The adoption caseworker made it clear the child coming to MN to live with me had endured a staggering number of losses. Preparing to become a mom meant lining up grief therapists, researching childhood trauma and carefully thinking through small acts that could help my daughter feel safe and comfortable in her new home. None of that prepared me though for the scary flashbacks she had when death was mentioned or even inferred within her ear shot – once from a boring PBS special titled “Ancient Mayans.”

It was a happy day when she made her first friend. A big-eyed girl holding a banana ran out of her house calling my child’s name as we passed by on a dog walk. She was a classmate and soon her mom came out too, playdates were planned and we all spent time together.

Next came a sleepover at the friend’s house despite my worries about nightmares and other issues.  When the mom walked my daughter home the next morning and said very seriously that we needed to talk my stomach lurched. She sent the girls inside to play then whispered that while my daughter and I were new to the school, the other families already knew what she was about to say. She was dying. Terminal cancer. Maybe 6 months to a year.

I was stunned, my eyes flooding with compassion for this woman, but after she left all I could think was “What about my daughter?” and “Oh my God, what should I do?” All my efforts to help her through her grief – and now ANOTHER death – on my watch? Surely there was some way to protect her from this? Maybe steer her away from this friendship? Move? What can a good mother do?

It turns out we can’t do much. People die and while that might be obvious, it was oddly freeing to accept that there was nowhere to go that would stop death from entering our circle. It was out of my control. All I could do was love my daughter, allow space for big feelings and try to tap into a sense of peace.

Accepting that suffering is an unavoidable part of life helps us move away from illusions of control so we can focus on what matters: our response to suffering, the meaning we make of it, the way we allow it to make us more compassionate or more fearful.

Honestly, the wisdom that eventually helped me be a better mom didn’t come from parenting or trauma research – it came from my study of the mystics. Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, Julian of Norwich, Etty Hillesum – people who endured plagues, wars, and genocides and showed us how prayer, meditation and other contemplative practices ground us in love – in God – in every circumstance.

Now, as a pandemic, explosive social unrest and other events beyond our control unfold, these practices are what sustain and guide me, more than ever.