The Question Mark

Like many mamas who have walked the devastating path of infant loss before me, one of my most helpful coping strategies during the weeks following Leah’s death was to immerse myself in other women’s stories of loss. As soon as I was physically mobile enough to leave my apartment two days after my cesarean section, my first outing was to the local library, where I proceeded to scour the shelves for any books that would help me feel less alone in my grief.

It may or may not be a coincidence that the first book I stumbled upon was a lesser-known text in the loss community called A Piece of My Heart: Living Through the Grief of Miscarriage, Stillbirth, or Infant Death by Molly Fumia. In this beautifully written memoir, the author recounts her experience of losing her firstborn son, Jeremy, to a sudden infection several days after his birth. This book continues to resonate with me for a number of reasons, including Fumia’s use of liberation theology to emphasize the shared experiences of grief and loss that humanity holds in common. Yet at the same time, she explains how the death of a child is unique from other types of loss. Whereas the death of an adult marks the end of a life narrative with a definitive period, the death of a child can only leave a question mark, reflecting the plethora of unknowns that define an unlived life.

It seems that this is an aspect of my grief that many people fail to grasp. When a spouse, parent, grandparent—or any dear one who was able to fully experience all the love and beauty that this life has to offer—passes on, there is no doubt that their absence leaves a painful, gaping hole in our lives. When this happens, we grieve for the lost relationship, yet we can also look back fondly on the memories we shared with them and celebrate their legacy. But the grieving process is different when a child dies. My daughter did not get the chance to forge her own relationships, fall in love, have her own children, or make a broader difference in the world. She never had the opportunity to be more than a dark-haired, porcelain-skinned baby whose life was cut tragically short. And as her mother, this can never simply be “okay” with me.

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Since Leah looked strikingly similar to me as a baby, I always think about her when I see photos of myself as a child. Would she have grown into a girl who likes to cuddle the family dog on the couch when she has a cold, like I did?

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Would she fall off a rocking chair and break her arm, making her mama sick with worry?

This is why it frustrates me to no end when bereaved parents are expected to “move on” and reach a peaceful resolution with their grief. Sure, I can choose to change my state of mind by being thankful for the time I got with Leah, just as I can purposefully reflect on all the joy she brought me during her brief life. Similarly, I can choose to look toward the future and hope that I will eventually have a living child to bring home, rather than dwell on the daughter I lost. I can engage in all of these mindfulness techniques in an attempt to make myself feel better, but at the end of the day, such practices only diminish the injustice of Leah’s experience by making her life and death all about me. Yes, I lost out on a relationship with my daughter. But Leah lost so much more than that.

Think about this for a moment: Generally speaking, it is expected that parents will actively bear witness to any pain and hardship that their children experience. We assume that parents should live their lives for their children, sacrificing their own happiness and comfort along the way. So why do we expect parents to grieve for their children in purely selfish terms? All too often, bereaved parents are advised to focus on the positive, perhaps by being thankful for any living children they have, or by looking toward the future with the hope of having more children—anything to detract from the fact that a person they created was robbed of an entire lifetime. Such platitudes ultimately deprive the deceased child of their humanity, reducing them to an object that can be easily forgotten and replaced.

Now, I understand that this may be a moot point for those who believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that these children are in Heaven (or another similarly idyllic afterlife), celebrating each day in the presence of their divine Creator. To those who believe this…well…to be frank…I envy your certaintyAs noted previously, I struggle with the idea of Heaven, despite my Christian faith and my aching desire to believe that I will see my daughter again someday. To be sure, an unshakable belief in the Christian conception of Heaven would simplify my grieving process by allowing me to focus solely on my lost relationship, while otherwise drawing comfort from the knowledge that Leah’s spirit lives on in a place with no pain or suffering. However, the INFJ-analytic within me inevitably questions if this belief is merely an attempt to absolve myself from fully confronting the brutal reality of my daughter’s death.

Regardless if Leah continues to exist in a spiritual realm, the question mark that defines her existence in this present life haunts me each and every day. While I certainly grieve for the mother-daughter relationship that I have been deprived of, mostly I think about the experiences that Leah will never have in her own right. Many of my own most treasured memories involve my first tastes of independence on the road toward self-actualization. It pains me to think that Leah will never get to strike out on her own in this world and forge her own identity. She will never huddle together with friends at a sleepover party, snacking on potato chips and giggling wildly about nothing in particular. She will never get the chance to discover a social cause that ignites her passions and inspires her to make a difference in the world. She will never become immersed in a gripping novel, be moved to tears by an exquisite piece of music, find herself breathless at the simple beauty of a bright summer’s day, or feel the warmth of a lover’s embrace.

Leah will always be my beautiful and much-loved daughter, but she should have had the chance to be so much more than that. She never got the opportunity to make her mark on the world as a friend, a student, an artist, an activist, a spouse, a mother, or any other identity that might have suited her passions and skills. She deserved to be all these things and more over the course of many years. Ultimately, she deserved far more than the question mark that will always define the parameters of her unlived life.

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The Changing Tides of Grief

Yesterday my husband and I commemorated the seven month anniversary of our daughter’s birth. As has been the custom on the 21st of each month since Leah’s brief life came to a tragic end, I lit a candle in her honour while combing through the contents of her photo album and memorial box, crying heartily all the while.

I have since been wondering when exactly the daily ritual of looking through her photos and mementos was reduced to a monthly event. To be sure, my grief has hardly been contained to a single anniversary date every few weeks. I still have mornings when I shed pain-filled tears before heading to work, and the photo of her that I keep at my office desk often threatens to undo my composure at the seams. I frequently break into sobs as soon as I reach the emotional safe haven that is my apartment after busy workdays, and there are many weekends when all the trauma that time and circumstance will not allow me to process throughout the week suddenly hits me afresh like a tidal wave, decimating my will to get out of bed.

