The Grieving Season

Life has certainly been busy and tiring—both in the best possible ways.

I could hash out a detailed explanation as to why it’s been so long since I’ve written, but doing so would feel both unnecessary and self-indulgent. Anyone who has been charged with the full-time care of an infant knows too well how much time and energy it requires. As has been the case for countless mothers (and a growing number of fathers) before me, the past few months have meshed into an endless cycle of cooking, cleaning, and care work, with the occasional blip of “me time” thrown into the mix.

In short, I am the mother of a living child, and it is both glorious and exhausting.

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Enjoying a sunny afternoon on the porch with Callum and Kiwi

Right now, however, Callum has been napping for longer than his usual thirty minute stretch, the dishes are done, my fridge is stocked with meals for the week, and I am content to let last week’s debris collect on the floor for another day. And, perhaps more importantly, Facebook generously reminded me this morning that it has been two years since my baby showers for Leah (although I opted not to share the suggested photo memory on my timeline).

Once again, it seems that the anniversary of these celebrations officially marks the beginning of my grieving season. To be sure, grief remains my constant companion each and every day, but my daughter’s absence seems to be felt most poignantly when the spring sunshine (finally!) warms the grey winter skies, and I find myself immersed in painfully vivid memories of the blissful anticipation I felt this time two years ago:

Gathering with friends and family for two baby showers on Mother’s Day weekend.

Walking to the grocery store on muggy evenings to satisfy my incessant cravings for watermelon.

Assembling a bassinet and sorting through heaps of baby clothes while a gentle breeze creeps in through my bedroom window.

Strolling through the park every morning in an effort to jump start my labour, all the while imagining what it will be like to bring my baby girl along and show her the ducks swimming in the creek.

Feeling ever-stronger kicks against my swollen belly as I lay on my side at night, smiling with the hope that, maybe tomorrow, I will finally get to hold her.

God, it hurts.

Every time I walk through the girls’ section of a children’s clothing store and wonder which floral dresses and sunhats I would be buying for my two-year-old daughter this year, it hurts.

Every time I cross paths with a girl of toddler age—whether she has dark hair or blonde hair; whether she is contentedly holding her mama’s hand or crying out in defiance—it hurts.

Every time Callum’s face lights up with contagious, toothy laughter, and I see flashes of his sister’s unlived life in his eyes and his smile, it hurts. 

And this Sunday, when I wake in the morning and imagine what Mother’s Day would look like if both my children were here in my arms, I will again wonder how it’s possible that life can feel so full and yet so empty at the same time.

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Once again, all I can do is allow myself to feel every ounce of love, pain, and longing that this grieving season brings. I just wish that things were different.

I wish she was here.

 

Finding Christmas

In five days’ time, Christmas will be here in all its holly, jolly glory. Meanwhile, tomorrow officially marks one and a half years since my daughter’s birth.

In retrospect, it really shouldn’t surprise me that navigating the holiday season this year has been more challenging than I expected it to be. Each new day brings with it a flurry of emotions, with highs that take me soaring up to the heavens, and lows that threaten to undo me at the seams.

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To be sure, Christmas now finds me in a starkly different place from where I was this time last year. Still in the throes of fresh, raw grief, my husband and I made the executive decision to skip what would have been our first Christmas without Leah. Even though I had recently discovered that I was pregnant once again, my fear of losing another much-loved child made it impossible for me to look ahead to the future with anything resembling hope or optimism.

I can still recall the thoughts that ran through my head during our scenic road trip to Montreal that weekend, where we would spend Christmas day in a pet-friendly hotel with our dog, some of our favourite DVDs, and a number of overpriced room service meals. I remember telling myself that if this current pregnancy somehow resulted in the birth of a living child, I would not take a single moment of my first holiday season with them for granted. As painful as it would be to face another Christmas without my daughter, I resolved to choose gratitude over grief if I was fortunate enough to bring Leah’s sibling home.

