Responding to loss and disappointment without channeling your inner 2-year-old

When I turned 2, I received a shiny red trike for my birthday. As if the trike wasn’t an exciting enough gift for a small child, mine came with a giant mylar balloon of Bozo the Clown tied to it. I don’t know why Bozo, but it could have been of anything and I would have been just as thrilled. That balloon was bigger than my head. It was bright and colorful, and I had probably never been given—let alone seen—anything like it before. 

Now, imagine my little dimpled, curly headed face overwhelmed with birthday pleasure. Thrilled at the thought of her first trike, sure, but even more than that, enthralled by the giant clown face whose smile was bigger than hers. 

Barely old enough to know what a birthday is, I’m sure I was hyped up on some sort of sugar and the excitement of having so much attention directed at me. Even though it was August, it was gray and cloudy out, but clouds weren’t going to stop me from trying out my sporty new trike. So, we wheeled that baby out to the backyard, Bozo balloon and all. 

And that’s where it happened. The details are sketchy—it was 30 some years ago after all. I’m not really sure how long we were outside or what exactly happened to compromise the safety of my Bozo balloon. All I know is that one second, Bozo was chillin’, suspended above my new handlebars, and the next second, he was headed for the clouds, that big smile of his almost making it look as if he was laughing as he went. 

And I lost it. Maybe when you’re 3 you can handle these things with a little more grace and dignity, but at 2, the only thing you know is to let your pain and disappointment wash over you in a flood of tears. 

So that’s what I did. I cried. I cried for Bozo. Really, I cried for myself. For the loss of something that was mine for such a short, sweet amount of time. For the fact that an injustice had been done to me, on my birthday of all days. I don’t know how long the crying went on, but I can picture myself, 30 pounds of frustrated energy, shaking her tiny fist at the sky as tears run down her face. 

And it wasn’t the last time I would take that stance. Since then, life has taken a lot of Bozo balloons from me. It’s snatched up all kinds of stuff that I liked. Stuff that I thought I deserved. Stuff that brought me happiness. Stuff that I wanted to keep suspended above my life, if only just to look at and enjoy. 

I’d like to say that I’ve handled each loss better than that disappointment on my second birthday. But I’d be lying to say that I haven’t thrown tantrums, screamed, asked why, and gotten angry. I’m not 2 anymore, and my emotional intelligence has gotten stronger, but so have the blows that life has dealt me. 

When I look at life, including loss, disappointment, and my reactions, I’m reminded of my second birthday for a couple of reasons. 

The first reason is that I don’t remember this birthday as the birthday where I received my first trike. Instead, I remember it as the birthday when I lost my Bozo balloon. If my mom called me today and said, “Hey, I’ve been looking through old pictures. Remember your second birthday when we got you a trike?” I’m certain my automatic reply would be, “You mean the birthday when my balloon floated away?”

The loss, injustice, and pain are the main thing I remember. All the excitement of a 2-year-old birthday celebration and the ensuing moments of fun and enjoyment with a new trike, and I choose to remember the few seconds I spent crying over a balloon. 

I do that in life too. I look at the things I’ve lost and re-frame stories based on what was taken from me or how I was hurt. It’s easy to do this. When life deals us true injustices, it’s natural and sometimes even necessary to look at what we’ve lost—to grieve the things that were taken from us.

The question is, how long will we stare up at the place in the sky where something just floated away? When we’re looking up at a fading dot among the clouds, it’s hard to see the trike sitting on the sidewalk, waiting for us to ride it. 

The second reason this birthday reminds me of life is that my memories of it are formed by stories and pictures shown to me by others. I know I recounted this story in seemingly vivid detail, but in full disclosure, I don’t actually remember it. After all, I was 2 when it happened.

But the story has been recounted to me many times since. I’ve seen pictures of the Bozo balloon and of myself, smiling and testing out my trike before the fateful moment came. 

My parents have told me all about my disappointment and the pain they felt watching a 2-year-old “suffer” on her birthday. And I’ve taken on that pain with them. Even when I was 10 and 13 and they would tell me this story, I would frown and say, “I feel so bad for my poor 2-year-old self.” And that became the narrative of my second birthday. 

I let the stories and memories of others inform my own. And my second birthday isn’t the only time I’ve done that. At times, I’ve rehearsed the negative in my life. I’ve listened to the narratives of others who validate a victim mentality, who say it’s justified to feel bad for myself when I’ve lost something—or had something taken from me.

It’s easy to listen to those voices. Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes we do have legitimate reasons to be sad—or even to feel bad for ourselves. Sometimes it’s validating to hear someone else say, “It sucks that your balloon floated away on your birthday.”

I’ve had therapy sessions where that’s basically the conversation. Me saying, “This sucks, and I don’t like it,” and my therapist agreeing: “You’re right, it does.”

She’ll let me sit there if I need to, but she won’t let me stay there. That’s why I keep going back to her. She doesn’t spend her time telling me how messed up my life is or how bad I have it. She spends it helping find new ways to look at the things I’ve experienced. Gifts I’ve been given. Moments of joy. Things I can change.

I have a few round-table friends who do this too. And those are the friends I want in my life. The ones who will not just sit with me and cry, but also remind me that I’ve been given a new trike to ride. The ones who help me find fresh narratives, rather than just validating a “poor you,” mindset.

If we want the “poor you” mindset validated, we can always find those voices. There are plenty of people who would be willing to tell us how bad we have it. But if I listen only to the voices of those telling me what a raw deal I got, I’m allowing myself to become a victim. By agreeing with them, I freeze myself as a 2-year-old shaking her fist at the sky, staring at the space where the balloon just disappeared, while there’s a shiny red trike just waiting for me to hop on. 

It’s natural to be angry, and upset, and frustrated when we lose something. It’s normal to feel violated when something it taken from us. Those are feelings we need to acknowledge and find healthy ways to express. Once we’ve done so, the question becomes: Will I allow that anger and violation to define my perspective? Will I listen to those who tell me I have a right to be a victim, or will I choose to be intentional about how I respond?

Will I surround myself with people who acknowledge the reality of my pain without letting me wallow in it? Will I chose to ride the bike, even if it reminds me of the balloon that was taken away?

I get that it’s not easy. Trust me. I have nearly daily reminders of reasons I could choose to be angry—reasons I could cry and shake my fist at the sky. In the time I’ve spent doing that, I’ve learned that focusing on my pain only breeds more pain. However, when I’ve chosen to look away from the pain, I’ve learned that there’s always something better to focus on, even in the midst of legitimate suffering.

I hope I’ve made it clear by now that I’m not saying to ignore pain in some sort of Pollyanna move where you pretend that everything is good when you’re hurting inside. I’ve done that too, and while that’s a topic for another day, I’ll say here that this is not beneficial either. 

What I am talking about is acknowledging your pain and then choosing not to give it attention or power. I’m talking about letting yourself have a good cry and then looking away from the sky and down at the trike. I’m talking about finding a new perspective or something good you can focus on when life, or people, or simple memories send reminders of injustices.

It’s not a one-time thing. Like I said, it’s sometimes a daily choice for me to not shake my fist at the sky. But the more I surround myself with people who help me focus on what’s good, the less I want to stare up at the balloon getting smaller and smaller on the horizon.