One Year

Dear Leah,

It is June 21, 2017. Today you would be one year old. It seems impossible that an entire year has passed since I experienced the best and worst 33 hours of my life. Contrary to my fear that the passage of time would dull my memories of your brief life, I can still vividly recall every beautiful and excruciating detail of the day you came into the world.

I remember breaking into sobs while poking and shaking my belly in the early midnight hours, trying desperately to get you to move before finally deciding to go to the hospital.

I remember hearing my midwife say that I still had a “happy baby,” but you wouldn’t be happy for long, so it was a good thing that I came in when I did. I remember thanking God for protecting you as the nurses prepped me for my emergency c-section. It pains me to recall these final moments in which I still believed that I would get to bring you home.

I remember seeing you for the first time in the NICU after the doctors told me they would have to send you to a special children’s hospital for further treatment. I asked them if I could touch you, and a nurse opened your bassinet so I could stroke your hair. It was heartbreaking to see you hooked up to so many machines, struggling to cling to life in that cold hospital.

I remember the visceral shock that enveloped my body when they told me your condition was far worse than any of us could have anticipated, and that you were unlikely to survive the intensive interventions that would be undertaken if they sent you away.

I remember the sense of awe I felt when they brought you to me for palliative care and placed you in my arms for the first time. To this day, I still have not seen anyone or anything so beautiful. I remember holding you against my skin and kissing your head over and over again, caught in the throes of absolute joy and utter devastation.

I remember crying in the evening as your initial dosage of medication began to wear off, and I started to see and feel the effects of the seizures that were continuously ravaging your body. Were you in pain? Were you afraid? Did you somehow know that you were with your mother, and that I would have gladly traded my own life for yours if given the choice?      

Instead of celebrating one year of cuddles, kisses, and laughter with you, today marks one year of tears, heartache, and longing. It is agonizing to imagine what you would look like, sound like, and be like if you were here, growing into the beautiful girl I know you would be. Instead of crying over still photographs and combing through your mementos, today I would be creating and capturing new memories to cherish. I would be dressing you up in some frilly monstrosity and watching you smash into your first birthday cake. Later on, I would hold you on my lap and read you a bedtime story before kissing you goodnight. 

I wish I could say that I have found some celebratory way to honour your memory today, but any attempt I make to shroud your unlived life in positivity ultimately feels hollow. As grateful and proud as I am to be your mother, you should have lived long enough to be more than my precious baby. Today I am haunted by the reminders of what will never be: You will never smile; you will never laugh; you will never experience any of the light and joy that this life has to offer. It is crushing to think that your legacy will ultimately live and die with me, and that you never got the chance to leave a broader mark on this world in your own right.        

People often say that you are still with me and that your spirit lives on. Even if this is true, it cannot quell the crushing pain of a mother’s empty arms. I want so badly to do the things that non-bereaved parents are able to do each day. I want to rock you back to sleep in the middle of the night, comfort you after you’ve taken a tumble, and feel you wrap your arms around my neck while I hold you. More than anything, I want to know for certain that you understand how deeply loved you are.

It has been one year of a lifetime in which I will continue to wonder who you would have been. No matter what the future holds, you will always be the irreplaceable daughter who first made me a mother.

I miss you, baby girl. 

All my love and a kiss,

Your Mama

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Moving

Last week my husband and I moved to a new apartment. Needless to say, my transition to June has been a tiring blur of packing, cleaning, and unpacking, intermingled with the usual onslaught of busy workdays and prenatal appointments. With Leah’s birthday fast approaching and her brother’s due date following soon after, I’ve been spending much time thinking about what this move means for this particular moment in my ongoing grief journey.

As I sit in my new bedroom on this sweltering spring day, it is surreal to think how different my life looks in comparison to what it was one year ago. In many ways, it is almost unrecognizable. This time last year, Leah’s due date was less than one week away. I can still vividly recall every mundane detail of how I spent those final blissful days of my pregnancy: Walking to the neighbourhood grocery store with my husband on humid evenings to appease my unrelenting watermelon cravings. Going for purposeful strolls to the park every morning in the hopes of jump starting my labour, all the while imagining a sweet baby girl strapped to my chest in the ergonomic carrier I had purchased. Crafting a generous batch of homemade pierogies the weekend before Leah’s birthday, and eating the leftovers for dinner mere hours before going to the hospital and learning that the hopes and dreams I had for my daughter’s life would never come to pass.

During this time, I had accepted that the months and years ahead would be challenging for my husband and I as we prepared to care for Leah in a minuscule apartment with our meager academic teaching incomes. The future that I anticipated would undoubtedly be filled with stress and uncertainty—yet I was not afraid. Soon I would finally get to meet, hold, and kiss the girl who had shared my body for the previous nine months, and I was excited for my family of three to venture ahead through the slew of sleepless nights and mountains of dirty diapers that awaited us.

Yet here I am, nearly one year later, leading a very different sort of life. In one respect, my family’s financial future is more secure, thanks to the private sector job I started last fall. In addition to qualifying for the paid parental leave that I would not have had with Leah, this change has allowed us to move to a new space that is nearly twice the size of our old apartment. It means the son I now carry will have his own room waiting for him should we be fortunate enough to bring him home from the hospital, even though I cannot bring myself to unpack or assemble the plethora of baby items that remain haphazardly strewn across the floor.

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Leah’s brother and I at 30 weeks gestation

As I sit back and reflect on my life as it is now, I know that I have much to be thankful for. I know that I am fortunate to have good physical health, a loving marriage, and supportive family and friends. I know how privileged I am to have a secure roof over my head, fresh food in my refrigerator, and a job that allows me to utilize my education and hone my professional skills. Similarly, I know that many women who struggle with infertility and recurrent pregnancy loss would give so much to be in the third trimester of what has thus far proven to be a healthy and complication-free pregnancy.

And yet…

I begrudge the fact that—rightly or wrongly—I feel compelled to continually remind people that I am both cognizant of and thankful for my good fortunes, despite the injustice of my daughter’s death. Perhaps this is because of our cultural discomfort with the messy emotions that accompany child loss, as if sadness, longing, and anger are pathological symptoms of grieving an unlived life. Or perhaps it is because, as time continues to pass and my pregnant belly continues to swell, the world hastens to remind me that it is time to “move on” and “move forward” in my grief, as if Leah was a momentary blip in my life narrative that I must ultimately leave behind, and as if my son being born healthy and alive can somehow give my daughter her life back.