Yet as the first December snowflakes fell several weeks ago and Christmas lights began to adorn my street, I found myself increasingly haunted by Leah’s absence—and equally frustrated by my lack of holiday cheer. After all, I was now living every loss parent’s best case scenario, and each time I glanced at my beautiful family with our tree twinkling in the background, I was reminded of just how much I have to be thankful for.

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In theory, I should be ecstatic to celebrate the holidays with Callum, and I certainly do have many moments where I look at him and feel sheer awe that he is here, healthy and alive for his first Christmas. But this does not negate the tears that inevitably come each time I look at a photo of Leah and wonder what my life would look like now, 18 months later, if she was here for her second.

In this way, learning to honour my grief this holiday season has been an ongoing process. While I know in my heart that Callum’s presence cannot replace what was lost when Leah drew her final breaths, my inner pragmatist admonishes me each time I am unable to push my sadness aside and simply focus on the positive. And so, as I begin to seek out new traditions that incorporate Leah into my family’s Christmas season, I have to remind myself that it is both healthy and necessary to allow myself to feel the full range of emotions that come my way.

Accepting an invitation from Bereaved Families of Ontario to share Leah’s story at their annual Tree of Bright Stars service was helpful in this regard. It was incredibly healing to usher in the holiday season with a supportive community that understands how difficult this time of year can be for those who are grieving. As I hung Leah’s star on one of the memorial trees during the ceremony, I was similarly heartened by the thought of bringing Callum to this event each year as a way to honour the space that his sister will always hold in our family.

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A glimpse of the 2017 Tree of Bright Stars memorial event

Likewise, surrounding myself with family and friends who continue to walk hand-in-hand with me through my grief journey has proven to be especially helpful. It never ceases to amaze me how even the simplest of gestures can set my heart aglow, reminding me that I am not the only one who loves and misses my precious girl. Hearing others mention her in casual conversation, seeing her name included in a family greeting, or catching a glance of her photo in someone’s home—all of these things carry that much more weight this holiday season, as do the moments where loved ones take pause from their own festive joy to be present for me in my pain, even for a little while.

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A beautiful handmade Christmas gift from my talented older sister

Simply put, I have come to accept that the holiday season will be as bittersweet as my mothering journey so far, just as I am learning to extend kindness and patience to myself as I navigate the whirlwind of thoughts and feelings that it brings. In the meantime, I will continue to search for a version of Christmas that reflects my family’s messy yet beautiful reality—and, as always, I expect to find it somewhere between the peripheries of grief and gratitude.

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My Motherhood

I’ve been trying to write a new blog post for nearly two months now. I can’t count how many times I’ve sat down with a coffee, my laptop, and the best of intentions, only to find myself staring vacantly at the screen in front of me, not knowing where to begin.

I imagine a good chunk of this writer’s block is caused by the inevitable fatigue that comes with parenting an infant. Most days it’s a challenge to cobble together twenty minutes of “me time” at any given point, and when this does happen, it can be difficult to muster the energy to shower, let alone write. I can’t complain about this shift in priorities, however, given how much I resented the endless void of time I had to create this blog after Leah’s death.

But mostly I find myself conflicted over what I should write about. After all, if I focus on my ongoing emotional and mental health struggles, I fear it will detract from the undeniable joy and gratitude I feel each time my son meets my gaze and smiles.

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Likewise, if I write about how fulfilling it is to mother a living child and how privileged I am to have this boy in my life, I am undoubtedly minimizing the very real difficulties that come with parenting after loss.

My current and messy truth is that, while I am loving each and every moment of being Callum’s mother, my days are also shaped by the grief, fear, and trauma that Leah’s death has etched indelibly onto my motherhood.

And so, because it is the very best that I can do for this moment in time, I offer the following glimpses into the thoughts, emotions, and experiences that have comprised the past three months of my journey as a loss mama.

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I gently coax Callum out of his pajamas for another late night diaper change. He begins to fuss and squirm, eager to finish the process and start his next feeding. I chuckle at this theatrics as I reach into a fresh bag of Pampers.

And then, I draw a sharp breath. It’s the same involuntary reaction I have each time I am confronted with a Cookie Monster diaper. The same Pampers print that Leah was wearing when I held her for the first time.

