After my son died, I rescued a dog. She taught me to live in the moment. She coaxed me outside and reminded me that a pinecone is a greater work of art than a good book, that a stick is more fun than a gadget. My wife, dog and I walked through the burnt hills. We approached burnt oaks and watched green sprouts, somehow, push out of the blackened branches. We sat down next to a stream and read each other poems about the changing of the seasons. We became like the ashes all around us, impossible to make out which piece came from which person.
She questions who she is in this world. Is there a place for the broken? Wherever they go, they either stick out like a sore thumb or fade into the background. So, who is she?
It becomes hard to explain the pain as the years pass. She is no longer the woman who just lost a child. The milestones of commemoration are passing, and yet, she is sad. The tears come, and she howls into the night for the baby. But she cries alone.
Two years after my son’s death, and the birth of my living daughter, I have emerged from two places: my own heart’s cloister, grieving like a monk; and society’s own caverns of exile. Instead of being pushed into the corner, a wounded animal that none knew how to tend, I am treated like a human again. Now I am considered a real life mother, with a real life child.
The shock of this trick is something I have not been able to overcome in six years. That I fell for the trap. I have heard from babyloss parents how the loss of their baby in an otherwise uneventful life, at the end of an uncomplicated pregnancy was like being hit in the face by a bolt of lightning. I get that shock that jolts you out of the naivete. I understand how ridiculous it must be, when you don’t know the “other,” and suddenly the “other” becomes you.
This week two readers of the book I wrote about life after loss got in touch to say what amounted to the same thing. One with an offhand comment, and the other with a handwritten two-page letter: You may not know where your baby has gone, but I do. Here’s the secret. God will save you from grief. Am I the caged animal, or are they? Which one of us eats better—the one who forages, or the one who is fed?
After my son died, as the cold grip of shock receded, the magnitude of this loss began to make itself understood. Ah, this right here is the what the poets and artists of the ages have been speaking of all this time. I wanted a quest, a battle to return order to my world. Where to go now, with this unbounded and hungry grief?
You share toys, baby gear, DNA, a bedroom. She uses your hand-me-downs, less worn than we expected. When she reached the equivalent weeks as you were when you were born, I delicately placed her on your blankets and photographed her at the only age you two have had in common. And she is the only person who has lived inside the same home you did: Me.
I accept the fact that I cannot protect my child when lightning strikes; when sudden accidents upturn your life in the blaze of a vicious wildfire, a sudden devastating car crash, the inexplicable ceasing of breath from a child's lips... Yet in the natural order of things, she may just be okay. I clutch to that frail hope, as fervently as I hold her to my chest, whispering in her ear about how she is loved and protected, for just a precious moment more, and another moment after that.
From afar, and recently, on my trip to India, in person, my Hindu family, friends, neighbors, well-wishers from every sphere of my past, have been swearing on the karmic cycle, the soul, the wheel. Many of them have referred to Raahi as a “liberated soul,” one who has attained moksha or nirvana. I am grateful. It should be enough. The compassion, a heavy sigh, wordlessness. But few people stop at that.
There is so much under the surface. So much. One doesn’t have to have buried a kid to know that. For me though these last months have been a reminder that this bit of wisdom applies to most everyone and most everything. I’ve also been reminded about how difficult it is to be in whatever moment we’re in, how much we crave forward progress.
Joy was something I didn’t think I’d experience again six years ago, but it was there waiting for me to find it again. There are still days I discard it like an enemy, when I am reminded, of what the cost of unbridled joy was. It’s been almost six years, little one, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss you or want you here.
I decorate your nursery with the utmost care—the perfect crib, the daintiest florals. Yet a dream lingers, smoky and yearning, blooming between the flowers at my fingertips: blue walls instead of pink, sporty decals in animal shapes. Months of planning: the registry, the baby shower. The first one is so special, he deserves a big audience.
Then when he was three-and-half years old, his sister died. She went away on a summer morning, and never reappeared. Suddenly from the edge of the carpet, someone could leap to the end of the universe, to a place no one has seen, and no one ever comes back from. He did not understand what death was, or how far it took our little baby. But he loved trains, so his sister, who was the little El train running parallel to him, the bigger Metra, just “went ahead to the next station.”