It’s a curious place to be, standing at the junctures of hope, hopelessness, gratitude, and despair. After all, if I say that life is shit because my daughter is dead, it means I lack the introspection to recognize and appreciate all the good things I have in my life. If I say that I long to be back in my old apartment, chasing after a bright-eyed and bumbling one-year-old girl each day, it means I don’t love my son as much as I should, since he would not have been conceived at all if Leah was alive. If I say that I want to be among those people who are both privileged and naive enough to assume that a pregnancy will ultimately result in a healthy baby coming home, it means I am selfish enough to wish I was ignorant of the life-changing pain that accompanies child loss, even though so many parents are forced to carry this burden day after day.

These past few weeks, people have been quick to suggest that moving will be a “fresh start” and a “positive step forward” for me and my family. Admittedly, when we decided to start searching for a new place earlier this year, part of me hoped that moving would alleviate some of the grief triggers that lingered in the space where Leah would have spent the first years of her life. Yet as I finished packing the last of our belongings and surveyed the empty apartment that once held the promise of so much joy, I was overcome with a deep, visceral ache that has yet to abate. I have brought this pain with me to my new place, and have spent much time weeping violently for all the memories that did and didn’t happen in what I thought would be Leah’s first home.

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Kiwi and I doing a final sweep in our old apartment

While some people may believe it is a sign of weakness or stagnation, I am not ashamed to say that I do not miss Leah any less than I did nearly one year ago when I stroked her hair and kissed her cheek for the last time. If this past year has taught me anything, it’s that there are some types of love and loss from which we aren’t meant to move on and move forward. I know that every ounce of pain I continue to carry in my heart is a direct reflection of the love I carry for my daughter. Simply put, it is a love that I have no intention of leaving behind, despite the tears it brings with each passing day.

Faith

Some time ago, I was scrolling aimlessly through my social media newsfeed when I came across this post. Being the sucker for punishment that I am, I proceeded to read the article despite gleaning from the click bait title that nothing good would come of it. Long story short, it ended up being one of many posts floating around cyberspace documenting the incredible survival of a “miracle baby” who managed to beat the odds of a grim medical prognosis made during pregnancy.

Obviously, this in and of itself is not problematic. As a mother who knows the despair of watching her newborn baby die in her arms, the last thing I want is for other families to join the tragic child loss club. Instead, it was this excerpt in particular that left me reeling:

The family never gave up on their miracle baby for a second. Maybe it was their unwavering hope that helped [him] develop into a strong, healthy boy.”

There it was—the omnipresent mantra powered by the prosperity gospel paradigm which shaped my Christian faith while growing up: Believe enough, pray enough, hope enough, and God will deliver positive results. Of course, this paradigm is itself a product of the broader New Thought movement that defines our culture in many ways: Choose to have positive thoughts, and positive outcomes will ultimately follow.

It goes without saying why these glib sentiments pour salt in the loss wounds of bereaved parents. I personally know several loss mamas who learned at their second trimester anatomy scans that their babies had a fatal genetic condition, but chose to carry their pregnancies to term anyway, hoping and praying every day that their children would survive. In all these cases, their babies died before or shortly after birth. So does this mean they simply didn’t have enough hope to heal their babies’ bodies?

I also know a number of women who lost their children to sudden complications at the end of an otherwise textbook pregnancy. Like me, some of these mothers had to make the heart wrenching decision to remove their babies’ life supports after learning that they wouldn’t survive—sometimes hours, sometimes days, and sometimes weeks after giving birth. Does this mean we didn’t have enough faith and positivity to overcome our children’s dire conditions?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with clinging to positivity during periods of struggle and uncertainty. But many people don’t realize how hurtful it is for those who have suffered the worst types of hardship to hear our more fortunate peers attribute their positive outcomes to hope and faith. After all, I never took Leah’s safety for granted during my pregnancy, and I prayed every day that God would protect her. Likewise, when I received her devastating prognosis mere hours after her birth, I prayed for a miracle, promising God that I would love her and care for her for the rest of my life, no matter what condition she was in. As it is, hearing other people say that their hope, faith, and prayers are responsible for landing them a new job, healing a loved one of an illness or injury, or keeping their children healthy and safe feels like a callous slap in the face.

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As my due date with Leah’s brother draws nearer, I have been reflecting on how my understanding of faith has evolved since this time last year. To be sure, “faith” was already a complex concept for me during my pregnancy with Leah. As I inched my way through the first and second anxiety-ridden trimesters, I wanted to believe that God loved my daughter enough to protect her from harm, and I always thanked Him for answering my prayers whenever I received reassuring ultrasound or blood test results. But at the same time, I was aware of how frequently pregnancy and infant loss occurred. If God didn’t intervene to save these other babies, despite their mothers’ hopes and prayers, why should I believe that my daughter and I were guaranteed His personal protection?

When I confided in others about my fears of miscarriage and stillbirth, I was frequently told to “have faith.” And by the final weeks of my pregnancy, I finally did. After making it to the third trimester with no cause for concern in sight, I was simply bursting at the seams with faith. I had faith that God had been answering my daily prayers for Leah’s protection, and that He would continue to do so until she was finally out of my womb and safe in my arms. I had faith that my healthy female body, in all its corporeal wisdom, knew how to carry a pregnancy to term and birth a child into the world safely. I had faith that the people around me knew what they were talking about when they told me not to worry, because they were certain that everything would be okay.

It is painful to look back and reflect on how differently things might have turned out if perhaps I hadn’t had so much faith. If I knew then what I know now, I would have gone to the hospital immediately after Leah missed her post-dinner kick session. Instead, I dismissed the encroaching worry and decided to choose faith over fear—after all, God surely wouldn’t forsake us after bringing us this far, plus everyone says that babies start to slow down right before labour. As evening turned to night and her movements didn’t change, it became harder to ignore my anxiety’s alarm bells, yet I still told myself that things must be okay—after all, people constantly assured me throughout my pregnancy that my worst-case scenario fears were unwarranted, and until this point they had been correct.

Needless to say, my understanding of faith during my current pregnancy has been shaken up to the point of incoherence. I still pray for my son’s protection every day, because it is literally all I can do, but this does not come without a list of caveats. If this boy makes it into the world unscathed, it will be difficult to attribute his positive outcome to answered prayer when I prayed just as vigilantly for my daughter’s safety each and every day that I carried her. Simply put, I have a hard time believing that a benevolent and omnipotent God would decide to actively protect one of my precious babies, while allowing the other one to suffer and die.

