Have you ever had one of those dreams where you accidentally leave your baby at the gas station and drive away? Maybe you don’t have a baby, have never had a baby, but the dream still feels real and you still feel anxious. Your dream-self can’t believe you could space-out such an important responsibility.

I have a little time right between my latest workshops and the start of a new semester at the university. So, when my husband asked me to join him at a resort in Phoenix where he has a job for a few days, I happily agreed. I could use this as an opportunity to do some undistracted writing and thinking.

As we were driving west on I-40, through the beautiful red canyons, I noticed a familiar free-floating anxiety. Where were my children? Had I left the baby at the gas station?

It’s been almost eight years since my youngest daughter, Jenny, was killed in a car crash at fourteen. She would be twenty-two now, long past the age when it was my responsibility to monitor her whereabouts. But the maternal part of me may never relinquish that psychic vigilance. Every time I unplug from my regular life and go away, these primal antennae scan for my offspring, until I become conscious of the impulse and will myself to let go.

Of course, the death of a child may be the ultimate experience of loss, a sense of having failed our most essential mission. We are programmed to keep our children safe at all costs, even our own lives. To find that we are alive while our child dead is to scramble the program beyond repair. No matter how much healing we may do over the years, something inside will be forever broken. Every so often, our psyche will default and try to reestablish that basic connection, and when it fails to so we become anxious and confused. It requires self-awareness and self-compassion to move through those moments and come back to the way things are.

Whether or not you have lost a child, you may be resonating with this experience. I think when we love someone very much, when our lives are entwined with theirs, deep grooves develop in our psyche, so that even if they are no longer with us we have this instinctive impulse to track them.

A few months after Jenny died, I spent a night at my mother’s studio, where I was trying to write about my daughter’s life and death. As I was beginning to fall asleep that night, the candle flickering beside her picture, I had a vision: I was rowing a small boat upstream through the underworld. I could feel the dark walls towering on either side of me. I could hear the splash of my oars as they dipped into the cold water. I knew I did not belong here, but I was determined to get as far as I could before I was sent back. I wanted to follow my baby to wherever it was she had gone. She had never been this far away from me, and I had to make sure she would be okay.

Of course, she was not okay. She was dead, and there was no way I could follow her on that journey.

And, she was completely okay. Nothing could ever hurt her again.

Snapping back to my waking consciousness, I realized that I would have to expand beyond anything I had ever known to be able to hold these two seemingly opposing truths for the rest of my life. I sat up in bed, wrapped my arms around my own shoulders, and I sobbed.