While the jury is still out on what exactly constitutes human nature if one exists at all, I do believe we are united by common instinctual urges and ways of understanding the world. Humans are social creatures that need to forge meaningful connections with each other. This need is so fundamental that neurological research reveals how early experiences of abuse and neglect can permanently rewire the brain, making it difficult to impossible for people to empathize and form relationships with others as they grow into adults.
Similarly, it seems that many of us whose formative relationships have not been maimed by such trauma have a finely-tuned internal radar when it comes to detecting injustice in the world. I assume this is why humans from diverse cultures and belief systems tend to subscribe to the just world hypothesis. This is also why anger is often the visceral response that boils within us when people who exploit, oppress, and harm others manage to sail through life without experiencing their just desserts. As selfish and flawed as we humans may be, most of us do not want to live in a world where bad things happen to good people and terrible people go unpunished.
It seems to me that this is why tragedy can be such a frustrating experience. When something unfair happens to people who did nothing to deserve it, it is human nature to feel anger, followed by a desire to channel that anger by blaming someone or something. There certainly are tragic occasions when blame and anger have a clear and appropriate target, such as when a drunk driver kills three young children and their grandfather on an idle Sunday afternoon, or when decades of structural inequality and government neglect culminate in an electrical fire that kills a room full of babies in an Iraqi hospital.
But the maddening reality is that there are innumerable instances of tragedy where there is no guilty culprit to hold responsible. Yet this does not mitigate the flames of anger that must inevitably spark, ignite, and burn: Injustice is injustice, after all, even if there is no cause beyond Mother Nature’s capricious imperfections and the fact that life is brutally unfair to many, many people.
In tragic cases of pregnancy and infant loss, we are confronted with the injustice of an unlived life. In such instances, our desires to validate our anger often lead us to hold individual mothers responsible when their babies die. Likewise, if we can convince ourselves that loss only happens to mothers who somehow caused it and inexplicably deserve it, then we can also convince ourselves that such calamities could never befall our families and threaten our own children:
If only they had eaten more kale and drank less coffee.
If only they had prayed more and trusted in God.
If only they had been younger and healthier when they conceived.
If only they had been more careful and paid closer attention to their children.
Too often, this results in loss mamas turning their anger inward, resulting in torturous feelings of guilt and self-blame. This was certainly the case for me during my earliest weeks of grieving, even though I knew in my heart that I did everything I could to bring Leah into the world safely. Oddly enough, during this time I also took a peculiar sense of pride in the fact that I did not direct my anger at external sources. Even though the foundations of my life were crumbling beneath my feet, at least I was still rational enough to understand that no one could be blamed for my daughter’s death.
I could not blame my midwife, who had provided me with excellent care all throughout my complication-free pregnancy, and whom I was scheduled to meet for a checkup appointment the morning of Leah’s birthday. I could not blame the OBGYN who happened to be on duty when I went to the hospital, as she wasted no time in gently insisting that I have an emergency cesarean section within the hour. Similarly, I could not blame the blissful mother who was waiting in the outpatient lounge with her healthy newborn when I returned to the hospital several days later to pick up my dead baby’s photos. I also could not blame the people who continue to post on my social media feeds about the unending joy they derive from the children in their lives.
Rationally I understood these things, yet I was still angry. I was angry at everybody and nobody, about everything and nothing. While I still spend most of my days emotionally deflated from the sheer devastation of losing my daughter, my dormant anger still boils to the surface every now and again, demanding to be released.
It creeps up every time I see a benign photo of a happy, intact family who will never know the pain of child loss, or when people with healthy children express ambivalence about parenthood. Really? Parenting sucks because your child woke you up at 6am on your day off? How utterly terrible for you.
It calls my name when glowing pregnant women talk about how stressed they are that the nursery may not be completed in time for their baby’s arrival. Heaven forbid your healthy child may have to sleep on an old crib sheet ensemble that doesn’t match their room’s new colour scheme. What a horrendous way to come into the world.
It also beckons me close when others ask about my ability to be happy for these women, as if they are gauging whether I am a good enough person to suspend my overwhelming grief and feel joy for someone who will likely end up with everything that I have lost. Would this blissful new mother suspend her joy to carry the crushing pain of my loss with her each day? Not likely, and I wouldn’t expect her to. So why should I sift through the pieces of my shattered heart in search of any remnants of joy for her sake, when she already has all the happiness in the world?
I feel its smouldering heat rise up the back of my throat when anyone gives glory to God after seemingly receiving the blessings they asked for, and especially when anyone claims that their prayers for miraculous healing were answered. I’m so glad that God deemed you and your family worthy of a miraculous intervention while thousands of other families are torn asunder from child loss each year. I didn’t even need God to perform a full-blown miracle; all I asked was that He bring my perfectly healthy daughter into the world safely. Apparently He couldn’t be bothered, but please tell me more about what God is doing to personally ensure your family’s comfort, health, and happiness.
Ultimately the anger boils over into agonizing fits of rage and despair each time I sit back and reflect on the full magnitude of what I have lost. I carried my baby for 40 weeks and 3 days. I went through all the emotional and physical turmoil of a full term pregnancy. I did everything “right”: I ate well, took my vitamins, exercised, stayed within my ideal weight range, did not drink, did not smoke, kept track of my baby’s movements, and went to all my prenatal appointments. But my daughter is dead. Now I have a c-section scar and volatile postpartum hormones to contend with, but no living baby to show for my struggles. I will never feel at ease in another pregnancy, because doing all the “right” things and having a complication-free pregnancy wasn’t enough. I will never get to simply enjoy holidays and family occasions unmitigated by grief, because Leah’s absence will always be felt. My family will always be incomplete. I was SO CLOSE to having the family that I longed for. I don’t need piles of money, a prestigious career, or a fancy home. All I wanted was my daughter, but I couldn’t keep her. I couldn’t keep her even though she was so, so wanted and so, so loved.
Wanting to believe that I was above such irrational feelings of bitterness, my anger used to make me feel quite petty and ashamed. However, this is no longer the case. Anger is a natural and fundamentally human response to injustice, and there is no other term that can adequately encapsulate what has happened to me and my daughter. It is not fair that any mama should go through the tumultuous journey of pregnancy and fall in love with her baby, only for her child’s life to end before it ever really began.
In short, I know that I have every right to feel angry about what happened to Leah. The problem is that I have no legitimate place to channel this anger. The frustrating reality is that there is nothing and no one to blame for my daughter’s death beyond the brutal fact that life can be devastatingly unfair. Of course my anger will boil to the surface when people who don’t share my pain say and do things that inflame my loss wound, perhaps by reminding me of what I’ve lost, or taking for granted that which I would be so grateful for. Other people may not be the true source of my anger or personally responsible for it, but this does not make the anger any less valid.
Now excuse me while I hurl some heavy objects against the wall, won’t you?