Mama Maker: Lisa, Growing Stronger with Grief

Lisa Herrington emerged from the most unfathomable experience a parent can have by choosing connection over confinement, ultimately helping others do the same.

“I was pretty quiet for like those first six or seven months because I didn’t know if I was going to survive it,” she says. “You suddenly feel like you’re completely alone and nobody understands what you’re going through, and I was so scared of the emotions that I was feeling.”

The life that Lisa and her husband had envisioned before they went to the hospital to deliver twins looked tragically different as they cradled one of their babies for the last time and left the other in the care of the NICU for six weeks.

“I couldn’t really separate the grief and the postpartum,” she says. “I had a child that was also living through this with me and I think that’s what changed it for me; this moment of ‘this is his story too’ and this story cannot end sad. It’s going to take a lot to fight out of this, but he’s worth it. My family’s worth it.”

Walking into a room filled with parents and a vivacious moderator who had been through similar experiences gave Lisa the courage to step out of her solitude.

“I remember thinking that things happen to good people—we’re all good people in here,” she realized in that moment. “I saw this person who had climbed out of a place where I was. I was like, I’m going to get there.”

And get there she did. Lisa went on to moderate the group and comfort parents in the NICU.

“You probably want to punch me in the face right now and that’s okay,” she would tell them. “You can be mad. I understand there might be a time months or years down the road where you’ll appreciate knowing that you’re not alone in this.”

Lisa was also determined to strengthen her marriage in therapy after reading that 80 percent of couples who lose a child don’t make it.

“Grief can sometimes be selfish where it’s all about you, it’s all about your feelings, all about your emotions and how sad you are and how life is so unfair,” she says.

With the combination of exercise, therapy and anti-depressants, she was able to “stop this wheel turning in my head of the guilt” and continue her “self exploration of what worked in terms of surviving grief as hard as I was grieving.”

Lisa finally reached a point where she was able to reconnect with people outside of her circle of grieving parents, and close friends and family.

“I think the hardest part in the beginning is the loneliness and that’s sort of a catch-22 because you also need that space,” she says. “I am a huge extrovert. I was just too nervous about what I was feeling to have a lot of people in our life.”

She also returned to her fitness studio, FIT House Davis even though she would “leave sobbing” at first, overwhelmed with memories of being pregnant.

“You have to just know that the first time you do things after a loss—any type of loss—they’re going to feel a lot different than they did before the loss,” she says. “You’re going to feel very vulnerable and that’s where you have to make this decision of ‘I’m going to sit in those feelings and I’m going to work through those feelings,’ because it’s worth it to me that this stays in my life.”

Over the course of the last 8 years, Lisa’s family grew by two more boys and a girl, all of which help keep the memory of Brady alive.

“A lot of people said to me, ‘I’m so surprised you got pregnant again so fast. Weren’t you scared?’ Yeah, of course, I was so scared,” she says. “If you live in the negativity of ‘bad things are going to happen,’ that is not living.”

“Finding the joy in every single day knowing that we’re not necessarily guaranteed tomorrow, or really appreciating the good when it’s happening instead of fearing what may happen, that’s where I found this balance in between the joy and the grief, being present and focusing on the good, and knowing that the sad will always be a part of our lives.”

She started to share her experience in social media, before it became more commonplace on Instagram, or more recently by Chrissy Teigen on Medium and Meghan Markle in the New York Times.

“When tough situations happen in life, it’s okay to be mad, it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to be sad,” she says. “But you also have to find the joy in the situation and the appreciation of there’s a future ahead of us, always. No matter how bad it feels, there’s guaranteed good in the future as long as you choose to move forward.”

This fall, Lisa published her first book, Your Amazing Itty Bitty® Grief Book: 15 Chapters on How to Support Family and Friends on Their Journey, inspired by the conversations she’s had with her kids or those looking for guidance.

“I never thought I’d feel comfortable in the chapter that included losing a child but I do,” says Lisa. “Sometimes you have to go through some really tough stuff to find some of the beautiful things in your life that you may not have had, including a perspective that’s completely different.”

“I feel like I had an open wound and it’s always going to be a wound, but it’s much softer now,” she says.

“And I know we survived it. And now we share our story in hopes it will help others realize life still holds so much beauty after loss.”

Love that Endures the Distance

On Mother’s Day, after a discouraging attempt to make Neiman Marcus’ chocolate chip cookies inspired by memories of mother-daughter shopping trips, Julie Barrier faced a heart wrenching question.

“Do you want to see your mom?” read the text from her mother’s caregiver as Julie was pulling up with flowers and groceries. It had been 10 weeks since their visits had gone virtual, just before LA’s lockdown.

“That was a very, very emotional moment for me during all of this because what am I supposed to answer?” she recalls in the moments leading up to their masked reunion in the building’s lobby.

“I’m just standing there with groceries,” says Julie. “My mom had her eyes super wide. She couldn’t even talk, she couldn’t say anything, she didn’t know what to do. She’s holding on to the caregiver’s arm and then she just breaks away…comes shuffling really fast over to me and just puts her arms around me and holds me, and I hold her seriously for at least five minutes.”