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Seven months of missing you

Yet there is no question that my grief has changed, and that I have changed along with it. As previously mentioned, it often feels like I began a new life the moment that Leah’s life ended. As I now enter my seventh month as a bereaved mother, more than ever I am acutely aware of how my daughter’s death has changed me—both for the better and for the worse.

First, grief has hardened and softened me in equal measure. Having a firsthand taste of tragedy has made me far more responsive to the tragedies experienced by others, and it is now a regular occurrence for me to cry when I read the news each day. While I could always connect with others’ hardships on an abstract level, knowing how it feels to have my entire world torn asunder has given me a newfound resolve to purposefully empathize with others’ suffering, even if I cannot fully understand what they are going through.

Yet at the same time, experiencing this depth of loss has also decreased my willingness to empathize with…well…just about everyone else. Geez, 2016 was a terrible year for you because your favourite celebrities died after leading long, full lives with prolific careers? The agony! Oh, your children are being rowdy and keeping you up at night? Such a terrible injustice. Goodness, your plan to have a medication-free vaginal childbirth fell through when your caregiver decided a cesarean section was necessary to ensure your child’s safety? And you and your child are now perfectly fine, but you must live with the disappointment of not having a “natural” birth experience? Life can be so unfair. 

Now, it is not lost on me that if Leah’s fetomaternal hemorrhage had never happened, I would most likely be echoing these first world lamentations while performing the tiring and largely thankless work of mothering an infant each day. I also understand that it does no good to dismiss the experiences of those who are more fortunate than I—it is the rhetorical equivalent of telling Western women not to complain about sexist cultural norms like the the gender wage gap, because women in other countries have it so much worse. Still, for now, few things provoke the volatile grief monster within me to rage like hearing other people complain about “problems” that I would be oh-so-grateful to have.

Second, I swear now. Yes, I do. This is a dramatic departure from the first 30 years of my life when I rarely used expletives to express my thoughts and feelings. It is fair to say that I have been strategically launching a lifetime’s stockpile of f-bombs throughout the past seven months when there are simply no other words to convey the excruciating pain, anger, and isolation of my grief. I have embraced the fact that, on occasion, only the crudest words we English-speaking humans have concocted can do justice to the most devastating type of loss one can possibly experience.

Third, I now know the bitter taste of envy. This foreign emotion has been especially difficult for me to navigate. My ongoing ideological commitment to simplicity means that material goods, as well as the approval of those who place stock in conspicuous consumption, have never mattered to me—if they did, I would have chosen a far more lucrative way to spend my twenties than pursuing my PhD. To that end, as soon as I discovered I was pregnant with Leah, I knew that love, compassion, patience, and attentiveness were the keys to providing her with a happy childhood, and I was confident that my husband and I could provide these in abundance. As such, I never felt a twinge of jealousy when I compared my modest resources to the large homes, designer nurseries, and cornucopias of baby-raising “must-haves” that other parents had.

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Kiwi testing out Leah’s travel-friendly bassinet two weeks before my due date

However, this all changed the moment that Leah died. While I still don’t envy other people’s material goods, the grief monster within me turns a spiteful shade of green each time I am confronted with an otherwise innocuous family going about their business with live, healthy children in tow. Logically, I know this makes no sense. These people are not responsible for my daughter’s death, nor did they ask to be a walking reminder of all that I have lost. Likewise, I do not want their children; in fact, their children have nothing to do with me or my family at all. Yet each time they cross my path, I can barely suppress the urge to yell out to the heavens: Why? Why do your children get to experience all the beauty, love, and laughter that this life has to offer, but my daughter does not? Why do you get to spend your life with your children, telling them how much you love them each day and hearing them say it back, but I don’t? Why didn’t I get to keep my daughter, who is still so very wanted and so very loved? Most frustratingly, there are no answers to these agonizing questions beyond the fundamentally unfair nature of life itself.

Fourth and finally, for the first time in my life, attending to the needs of other people is not my first priority. I have always been a habitual people pleaser who will do just about anything under the sun to avoid conflict, just as I have always dedicated copious amounts of emotional energy to nurturing my relationships, regardless if the other person responds in kind. If my grief has changed me for the better, it has been through my new commitment to self-care. Each day I give myself permission to feel the full range of emotions that come my way, whether they be logical or not, just as I have allowed myself to let go of the relationships that have not been a source of support during the most difficult period of my life. And, perhaps most importantly, each day I choose to honour Leah’s life by speaking her name and sharing her story—even when it makes other people uncomfortable. For me, keeping my daughter’s memory alive is far more important than protecting other people from the devastating reality that I and so many other loss parents have to face on a daily basis.

As each new day continues to hurl familiar and unexpected challenges my way, I continue to learn more about who I was, who I am, and who I want to be. Needless to say, navigating the changing tides of grief—both the subtle ripples and the crushing tidal waves—will remain a lifelong journey, much like the eternal love that I carry for my sweet girl.

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Empathy

As an INFJ personality type, I spend a great deal of my time observing people. I am always amazed by how much information I can glean about others by simply paying attention to the words they use to express their ideas, as well as the shifting nuances of their facial expressions, vocal tones, and body language. This habitual practice means I am rarely an entertaining party guest, since I usually treat social gatherings as an anthropological exercise in participant observation, rather than contribute to the group dynamic in a memorable way.

The same goes for one-on-one interactions wherein I am an active participant. These cases are slightly different, however, as my focus shifts to observing how the other person is affected by my words and actions. My interest in this hobby has only intensified since my daughter’s death, as it is always illuminating to observe how people react when I speak Leah’s name and share her story. This is especially the case when a person I’ve recently met learns that I have a daughter who died. More often than not, this news elicits one of two starkly different reactions: Either they are overcome with an expression of shock, horror, and sadness befitting of the circumstances, and then proceed to ask me questions about my experience, or they muster a swift “I’m sorry,” avert their eyes, and then proceed as if I didn’t share this vitally personal information with them at all.