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Leah’s brother at 28 weeks gestation

And yet it isn’t quite that simple. There are days when I am so desperate to believe that this boy will be born healthy—and so adamant that there must be order in the chaos—that I indulge in the same epistemological hoop-jumping that causes me to roll my eyes at other Christians: Maybe Leah was destined for Heaven this whole time, and God made me her mother because He knew I would love her fiercely during her brief life and after her death. Maybe she belongs with God and this boy is the child I’m supposed to raise on earth. Maybe God allowed this to happen because He knew I would be strong enough to use my suffering to help other mothers whose children have died.  

For me, faith now means accepting that I will never have the answers to these theological ruminations. As it is, I simply don’t want to believe that a benevolent God with the capacity to answer prayer would actively “bless” a privileged minority with comfortable lives and healthy families, while leaving many others to endure the worst kinds of suffering. As comforting as it is to believe that God is an omnipotent micromanager who is perpetually on-call to answer our prayers, it seems far more likely that the beautiful and devastating things that happen in our lives are all part and parcel of the broken world we live in—a world whose ongoing chaos just happens to benefit some people more than others. And yet, if God is real, it is not for me to define His nature or His role in the universe. The truth is that I simply don’t know.

But one thing I do know is that, while my grief for Leah has brought me to the darkest emotional places imaginable, it has not left me without faith. When I began writing this post, I had intended to discuss an article that I encountered about a month after Leah’s death. Like the post mentioned above, this viral story documented a family whose baby girl, Jocelyn, had been born alive and seemingly healthy after prenatal testing delivered a fatal medical prognosis. Christian media platforms and social media users naturally clung to this story like a barnacle, praising God for rewarding the family’s unwavering faith with His miraculous healing. I remember how this ignited visceral rage within me while my grief was still so fresh and raw—how dare these people give glory to God for healing this baby after He stood by and allowed my daughter to suffer and die.

As it turns out, while she had initially beaten the odds by making it into the world alive, baby Jocelyn died suddenly of continued complications at three months old—despite her family’s continued hope, faith, and prayers. When I read this update (which, unsurprisingly, did not spread across the Christian corners of the internet like wildfire), I broke down and cried. I cried for Jocelyn’s mother, who was walking the same devastating path as me and the other loss mamas I know. I also spent some time looking at photos of her beautiful baby girl, who was still so loved and cherished by her family. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, it hit me: If there is a God, and if there is a Heaven, Jocelyn is there with my own much-loved daughter right now, along with all the other children whose unjust deaths have left gaping wounds on their parents’ hearts.

Do I know this for sure? No, of course not.

Do I hope this is true? Yes, with every fiber of my being.

You see, my current understanding of faith is that it isn’t synonymous with certainty. For some Christians, this may not qualify as “true” faith at all. But for now it is the best that my shattered heart and broken spirit can muster. And, despite what other people may theologize, I believe it is enough.          

Mother’s Day

Next Sunday is Mother’s Day for those in Canada, the United States, and a number of other countries. It is fair to say that I have been reflecting far more on this upcoming occasion than I would be if Leah was alive. While growing up, my family never commemorated Mother’s Day (or Father’s Day, for that matter) with memorable traditions, so it is unlikely that I would have given much thought to it this year if I was a normal mother whose daily existence was not defined by the anguish of infant loss.

In many ways, it is wholly appropriate that I write this post on International Bereaved Mother’s Day. Since 2010, this day has been set aside to honour the many women whose mothering journeys are shaped by the unique grief that accompanies child loss, and it is especially significant for mothers without living children. Even so, it is important for non-bereaved people to purposefully include loss mamas and their deceased children in Mother’s Day traditions, thereby validating the complex emotions and experiences that shape their day to day lives. Unfortunately, as I and the many mothers who have walked this devastating path before me know too well, this is not the reality of the culture we live in.

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A special thank you to Danielle at Jensen Grey for creating this Mother’s Day wreath for Leah

As Mother’s Day draws nearer, I have also been reflecting on how it will shape my first grief season as a bereaved mother. You see, my baby showers were held on Mother’s Day weekend, just over a month before my June 17 due date. It is ironic that, this time last year, Mother’s Day marked the beginning of the end of my hopes and dreams for Leah’s life. After eight months of grueling anxiety, I was finally confident enough to let go of my fear and plunge into the pregnancy bliss that I hadn’t yet allowed myself to feel. After eight months of cautious optimism and speaking about Leah in terms of “if” rather than “when,” I allowed myself to envision every aspect of my life with the daughter whom I had fallen head-over-heels in love with. And, after eight months of unyielding prayer that God would protect my baby from harm, I allowed myself to believe that He had personally escorted both of us to the finish line, and that He would continue to answer my daily pleas for her safety until I could finally wrap her in my loving arms.

My heart has never been so full of joy and gratitude as it was during those precious weeks between my Mother’s Day showers and Leah’s birthday. With my PhD dissertation defended and my teaching obligations for the year completed, my sunny spring days were filled with purposeful walks, thankful prayers, and unbridled anticipation. I was so ready to finally meet, hold, and kiss the girl who would complete my family. As I laundered her clothes, assembled her bassinet, and installed her car seat, I experienced happiness like I had never known before—a pure, untethered sort of happiness that grief will never allow me to feel again.

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May 7, 2016

Needless to say, my current mothering journey could not be more different from what I had envisioned this time last year. For me, being a mother now means shedding tears each day for a dark-haired girl whose death has left an unfillable void in my life. It means never being able to simply enjoy occasions like Mother’s Day, Christmas, or birthdays without grieving for my firstborn daughter, whose absence will always be felt. It means living with PTSD that can be triggered by things that non-bereaved people may deem unreasonable, such as attending baby showers, hearing newborn cries in the street, or being inundated with photos of happy, intact families on social media. It means hesitating each time someone asks me how many children I have, knowing that my painful truth is probably not the answer they want to hear. It means lacking the emotional capacity to feel true joy during my current pregnancy, understanding that the son I now carry is not guaranteed a long, healthy life on this earth anymore than Leah was.

