“How exciting, you’ll have one of each now!”
Once I would stagger, pierced by a thousand daggers going straight into my heart. One hand would instinctively go over my growing belly, an impotent act of protecting the daughter inside. In my mind the other hand would scoop up the toddler-shaped absence of the daughter who died at birth, clutching her fiercely. I’d smile and nod and look for an escape route as my thoughts would start racing.
I’d think about how my reality now encompasses an expectation that babies will die. About how the world became warped, with previously random, low-probability events now feeling as if they are strategically angling towards me. How time got fragmented and re-shuffled before getting pieced back together, with the past always there in my present, and the present making me continuously reassess the past. How joy will always be tainted. And just like that, I’d be drowning while the other person gets to walk off into their very different life as soon as the interaction ends.
But lately, I find myself largely back on the surface. The everyday world is becoming comprehensible again, and I no longer stagger under the blows of my own reactions. As baffling as it may have once seemed, I can genuinely take part in the pleasant anticipation of life going on. I do make note of our disparate attitudes towards new life, but I can connect to the other person’s joy for a bit while quietly keeping sight of the ways that my loss shapes me. And the day goes on.
It is not all that different from my coming of age in a country shaped by war. I do not dwell on it nowadays, nor do I bring it up in conversations with new friends unless they happen to ask the right questions. But when newsworthy political events unfold, I have the feeling that the layers upon layers of meaning that instantly open up to me—those potential futures with all the steps logically cascading from one to the other—are not as available to many. It can make me feel both superior and bitter, since somewhere deep down I know that I don’t have a privileged view of the truth, simply a different view (perhaps of a different truth).
As opposed to the ex-Yugoslav times where my everyday experience was shared with many, stillbirth threw me into my own dark corner. The pain of baby loss is largely wordless, and what I would have given for a cocoon of wordless understanding from the people I came in contact with every day. For them to have an idea what might cause me pain, or to understand what aspects of the pain are welcome. Instead I found myself sinking deeper and deeper, away from the surface where everyone else lived.
The feeling of drowning after baby loss lasted far longer than I initially assumed. I’ve since learned that a year, two years, of acute grief is not unusual. Living in the world of loss while taking part in life on the surface meant the following: I could engage in activities, but in the background my child was always on my mind. Always. It’s not that my loss was close to the surface and ready to break through and pull me down if the right reminders triggered me; it was right there with me the entire time. Every time an innocent “how are you” came my way, I’d pretend. All of my life became this great act of pretending.
And how could loss not be my everyday companion? I had been continuously nurturing my daughter for the better part of the year. I avoided alcohol and interesting cheese and strenuous activity, I rolled over instead of sitting up, I was mindful of my sleeping position, I’d skip the cough drops when ill, and I made numerous other adjustments every day—all to protect the baby. When she died my instinct to nurture her didn’t immediately extinguish. With the absence of even a shared story of my child’s life to interact with, the most healing act was to imagine her there with me. Anything that disrupted this ongoing connection brought instant devastation. But how alone I felt in this.
The grief after loss was acute. But the trauma of birthing a dead baby was another thing entirely. Her death brought serious anxiety, flashbacks, visions of other people dying, constant fear. It made my mind race, my head spin. I couldn’t sleep for more than a handful of hours per night for months on end, but I never felt tired. I was constantly on full alert. I’d interpret innocuous statements as evidence of catastrophic events happening to everyone around me. I’d think about my previous pregnancy, where there was a problem but everything turned out all right in the end, and I’d get just as anxious about the possibility of it having gone wrong as if it were happening right now. It took a long time to begin to separate out this massive and unwelcome trauma response from the welcome grief and ongoing love for my child.
Could it be that I am starting to feel at peace? There will always be something raw about baby loss, a part that doesn’t heal. There is no way around that. But I find that the better I know my grief, and the more I welcome its manifold effects on my life, the less it prevents me from authentically reconnecting to people who live on the surface. My responses are more level now because I have learned to move through both worlds; I transition from one to the other more smoothly. But I am certain that there would be no re-learning to take part in life on the surface without first learning to navigate the depths of the grief.
And yet, I do feel whole. Whole, in the way a foreigner can feel whole after some years in a new place—able to go about building my life story without completely belonging, at a disadvantage relative to the local person, but still moving through life with a sense of purpose and growth. Perhaps with a slightly different idea of what it means that things are going to be all right, but nevertheless believing they will be.
How do you handle the difference between you and those who haven't known baby loss? Can you forgive them for living a different, seemingly carefree life while you struggle? Do you sometimes feel at peace now, surrounded by people who haven't been where you've been?