What I find particularly interesting is that the people who respond to Leah’s story in the former way—in a visceral manner that is fundamentally human in its emotional scope—occasionally feel the need to apologize for their overtly emotional reactions. When this happens, I always tell them how healing it is to see another person actively bear witness to my pain, even for a moment, because I am awed by how rarely this seems to be the case. I count myself extremely fortunate that I have a small but intimate circle of loved ones with whom I can speak Leah’s name freely and openly share the dark grieving emotions that I continue to navigate on a daily basis. These dynamics are particularly treasured when the rest of the world largely reacts to my daughter’s memory with averted gazes, pursed lips, superficial platitudes, or conspicuous silence.

While the connection may be indirect, the contrast in these reactions often causes me to reflect on the phrase that I have heard over and over again since Leah’s death: I can’t imagine what you’re going through. I don’t mean to incriminate well-meaning people who have echoed this sentiment in a sincere expression of love for the bereaved. But I must confess that every time this phrase is uttered in my general direction, the cynical part of me raises an eyebrow and ultimately hears: What you have been through is so horrible that I don’t want to imagine what it’s like, so I won’t bother trying. You see, at its core, the unwillingness to imagine what another person is experiencing conveys a lack of empathy. It isn’t a coincidence that the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as: “the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.”

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Image credit via aux.tv

Think about this for a moment: I cannot understand what it’s like to be one of the world’s 65 million displaced persons. I live in a wealthy, politically stable nation wherein all of my material needs are met. I have never been forced to flee my home country for fear of my life, knowing that my community has been decimated and that I may never see my family and friends again. I have never had to seek refuge in a new country, with few resources and social supports, yet be expected to assimilate to new cultural norms and learn a language that I have little if any prior knowledge of. I cannot understand what it is to experience these profoundly tragic injustices. But can I imagine what it’s like? Absolutely. All it takes is a willingness to connect with another person’s pain and hardship, rather than tuck their life narrative away into my subconscious, as if it were an abstraction that is simply beyond my emotional capacity to comprehend.

All of this is to say, if you have never wept over your child’s cold, lifeless body, then no, you cannot understand the struggles that a bereaved parent is experiencing. But can you imagine what it’s like? Of course you can. It just means you must be willing to step outside of your personal comfort zone and carry a piece of their pain with you. This purposeful exercise in empathy cannot allow you to fully grasp their depth of loss, but it will certainly provide you with a glimpse into their harrowing reality. So next time you find yourself in the company of a loss mama, try this alternative approach: Rather than say “I can’t imagine,” take a moment and try to imagine.

Imagine how it would feel to watch your child die in your arms, knowing that you are powerless to protect them or take away their pain.

Imagine what it would be like to see another person purse their lips and avert their eyes in discomfort at the mention of your child’s name.

Imagine how it would feel to be met with silence after sharing the story of your child’s life and death.

Imagine how devastating it would be to hear others suggest that your grief for your child is pathological, excessive, or a sign of weakness.

Imagine how isolating it would feel to see the world continuing on around you, untouched by your child’s death, all the while admonishing you to fall in line and do the same.

Human beings are hardwired for empathy. We are intrinsically social creatures with an incredible capacity to reach beyond ourselves and forge meaningful connections with each other. Demonstrating sincere, active empathy for a loss mama is not only within the emotional purview of other grieving parents. I have seen firsthand how compassionate and supportive non-bereaved people can be—all it takes is a little imagination.

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Six Months

Dear Leah,

It is December 21, 2016. Today you would be six months old. If you were here, your dad and I would be relishing in this snowy-white December and celebrating each moment of our first holiday season with you. It still frustrates me to no end to see the rest of the world adorned with bright lights and festive cheer, impervious to my sadness and oblivious to your absence.

Indeed, with each passing week I become more painfully aware of the joy that seemingly surrounds me at every turn—other people’s joy, expressed by the smiles and laughter of those whose lives are untouched by tragedy. Lately it feels like I am existing in an invisible realm that is completely disconnected from these non-bereaved people, observing them from afar without the ability to comprehend or share in their happiness. Each day I stand alone, outside these parameters of joy, clinging tightly to my tear-filled memories of you.

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Yet even in your absence, you remain my constant companion. I find myself overcome by a state of paralysis each time I catch a glimpse of a dark-haired baby in a crowded shopping center or a bundled-up toddler in the park. They make me wonder about the girl you would be growing into before my eyes each day, just as they remind me of all the experiences we have been so cruelly deprived of.

People often say that you are still with me in spirit, and some days I believe this to be true. Yet this sentiment does little to quell my aching arms that long to hold your living, breathing body. Still, I do find solace in any material relic that pays tribute to your life. This week I brought home a crystal angel ornament that I will hang in your memory each and every December in the years to come. It is a meager substitute for the ornament that I had hoped to purchase for your first Christmas this year, but I do draw comfort from its symbolic beauty. 

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Likewise, the abstract notion that you continue to live on in my heart cannot possibly compensate me for the lifetime of memories we have been robbed of. I long to watch you fall asleep at night, to hold your warm skin against mine during late night feedings, and chuckle as you fuss and squirm during a diaper change. It cuts me deeply to think about all the hugs, kisses, and “I love you’s” that we will never get to share—so deeply that I occasionally wonder if it is possible to die of a broken heart.