In my life, being a mother ultimately means claiming whatever space I can for myself and my daughter by speaking her name and sharing her story, even when it makes other people uncomfortable. Since bereaved parents do not enjoy the privilege of watching our children grow and change before our eyes each day, we care for them by continually reminding the world that they were here, that they are loved, and that their lives matter. To be sure, keeping our children’s memories alive cannot compensate us for the lifetime of memories we have been robbed of, but each day we seize these opportunities with every ounce of love that our broken hearts hold, because it is literally all we can do.

And so, to my fellow loss mamas, I wish you a gentle Bereaved Mother’s Day. To everyone else, I ask that you hold space for these parents and their much-missed children today, next Sunday, and on each bittersweet Mother’s Day the future brings.

The Aliens

We have a narrative in our culture about pregnancy and motherhood: The inevitably fertile woman conceives—sometimes effortlessly, sometimes with a little planning, and sometimes with the assistance of medical intervention—and then delivers a live, healthy baby 40 weeks later. She may experience challenges along the way, such as debilitating first trimester nausea, excessive second trimester weight gain, and the general third trimester discomforts that come with carrying a rapidly growing baby, but ultimately her journey is a linear one that results in her leaving the hospital with a living child.

Of course, at the same time we know it isn’t that simple. We implicitly acknowledge that the first trimester of pregnancy is a precarious one, which is why expectant parents are generally advised to keep their news a secret until their 12 week ultrasound scan, at which point the risk of miscarriage drops significantly. But after this milestone is reached, pregnant women are expected to plunge ahead at full-force, decorating a nursery, stocking up on diapers and baby clothes, throwing a celebratory shower, and generally planning every aspect of their lives with the assumption that they will be raising this child into adulthood.

Simply put, despite the facts that 1 in 4 pregnancies ends in a loss and 23,600 babies are stillborn each year in the U.S. alone, we take for granted that expectant mothers who make it past the first trimester will bring a living child home—and if a woman’s personal experience disrupts this narrative, she can keep her grief, her trauma, and her deceased child to herself, thank you very much. One thing I have learned since my daughter’s death is that infant loss makes people very uncomfortable. It defies everything they want to believe about pregnancy, birth, and motherhood—both for their own sake, and for the women in their lives whom they would like to believe are immune to such tragedy.

So what does this mean for those of us in the unfortunate minority who know the unspeakable pain of leaving our children’s cold, lifeless bodies behind at the hospital? In short, our experiences—and, by extension, our deceased children—become anomalous tales to be hidden away from expectant parents and society at large. We become “that one woman” you know whose full-term baby died of sudden, unpreventable complications—but don’t worry, it was just “one of those things” that will never happen to you or the women you care about 

In short, we become aliens, walking around in our unruly bodies, weighed down by our empty arms, all the while surrounded by “normal” people who get pregnant, give birth, and get to watch their children grow up. We become accustomed to the fact that well-meaning but misguided individuals will say hurtful things to us, but we bury our feelings and smile politely in response, because goodness knows they are trying their best. We accept that many people simply don’t feel comfortable acknowledging our deceased children, while others pull away and stop talking to us completely. We quickly realize who our “safe” people are, the ones who bravely walk hand-in-hand with us through our grief journeys without judgement or expectation, and we learn to withhold our difficult truths from those who lack the capacity—or perhaps the willingness—to hold space for us while we navigate the most excruciating type of loss that a human being can experience.

While it may seem counterintuitive, my pregnancy with Leah’s brother has only made me feel more like an alien than I did during the five months I spent as a childless mother. To be sure, grief in and of itself is incredibly alienating, regardless of the type of loss one has experienced. Grief has caused me to feel completely alone in a room full of people whose orderly worlds continue to turn while mine has come to a screeching halt. Grief has ignited foreign flames of rage within me when non-bereaved people offer advice for how I should cope with my loss, subtly suggesting that my emotions are a sign of weakness or pathology. But at the same time, during those early grieving months people generally accepted that it was normal for me to be sad and despondent in the wake of my daughter’s death, at least for a designated period of time.

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But things are different now. I am no longer simply a bereaved mother, but a bereaved mother who is privileged enough to have fallen pregnant again without having to endure the crushing pain of secondary infertility. I am a bereaved mother who is well into the second trimester of what has thus far proven to be a complication-free pregnancy. I am a bereaved mother who, if all continues to go well, is on track to bring a healthy son home in three months’ time. Conventional wisdom presumes that I should be bursting at the seams with joy and excitement about the future. Likewise, such wisdom dictates that I should not be fearful, anxious, or quietly wondering if I am too damaged to be as good a mother to this boy as I would have been to Leah.

Here’s the thing with pregnancy after loss: Each and every day, I am living inside my trauma. Each morning I wake up wondering if my baby will still be alive when I go to bed at night, and each evening—after obsessively completing a day’s worth of kick counts—I heave a sigh of relief knowing that he and I have both made it through another day. Simply put, I know what it is to have a perfectly healthy full-term daughter kicking away at my ribs one morning, and to feel her slowly dying in my womb by the end of the same day. This sort of embodied trauma cannot be repressed or forgotten. As profoundly grateful as I am for Leah’s brother, and as hopeful as I am that he will come home to stay, each day my trauma ignites a chaotic clamor of thoughts and emotions that most people simply don’t want to confront.

And so these people tell the aliens not to worry, because they “just know” that everything will be okay. Never mind that the exact same thing was said to me repeatedly when I was anxious during my pregnancy with my daughter, and we all know how that turned out. They ask us if we understand that negative energy isn’t good for our babies, so shouldn’t we decide to choose peace over fear? Right, because what I need right now is a reason to have anxiety about my anxiety, reminding me of yet another thing that could harm my baby which I have no control over. They advise us that these new babies deserve to be loved and celebrated just as much as their deceased siblings, so don’t we owe it to them to excitedly plan for their arrivals? Of course, thank you for implying that the grief I carry for my daughter each day must mean that I am a terrible mother who doesn’t love my son as much as I should.   

I understand that this is not the sort of pregnancy after loss post that most people want to read. It contradicts the expectation that this time should be filled with optimism, excitement, and rainbows. Luckily, this post is not written for most people. Instead, it is written for the other aliens who are too sad, exhausted, and traumatized to feel all the things that other people believe we should be feeling. It is for those who become frustrated when people proclaim positive outcomes over our pregnancies, as if hope, faith, and the power of positive thinking will magically do for these new babies what they couldn’t do for our deceased children. It is for those who cannot bring themselves to decorate a nursery or stock up on baby clothes, remembering too well how harrowing it was to come home from the hospital with empty arms. It is for those who feel isolated while listening to people talk nonchalantly about “normal” pregnancy and birth stories, mistakenly assuming that we are “normal” too now that we are pregnant again.

