Using My Daughter’s Life (And My Own) to Find New Purpose

Tanya Sheckley with late daughter Eliza Sheckley

March means many things: it’s Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month; it comes in like a lamb and out like a lion (or vice-versa); there’s March Madness; and let’s not forget the Ides of March. But for me it means another thing. The anniversary of my daughter’s death, or as some of her friends ask me “are we celebrating her birthday or her death day?”

Eliza Sheckley
Eliza Sheckley

She was only six when she passed.

This year March is also the celebration of the first year that the elementary school we opened to honor her legacy will be open. The journey from grief to positive action has not been an easy one, definitely not a straight path, but one that looks more like scribble marks across a page, both in the business journey and the emotional one. Let me share my journey and some ideas on how to use events in life to live with greater purpose and, hopefully, happiness.

When my daughter passed, my entire being changed. I had literally lost a piece of myself: a part of myself had died. My brain changed: I couldn’t remember things, I had no motivation. My physical body changed: I couldn’t exercise; old injuries became inflamed; I was physically and mentally broken. I now liken the experience of losing a child to a brain injury: part of me was injured and changed that day and will never be the same.

I wanted to cover my head, hide in my bed, and eat brownies for breakfast. Which I did some days, but those actions didn’t make me feel better; they weren’t productive to anyone around me and felt selfish. These things weren’t helping me to heal; they weren’t healing activities or healing foods. I couldn’t just “move on;” I wasn’t going to “get over it,” and nothing would ever be normal again. But in grief, we really have only two choices: let it consume us and stay in bed eating brownies all day, or do something positive.

The first thing we did as a family was to really look at what Eliza’s life meant to us. My daughter taught us so many things but we boiled these down to three main lessons: be kind, be strong, and always do your best.

Eliza Sheckley with classmates
Eliza with her classmates. She taught others to always do their best.

Eliza had cerebral palsy. That meant that kindness and gentleness were necessary from everyone to help her succeed and be her best. She was the strongest kid I’ve ever met. She wouldn’t give up. She struggled, she kept trying, and she would succeed. She was strong mentally as she was building her physical strength. She always tried her best: she would be in therapy, exhausted, and give her all for one more rep. She would work with her project groups at school and calmly settle disagreements. She would work hard to do the things that were difficult for her.

In looking back at those you’ve lost, it’s important to understand how your life has been impacted, what would be different if you had never met. Take those traits, lessons, and understanding, and make them the values for your journey going forward.

Find a way to honor that life

We had already begun the process of establishing the school when Eliza passed. Deciding to move forward with opening it was a pretty quick decision. But for most people, deciding to open a business when losing a loved one is too much. It might be a thought, or even a plan for the future, but not something to embark on immediately.

There are many ways to honor a life. You might, for instance, raise money for a charity, or serve as a volunteer doing work your loved one believed in. Or you might take it a step further and look for an organization that holds the same values your loved one taught, and work on their behalf. Find activities or organizations that align with the values and lessons you’ve identified, then commit to continuing in this work. Doing something positive will honor your lost loved one and will add purpose to your life.

Eliza Sheckley with best friend Natalie
Eliza with best friend Natalie

Be gentle with yourself

Most importantly, give yourself time, space, and patience. Our organization was founded in 2015, but when my daughter passed in 2016, I took a full year off to put myself back together again. I couldn’t function, I couldn’t concentrate. I wasn’t motivated, I couldn’t work. I was lucky to feed my family each night.

It took me a year and I still have days where I can’t work and can’t find motivation. Tonight, for instance, my family had snacks for dinner. I couldn’t find the motivation to prepare a meal.

The Sheckley Family.
The Sheckley Family today. Some days are better than others.

I remind myself that it’s not me. I’m not lazy, and it’s okay to not be okay some days.

For me, grief looks like lack of motivation and feels like my head is swimming in cotton. For others, grief may be angry outbursts; random or not so random crying; an inability to pay attention and connect to others; or so many other things. What’s important is that the feelings are recognized, blame is not placed, but instead feelings are understood and given the space and the time they need to heal. Each person is different and each will heal to their own extent in their own time.

Identifying values, honoring life, and finding a purpose has helped me to accept the grief I live with. As time goes by, the days of deeper grief are farther apart, but still present. Especially in March.

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Author: Tanya Sheckley

Tanya Sheckley is Founder of UP Academy, an elementary lab school for the inclusion of students with physical disabilities. She is a Social Entrepreneur, Writer, and National Speaker on topics relating to education, disabilities, parenting and grief.

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