For me, one of the benefits of living in a snug apartment is that I didn’t have to confront an entire nursery when I returned home from the hospital without my baby girl. When we moved here last April, it was a rushed process after we learned that the house we had been renting for the previous two years was going up for sale. I was already six months pregnant at the time, so I was eager to settle on a reasonably comfortable two-bedroom apartment as quickly as possible. Since we did not envision ourselves staying here beyond our initial one-year lease, and I knew my anxiety would demand that Leah sleep close to me during that time, we agreed to set up a “nook” for her in our bedroom, where we would keep her bassinet and books, and use the other room as a home office. In the meantime, we would store her clothes, diapers, and other items in the second bedroom’s closet.
This made it relatively easy for my husband to haphazardly stuff most of our baby items away from my sight before I came back from the hospital last June. Nevertheless, I was not able to put these hidden clothes, toys, and books out of my mind. During my raw grieving moments, I would habitually open the closet and stare at the broken dreams inside. On these occasions I would spend hours purposefully sifting through Leah’s belongings with great ceremony, sobbing her name over and over.
In the weeks and months that followed, I knew I would eventually have to do something with my daughter’s things. I have never been a procrastinator, yet I could not bring myself to do anything with these items beyond returning them to their original place in the closet, as if they were still waiting to be used by a baby girl who never made it home. I hadn’t even unpacked my hospital bag, which I would continuously empty, one item at a time, only to place everything right back inside.
I finally made a bargain with myself: I would either wait until we moved to a different apartment, or until I was pregnant again—whichever came first—before undertaking the daunting task of sorting through Leah’s things. At the time, I assumed the former would be the case. As mentioned previously, my short monthly cycles had me convinced that a subsequent pregnancy would not be part of my imminent future. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, it suddenly was.
This initially presented a dilemma: At what point would I feel comfortable packing up the closet, thereby making the same space for this new life in my home that I had already made for it in my heart? While I was hopeful that Leah’s sibling would make it into the world safely, I also knew too well how suddenly and tragically an otherwise perfectly healthy pregnancy can end. In response, the pragmatist within me reasoned that it would make the most sense to undertake this task after the second trimester anatomy scan.
My mama instincts felt early on that Leah’s sibling was a boy, so I was not at all surprised when the technician confirmed at our ultrasound that the kicks I had been feeling for the previous two weeks were indeed coming from my son. In some ways, receiving this news was comforting. While we would have been equally relieved to learn that we were expecting a healthy daughter, part of me wanted this baby to be as separate and distinct from Leah as possible, with a different gender, different clothes, and different dreams. Even now, I take comfort in talking about “my daughter” and “my son” in definitive terms, knowing there is no chance of conflation or confusion.
At the same time, this news officially meant there was no utility in hanging onto the pink blankets and frilly dresses that filled Leah’s closet. While there were a few special items that I wanted to keep specifically for her, as well as some gender neutral items that I would keep for her brother, I knew it was finally time to let go of everything else.
I count myself fortunate to have stumbled across a silver lining while making this decision. In the fall of 2016 my husband and I attended a local infant loss support group that was facilitated by Bereaved Families of Ontario. During this time we forged invaluable friendships with the other loss parents who attended, and we have remained in close contact ever since. In the weeks leading up to and following my ultrasound, I learned that two of the women from my group, both of whom were grieving the deaths of their beautiful full-term sons, were now each pregnant with a girl. I knew immediately that I wanted their daughters to use the items that my own daughter was never able to, and I drew immense comfort from having a sense of purpose in packing up Leah’s things. I would eventually learn that these two loss mamas had also planned on giving me some of their sons’ unused belongings. As bittersweet as these exchanges have been, I remain awed by the unexpected ways that love, beauty, and generosity can blossom from the ashes of despair.
Still, I was unsure if I would be able to face this difficult task alone, so I asked one of my dearest friends and closest confidants to help me. With two daughters of her own, she and I had shared many dreams of our girls growing up knowing and loving each other, and she was one of the precious few people who saw and held Leah while she was alive. When the big day finally arrived, I was so thankful to have her with me. And so, amidst our shared pain and tears—and, surprisingly, the occasional bout of subdued laughter—we proceeded to sort the closet’s contents into three piles: One pile of gender neutral items to keep for my son; one pile of “girl” items to give to my loss mama friends; and a small pile of special items to keep for Leah.
It was surreal to pack up all the hopes and dreams I had for my daughter’s life into a solitary bin, yet at the same time it was comforting to know her most treasured mementos now had a permanent home. I have spent hours immersed in the exquisitely painful yet immensely sweet memories they hold, and I have shed countless tears imagining how different my life would be if Leah was here, lighting up my days in all her bumbling, nine-month-old glory.
It’s true that the life I now lead could not be more different from what I had envisioned this time last year. Yet at the same time, I cannot ignore the glimmer of hope that beckons me forward with each kick and prod that fills my swollen belly. This grief journey is a delicate one, knowing that the son I now carry would likely not be here at all if Leah was alive. I cannot say that there is a cosmic purpose behind the bittersweet fork in the road I have been presented with. Instead, my life simply is what it is, and all I can do is spend each day of it caring for the son whose life I hope to share, and honouring the daughter whose life ended far too soon.