Several tears roll down my cheeks as I proceed with the business at hand.

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It is Callum’s one week check-up. For the past seven days, I have been pleasantly surprised by my lack of debilitating anxiety. I was sure that I would be terrified to bring this boy home from the hospital and away from the medical profession’s meticulous gaze, but I have been reasonably confident in his good health and my ability to take care of him.

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I smile as I watch the doctor examine my dark-haired, blue-eyed newborn while he wriggles around on the cold metal scale. “Everything looks good,” he says as he finishes up. “But I’m concerned that he hasn’t gained any weight. I’d like you to come back next week so we can check on his growth.

And just like that, my confidence is shattered. As is the case with most women I know, these first few days of breastfeeding haven’t exactly been a cakewalk, but I did believe that my hard work was paying off and that my body was providing this boy with the nourishment he needs. My mind is instantly inundated with fear and doubt.

Has he been malnourished this whole time while you’ve been oblivious to his distress? Will this do irreparable damage to his physical and cognitive development? Have you been unknowingly starving your baby?

Serves you right for feeling at ease and believing that everything is okay. Last time you felt this way, you were blissfully unaware that Leah was dying inside your body.   

That evening, my husband takes me out to buy a double electric breast pump so I can monitor exactly how much milk Callum is drinking. It will be several weeks before his visible growth eases my fears enough to return to exclusive nursing.

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I dream about Leah for the second time since her death.

Somehow, she and Callum are both home with me, and she is still a newborn. I am breastfeeding Callum, all the while watching Leah cry in her bassinet. I want to feed her too, but I know I can’t; she doesn’t have the reflexes needed to suck and swallow, and the doctors said there was no point in trying to feed her since she is going to die soon anyway. So I continue to sit there, feeding Callum, watching helplessly while my daughter cries from hunger.

When I awake, I break into sobs. This dream continues to haunt me for weeks.

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It is the evening before Callum’s two month vaccinations. Ironically, I have been looking forward to this upcoming appointment, hoping that it will ease my fears about his delicate newborn immune system succumbing to life-threatening illnesses and infections.

Wanting to prepare for the side effects that commonly appear after these shots, I decide to consult Dr. Google. Much to my horror, I am bombarded with stories of babies suffering from terrifying symptoms, and even allegedly dying after their vaccines (I swear I don’t actively seek out such fear-inducing accounts; somehow this information always manages to find me). Suddenly I am plunged head-first into the worst anxiety spiral I’ve experienced since the final weeks of my pregnancy.

I try to rationalize my fears away, reminding myself that such extreme side effects are rare, and there is no reason to assume they will happen to Callum. Except that Leah’s fetomaternal hemorrhage was also rare, and there was no reason to assume that an otherwise healthy infant would die at full term. You can tell yourself repeatedly that Callum will be okay, but that will not make it so. You know that faith, prayer, and positive thinking will not protect your children from senseless tragedy.

Overwhelmed by my feelings of fear and helplessness, I clutch my beautiful baby boy to my chest and cry uncontrollably for the next two hours.

I do not feel at ease again until 48 hours have passed after his appointment, with no traces of fever, infection, or other disconcerting symptoms in sight.

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Callum has fallen asleep on the nursing pillow during another feeding. Once again, I take the opportunity to sit back and quietly drink him in: His enviably long eyelashes; his roly-poly cheeks and chin; his long hair that is starting to show hints of auburn.

In this moment, my heart feels as though it could be crushed under the weight of love I feel for this boy.

And then, in the same moment, I see her.

I see her beauty in his face. They really do look like brother and sister.

I see the haunting reminders of her still, silent body. Make sure he’s still breathing. Do his lips look blue, or is it just the lighting? Stroke his cheek to see if it’s warm.

I see the bittersweet hints of the life she never got to live. I wonder if she would have been a comfort nurser like Callum. Would she also smile and coo in her sleep each night? She looked so much like her dad. To me, Callum just looks like her.

