The aftershocks

I’m the embodiment of doom, the unwelcome reminder that your baby might not live, no matter how perfect your pregnancy looks, how far along you are, or how much you believe in your body. I don’t enjoy being the grim reaper. But to play along with normal storylines means denying my truth, the most profound and transformative experience of my life, the person I am now, and my first daughter.

I feel the pressure to be inspirational and to shut up and smile now. I sense that, at times, my struggling is mistaken for self-indulgence. I sometimes worry that bit by bit, my brutal honesty will alienate everyone, even my biggest supporters. So, nowadays I’m more outwardly quiet on the topic, while precise opinions and blazing rebuttals sizzle in my mind. I dissolve into tears later, in private. Or I text a friend from the loss community, because I just need someone to understand. (She always does.)

There’s serious trauma that comes from being hit by a train at the moment you least expect it, which happens to be the same moment when seemingly everyone else has only the opposite, wonderful outcome, often several times over. I’ve researched hundreds of stories of child loss and have noticed that many carry a relatable and unsettling sentiment—things were totally fine, until they weren’t.

It’s hard to inspire, or to stuff down the hard feelings, when my sense of security has a crack in its foundation. Nothing feels safe or guaranteed anymore. Chaos rears its ugly head at families and homes every day, and I know mine is fair game even though we’ve been struck by lightning already. My ears are always searching for the acknowledgement of chaos (e.g., “hopefully” instead of “definitely”) when I listen to plans and assumptions for the future.

I imagine a wedding day after a yearlong engagement and many years of anticipation. The bride is buttoned into her beaded, lacy gown, putting finishing touches on her makeup and securing flyaway hair. The church is full of well-wishers waiting for the big moment. The flowers, the music, the processional—all has been planned and executed in exacting detail. The reception site is buzzing with the energy of the impending party. The bags are packed for the honeymoon. The couple’s home is full of new appliances and assumptions of decades of companionship and memories. Then, Canon in D rings out, and the bride takes her place at the end of the aisle, ready for the doors to open to her next chapter. She takes a deep breath.

This moment has been a long time coming. Here we go.

A church staffer, looking concerned and confused, approaches the bride. Calmly, emotionlessly, he tells her that “something has happened”: the groom is dead.

“There are no answers or reasons. I’ll go tell the harpist to stop now. Do you have a funeral home in mind? Please have all of your things out of here by 5 p.m.; we need to set up for another wedding. I hope you’ll get married here again one day. Normally these events are carried out beautifully, without a hitch. Maybe I’ll see you back here at other weddings this summer. I’m sure you’re happy for all of the other engaged couples and newlyweds in your life. Sorry about your… fiancé? Husband? Anyway, I can’t imagine.”

He leaves to carry on with his duties—today is another day on the job, after all—before looking back at the bride, who stands in stunned silence.

“Oh, before I forget, you still need to pay the florist and the organist. Sorry about your big day. Let me know if I can do anything to help.”

She never hears from him again.

The loss that I think is less obvious, more clouded with shame or silence, is the loss of my former self. To be clear, the loss of a child is painful enough to meet any lifetime’s quota for suffering—and I want my daughter back more than I want my old self back. But the toll that the grief and loss have taken on nearly every relationship, my confidence, my worldview, my faith in anything at all, my ability to plan or assume or feel safe—these aftershocks of grief and trauma reverberate, loudly, to this day.

I need more space and silence than ever before, time to process my continued existence in a world that makes no sense anymore. Crowds overwhelm me more than they used to. I move a little slower now. Small talk is horrible. Many, many conversations trigger an urge to flee. Already an organized, meticulous person, I’ve become even more so in the aftermath of loss—feeble attempts to pretend like anything is actually within my control. Statistics are maddening and untrustworthy. Anything and everything related to pregnancy is a PTSD minefield. Assumptions of safe childbirth feel stunningly presumptuous—although, admittedly, I felt the same way before my train derailed.

I try to come up with ways to describe such profound loss, but I still do not believe there is anything that touches on its hollowness until it is felt firsthand. I bristle when I hear “I can’t imagine…” (come on, try!), but the truth is, I don’t think a human can imagine the shift in personhood that occurs when the natural order is upended and a mother is unexpectedly kissing her child’s innocent, perfect face for the final time. That moment takes a parent on a one-way journey to a place where fragility, tentativeness, and anxiety rule the land. If there’s one positive to it all, thankfully, love rules that land, too—a love so big and unending, it’s guaranteed to outlast everything else.

Finally, something I can trust.

What are the aftershocks of grief and trauma in your life? Can you trust anything these days? What has the shift in your personhood been like?