Accepting That There’s No Substitute for the Person Who Has Died and Embracing the Truth that You Can Thrive After Loss
It’s no secret: I’m a huge “sucker” for animals. I’ve volunteered in animal rescue efforts for several years and earned my soft-hearted reputation among friends, family and neighbors. (And, frankly, I’m proud of it). So it was no surprise in the summer of 2020 when a neighbor thought to ask for my help in attempting to save a newborn bunny — a bunny whose littermates had been killed by a dog and whose mama had disappeared. Boogie, as this tiny rabbit came to be known, was the only survivor of the suburban backyard massacre. When I picked him up, even I was shocked at just how tiny and helpless he was. He barely had any fur, his eyes were shut tight, and all he could do was scoot around the little box he’d been placed in. No hopping, no blinking, no nibbling on carrots. I knew I was in over my head but I wasn’t going to say “no” to this challenge. This little guy was in dire straits and badly needed a mommy bunny or an animal-loving “sucker” who was willing to try her hand at wildlife rehabilitation. And there I was.
Immediately, I began to do my research and made several calls to wildlife rehabilitation (rehab) centers. I learned so much in such a short period of time, but none of it helped all that much. It turns out that baby rabbits are actually called “kittens” and that the mother rabbit (normally called a doe) is called a “kindling” after she bears a litter (usually containing about 7 babies in all). I was on a mission to be a Good Samaritan, all the while I was feeling a palpable sense of grief. (I wondered: “Had there been six other babies? They’re all dead? Why did this have to happen?”) I was overcome with emotion and adrenaline but I was focused on the job at hand. I was sure that within an hour or two, we’d have dropped off the shoebox bunny with a capable animal expert, and we’d be on our merry way, having “saved” the bunny like the good-hearted family we aim to be.
No Room at the Inn
But each call I made elicited in the same response — “Baby rabbits are extremely difficult to rehab and we simply don’t have the resources to help at this time.” I was told “but it’s worth a try” and “good luck.” I felt a moral obligation to do my best to give this bunny a fighting chance, so I learned all I could about what he (or she?) needed to survive, what to feed him, how often to feed him, what temperature to keep his environment, even how to help stimulate him go potty (a task his mom would have handled in the wild and done a little less hygienically than I did). I followed the instructions to a T.
Mother bunnies only return to the nest to feed their babies twice a day. They do this so as not to attract predators to the nest. Apparently, a major mistake of rehabbers is overfeeding the bunnies. Mother bunnies also do not “sit on their nest” to warm their babies. Instead, they pull out the fur from their own tummies to create a soft warm nest of fur. I didn’t have fur to give baby Boogie, but I carefully made a nest for him out of fleece and dandelion greens.
Mother bunnies also have a very specific type of bacteria in their milk that helps the baby develop healthy gut flora. I researched what product to buy and added that to his small-mammal goat’s milk replacement formula, as prescribed. I resisted the urge to fuss over him, because everything I read said baby bunnies are easily stressed … especially when their eyes aren’t open yet. This little angel had lost his mother, and while I knew I was no substitute for a mother rabbit, I also knew how hard it is to lose your mom and how much I wanted to be this tiny animal’s saving grace.
What Came Next
After three days, baby Boogie appeared to be thriving. He had gotten the hang of eating from the tiny eyedropper I fed him with and he was gaining a little bit of weight (I weighed him on a kitchen/food scale that could register ounces or even grams). His fur was even starting to come in and he was starting to resemble a rabbit (instead of a little hairless rodent). He was adorable and he was a fighter. I went to bed on the third night, beginning to have hope that I would be able to send Boogie off to live his best life as a rabbit in the wild.
When I woke up to check on him early the next morning, Boogie was dead.
I was crushed. Of course, I questioned all my decisions and actions leading up to this very sad moment. “Was he not getting enough to eat? Was he not warm enough? Did my dog’s barking cause him to be in a constant state of stress?” I cried for this innocent little baby who never had a chance to grow up and be a rabbit.
And then I heard a voice in my head, clear as day. “You’re not the Mama.”
I think the phrase stuck in my head from a silly sitcom from the early ’90s called Dinosaurs — where the baby dinosaur would say that to his father every time his father tried to get him to eat, sleep or say Daddy. “Not the Mama! Not the Mama!” A simple accusation but it’s true; as hard as I tried to give Boogie every ounce of life support his mother would have given him, I had one flaw: I was NOT THE MAMA. And because I was not the mama, I fundamentally lacked the ability to give Boogie what he needed in order to survive and thrive.
Lessons from an Orphan
In the wake of this experience with the backyard bunny orphan, I am reminded of all the mother-substitutes I have sought out for myself throughout my time as a motherless daughter. I’ve been motherless for more than 30 years now, and have learned a thing or two about grief and about coping. My own amazing step-mom, my dad, my aunts, the many friends of my mom, mothers-in-law, even some of my own friends with motherly instincts — they have all tried to fill the void that, for me, still remains. Simply put, sometimes there is no substitute for the person you have lost. But because we are capable humans and not itty-bitty helpless rabbits (and because we have communities to support us) there are, luckily, ways to help ourselves thrive during grief.