It has been six months of a lifetime in which I will continue to ache for you, my firstborn daughter. Yet during my darkest grieving moments I remind myself that, if given the choice, I would do it all again. These days it seems the only resolution that brings me some semblance of peace is the knowledge that every moment of joy you brought me during our brief time together is worth the anguish that greets me with each new sunrise. I miss you, my darling girl, more than words can possibly say.

 All my love and a kiss,

Your Mama

 

Skipping Christmas

I’ll have a blue Christmas without you
I’ll be so blue just thinking about you
Decorations of red on a green Christmas tree
Won’t be the same dear, if you’re not here with me

Before Leah’s death, I could only vaguely understand why a large faction of people who are culturally inclined to celebrate Christmas would dread the holiday season each December. At least in North America, the consumer spectacle that is Christmas is largely pitched as a time of family togetherness and wondrous childhood nostalgia. It thus stands to reason why those who are grieving will feel that each incessant decree to be merry and bright rips one more suture from their loss wound. For bereaved parents in particular, few things magnify their child’s absence more than the taunting images of happy, intact families that inundate television commercials and social media feeds as soon as the holiday season kicks off.

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Memories of Christmas past

Needless to say, the holiday season that awaits me could not be more different from what I had envisioned and hoped for. My usual custom is to decorate our Christmas tree on the first Sunday of December, and if Leah was here, today would be filled with the gentle croons of carols playing, the smells of festive cookies baking, and countless moments of joy and laughter. I don’t think I can overstate how excited I was to spend this Christmas as part of a whole, completed family with my husband and daughter. Toward the end of my pregnancy in particular, I had frequently envisioned what my bumbling five-month-old girl would be like at this time, charming those around her with her coos and smiles while clumsily grasping at anything within reach.

And when those blue snowflakes start falling
That’s when those blue memories start calling
You’ll be doin’ all right, with your Christmas of white
But I’ll have a blue, blue blue blue Christmas

However, rather than preparing the trimmings for my daughter’s first Christmas, this weekend I am grieving for all the Christmases that she will never get to experience. Instead of coaxing Leah to smile for a holiday photo and searching high-and-low for her first Christmas gifts, I have been bracing myself for what will likely be the most dreary December of my life. Rather than delve into my collection of beloved childhood movies and prepare cards to mail out to family and friends, I have been doing everything I can to pretend like Christmas is not happening at all—and believe me, this is no easy feat. As soon as December 1st made its dreaded presence known, suddenly there were no safe spaces in which I could retreat from the blood-thirsty Christmas behemoth. It seems that every grocery store, shopping center, and office lobby has become hostile territory with their festive lights, shiny tinsel, and unrelenting demands for holiday cheer.

I suppose the most daunting aspect of mapping out my personal holiday survival guide is the realization that Christmas will never again be an occasion that I can anticipate with pure feelings of joy. While my heartache may become less raw over time, Leah’s absence will surely be felt with every first snowfall and family gathering that future Decembers bring. And while I still hope that my Christmas mornings will eventually be filled with the pitter patter of tiny feet, there will always be an empty space under my tree where gifts for my firstborn daughter should sit, as well as a deafening silence where a dark-haired, green-eyed girl should be crawling into my bed, excitedly proclaiming: “Wake up, Mama! It’s Christmas!”

You’ll be doin’ all right, with your Christmas of white
But I’ll have a blue, blue Christmas

Blue Christmas lyrics © Demi Music Corp. D/B/A Lichelle Music Company. Songwriters: Billy Hayes/Jay W. Johnson.

The Other Life

I imagine that other pop culture enthusiasts will remember the film Sliding Doors in all its late-90s glory. While this movie is largely solidified in our collective memory for Gwyneth Paltrow’s trendsetting hairstyle and questionable English accent, in addition to its underrated soundtrack feature by euro-pop sensation Aqua, I’ve been returning to this film for a host of other reasons since Leah’s death.

For those who haven’t seen it, Sliding Doors explores how drastically our lives can change in a solitary moment. For the film’s protagonist Helen Quilley, this moment occurs when she narrowly misses (or catches) a subway train, after which her life unfolds as two different parallel narratives. I assume that many of us will be confronted with a similar moment at least once in our lives, when we can suddenly see two distinct life trajectories unfolding before our eyes: The life we have, and the “other life” that could have been.

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Sliding Doors Image Source via TorrentButler

This time last year, I assumed my foray into “the other life” began when I laid eyes on the bold pink lines which confirmed my surprise pregnancy. In that moment I could suddenly see two divergent paths materializing before me: There was the life that I had planned for as an aspiring academic, wherein my abstract ideas about motherhood would manifest at a later time, after my husband and I had purchased a home and were settled in our careers. But I immediately accepted that this orderly life would simply not be mine, and in that moment I was ready to plunge into all the uncertainty and messiness that the other life of imminent motherhood would bring.

Last year it seemed like life had thrown me the ultimate cosmic curve ball, but I now understand that my pregnancy only coaxed me into a new normal that would be slightly less predictable than the life I had planned for—after all, I assumed that I would be a mother eventually, and while my current circumstances would not allow me to approximate our culture’s economically privileged ideals of good motherhood, I did have enough social and financial resources to make the arrangement work. In short, while Leah’s unexpected presence in my life presented a slight detour from the linear path I had envisioned, I could still incorporate it into the larger autobiography that I had penned for myself.

Fast forward to June 21, 2016, and the nature of my story changes drastically. Try as I might, I cannot make peace with the injustice of Leah’s unlived life, thereby reducing it to some momentary plot twist in my own life narrative. After all, while we expect to outlive our grandparents, parents, and perhaps even our spouses and friends, a child’s death is simply different. Likewise, as the passing weeks usher me further away from the life I had envisioned with my daughter, the possibility of salvaging a new normal seems less and less likely. Instead, it feels like I began a different life entirely the moment Leah died—one that feels more like a dream than a new reality.