To these other aliens, know that you aren’t alone. Pregnancy after loss is complicated, and there is no “correct” way to navigate its messy terrain. You have the right to feel every ounce of fear, joy, anger, hope, devastation, and love that grief and trauma throw your way during this bittersweet journey. Every morning you continue to rise from the ashes of despair and do the very best you can to get through the day. And, despite what other people may tell you, your best—whatever it happens to be at this particular moment—is more than enough.

The Closet

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.

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Leah’s brother and I at 22 weeks gestation

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.

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The trove of dreams that I will always 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.

Nine Months

Dear Leah,

It is March 21, 2017. Today you would be nine months old. Nine months have passed since the nine months that I carried you came to a devastating end. Some days the pain of missing you is as raw and crushing as it was last summer, while other days it all feels like a bad dream.

It is surreal to think that, for half of this time, the body you and I shared for nine months has been home to your brother. Just as I “knew” you were my daughter from the early weeks of our time together, I had been certain since the beginning of this pregnancy that the newest member of our family was a boy. This was confirmed at the second trimester anatomy scan several weeks ago. Seeing him on the ultrasound screen filled me with a tumultuous mixture of relief, hope, sadness, and longing. I love him as I love you, but any semblance of joy I feel now is simply different. It’s a joy that is, and will always be, invariably tethered by grief.

While the kicks that he generously gives me throughout the days fill me with reassurance, they also make me ache for you. As my belly swells and his movements grow stronger, I think of every birthday, Christmas morning, and family photo that he will be a part of—and that you will be absent from—if he makes it into the world unscathed. Each day I look at your photos and wonder if he will look like you, and I also wonder if I will be comforted or disconcerted if this is the case. It pains me to think that he will spend the first years of his life completely unaware of the sister who came before him. If he joins me in this life before he joins you in the next, I promise to tell him all about you and the unfillable space you hold in our family.

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People tell me that this new baby and pregnancy are completely distinct and separate from you, but this simply isn’t true. Every week I compare my changing body to the photos I took while I carried you. Because of you, I am far more likely to call my doctor or run to the hospital for reassurance if I fear something is amiss, rather than draw comfort from the generic wisdom that the female body’s natural capacities and the power of positive thinking can guarantee a baby’s safe arrival into the world. Simply put, it is easy to assume that things will always work out for the best if one has never experienced the worst. Because of you, I know that I and the people I love most are not immune to tragedy.

Last week I had a dream about you—the first and only dream I have had about you since the nine months that I carried you. Some time had passed since your birth, and you were still alive, still in the hospital, and still on life support. I was at home when I received a call from the doctor saying that they were going to remove your ventilator, and I should come say goodbye. My family drove me to the hospital, and I was desperate to get to you as quickly as I could. When we arrived, they became distracted in the lobby, and couldn’t hear me begging them to take me to the NICU. I finally started sobbing and screaming: “I have to see Leah! There’s so much I need to tell her before I say goodbye!” When I awoke, my face was drenched in tears. I have thought about this dream every day since—about all the things I wanted to tell you and show you, but never got the chance to.

Contrary to the platitude that time heals all wounds, each day I feel my loss wound swell larger as I continue to navigate life without the vital piece of my heart that died with you. It has been nine months of a lifetime in which my soul will continue to ache for you—the much-loved, much-missed girl who first made me a mother.

All my love and a kiss,

Your Mama

Guest Post: Elijah’s Story

I am honoured to share the following guest post by fellow loss mama Lisa Addis.

It was a Wednesday. I was putting the finishing touches on the swing I had purchased for my second and much-loved baby boy, Elijah, who was due to arrive in just twelve days. After a tiring but otherwise healthy pregnancy, my boyfriend and I were beyond excited to finally meet the newest member of our family.

Like most expectant mothers, I had been keeping busy with preparations for my baby’s arrival. It was late in the day, nearly midnight, when I suddenly realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt him kick. I decided to warm up a bath and relax, hoping it would wake him up…but I still did not feel any movement. Slowly, the worry began to creep up on me. I changed my strategy and started walking around the house and talking to him, but still he did not move. Finally unable to suppress my fear, I messaged my family and asked for advice. They tried to console me with the words that are often said to women during their final weeks of pregnancy: “Babies always slow down at the end as they get bigger and run out of space. Don’t worry! Everything will be okay.

Wanting to believe they were right, I calmed myself down and went to bed. But then Thursday morning came, still with no movements from Elijah. Fearing the worst, I broke into sobs and called my mother-in-law to take me to the hospital. On the drive there she kept trying to reassure me: “Everything is okay! Nothing is wrong.” But little did we know that everything was wrong.

Upon arriving, I was admitted to the Labour and Delivery unit. Terrified, I lay still as the nurse strapped the fetal monitor to my body. I so badly wanted to hear Elijah’s heartbeat…but she couldn’t find it. She told me not to worry, and proceeded to ask me routine questions while I cried. 

Soon enough I was being wheeled out to have an ultrasound. I remember fighting back tears and thinking to myself, “These things don’t happen, not my baby,” as the technician scanned my belly and the nurse held my hand. They asked me more questions, trying to understand if there had been any complications during my pregnancy, but everything had been fine up to this point.

They wheeled me back to my room and told me the doctor would come soon to provide some answers. Words cannot express the excruciating feeling of waiting to find out whether my son was alive or dead. Some time passed before the doctor arrived. “I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head. “There is no heartbeat. He’s gone.”

It felt as though I had been stabbed in the chest, and my heart shattered into a million pieces. Unable to believe the words coming from his lips, all I could do was scream and cry out in agony. I felt like I had stepped into a dreamworld as he proceeded to tell me I could go home and gather my things before returning to give birth to my baby boy, who would be born still.

I felt completely numb as we left the hospital and returned home. I packed Elijah’s bag, all the while thinking how surreal it was that I wouldn’t be bringing my baby home. I sat on the couch and stared at my belly, unable to understand how Elijah could be dead. How was this possible? Why was this happening to me and my son? Was it all my fault somehow?