Here are just five ideas to get you on track to coping, to finding purpose in your loss, and to finding silver linings amid the darkest clouds. I know it’s hard … I hope one of these ideas helps:
1. Establish a Happy Place
My mom loved nature, and especially adored flowers and butterflies. My backyard is a place she would have loved to spend time. Today, every butterfly that visits my garden — and every lilac that blooms in spring — reminds me that she is near. The entire, beautiful yard provides a peaceful oasis for me to gain balance and emotional harmony. Your happy place might be the lake where your Dad loved to fish or the park where you and your brother played as kids. Look to the place where you felt closest to the loved one you are missing.
2. Fulfill a Lifelong Dream on Behalf of Your Lost Loved One
Think back to something your loved one always dreamed of doing — something that you know was a deep-seated dream, a “bucket-list” item or a personal goal. Perhaps they always dreamed of finishing a marathon, or riding in a hot air balloon, or going back to school for an advanced degree. Take that dream and personalize it; for example, maybe you could run that marathon for a charity that supports cancer research in your sister’s name.
In my case, my mother wrote a children’s book called Caterpillars Can’t Talk; A Children’s Story About Love, Loss and Transformation and was never able to get it published. So, just this year (40 years after she wrote and illustrated it, and 30 years after she passed away), I published the book in her name. Knowing she is finally a published author and seeing her beautiful book in print makes my heart sing every time I see it. Ironically, the subject matter pertains to the exact type of loss I’m writing about today — an interesting “plot twist” of its own. (Read more about the book’s origins and intention here.)
3. Be of Service to Others
Sometimes it helps to step out of our own grief and help someone else who is struggling. I experience great joy when I foster rescue puppies and I feel like I’m brightening someone else’s life on adoption day when they meet their new “fur baby.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt a great deal of personal fulfilment when I ran errands for senior citizens who were unable to leave their homes. It kept me busy and active and these acts of serve also helped me stay grounded, understanding that there are so many people in need in our community.
4. Become the Keeper of Family Traditions
One of the worst things that can happen to a grieving family is for someone (or everyone) to decide to bypass family traditions because they are “too painful” without their lost loved one. I would encourage you to become the keeper of traditions, old and new. Take the lead on assembling family gatherings, and thinking of new ways to celebrate your loved one and, more importantly, continue to deepen your relationships with the rest of your family. Maybe your first Thanksgiving without Dad means that you invite a uniformed service member (someone who is stationed nearby but unable to get “leave” to see their own family) to enjoy a meal with your family. Let him or her know that they are filling a very special seat at the table this year. I live nearby one of the largest military training installations in the nation, and they run an “adopt a sailor” program every Thanksgiving.
Maybe your first Christmas with your kids after losing their mother is celebrated on a beach in Florida or volunteering at a homeless shelter or traveling somewhere you suspect you can get close to your own hearts but away from the pain of the holiday tree (or the kitchen that no longer smells like your wife’s cookies). Whatever you decide, keep the love you have for each other at the heart of what you do, not just on special occasions but every day. I often think that if my mother was alive, I’d probably talk to her on the phone every day. That always sends me a strong reminder to call my Dad, who I think enjoys our chats (even though he isn’t as likely to initiate a call if I don’t).
5. Help Others Who Are Grieving
In January, I had a revelation. And it came 30 years after its impetus … three decades after losing my mom. I suddenly realized that I have a unique and very personal perspective on what it feels like to lose a parent at a young age. My experience has taught me some things that I wish I had known back then — when I was 16 and my mom died and I thought my life was over. I really could have benefitted from having a mentor or someone who could help keep me on track and just let me talk about my mom. My epiphany? I can be that person now to someone else, and so I launched One Million Monarchs, a nonprofit organization with a mission to support teens who have lost a parent or a sibling. At One Million Monarchs, we believe that you “Grow Through What You Go Through” and that each individual has the ability to thrive after immense grief.
How can you help others who are grieving? You don’t have to start an organization of your own. Reach out and volunteer with a similar organization in your area, to step up when you find out that a neighbor or a colleague or a local child is grieving. Align your grief experience (e.g., loss of spouse, loss of sibling, loss of child, loss of close friend) with the needs of others. Just remember, your role as a mentor is to listen and support, as every grief experience is unique and personal.
These five ideas might help you get “unstuck” from your grief, even if just a tiny bit. Or perhaps this conversation has sparked other creative ideas for you about how you can “grow through what you’re going through.” Never underestimate the control you have during a period of intense grief following a loss; while it feels like you’ve been left hollow by the world, you have power and a voice and a beautiful future still. When you take active steps toward finding purpose in the loss you have experienced, you can begin to move your life forward and perhaps even create a new mission, purpose or passion for yourself in the process. Keep going.
About the Author: Stacey Siwek Sassine is the Founder and President of One Million Monarchs, a 501c3 charity created to support teens grieving the loss of a parent or sibling. She has also recently just published her mother’s best-selling children’s book, “Caterpillars Can’t Talk” — 40 years after it was written and 30 years after the author’s death. This beautifully written and illustrated book, intended for children and families covers the delicate topic of death and grief, and serves as the perfect resource for grief support groups, counselors and educators. Stacey is also available for speaking engagements on the topic of bereavement, teen grief and getting “unstuck” from your grief. She offers Grief Coaching sessions to clients of all ages. To contact Stacey for a speaking engagement or for Grief Coaching, visit her at www.staceysassine.com.