On one level, for the past two months I have confronted the surreal nature of this “other life” when I go to my new private sector job each morning. After festering in my grief at home all summer, I decided to start testing the waters for career opportunities outside of an academe that I had only been halfheartedly committed to throughout my doctoral studies. Then, following a surprisingly brief job hunt, I suddenly found myself employed in a permanent, salaried position that was a far cry from the precarious teaching contracts I was prepared to chase upon completing my PhD. It is the exact sort of challenging and rewarding job that I spent countless days during my graduate studies worrying that I would never attain. Sometimes I still cannot believe that I stumbled into this opportunity as quickly as I did, and each day I am cognizant of how privileged I am to have done so at all.

But I also understand that acknowledging this privilege is not synonymous with mustering gratitude. Before Leah’s death, the latent prosperity theologian in me would have thanked God for providing me with this opportunity, chalking my good fortune up to the omnipotent Creator fulfilling His divine purpose for my life. Some Christians might still reason that this opportunity is a blessing from God in some way—after all, He supposedly works in mysterious ways—but I would beg to differ. You see, each day I am also acutely aware that the only reason I have this job is because my daughter is dead. If Leah was alive, I would still be caring for her at home, vacillating between unadulterated joy and extreme exhaustion as I navigate the messy terrain of mothering an infant. Moreover, any job hunting on my part would have been for the contract academic work that I have now left behind, since such positions would have given me the flexibility to earn some semblance of an income while still spending the majority of my time at home. In short, it is difficult to be thankful for an opportunity that has only come into my life because Leah’s life was cut tragically short.

Yet this new career trajectory and daily routine are only the tip of the iceberg; more fundamentally, it is my worldview and guiding life mantras that have been unceremoniously turned on their heads. Before Leah’s death, I used to be one of those people who believed that every wonderful and challenging life event serves a larger purpose, and I tried to view each struggle as an opportunity to learn and grow. Long story short, I now understand that it is very easy to adopt this ontological lens as long as one is relatively healthy, fed, and housed, and has never watched the person they love most suffer and die before getting the chance to experience any of the beauty that life has to offer. For me, a world that was once imbued with meaning is now a capricious cocktail of privilege and random chance, an epiphany that is equally sobering as it is terrifying.

Similarly, since I have always been a compulsive planner, my levels of life engagement can generally be gauged by my levels of control-freakishness. For instance, throughout the first half of my pregnancy I struggled to make plans for my daughter’s life because I knew they could be undone in the blink of an eye. I did not create a baby registry until I approached the 30 week mark, at which point I cautiously waded back into my default planning mode. By the time I reached my self-designated “safe point” of 36 weeks, I plunged ahead into my future plans with renewed vigor. Never before was I so fully present and engaged: Suddenly the sun was brighter, the grass was greener, and the seedless red grapes that I was eating by the fistful each day tasted sweeter. Every moment I experienced was simply bursting at the seams with love, joy, and possibility.

But that life is gone. In contrast, as I now peer ahead into the other life that I am forced to lead without my daughter, I only see a vast, empty space. While my old life was full of purpose and definitive plans, I no longer see the point of being fully engaged in a world that Leah will never get to experience. For the first time there is no envisioned future on my horizon; I can no longer place stock in the mystical promise of God’s provisions or derive assurance from science and statistics, and so I take this life day by day. I have accepted that this life is an unalterable force that is going to happen to me whether I like it or not, and any successes or hardships that the future may hold do not matter nearly as much as they once did. While it may sound like a defeatist declaration, the compulsive planner in me finds this pragmatic apathy to be strangely liberating.

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Image credit via Imgur

More than anything, however, this other life is one where truth and fiction blend together so seamlessly that I have a difficult time discerning one from the other. Each day I go into the world projecting all the vital signs of a functional human being: I smile, laugh, and engage with the people around me, and I am frequently awestruck by how normal it all feels. Yet each evening when I return home to the deafening silence, I am reminded that none of it is real. In this other life, I can only live my truth during the scant hours that I spend in solitude, weeping over photos of a baby girl with dark hair and porcelain skin. Rather than settle into a new normal, this life mostly feels like a dreamworld, as if the life I should have had—the one I envisioned so vividly during my pregnancy—is unfolding in a parallel universe that is almost within reach, if only I could rip through the invisible axioms of time and space to touch it.

In short, each moment of joy that this other life has to offer is invariably tethered by grief, just as each moment of beauty is a painful reminder of all that my daughter will never experience. It is a life where death is no longer an abstraction, but a concrete force that shadows every inch of my reality. Still, I try to take solace in the generic wisdom that, eventually, things must get better. After all, the concluding moments of Sliding Doors hold the promise of a happy ending for Helen Quilley, even though she loses a baby along the waybut I suppose that is another conversation entirely.

Dear Fellow Loss Mama: A Message of Solidarity

Here we are—both members of the involuntary club that non-bereaved parents can only hope will never drag them, screaming and weeping, into its fold. It’s a curious task to spend each day living a nightmare that causes the world to shudder and then turn away, preferring to carry on as if we don’t exist at all. It is with this understanding that I purposefully acknowledge you, your child, and your grief.

In this message of solidarity, I am not going to commend you for being brave, strong, or inspirational. Of course you are all these things, but we both know that such accolades ring hollow when you are really just doing what you must to survive, and that you continue to move forward each day simply because there is nowhere else to go.

Certainly you know by now how exhausting the work of grieving is. Ultimately this grief is your cross to bear—after all, nobody could have possibly known your child as well as you do. Still, don’t be afraid to lean on others for support during this time. Of course, this can be tricky; people are funny creatures who may suddenly exhibit the emotional intelligence of a tree stump when confronted with the death of a child. Non-bereaved people with orderly lives might view your grief as a problem that needs to be solved or a pathology that needs to be treated. Such people don’t understand that your grief is simply a reflection of the deep love you have for your child, and that it is a completely healthy and fundamentally human response to loss.

