My life before Willow was beautifully uneventful. Big milestones in my circle tended to be positive, ordinary ones - weddings and births and graduations. Any memoir of my life would have been a rather boring one. But everything I had ever known went up in flames when I watched my daughter die in my arms, and for the first time, I feel like someone with a story to tell. I always wonder if complete strangers can see it within me - the pain in my eyes, the words poised on my tongue. But of course they cannot. We can only see what is written on the surface, and the exterior is certainly incapable of giving justice to someone’s story.

From the outside, I may appear to be on top of things. My hair is brushed, my clothes are clean, I’m wearing some makeup. The almost-three year old I have in tow is wearing an outfit that matches, and her hair is fashioned into neat pigtails. I am crossing items off of a shopping list that has been well thought out. I carry a purse that is neat and orderly, no unidentifiable objects to be found. My daughter’s backpack contains a spare outfit and underpants, a water bottle and a snack, and a set of finger puppets in case she decides this shopping trip is unbearable. To the outside observer, I seem put together. But here is what you can’t see.

I left the house today much later than I had intended. I was derailed by a completely innocent social media post that happened to be a major grief trigger for me, setting my day’s agenda back by several hours. I am pushing a single shopping cart, even though my toddler begged to ride in the two-seater. With a broken heart, I explained to her that we need to save those for the families who are shopping with two children. I gazed slightly too long at a pair of sisters selecting school clothes and fighting over an emoji dress. They appeared to be close in age, as my two daughters should be. I felt a wave of grief surging as I watched them, and I had to hurry away. The paper plates in my cart will be used at my living daughter’s upcoming birthday party, which is causing me terrific internal strife. I know I should only be grateful that she has reached this milestone, that we have enjoyed the first three years of what we can only hope will be a long and joyous life. But her birthday also serves as a reminder of all the things we will never celebrate with her baby sister. It is, in a word, bittersweet.

This is a typical thought pattern in my life as a bereaved parent. The waves, the wondering, the quiet weariness. Even when things appear calm on the surface, there is too often a storm brewing inside, and though my outward appearance may not suggest it, inside I may very well be crumbling. Is this also true for you, dear strangers in the checkout line? More than ever before, I find myself people-watching when surrounded by unfamiliar faces. I get lost in my thoughts, watching and wondering. What do their stories hold? What are the events that have shaped their lives? What is weighing on their minds and hearts? What do they hold inside that they are longing to share with someone, anyone? Are their lives neat and tidy, or are they hanging on by a mere thread? Have they felt the pain of a tragic loss, or have they floated through life thus far unscathed?

It is impossible to know someone’s story by giving them a quick once-over. At the risk of sounding cliche, my life is proof that a book’s cover reveals very little about the contents within it. So let’s do each other a favor, dear strangers. Let’s extend a kind smile, maybe even a warm salutation. Let’s assume that even those who appear to be put together could benefit from a friendly face. What do we stand to lose?