‘How can I smile when Justin is dead? How can I ever smile again?’: Mom feels immense ‘guilt’ for enjoying newborn son after husband’s sudden death by ‘stray bullet’

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“My son was born five years ago and, my first week after giving birth, I was terrified, overwhelmed, sleep deprived, and physically sore from pushing out an 8-pound baby. Let’s face it, having a baby is rough! It takes a lot out of us mothers, physically and emotionally. But it’s that pure joy one feels on the inside that undoubtably outweighs the hardships. The ups and downs of caring for an infant are some of the most rewarding days in our lives. I, like most new moms, experienced these highs and these lows with my son Jaxon. But unlike most, the highs were quickly replaced by an extreme amount of lows. My smiles, my laughs, and my joy disappeared on day three after giving birth when my husband was killed by a stray bullet in our home. From that day forward, smiling at my son, or feeling any joy at all, was close to impossible.

Courtesy of Jessica Ayers

I can remember the exact moment I first smiled again after Justin died. It occurred while I was looking at Jax a few days after losing Justin. I’m sure it was the shallowest smile ever. When I say shallow, I don’t mean fake. The smile was genuine, but completely overshadowed by sadness and guilt. To others, I’m sure it even resembled a frown. In the moment, I was like any new mother gazing into her baby’s alluring eyes. Without hesitation, a smile appeared on my face. I had done so much crying leading up to this moment, that when it actually happened, I was caught off guard. My friend, Emily, was next to me. She turned and said, ‘Honey, it’s okay to smile at your baby.’ I protested, ‘How can I smile when Justin is dead? How can I ever smile again?’

Courtesy of Jessica Ayers

Here I was a new mom, and instead of celebrating a life, I was mourning one. I started to feel guilty that I was the one with Jax and not Justin. I thought about him only having me to rock him to sleep, see his first steps, and hear his first words. Justin would miss it all and it was unfair. Many people would say, ‘I hope Jax helps ease some of your suffering.’ While that was true, he also added another layer of pain. I saw the amazing things he did and learned, and it destroyed me that Justin wasn’t part of it.

Courtesy of Jessica Ayers

After I came out of the shock stage of grief, I awoke to my feelings. The guilt of how much Justin was missing weighed so heavy. I felt like I should be spending every moment crying and thinking of nothing other than what had happened. I kept saying, ‘It’s just not right. I shouldn’t be able to enjoy anything at all.’ I finally realized I had taken on the responsibility of Justin’s feelings.

Courtesy of Jessica Ayers

If he’d known this was in his future (or lack thereof), he would have been insanely miserable knowing he would miss his son’s entire life. The pain I felt for Justin was so intense that I hadn’t yet begun to process MY pain. I was too concerned with carrying Justin’s. After talking with my family and friends (numerous times) about how I was feeling, they tried to help me see a different angle. They pointed out that this is not what Justin would have wanted for me, or for Jax. He’d want us to be happy, even in his absence.

Once I listened, I quickly became aware of something new. ‘OH MY GOD, I’M MISSING OUT ON MY BABY!’ Yes, I nursed him when he was hungry, changed his diaper when wet or soiled, and snuggled him when he wanted affection. But I wasn’t enjoying him. The day we drove home from the hospital I had the most incredible feeling in my stomach. It was like this bright light shone through me and directly onto Jax. Before having a child of your own, other parents will try to describe this feeling. You just don’t understand it until it’s you. Once I realized I was missing out on that pure joy new parents have, my guilt, once again, weighed on me. This time, it was a guilty feeling for Jax. I felt like the worst mother on earth for not feeling joy for my baby. Why did God do this to me? Why would he give me such a blessing and then take one away? I loved Jax with all of my heart and had I not had him during that time, I would have been in a much darker place. I had a piece of Justin with me forever and I should have been grateful! Knowing how you should feel and navigating how you actually feel is totally different. When mourning your husband of 10 years, you don’t think logically, and back then, it was hard to get past the sickness I felt inside.

Courtesy of Jessica Ayers

Over the next few months my guilt went back and forth between Jax and Justin. If I cried for Justin one day, then I would spend the next day crying over Jax. If I blocked out the tragedy and focused on Jax, the next day I felt guilty for not mourning Justin. I was in an unhealthy vicious cycle and I decided to get help. I had been seeing a grief counselor for about a month when we started to work on my daily guilt. He told me I needed to allow myself ample time to cry every single day and equal time to smile. Both were okay and both equally important. The next day, I started giving myself the mornings to feel joy and evenings to feel pain. For some reason, when I saw the sun come up, it gave me hope that I could make it through another day. Quite the opposite occurred when the sun went down. I found myself feeling depressed that another day had come and gone without Justin in it.

Courtesy of Jessica Ayers

Now that 60 months has passed, I’d like to say I don’t have any lingering guilt. But I’d be lying. The guilt finds me during the most unusual situations. The other day I was having dinner with my adorable son when he picked up his iPad and pressed the microphone to search something. ‘Mario song on the guitar,’ he said. I stopped eating to observe his behavior. As the man started playing the classic Mario Bros. riff, Jax grinned from ear to ear. I immediately felt guilty, mad, and hurt. ‘It’s not fair,’ I thought, ‘Justin should be here to play that riff for Jax on his guitar. He should be here to play Mario Kart with him.’ Justin was good at a lot of stuff, but there were two things he exceled at: Mario Kart and lead guitar.

Courtesy of Jessica Ayers

I am proud to say that I don’t have any continued guilt for smiling at my son or even kissing my new husband Don. I’ve done a lot of healing in these past five years and have allowed myself to feel every emotion in every stage of my son’s life and in my new marriage. My guilt in other aspects of life has gotten less but continues to linger. I’m not sure if it will ever fully go away and I can accept that. Some of us have battles in life we must face on a daily basis. Every day I will continue to fight for that guiltless smile I once had, and one day I know I will beat it. Justin would want nothing less!”

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Courtesy of Jessica Ayers

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jessica Ayers. You can follow her journey on Instagram and her blog. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read Jessica’s powerful backstory of losing her husband:

‘I gave birth, my life was complete. 3 days later, a stray bullet crashed through our window, striking my husband.’: Widow finds love after loss with old friend, hopes her son knows how ‘truly loved’ he is by ‘both of his dads’

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