I get up and gingerly place my son in the bassinet that was purchased for his sister nearly two years ago. I stroke his head one more time before turning off the bedside lamp and drifting off to sleep, wondering if I will see her again in my dreams tonight.

The Absence

For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to start a series of posts that delves into my experiences as a loss mama with a living child. In one respect, finding the time to write has been challenging when I can barely cobble together the time to eat and shower each day. But with so many thoughts, emotions, and questions running through my mind at any given time, it has been equally challenging to know exactly where to begin.

Then, in the midst of another beautifully chaotic morning filled with crying, cooing, and cluster feedings, I took this photo:

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I had placed Callum down on the bed for a moment while taking a sip of my morning coffee (which also serves as my “breakfast” these days more often than I would care to admit). My husband came into the bedroom and started playfully prodding at our boy with his usual cheery candor. My heart swelled as I saw them smiling at each other, and I quickly reached for my phone to capture the tender moment unfolding before me.

Hours later, I found myself laughing joyfully at the photo, overcome with love for my little family. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, my entire train of thought changed. I was suddenly inundated with the image of a dark-haired toddler girl, giggling away with her daddy and brother in the upper-left corner of the photo. In the blink of an eye, my laughter turned to tears.

I had long expected that Leah’s absence would be felt during notable family occasions such as birthdays, Halloween nights, and Christmas mornings. But more often than not, I am finding that it also confronts me unexpectedly in the otherwise unremarkable bustle of day-to-day life.

Indeed, it seems that I am continuously haunted by the other life that I would be leading if Leah was here, whether she had been one of the lucky babies to survive and thrive after her fetomaternal hemorrhage, or if I had somehow gone into labour closer to my due date, before any complications began at all.

These reflections often take me down two distinct trajectories. Since it is unlikely (although not impossible) that Leah and Callum would have come to exist at the same time in the same universe, I most often envision myself as the mother of a fifteen-month-old girl in a completed family of three. Not knowing the trauma of child loss, each day I share photos and videos of Leah on social media with carefree abandon, unaware that such images may be painfully triggering for others who are less fortunate than I. I am also still blissfully ignorant enough to believe that God’s personal protection guaranteed Leah’s safe arrival into the world, despite the fact that thousands of other children are lost needlessly to miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant death each year. All in all, there is an innocence and insularity to this other life, wherein I happily pass from one day to the next with my growing daughter in tow.

In the other imagined trajectory, the one that makes my heart ache with indescribable longing, most of these factors remain—except that, somehow, Callum and Leah are both here with me. Of course, this cosmic arrangement would have required an unplanned pregnancy at five months postpartum, which would have undoubtedly brought with it a host of mental, physical, and financial stresses. But since it is not completely beyond the realm of possibility, I occasionally allow myself to indulge in this glorious alternate universe, wherein I am able to hold, kiss, and care for both of the children who shared my body for nine months.

I often feel compelled to talk myself down from these imaginings, which is what I did today. In these moments I rationalize that there is no way Callum would be here if Leah was alive, so what good is it to pine for what could never be? But at the same time, I know that nothing can change the fact that I am now a mother of two and part of a family of four. Unlikely as it is that my son and daughter would have ever appeared in a photo together, Leah’s absence must always be felt in a family that will always be incomplete.

Another Year

Yesterday I turned 31. As has become the custom in recent years, I spent my birthday in the most enjoyable way possible for an introvert like myself: A laid back day filled with good food, sunny walks, and laughter-filled conversations with my husband. Of course, this birthday was unlike any other I had experienced before, as it was also filled with diaper changes, cluster feedings, and intermittent cries from my four-week-old son.

In short, it was the best birthday I could have asked for, having accepted that Leah’s absence will be felt on such occasions, both now and in the years to come.

Inevitably, I spent much of yesterday thinking back to this time last year. Still in the throes of fresh, raw grief, my 30th birthday was anything but “happy,” despite the celebratory wishes offered by well-meaning family and friends. It still pains me to think about those excruciatingly bleak summer days, and how I struggled to fill the aimless hours that should have been spent caring for my firstborn daughter. Somehow this past year has passed me by in a flash, yet also at a snail’s pace, completely disrupting my previously-held worldview in the process.