When we returned to the hospital, the doctors, nurses, and social workers all came in to talk to me. I was advised about making funeral arrangements, something I couldn’t quite wrap my head around. No mother should have to think about her child’s funeral right before she is about to give birth.

My induction began and my labour started slowly, gradually picking up speed as Thursday night bled into Friday morning. Elijah’s father, grandmother, and aunt all stood by me as I gave birth to my beautiful son. When he came out I prayed that he would cry…I was simply dying inside, desperate to hear him cry…but he entered the world silently. They took him away and cleaned him off. That’s when I was told that there was a knot in his umbilical cord. They explained that there is nothing I could have done to cause or prevent it, and it cannot be detected on ultrasounds.

elijah

June 10, 2016

I was told that I could hold him for as long as I wanted. During those precious hours I talked to him, told him how much I love him, and kissed his beautiful face. I cherish every second that I got to spend with him, before they took him away from me forever. How do you say hello and goodbye to your child all at once? I cannot describe the pain of knowing I would never hold him again, see him smile, hear him laugh, or even know the colour of his eyes.

When I arrived back home, Elijah’s brother asked me where the baby was. I tried so hard to fight back my tears. I cleared my throat and said, “Elijah is in Heaven with God. He passed away.” I do not necessarily believe this, but my son does, and I wanted so badly to spare him the same unbearable pain I was feeling.

In the weeks and months that followed, my inconsolable grief for Elijah took me to very dark places. I felt suicidal, numb, angry, depressed, sad, and lonely—all at once. I felt like nothing in the world mattered and I could not go on in life without him. Eventually I went to counseling, and then a support group, where I connected with other loss parents who understood my pain. Gradually, I learned to live with the reality that is every parent’s worst nightmare.

Still, every day remains a struggle. Each morning I awake to a gaping hole in my heart and a silence in my home that should be filled with Elijah’s cries and laughter. I miss him every single day, and I will continue to miss him for the rest of my life. All I have is memories of my second son, when he should be here, safe in the arms of his family.

I love you, my sweet Elijah. You are everything to me.

Fear

After Leah’s death, the crippling agony of my grief was immediately accompanied by another all-consuming emotion: Fear. It is difficult to imagine that any parent who has lost their first and only child will not be plagued by worrisome questions as they peer ahead into the uncertain future: What if subsequent pregnancies end the same way? What if I never have a living child to bring home and care for? And, in my case specifically: Will I ever be able to conceive again?

You see, throughout the entire nine months that I carried Leah, I had been quietly wondering if this pregnancy was a complete biological fluke. This is because, months before she was conceived, I had become attuned to the fact that my menstrual cycles seemed to show the classic signs of a luteal phase defect. In a nutshell, the luteal phase is the time between ovulation and the beginning of menstruation. Most medical professionals seem to agree that a 12-16 day luteal phase is “normal,” with anything less than that potentially inhibiting fertility since it may not provide enough time for a fertilized egg to properly implant in the uterus.

I am not sure why it took me so long to notice that my monthly luteal phases were disconcertingly short at 10 days—and sometimes less. As mentioned previously, I had been using the Fertility Awareness Method as natural birth control for about three years. While most women who have read Toni Weschler’s classic text, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, do so in their quest for pregnancy achievement, I had been diligently charting my basal body temperatures and cervical mucus each day in my efforts to delay motherhood. In any case, as soon as I noticed this anomaly in my monthly cycles, I began to wonder what complications it might pose when I did eventually want to conceive. While I didn’t see myself becoming a mother for a few more years, I did some research on the issue and decided to start taking a Vitamin B6 supplement each day for good measure.

This is likely why I had grown relaxed in my charting habits shortly before Leah was conceived, believing that I couldn’t become pregnant even if I did have intercourse during my fertile window. This is also why I was equally relieved as I was surprised when I discovered I was pregnant. This relief would continue throughout the next nine months as my pregnancy progressed perfectly, all the while wondering if this would be my only shot at motherhood without the aid of costly fertility medications and procedures. I had never envisioned myself with a house full of children, so if Leah ended up being the only child I was able to conceive without medical intervention, I would have proceeded through life content with my family of three. Needless to say, when she died unexpectedly at the tail end of my complication-free pregnancy, my anxiety wasted no time before shouting its concerns from the depths of my mind, reminding me that I might never fall pregnant again so easily, if at all.

Admittedly, this anxiety was more consuming at the beginning of my grief journey, when my chaotic postpartum hormones, unable to make sense of my baby’s absence, were urging me to become pregnant again as soon as possible. But this instinctive urge faded as the weeks and months wore on, and I finally accepted that having another baby would not be a magical cure for my grief. Throughout this time, my husband and I devised a plan: We would wait until December, six months after Leah’s birth, before trying to conceive again, with the understanding that it was unlikely to happen right away. If six months of trying bore no fruit, I would speak to my OBGYN about possible next steps. In the meantime, I continued to take my vitamins and chart my cycles so that I would have tangible proof of my short luteal phases to present to my doctor when the time came. I also tried my best not to fall apart each time my period showed up ten days after my ovulatory temperature spike.

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My first charted post-pregnancy cycle, with a crushingly short luteal phase of eight days

With nowhere to go but forward, I trudged ahead on emotional autopilot, adapting to a new routine, a new job, and a new life as a bereaved mother. During this time I settled into a strangely comfortable state of apathy, not feeling much of anything beyond the ever-present ache for my daughter. At least, that was the case—until two pregnancy announcements and one birth announcement, all unleashed within the course of a week, reignited my raw grieving emotions with the force of a thousand suns.

Maybe a stronger loss mama could have handled it. I wanted to believe that I could handle it. After all, I did not want these babies, nor was I even sure if I was emotionally ready to be pregnant again. Nevertheless, it all crashed over me with the devastating impact of a tidal wave—the visceral reminders of what I had, what I lost, and what I may never have again. Not since June had my hormones and emotions run so hopelessly amok: For an entire week I hurled pillows against walls, surrendered to uncontrollable sob fests in the washroom at work, and launched more f-bombs into the atmosphere than I had in the previous 30 years of my life combined.

In short, I was a mess. And I was so consumed by this tornado of emotions that I hadn’t even noticed day eleven of my luteal phase come and go, with no sign of my period in sight.

When this realization finally hit me, the fog lifted and I immediately snapped out of my funk. Eleven days! No, it wasn’t perfect, but it was something. It was hope. Maybe next month I could make it to twelve days, which would finally bring my cycle lengths to the lower end of “normal.”