Similarly, you may find that some people feel inclined to offer “advice” to help you along your journey. They may encourage you to find solace in work, exercise, or hobbies, not understanding that such momentary distractions are not a remedy for grief. They may also try to offer you “perspective” by comparing your experience to the hardships of others, trying to convince you that life without your child cannot possibly be as terrible as you say it is. Such people do not understand that you are not merely mourning the loss of a relationship with your child; rather, you are also grieving for all the beauty, love, and laughter that your child will never get to experience in this life.

Likewise, people may encourage you to “look for the positive,” perhaps by urging you to be thankful for any living children you might have, or by reminding you that you can always have more children (as if they can somehow guarantee this outcome for you). These people do not understand that your children are not replaceable or interchangeable like a pair of shoes. Sometimes you may have the energy to correct them, but other times you may simply be too exhausted to respond. Either way, don’t listen to them—you know that your child was their own unique soul, and that no other person can take their place in the world or in your heart.

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Other people may try to console you with empty platitudes, perhaps by telling you that everything happens for a reason. When this happens, you will wonder what reason there could possibly be for your child to miss out on an entire lifetime. If you are braver than I am, maybe you will sardonically ask such people to enlighten you as to what this reason is—really, you would absolutely love to hear it. There may also be people who try to ease your pain by proclaiming that your child is with God, and that this somehow makes everything okay. Even if you do believe in Heaven, you also know that love demands connection, and that abstract notions of spending eternity with your child in another life do not quell the crushing pain of your empty arms and broken heart.

Alternatively, there may be people who look the other way and remain silent, rather than face the discomfort of being present for you in your grief. They may wait for you to reach out and solicit their support, believing that offering their love and kindness will not make a difference in the wake of your tragic loss. This will hurt. But I very much hope that there will be people who rise to the challenge of building your support system one tear-filled conversation at a time, and that they choose to actively love you during what will likely be the most difficult experience of your life.

Finally, as time goes on, it is likely that some people will become impatient when you do not reach a peaceful resolution with your grief. These people do not understand that you began a new life the moment that your child died—the “other life” that you are now forced to live as a bereaved mother. Some of these people may disappear from your life completely when they realize that the “old you” is never coming back. There is no way around the fact that this will be a painful pill to swallow, but accepting their absence is the best thing you can do to help mend your loss wound. You will find that the people who truly love you will stick around and do what they can to support you through your ongoing grief journey. They may not always say and do the “right” things, so be patient with them. Tell them what helps and what hurts, because the ones who matter will listen.

The difficult truth is that you must learn to navigate a new normal that will ultimately be a shadow of what your life could have been if your child was alive. Yet in this darkness, I hope you find a glimmer of solace in knowing that there is a compassionate, engaged, and all-around-amazing community of loss mamas who understand your pain and want to support you. There are more of us than the world at large would care to acknowledge, but we remain a fierce bunch that refuses to grieve in silence, shame, and isolation.

Your fellow loss mamas want you to know that your child matters, as does your grief. Don’t be afraid to love your baby just as ferociously as you did during the brief time that you shared with them before they left this world too soon. Despite what others may tell you, your love for them will not wane—not after five years, or ten years, or twenty years—nor should it. So do what you must to honour their memory and your motherhood: Speak their name, share their life, and with each new day, continue to give them all the love they deserve.

Chasing Rainbows

I’ve always been an anxious person. Even as a young child I habitually anticipated the worst possible outcomes that could result from innocuous daily events. For instance, in kindergarten I purposefully missed the bus on field trip days because I was convinced that I would somehow get lost and never see my family again. Similarly, I lived in a state of perpetual terror that my mother was going to die each time she left the house to run errands, and I would haul my infamous blue stool to the living room window and wait for hours on end for her to return. I hated going on boats and refused to venture into the deep end of any swimming pool due to the possibility of drowning. At age 30 I still don’t have a driver’s license because of my fears about the carnage that may ensue each time I get behind the wheel.

Despite these early catastrophizing tendencies, somehow I managed to get through the bulk of my childhood and young adult years without my anxiety interfering with my daily quality of life. That is, until I began embarking on my doctoral studies at the ripe of twenty-four. It has been aptly argued that the hyper-competitive nature of graduate school, in conjunction with the precarious job prospects that await doctoral candidates in an increasingly neoliberal academe, creates the perfect storm for otherwise dormant mental health issues to ignite with unprecedented fervor. While I had always been prone to anxiety and worst-case scenario thinking, never before did these tendencies take such an excruciating toll on my physical and mental well-being.

I will never know with certainty if my experiences in graduate school were the catalyst for my ongoing battle with generalized anxiety disorder. All I know is that my anxiety spiked to unprecedented heights during the final year of my PhD when I discovered I was pregnant. Don’t get me wrong, there were days when I was quite confident that Leah would be born healthy, and I was able to imagine the bright, love-filled life that we would share together. But there were other days when the possibility of my daughter making it into the world unscathed seemed too fantastical to be true, and imagining a positive outcome for my pregnancy made me feel like I was chasing rainbows.

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Image credit via QuickMeme

Still, during the months that I carried Leah I always had contingency comforts to fall back on. I could often talk myself out of my recurring anxiety spirals by reasoning that there was no life precedent or statistical reason why my baby would die. When science did not offer sufficient comfort, I could seek solace in my faith that God loved my daughter and would protect her from harm. And if I still couldn’t muster belief that Leah would come into the world safely, I drew consolation from the steadfast confidence offered by the people around me that everything would be fine. I reasoned that they must have all known something that my anxiety prevented me from seeing, and their certainty was enough to keep me going when I teetered on the brink of hopelessness.

