Columnist

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q: You taught me sex ed in high school, but I doubt you’ll remember me. My mother died when I was young and you reached out to me, even though I acted tough and said I didn’t need anyone. When I graduated you told me I could keep in touch. Here I am, 15 years later, seeking help. My mom died at Christmas time. Now my wife and I are expecting our first baby the same week. My grief over losing my mother a few days before Christmas has always colored the holiday for me. I honestly don’t enjoy it, although I do pretend for my family. I tell myself I need to just get over it. Now, I’m troubled by the fear that my baby will be born near the anniversary of my mom’s death. We really want this baby – the ultrasound says it’s a girl – and I want to love her without connecting her birth to grief. I’ve spoken with a counselor and was told my paternal love will overcome any negative feelings. How can he be so sure? How can I be sure? Thanks for still being there.

Over 35 but still needy

Mary Jo’s Response: Of course, I remember you. I also remember your ‘toughness’ didn’t dissuade me. Our culture often raises our young men to show little emotion. Anger is acceptable, but sorrow or vulnerability can be mocked. I knew you loved your mom and grieved her loss when you were a teen; I’m not surprised you still connect Christmas with grief.

Grief is an intense emotion. Each of us grieves in our own way and our own time. I believe there is no timeline for grief. My parents died within four months of each other in 1996. There are moments when grief resurfaces, after all this time. An Italian recipe brought me to my emotional knees last summer. I read it and the tears came.

Grief also associates times of year, events, locations, songs, and even food with the loss. For example, as a young pediatric oncology nurse, I recall listening to parents discuss breaking down in the supermarket when they inadvertently passed a display of food their children loved. It’s not unusual for you to connect Christmas with your mother’s death.

Moving through grief is deeply individual. Once a father told me his only happy moments were when he first woke, and, for a brief second, forgot his child’s death. Yet, in time, we learn to laugh and appreciate joy again. Chastising someone – or ourselves – to ‘just get over it’ doesn’t work. Grief work takes effort. Some people seek support in counseling, others are able to find peace with family and friends. Grief doesn’t exactly leave, but it can become background noise instead of a loud symphony consuming our thoughts.

You ask how your counselor can be certain your paternal love will kick in. I agree with you in one sense – it is impossible to be 100 percent sure of anyone’s reaction to life events. I think your counselor is articulating the odds of you falling in love with your baby. Becoming a parent is a huge life change. Your love for your daughter will be different from other loves in your life, even from the love you feel for your wife. But, parental love does not deliver with the placenta. It evolves.

I’ve had the honor of serving as both a birth doula (a person who supports someone during labor and birth) and a death doula through hospice (a person who supports someone through the end of life). In both situations, I am humbled by the resilience of the human spirit.

When a baby is born, many parents feel awe and wonder as their first emotions, coupled with relief if the labor was difficult. Love grows as babies are cared for, as their vulnerability bonds them to us, and as we mature as parents. You will grow to love your baby. Your love will change as she changes. You will parent differently in her first week of life than you will when she’s 2. There will be moments of great joy and moments of frustration. In the end, you will become a dad.

I can’t foresee the future, but I believe your intentions are positive. Have faith in yourself and your partner. Remember good memories of your mother. We first learn to parent as children, when we observe our own parents. Draw on your mom’s memories to become a family. Yes, there are bittersweet memories due to her loss, but focus on the joy. Christmas will be forever changed for you, this time in a positive way. Your daughter’s birth won’t take away your grief, but it will refocus it. You will now associate the holiday with a life you and your wife created. The force of that love will shore you up and give you courage.

Trust yourself. Love does overcome sorrow. Don’t fear associating your daughter’s birth with your mom’s death, but instead be grateful for the gift of her life. Be grateful for the great gifts of both their lives. You are worthy of parenthood. Your mom would be proud.

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email podmj@healthyteens.com

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