. So I revert to the simplistic. “Day by day,” I say. An acceptable answer that means nothing at all, but a self-protective one.

I need to protect not only myself but my other kids, too.

One older and one younger, their loss is one I know well. The night my first sister died, one of my mother’s friends pulled me into a corner of the room and said, “You need to take care of your mother now. Losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to anybody.” Having lost my sister that very morning, I had no idea how she thought I had the capacity to take care of my mother. Wouldn’t my mother be busy taking care of me?

Now, all these years later, my husband and I are being held by family and friends, colleagues, and neighbors. But what about our kids? We received hundreds of cards, flowers for every room in the house, and dinner each night for months. Yet only one person, a cousin we haven’t spoken to in years, sent gifts for our kids. A cozy throw for each, in separate packages addressed to them individually. That’s something we’ll all remember, a kindness I’ll emulate should I find myself on the outside looking in at somebody else’s loss.

My daughter’s death hasn’t displaced the other losses.

It’s more recent and objectively bigger, but it hasn’t filled in the holes left by my sisters and parents. If anything, it’s made them expand a bit. Each loss is compounded by the ones that came before. I want to cry with my sisters, lean on my father’s strong shoulders. Some days I just want to crawl back into the womb and take a nap. But once again, my world has shrunk. So I do the only things I can think of. I draw closer to the people I love. I welcome my grief because it reminds me of the love I carry for my daughter. I tell her story to anybody who wants to hear it, a testament to her life and her light.


Jessica Fein writes about staying rooted when life tries to blow you down, the mingling of joy and sorrow, and her love of warm chocolate pudding cake. Her memoir, Breath Taking: Rare Girl in a World of Love and Loss is forthcoming. Connect with her on Instagram @feinjessica for real talk about warrior moms.