Which brings me to my current situation. With four grueling months of grief behind me, I now find myself looking toward the future with unsurprising trepidation. While I have begrudgingly accepted that my life will simply never be what it could have been had Leah survived, I still ache to have a living child to love and care for. Yet I cannot look too far ahead without being besieged by the fear that I will never have a living child. Simply put, I have already landed on the wrong side of the statistics once before, and my anxiety will not be placated by fact-based arguments or faith-based platitudes.

When I now confide in my loved ones about my fears of future losses and secondary infertility, they all remain unwaveringly confident that I will have a living child in the near future. I don’t exactly resent their optimism; after all, I can’t fault them for not wanting to believe that I may spend the rest of my life as a childless mother. But as the people around me offer their unsubstantiated certainties and then continue on with their lives, I have no choice but to confront the unpalatable realities: My “young and healthy” body, in conjunction with all my planning, precautions, and excellent prenatal care, did not bring Leah into the world safely. Similarly, despite my faith and heartfelt prayers, God did not protect my child. Since science and faith both failed me the first time around, there is literally no foundation to support any hope that future pregnancies will reap different outcomes.

Indeed, it seems that I am the only person in the universe who questions whether I will end up with a much-coveted rainbow baby and all that it symbolizes. For those who are not part of the loss community, a rainbow baby refers to a child that is born after miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant loss. More importantly, the term denotes the calm and beauty that a new baby brings after the tumultuous storm that loss leaves in its wake. For many loss mamas, the hope for a rainbow baby holds the promise of future joy and peace in the midst of soul-crushing grief, so it stands to reason why this term holds so much significance in the loss community.

Yet like some other loss mamas that I’ve connected with throughout the past four months, I remain ambivalent about this term. While I can certainly appreciate why so many parents take comfort in the “rainbow” terminology and its connotations, it simply does not resonate with me at this time. I do not foresee myself referring to any future children I may have as rainbow babies, and I have two key reasons for this.

First, I am cognizant of the unfortunate but sobering reality that not all loss mamas get a rainbow baby. Just as one pregnancy does not guarantee future fertility, and just as every pregnancy carries risks of complications, there is no mystical promise that loss parents will go on to have a living child. The truth is that many mamas endure the agony of multiple losses, and many others live their lives as childless mothers. To that end, loss mamas with no living children often find themselves further marginalized by the loss community’s sweeping preoccupation with rainbow babies, and I do not want to deepen their sense of isolation.

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Image credit via MemeGenerator

Second, I know myself too well to naively believe that bringing a future baby home will instill any sense of calm in my life. The ever-raging storms that are my anxiety and my grief for Leah will not simply dissipate if I am fortunate enough to have a living child. In my life, death is no longer an abstraction that only happens to other people’s children. If death can strike my physically healthy 7 pound baby at the tail end of a complication-free, full-term pregnancy, it can also strike any future children I have long after they have left the womb. Rather than relishing in the calm after the storm, I know that I will spend the bulk of my waking and dreaming moments anticipating the innumerable tragic events that could befall my future children at any given time.

Similarly, while I do not discount that having a living child will bring new joy and love to my life, a “rainbow baby” will not bring a peaceful resolution to my grief. My firstborn daughter is dead, and I will grieve for her and the life she never got to live until my dying day. For every moment of sunshine and laughter that I may share with future children, I will reflect on all the beautiful moments that Leah never got to experience. For every milestone that her siblings surpass, I will think about all the steps that Leah never took and the words she never spoke. With each passing year wherein my future children grow, change, and emerge as individuated adults, I will think about the person that Leah might have been, but whom I never got to know.

Perhaps these resolutions seem self-pitying and defeatist, but in reality they are simply self-reflexive and honest. While my grief may be exacerbated by my ongoing mental health battles, I imagine that any parent who has felt their child’s body go limp and cold in their arms knows that nothing can ease that depth of agony or rectify the injustice of their child’s unlived life. At the end of the day, nothing will change the fact that my daughter was deprived of a lifetime’s worth of birthdays, Christmas mornings, and more love from her mama than I ever thought possible. In the meantime, I continue to search high and low for fertile ground that might sustain the hopes and dreams I have for the future. Despite my tireless efforts, however, I still don’t know where to plant them. Somewhere over the rainbow, perhaps?

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Guest Post: Unsung Lullabies

I am honoured to share the following guest post by fellow loss mama Bethany Horst.

I am a musician. Not only has singing become my vocation, but it is an integral part of my identity. I sang as soon as I could talk, I am told. Music has long been my main vehicle for expression, for communication, and for sharing with others.

Separate and apart from my professional engagements crooned the soundtrack of my life.  Beyond my own singing, I taught singing to many. I began to procure, refine, and collect the songs I would teach my children. The music that would fill our household. The first melodies and lullabies my babies would hear. A catalogue of comfort. Stories told through music. Tunes destined for the family I had planned.

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As I prepared these lullabies, life happened. I travelled the world, sang, acquired degrees, waitressed, moved, married, was widowed, married the love of my life, and found myself pregnant with our son. Our long-awaited, always wanted, ever-planned-for boy. And so I sang to him. Songs to soothe, to bond, to celebrate, to teach, and to reflect.

We shared a beautiful pregnancy. We shared a mostly beautiful labour. But as the hours wore on, even the swift and skilled surgery that eventually brought him out of my body was not enough to save him.

Elliot Jamieson Pepper died during delivery on May 19, 2016. The body we had shared for 40 weeks, 4 days, had also exposed him to a common virus, and with no signs of distress, he died at the very moment of his birth.

And so did the lullabies. There was nothing left to sing.