And then day twelve passed me by, still with no indication that my period was on its way.

On day thirteen, I tried my best to stay grounded and suppress the flicker of wonder that had ignited within me: Was it possible? My husband and I were not actively trying to conceive yet, but we hadn’t been actively preventing it, either. I told myself to wait at least a week before jumping to any conclusions. After all, a twelve day luteal phase was nothing to sneeze at, and I would likely subject myself to unnecessary disappointment by taking a home pregnancy test so soon.

Yet I couldn’t shake the deep, consuming question that continued to echo in my brain all day at work: What if? After much internal debate, my curiosity ultimately trumped my caution. I stopped at a drugstore on my way home and didn’t tell my husband about my excursion. I was even able to wait until after dinner before retreating to the washroom to carry out my covert plan.

So many thoughts and emotions flashed through my mind while I waited for the results. I could vividly see myself, fourteen months prior, smiling as two pink lines confirmed my pregnancy with Leah. And then, almost as if I had stepped back in time, they slowly appeared once again.

test

December 2, 2016

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I wish I could say that this reassuring result filled me with joy and excitement, but this simply wasn’t the case. Instead, I shed silent tears for the daughter whom I seemed to miss more than ever in that moment. I instantly thought about all the things that this new baby would get to see and experience if it managed to beat the odds and make it home—all the things I dreamed of doing with Leah, but never got the chance to. However, I also shed tears for myself, thinking about the nine months of emotional turmoil I was about to experience if this pregnancy progressed normally (which would be the best case scenario), as well as the utter devastation that I would feel if it were to result in another loss.

Was I thankful to see that my fears about secondary infertility were apparently unfounded? Yes, profoundly so. At this point I had interacted with too many loss mamas who had faced (and were still facing) fertility struggles to dismiss this glimmer of hope completely. But the brutal truth is that my grief and fear trumped my ability to feel the same joy and excitement that I did when I first discovered I was pregnant just over a year ago.

As I write this, I am 18 weeks pregnant with Leah’s sibling. To say that the past four months have been an emotional roller coaster would be an understatement. First, there are the flashbacks. Goodness, the flashbacks. Within the first eight weeks I made two visits to the emergency room for reassurance scans, and each time I felt like I had been transported back to June. I was bombarded with visions of myself wandering into the same lobby and telling the triage nurse that I had noticed a reduction in my baby’s movements; being directed to the Labour and Delivery unit, where I broke down crying at the intake desk, trying to explain that I had come to the hospital in a moment of panic, and no I had not called my midwife yet; watching a team of doctors remove my daughter from my body and whisk her away, not knowing what was going on or where they were taking her; holding my beautiful girl to my chest while her body seized and convulsed against my skin, and crying out in agony as she breathed her last laboured breath in my arms. I continue to experience these intrusive flashbacks on a daily basis, and I imagine their frequency and intensity will only increase as I move closer to my due date.

Second, there’s the anxiety. I held out okay until week 6 arrived, at which point the dreaded brown spotting started. Now, brown spotting can be totally normal if it is merely old blood being shed from the uterus during the early weeks of pregnancy—but of course, sometimes it can also be an early sign of miscarriage. I count myself fortunate that it was harmless in this case, but I was still overcome by a wave of panic each time it re-surfaced over the course of the next two weeks. I was also fortunate enough to have far more pronounced first trimester symptoms than I did with Leah, including debilitating fatigue and nausea. I was thankful for these corporeal reminders that my body was seemingly reacting to this pregnancy as it should—until I experienced the occasional day where these symptoms seemed to disappear completely. Of course, this can also be a totally normal response to fluctuating pregnancy hormones—but sometimes it can signify that a missed miscarriage has occurred.

I did not experience a reprieve from my anxiety until I reached week 10. Against the recommendations of the medical community at large, I decided to rent a medical grade Doppler so I could listen to the baby’s heartbeat at home. I can honestly say it is the best decision I have made for myself and my self-care during this pregnancy. It arrived by week 11, and after two practice runs I became quite proficient at finding the baby’s heartbeat during each subsequent use. I now use it twice a day: In the morning before I leave for work, and in the evening when I return home. Not only do these daily sessions allow me to feel connected to the life that is growing inside me, but they also give me reason to pause, smile, and find assurance in knowing that, at least for the present moment, my baby is alive and well.

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Leah’s sibling at 12 weeks gestation

Even so, I cannot speak or think about my future with this child in definitive terms. While I wish I could say that this pregnancy marks a happy ending of sorts for me and my family, the reality of being a loss mama is far more complicated than that. However, this does not mean that I do not love this baby tremendously. To the contrary—rather than plan ahead for things that may or may not happen, I spend each day acutely aware that this could be the only time I get to spend with this child, and I do not take a single heartbeat, flutter, or kick for granted.

As grateful as I am for this pregnancy, and despite being well into the mythical “safe zone” that comes after 14 weeks gestation, there are no guarantees that I will get to bring this baby home. As much as I am hoping for the best, I also know how suddenly and unexpectedly a complication-free pregnancy can careen towards the worst. Moreover, even if I do get to bring this baby home, doing so cannot suture the loss wound that Leah has left on my heart. Don’t get me wrong: Having a living child will certainly restore some of the joy and hope that disappeared from my life when Leah died. But I will continue to ache for my firstborn daughter each and every day, just as I do now.

I also understand that this development will inevitably change the nature of this blog. As a friend and fellow loss mama said to me not too long ago, the only thing harder than being pregnant after loss is not being pregnant after loss (assuming that the woman in question desires to have another child). I know firsthand the difference between being a pregnant loss mama and being a childless mother, and I can say without a doubt that the latter experience is far more difficult. While this pregnancy—like all pregnancies—may result in a heartbreaking loss, the imminent possibility that I may bring a living child home makes all the difference in the world. I thus recognize that sharing my pregnancy experience means this blog may become one more trauma trigger for loss mamas without living children, and especially for readers who know the pain of infertility and secondary infertility. For this reason, I cannot say that I am blessed to have fallen pregnant again so soon, when so many women struggle for years to conceive, and many others never do so at all. There is no way around the fact that this is devastatingly and infuriatingly unfair, yet it is the reality that many loss mamas are forced to live day in and day out.

