As mentioned in previous posts, my grief journey since Leah’s death has been tumultuous at best and torturous at worst. Shock. Denial. Sadness. Anger. Rinse, repeat. Indeed, throughout the past nine weeks I have been confronted by the darkest elements of my own psyche that stand poised to swallow “old Vanessa” up entirely, never to return again. Yet the very worst moments, those where the pain becomes so unbearable that I can see madness beckoning me into its abyss with outstretched arms, have been triggered by the emotion that all loss mamas seemingly know too well.
And why wouldn’t we feel it? Our unborn children rely on our bodies to nourish them and keep them safe. Medical wisdom indicates that our bodies are designed to conceive, carry, and give birth to babies. So what does it mean when something goes wrong during this seemingly natural process?
Often times it leaves us feeling like our bodies are defective. Like we are defective. Suddenly we feel betrayed by our bodies for failing to perform the procreative function that so many other women seem to do with relative ease. Yet there’s more to it than that.
Often times this dreadful bodily alienation is compounded by our guilt for not being able to prevent our child’s death. In the face of tragedy it is human nature to want to direct blame at someone or something, and too often we turn this blame inward, resulting in a relentless barrage of “If only’s”:
If only I had gone to the doctor sooner.
If only I had taken better care of myself.
If only I had been more attuned to my baby’s movements.
If only I hadn’t exerted myself.
If only I had been more careful.
Enter Loss Mama Guilt, Phase 1:
On the second morning of my hospital stay, the Maternal-Fetal Medicine specialist overseeing my care made a special trip to my room. She sat with me and assured me that there was literally nothing that I did to cause Leah’s Fetomaternal Hemorrhage, just as there was nothing else that I could have done to save her. It was the membrane in her umbilical cord that had ruptured, and she had already been bleeding out into my body for days by the time her movements decreased. I try to cling to this assuring encounter when I find myself sinking into a pit of self-blame, at which point my loss mama guilt inevitably reminds me:
You could have gone to the hospital sooner. You sensed that something wasn’t right. You should have gone right away instead of waiting around to do a kick count. If you had just gone in immediately, Leah might be alive. She may not have had a perfect life, but she may have survived and you would have loved her regardless of her condition. While we’re at it, why didn’t you just go to the hospital and demand to be induced on your due date? Because you were afraid that the induction would be painful and you were so concerned about having a “natural” childbirth? Look where that got you. If you had given birth when you were supposed to, Leah would be alive.
Now, logically we loss mamas know that we did all we could to protect our children. We know that if there was any way of foreseeing and preventing our babies’ deaths, we would have done everything and more to keep their little hearts beating. We know that we didn’t choose their deaths.
Except in cases where we did. Like mine.
Enter Loss Mama Guilt, Phase 2:
Choosing to remove Leah’s life supports mere hours after her birth was undoubtedly the most difficult and heart-wrenching decision I have ever made, and I can only hope and pray that I will never have to face such a devastating choice again. Granted I have been repeatedly assured by my caregivers that it was never really my choice to make. An entire team of specialists had been working on Leah and they would not have presented the option of stopping treatment if there was any glimmer of hope for her recovery. I often remind myself of this, to which my loss mama guilt responds without fail:
What if the doctors were wrong? Doctors get it wrong every day. You’re her mother; it’s your job to protect her. You should have asked more questions. You could have been more assertive. How could you let them give up on her so soon? How could you give up on her so soon? You were all she had in this world. She fought for 33 hours to stay alive for you; why didn’t you fight harder for her?
I wish I could say that my logic has prevailed against these internal accusations. The truth is that I, and presumably every other parent who has been faced with this life-shattering decision, will probably always be haunted by the “what if’s” and “if only’s” that can never be completely resolved.
What I do know is that I would have been willing to leave this life if it meant that Leah would have been able to stay. I also know that I would have cherished her for the rest of my life in any condition if she had survived. I cling hard and fast to these truths in my darkest hours and I hope that, someday soon, they might be enough to keep the guilt at bay.