Part of what weighed so heavily on Julie’s mind is that her mother has Alzheimer’s, which makes it hard to explain masks and social distancing.

“Eventually we kind of lighten the grip and we look at each other in the eyes and she stares at me with our masks,” she says. “I’m now face to face with her and she goes, ‘are you mad at me?’ and I was like ‘no, Mom. Not at all.’”

It was a moment that Julie will never forget and it motivated her to make weekly COVID tests part of her routine: a complex system managing two grocery deliveries at a time, two sets of finances, two caregivers and her full-time job—all designed to honor her mother with the comforts she’s accustomed to.

“My mom was always a knockout,” she says. “She gets stopped in the street. People will be like ‘you’re so beautiful, are you famous, are you (this or that)?’ She’s been like that all of her life.”

Before the pandemic, Julie made sure her mother got dressed and put on her Sephora makeup to go out to lunch and runs errands with her caregivers.

“As human beings we have accountability to each other, and especially if it’s our parent who did all this for us,” she says. “And it feels really good to do nice things for somebody. Just because you think someone won’t remember, can’t recall or doesn’t know who you are, they actually know and feel a lot more than you think they do. But they can’t express it.”

After years of caring for her mother in private, Julie shared her experiences in “The Beautiful, Blissful Side of Alzheimer’s” to help bring awareness to the incredible relationship that can emerge during an otherwise difficult situation.

“We all need the same things, which is love, and tenderness, and touch, and human connection, and a feeling of protection and safety,” she says. “Those are just basic needs. It starts as a baby and it ends like that in this disease, especially.”

As the roles in Julie’s mother-daughter relationship reversed, she found herself caring for her mother with a newfound affection that typically comes when we begin our own journeys as mothers.

“I wasn’t someone who would just go hug and touch and kiss her,” she says about growing up. “Now, it’s like the opposite. But it feels totally good and natural.”

The feeling is mutual. Julie says one of her mom’s favorite things to do when they can safely visit is to hold her hands and kiss them. She kisses the phone when they FaceTime.

“My mom is still my mom and I try to make sure that she always knows that,” she says. “She’s my baby now to take care of and make sure that she doesn’t have stress, worries, that she doesn’t have fear.”

“Maybe this is why I didn’t have kids,” she says. “Because maybe, in fact, what I was meant to do was this.”

It took Julie a long time to find the courage to share her story. Now she encourages others to do the same to help bring the experience of Alzheimer’s out of the shadows. She doesn’t want anyone to feel like they have to hide or go through it alone.

“If we choose to bury it, we’re running away from it and we’re ashamed,” she says. “And there’s nothing about her or her condition that I’m ashamed of. I’m proud of her.”

Mama Shaker: Rhonda, Adjusting Expectations of What’s Enough

Running a startup and raising twin 5th graders through a season of wildfires, literally and figuratively, requires Rhonda Collins to be more compassionate about what’s possible in a 24-hour period.

“I end up feeling the way I know a lot of working moms feel,” she says. “If I never slept, if I didn’t have a family and didn’t have anything else to do, there would still not be enough time in the day for me to do everything.”

It’s why Rhonda recently began starting her days by asking herself what the single most important thing is for her business and her family, rather than a to-do list.

“Sometimes it’s two things, or maybe it’s three things, but it’s not 137 things anymore,” she says.

“I feel like that’s all I can do,” she says, adding that she ends the day reminding herself she did her best. “These times are just super challenging.”

Rhonda’s instincts to pare things down to the essentials are what led her down an entrepreneurial path after “an incredibly satisfying career that really fed me” as a social change documentary filmmaker.

“I had my twins a little bit later in life, and so I had a long stretch of living fairly minimally,” she says, recalling the visceral reaction she had to the growing pile of brightly colored toys and baby gear that began accumulating in her living room.

“I was faced with having two small children and having to figure out, ‘I gotta sell this stuff, or I’ve got to give it away,'” she says.

Rhonda’s realization other parents shared the same challenge was the impetus to create ToyCycle, specifically as a service that places value on the time spent with our kids instead of sorting through an excess of outgrown toys and baby goods.

“I did not wait this long to have children so that I could then just work my ass off all day long, every day of the week and never see them, never actually have quality time with them,” she says.

Interestingly enough, 2020 dished up an abundance of time that would normally be limited with tweens or teenagers.

“I see them in the morning and then I go up and I check on what’s going on, and they show me an assignment they’re working on,” Rhonda says about their co-located work and school schedules. “Then we eat lunch together and they bring me down a smoothie that they just made.”

“I feel like we are much more bonded and together than we ever have been,” she says.

On Fridays they have movie nights huddled in a chair with popcorn. She also carves out one-on-one time, as challenging as it can be with twins.

“I feel best about myself and about my life when I just step out of my business self and say what I want and need to do,” Rhonda says. “Right now, it’s been time with my kids.”

“I feel connected, like life feels like it’s supposed to feel,” she says. “If I forget that for a few days, I just keep reminding myself of that.”

“Let’s just read together, let’s spend some time together, let’s hang out,” she says about her new definition of accomplishment. “That’s it.”