In the meantime, all I can do is continue to write about what I am living, which for now is a chaotic mixture of grief, anxiety, fear, and—dare I say it—hope. Despite my aching loss wound and my trepidation about the uncertain future, I do count myself fortunate to awake each day with a heart that is filled to the brim with love for my two children—the one whose hand I hope to hold throughout the years to come, and the one whose hand I hope to hold again someday.

The Urn

Beyond the immediate family and close friends whom my husband and I had informed about Leah’s fetomaternal hemorrhage during our time in the hospital, one of the first people to learn of my daughter’s death was the superintendent in my apartment building. As anyone who has lived in comparable accommodations will tell you, it’s difficult to exist in such close quarters with a community of people and not gain insight into each other’s personal lives. Likewise, it is essentially impossible to avoid discussing the details of a full term pregnancy with neighbours while running into them in shared hallways and stairwells day after day.

I can still remember the encounter like it was yesterday. My parents and sisters escorted my husband and me back home after our two day hospital stay. I was beyond exhausted, both physically and emotionally, and in fierce pain from my surgery as I gingerly made my way through the corridors toward my apartment. Suddenly, there she was, presumably in the company of new tenants who were carrying a mattress down the hallway. Drawing the same conclusion that most people would from the scene unfolding before her, she smiled at me and said: “I’m assuming congratulations are in order?”

Unable to speak, my husband breezed past her and didn’t say a word. Not wanting to ignore her well-meaning query, I paused, raised my red, swollen eyes to meet hers, and offered the only response I could muster: “She passed away.”

Her face was instantly overcome with an unforgettable expression of shock, horror, and sadness. She said nothing in response, and I didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to wait for a reply. Instead, I wobbled as quickly as I could to my apartment and closed the door behind me.

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Early the next day, my husband ran into her again when he took our dog out for his morning jaunt around the building yard. When he returned, he told me all about their conversation. As fate would have it, in addition to her two adult children and the grandchildren they had given her throughout the years, she had lost two babies decades ago. I instantly realized that there had been something unique in the look on her face the previous day when she heard our news. It had expressed more than the shock and surprise that all people feel in the wake of such tragedy. Instead, it had also conveyed a palpable devastation that could only have come from knowing what I was going through.

A number of weeks passed before she and I would speak in-depth about our shared yet unique experiences of loss and maternal bereavement. It was a sunny afternoon in July, and I was returning home from my dog’s afternoon walk. She was sitting alone at a picnic table in the building yard, and as soon as I approached her, she enveloped me in a hug that silently expressed a lifetime’s worth of pain and understanding. And then she shared her story with me.

Her firstborn daughter had come into the world without incident while she and her husband still lived in a Maritime province halfway across the country. However, in the years that followed, she would watch a son, Maxwell, and a daughter, Lucy, die in the hospital after delivering them both prematurely.

She told me how, when her contractions started with Lucy, she called her husband and told him that another one of their babies was going to end up at the cemetery where Maxwell was buried. She recounted the fear and agony of giving birth alone in a hospital room, knowing that the child she was about to deliver wouldn’t live for more than a few hours. And she shared how, when she eventually became pregnant for the fourth time, she was convinced that there was no way this baby would make it home. As such, she did not purchase a single item to prepare for his arrival during her pregnancy, and it was of little surprise to her when, once again, the familiar signs of labour began while she was still in the second trimester.

However, she was surprised when her fourth child and second son clung to life during his extended stay in the NICU. And she was downright shocked when the doctors told her on a cold and blistery Christmas Eve that he was going to be okay, and that she could finally bring him home.

She laughed sardonically at the absurdity of the situation, recalling how she had no crib, no car seat, nothing at all at home to care for a newborn. Since no shops were open on Christmas Eve in her small Maritime town, she began calling her friends in an effort to cobble together the basic items she would need to get her son through his first few days at home.

She told me how difficult it was when, years later, it was decided that their family would move to Ontario in search of better job opportunities, even though two of her children would remain buried halfway across the country. She still visits their graves every year, and she still cries for them every Mother’s Day. And then she told me something that I will carry with me until my dying day. Despite her adult children’s objections, she has made it clear to her family that, when she dies, she wants her body to be cremated and her ashes scattered over the graves of her two deceased children:

I told my son and daughter that I got to spend this life with them, so I want to spend the next life with the children that I didn’t get to raise.”

The love and wisdom in her words resonated with me for a number of reasons. You see, there is a bit of a story behind Leah’s urn. After she died, I knew immediately that I wanted to have her cremated and keep her ashes so that she would always be present in our home. When my husband and I visited a local funeral home several days later to select her urn, I also knew immediately that I wanted the beautiful, hand-painted floral design that was available in both adult and keepsake-sized urns. The funeral director assured us that a keepsake-sized urn would be big enough to house an infant’s ashes, and so the selection was made right then and there.

However, two days later, I received an unexpected telephone call from the same funeral director. In a voice rife with awkwardness and trepidation, he explained that he had misjudged the amount of ashes that would result from Leah’s cremation, and the urn we had selected was not big enough to house all of her remains. I was shocked, to say the least, but I felt too badly for the poor man to be angry. He proceeded to outline our options: We could select an additional keepsake urn to house her remaining ashes; we could scatter her remaining ashes in a special location; or, we could select an adult-sized urn with the same design to contain all of her remains, and in the future one of us could have our ashes added to the urn if we so desired.

He apologized again and told me there was no rush to make a decision. Unsure of what else to say, I thanked him and hung up the phone. I spent the next half hour or so considering my options. It was true that I had always liked the idea of having my own ashes scattered some place with sentimental value, but the thought of not having all of Leah’s remains in a single place filled me with an inexplicable sense of panic. I discussed the situation with my husband, who said the decision was completely up to me. Since I was hardly in an emotional state to ruminate over the various possibilities, I opted for the simplest solution: Within the hour I called the funeral director and told him we would like to keep all of Leah’s ashes in an adult-sized version of the urn we had selected.

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I didn’t think too much about the urn in the weeks that followed, until I had the aforementioned conversation with my superintendent. As soon as our discussion ended and I returned inside, I was struck by a heartening epiphany. Later that day I told my husband that, after I die, I want my ashes added to Leah’s urn.

Much like the fellow loss mama who shared her heartbreaking story with me on a sunny afternoon in July, I don’t know what awaits me when my time on this earth comes to an end. But I do know that, when that time comes, I want to be with the much-loved daughter that I didn’t get to raise in this life—in whatever way I can.