Stephanie and her husband, both physicians, experienced "the most perfect pregnancy and the most routine prenatal care"—but all the medical knowledge in the world could not have saved their firstborn son. He died at 37 weeks, 5 days in December 2016. Please welcome Stephanie—our first bereaved contributor who is also a doctor—as our guest writer today.
I remember the days—before smartphones and wifi—when I used to travel. You had to find a map, chart your course, decide how you would get from A to B. If you fell off course by accident or because there was something interesting along the way, you’d pull the map back out and relocate yourself using cross streets or landmarks. No one uses maps like that anymore. We are perpetually locatable, a pulsating blue dot on a screen that can redirect us in a moment’s notice down a different or more efficient path.
I’ve already done all the scientific reading. There are no answers for me there.
I have devoured dozens of books. They help, but I need more voices. I delve further into the expanse of the internet, lose myself down the rabbit hole stories of other parents who have this immense and mysterious love for their children who are gone. Others who know this physical hurt, absence, and emptiness. Others who are lost, too. Maybe there is a signpost in here somewhere. I Google.
what to do for heart aching
hole in heart
What I come up with are things I don’t want at all. Recommendations for how to get over a breakup, imploring me to play loud music; soak in the tub; drink more wine. Or seek professional medical care for my impending heart attack.
I would trade this heart problem for the raging reflux I had during pregnancy. This is far and away worse. In the rearview mirror, this pain makes the third trimester look pleasant. In retrospect, I should have appreciated and savored those idiosyncrasies, the signs that Raspberry was there. Now, he is gone. My heartache is the symptom.
I am a doctor. I take care of everyone else. They show up sick, often staring down death or at least a very different life. This is what I signed up for. I took the oath to heal and support others. How can it be that I never learned how to do this for myself?
We practice technical skills for how to bring the body back from peril. We review algorithms and evidence for how to coax the ailing body to behave normally, to do what it was made to do. We rehearse communication tools for how to break bad news and acknowledge families’ emotions in periods of fear and loss, on the worst days of their lives. But no number of hours of training and walking with my patients through their hardest days prepared me for my own hardest day and all the days that now follow.
In medical school, there is no Grief Management 101. No one taught me what to do when I lost a piece of my own self, my identity as a mother, our future image of a growing family. There is no instruction manual for how to love the baby I no longer hold in my arms. Nearly seven years of post-graduate training, yet no one ever pointed me in the direction of how to quiet my own mind and soul.
There is no pill. No physical therapy can strengthen my reserve. No infusion of chemicals can lessen how deeply I feel this. There is no relief to be found in any of my textbooks, medical literature, or online searches. Nothing can take the edge off. I wake up with it and begin the day feeling acute pain, but camouflage it. It is my job to alleviate my patients’ pain. I support them through their heartache while my own throbs.
They tell me to wait. Give it time, as if that is a comfort. It is not.
In the past, before I was pregnant with Raspberry, I thought our future was clear—of course we’d build a family and have children. Time was fuzzy, but the pictures were vivid. When I could feel him bouncing around in there, time came into sharp focus. We consolidated our lives around appointments, maternity leave, our world with him here. And here we are three months later, with a bridge we built and started walking across but with nothing on the other side. Time stretches out before us, but with no clear plan. There is no roadmap. The GPS is silent.
What do you do when you feel lost in space and time along this journey? How do you manage the heartache? Where do you direct the longing for your baby who is gone, especially if you have no other living children? As a caretaker for your partner or other family or community members, how do you look inward to care for yourself?