During the months that I carried Leah, I assumed that her presence in my life would bring with it a newfound sense of permanence. Since I didn’t envision myself having more than one child, I expected that my family would be complete after welcoming her into the world. Likewise, I anticipated that having her at my side would solidify my new identity as “mother,” forever changing my self-conception and providing me with a new sense of purpose. As I understood it, Leah would be a central part of my world as I grew old and grey, and I would pass on from this life knowing that my love’s legacy would live on through her.

It’s difficult to explain how outliving your child can completely shatter these conventional expectations. Leah’s death has taught me that the only thing knowable about this life is its impermanence. I think about this each day as I look at the people whose love makes my life worth living: My husband, my family, my friends, and now, my son—none of whom are guaranteed to be here tomorrow, next week, or a year from now.

Each time I hold this beautiful boy to my chest and gently rock him to sleep at night, I can’t help but think how the time I have with him is both precious and fleeting. While these first days, weeks, and years of his life will undoubtedly be among my most treasured memories when I draw my final breaths, he will go through his own life with little to no recollection of the time we now spend together. Indeed, if he lives the long, full life that I hope he does, and if my husband and I do our jobs well, our family dynamic must inevitably change, seeing us become less central to his existence with each passing year. Simply put, every day I am cognizant of the fact that there is nothing permanent about this boy’s presence in my life. Yet as heart-wrenching as this is, it draws no comparison to the alternative that I know too well: Being the parent of a child who will never grow up and venture out into the world on their own, because they never got the chance to.

In this sense, it is perversely ironic that some of my initial assumptions about Leah’s permanence in my life turned out to be true. While Callum will continue to grow and change before my eyes each day, creating new memories along the way, I will spend year after year looking through the same photos of Leah, feeling the same ache in my heart, and pondering the same questions about who she would have been. As it is, I will always be the mother of a dark-haired, porcelain-skinned baby girl, because my daughter never got the chance to be more than that.

Still, as I plunge ahead into another year, I remain grateful for the brief but life-changing moment in time that my daughter was here. Likewise, I am equally determined to cherish every moment with my son that time allows.

Joyful Grief

On Friday, July 28, my life changed profoundly for the second time in thirteen months.

Leah’s brother, Callum, came into the world healthy, strong, and screaming by repeat cesarean section at 38 weeks gestation.

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Much to my amazement, all of the best case scenarios that I hadn’t dared hope for unfolded in a matter of hours: He cried heartily as my OBGYN removed him from my body. He received a score of 9 on his Apgar tests. I was able to hold him skin-to-skin while still being stitched up on the operating table. And, just as I had secretly hoped, he was born with the same glorious crown of full, dark hair that his sister had.

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Now, we are home, and my heart is so full. 

It is full of gratitude each time he wakes me up in the middle of the night to be fed or changed, as it reminds me how privileged I am to have a healthy, growing child.

It is full of awe each time he curls up on my chest after a feeding, as it reminds me how miraculous it is that my body created this delicate, beautiful life.

It is full of joy each time he opens his eyes and glances in my general direction, as it reminds me of all the cuddles, kisses, and “I love you’s” that I hope to share with him in the coming years.

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But my heart is also full of grief and sadness. It was beyond surreal to be back in the same hospital where I spent 33 precious hours with my firstborn daughter under profoundly different circumstances. It reminded me of the moments I spent holding her skin-to-skin, hearing her newborn cries, and marveling at her beauty—all the while knowing that her life was slowly slipping away, and that there was nothing I could do to save her.

Now that Callum and I are home, each moment of joy I experience with him is also a bittersweet reminder of what I missed out on with his sister. It seems that laughter and tears come to me in equal measure these days, often at the same time.

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With each passing day I am reminded that nothing is easy about mothering after loss. It is a tumultuous journey wherein life’s most beautiful moments are also filled with heartache and longing for what will never be. But it is my journey, and for now I am beyond thankful for the two beautiful children it has given me along the way.