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In the darkness of those early days of grief, I could never catch my breath. I felt like I was drowning. Cruelly, there was just enough air to sustain me. And no matter how insurmountable the pain, I also could not bring myself to stop kicking. Trapped somewhere between death and surviving.

But that same kicking, that same remnant of oxygen, kept the lullabies alive. Unsung, for now, but only dormant, not forgotten. To acknowledge he was here. To acknowledge hope.  To maintain a piece of the me I used to be.

So we sing one of Elliot’s songs, to remind us all that morning comes again, relentlessly.  Who knew the lullaby I prepared to shield little minds from nightmares and darkness would have no place to land but on my own grief. And so I reach for the light.

“Reach for the light although I may not see it now,

I know it’s always bright,

And the more your eyes adjust, the more perfect is your sight.

Don’t ask me what I see, but what I know.

Don’t seek me where I am, but where I go

And if you find yourselves in darkness friends,

Just hug each other tight

Join hands, sing your songs, and reach for the light.”

© Eileen Mcgann, 2000

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Guest Post: Jensen’s Story

I am honoured to share the following guest post by fellow loss mama Danielle Ridgway. You can read more about her journey on her blog, Jensen Grey.

I believe there are moments in all of our lives that define who we are and ultimately change our lives forever. For some, these moments involve getting married or landing a dream job. Thankfully, many of these events transform our lives for the better.

One such moment occurred when I discovered I was pregnant with my first child. My positive pregnancy test was the greatest birthday present I could have asked for, even if it was a big surprise. In the first moments after that smiley face flashed across the test screen, my mind began planning out the rest of my life. During the days and weeks that followed, I kept envisioning a future for the life that was growing inside me. I was never sick or tired throughout the first trimester; instead I was happily glowing from the inside out. We picked out possible names for a girl and a boy, even though I already felt that this baby would be my brave son.

At the twenty week anatomy scan, we discovered that my growing suspicion was correct. A little boy made himself known to the world, and we all yelled out his name through tears of joy: “Jensen!” In that moment I imagined years of football and catch games in the backyard. But this was not the only important piece of news we received that day. We learned that our precious boy, our Jensen, had a very thick neck, which could mean a number of different things, but most likely pointed to Down syndrome.

This defining moment threw a minor wrench in our future plans, but I could still see Jensen playing sports, reading, and letting his imagination grow to the highest of highs. I knew I would love him no matter what, and we were even going to be able to see him twice a week until he was born so that his growth could be closely monitored. What expectant mom doesn’t want to see her baby that often?

As Jensen and my belly both continued to grow, my love for him did too. I found out he loved chocolate milk and macaroni and cheese. He would dance whenever I played music, and he loved hearing me read to him. Each night I had to lay on my left side or he would kick me until I complied. Every spare moment I had was spent planning for his arrival. His dad and I attended all the prenatal classes and prepared the coolest navy and orange nursery I had ever seen. Our family threw a baby shower for the both of us and soon enough we were all ready for Jensen’s arrival. All we had to do now was wait for him to grow big and strong enough to take his first breath outside my belly.

On Thursday, March 31, 2016, I saw Jensen dance across the ultrasound screen for the last time. Just as he did at our previous appointments, he practiced his breathing and held his hand next to his face. Each time the ultrasound technician went to his face, he posed so they could get a good picture of him. As we walked out to the car afterward, I said to him, “The next time we’re here you’ll be making your arrival.”

I never could have anticipated the full magnitude of truth in those words.

My scan on April 4, 2016 started off as a regular appointment. However, this quickly changed when the technician called the doctor in. That’s when we heard the soul-crushing words: “There is no heartbeat.” My lively, brave boy had gone to sleep the night before and didn’t wake up. I was in shock. Surely this didn’t still happen to people in the twenty-first century. It especially didn’t happen to mothers who did everything by the book and had bi-weekly ultrasound scans. Maybe they made a mistake? This simply couldn’t be true.

We rushed to the hospital only to learn that his heart still wasn’t beating. I was induced at 11pm that night and went through a very quick labor. My Jensen Grey was born still on April 5, 2016 at 4:25am. With the exception of his curly blonde hair, he looked just like his mama. His pouty lips, button nose, and chubby cheeks could light up a smile on anyone’s face. He was absolutely perfect at 7 pounds 1 ounce and 19 3/4 inches long. His big hands and chubby fingers resembled his uncle’s, and his feet looked just like mine as well. I still cannot believe that I created something so beautiful.

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The days following his birth were the darkest I’ve ever experienced. It felt like all the light in my life died with him. Jensen was cremated and returned to me the day of his funeral. The service and urn were almost as beautiful as my precious baby boy. Suddenly the life I had been planning since seeing that positive pregnancy test was over. I was left to pick up the pieces of my broken heart and figure out how to put everything back together—a process I’m still working through and probably always will.

It was during these early days of grieving that I first stumbled into the loss community. I have since found incredible love and support from other bereaved mothers who understand and share in my pain. Even on the most difficult days I am reminded that I’m not alone in my struggles. Similarly, my sweet Jensen’s spirit continues to give me the strength I need to keep going and share our story of love and loss with the world.

It’s been just over six months since my brave boy left my womb to venture ahead into the unknown. My love for him has only continued to grow during this time, just like any mother’s love expands with each passing day. This love allows me to wake up each morning and dedicate my days to him, as well as to help other bereaved mamas in their own journeys.

While Jensen’s death is a defining moment in my life, it does not solely define who I am or who he is. The choice to always love him, as well as to speak up for him and all his friends in heaven, ignites my passion each day. I choose to live my life for him and do all the things that he will never get to do himself. The moment that truly defines me is the one in which I became Jensen’s mother. Nothing and no one can ever take that away from me.

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