Every now and then, I come across a community or a room that feels comfortable in its sass. There’s a certain rebellious streak I need to note, if it’s going to have the fortitude to include me. Us. It’s got to be a reclamation of sorts, a straight-forward pride of a weird sort that flies in the face of the western world’s oppression of anything real or raw. Modern Loss is one of those places, like ours but a bigger tent. Hop over there to read my thoughts on some intention-setting heading into the New Year—just for us.
Another festive season, the sixth without my daughter and I’m open about that fact that I stand on either side of it. Glad to be here with my son and devastated not to have my daughter. I will allow myself to feel the ache and desolation, but it will not ruin me like it hasn’t in Christmases past. I will stand, with my crooked spine and my slouched shoulders until this too passes. And it will.
The wonderful PRH Audio is releasing excerpts of the audiobook of Notes for the Everlost: A Field Guide to Grief, as read by me in a three-day marathon inside a little black cave-room in Nova Scotia. It was such a gift, and such a deep dive—18 hours of reading aloud, re-living, time-travelling. And feeling very much with you, with us.
How did this outcome possibly happen? In my case, I was quick to implicate myself. I needed an answer, so I dissected every aspect of my pregnancy, from my nutrition to my outlook, to try to solve the puzzle. But even if I had total understanding of the medical side, or total understanding of my own role—neither of which is the case—the issue remains. My daughter is dead. No explanation will ever be enough to make that fact okay, to truly make sense of it.
Kate’s piece on positivity—and the ceremonious celebration of gratitude four days away—places me in a strange cusp, a crack in the veil of pristine white we are asked to gently wrap around us. As though positivity or gratitude is going to whitewash our lives into becoming those pretty pictures we put up on Facebook and Instagram. As though losing a baby is one of those elastic springs one can bounce back from.
Sweet and simple, like a picture book from some other time, but I’ve made a devoted practice of turning up my nose at positivity. Doggedly charting and patrolling the boundary lines that denote my private space. Keeping anyone who would tell me to ‘manifest my joy’ out of my space. Not keeping out joy itself—never!—only those people who would insist upon my performance of it. Anti-positive is not pro-negative. Anti-positive is the staying off your feet of heart-convalescence, permission to be as you are. To breathe.
I was your world / And you were so fucking small / And even smaller when you were born / 23 weeks and 5 days / Creases on your hands and soft dark hair just beginning to grow from your sweet head / And I loved you as hard as starlight / As close as the water
I read each memory and realized the depth of love we hold for our children. It doesn't matter how long we held them, whether they died in utero or in NICU, the important thing is that they were loved and still are. A love like that cannot be questioned. It simply is the most beautiful and natural thing in the world.
The love for our children is eternal, existing amidst the fringes of lie and death. Yet the love can never be separated from the pain. To love them is to grieve them, a heavy choice that we have grown to accept. If I can embrace the blissful memory of my son, I will gladly take the pain alongside it—whether an echo, or a shout, his existence is real, and he is loved.
I am one week away from the release of my fourth book—my first for adults, and first non-fiction—NOTES FOR THE EVERLOST: A FIELD GUIDE TO GRIEF. I’m spinning. Nervous-spinning. Beset with twitches and dreams of falling and thick with memories and gratitude. Shambhala, my publisher, worked with me to prep for this busy season, and they said: We know you’re a photographer, and that’s great—how about videos? Readings, excerpts, that kind of thing. Can you do that? Always that same moment, the pause of the bereaved. How much can I say? How warm is this room?
I’ve abandoned most hopes of fitting in with ‘normal’ anything. I still come to Glow seeking the solace of strangers who understand, a refreshing contrast to people who can’t relate (at least, not yet), and to whom I cannot relate either (at least, not anymore). The line that used to feel like a demotion is now a truth I own, believe, and even embrace. You’re right, I’m not one of you.
My younger daughter, Audrey, repeats this narrative nearly every day. Claire is her doll, and Claire was the sister she never met or played with. My heart stops and my breath catches in my throat as she explains to the receptionist behind the counter or the lady at the dog park: "You don't know I have two sisters. One is named Julia, and the other is named Claire but Claire died."