No one can live in heightened grief forever but I never expected to find that happiness was possible again. You wouldn't know to look at me now, save for the look in my eyes that I often see in pictures of bereaved mothers, that look you can always glimpse, even when they smile. He changed the ground beneath my feet, my first and beloved little boy.Read More
Not part of the main plot, you might say. But only if you didn’t know. Only if you thought that five years on was not just a blink of my eye. Only if you didn't know what strength it takes to hop the fault, nudge the needle, triumph over mud, slam the drawer and overcome the obstacle. And on and on it goes. How do you cope with the unexpected reminders that pop up in every day life? If your loss is new, have there been particular instances that have seemed cruel or even welcome? And if your loss is longer ago, have your coping mechanisms caused additional losses in your life or do you welcome them as places to access memories or grief?Read More
(This post mentions living children and family life).
Four years, almost five means the normalcy of life slips around us like a comfortable coat again. An average day, the rumble of life and bounce of activity and I fool myself successfully that we are always as we were once.
Bags packed. Lunch made. Car filled. Drop offs accomplished. Teacher alerted to latest mini-drama in the life of the children.
The internal dialogue: "five bags, not six, five lunches, five seats, 4 schools, no reception aged child" is a whisper.
I have it in place, checked, muffled, restrained.
He died and a day would pass and tears would come at night, pent up exhausted emotion, hidden until the little ears and eyes were sleeping. Flood gates opened willingly, a barely contained tide of sorrow. Roaring sobs. Anguish. Despair.
All the words and all the agony that each of us here knows.
He died and a week would pass and a grief tsunami would blindside me, the choking horror flinging itself above the dam walls and tearing my feet from under me. Swollen eyes. Wracking wails. A darkness that swallowed and drowned and took the light, the oxygen, the hope.
He died and a month slid by; numb, disbelieving, functioning, robotic. Smile politely, say the words, a film across my eyes and the world seen through a rain streaked window pane. The constant fall of droplets, the hammering storm and an eye that saw sun but could not believe in it.
And no rainbows. Not one.
He died and a year passed by; some ill constructed raft, knotted from driftwood branch and stray half-rotten vine kept me afloat. And somehow, somehow, I began to float along the current.
And one day, I found that I had a paddle in my hands. And somewhere... somewhere... I must have begun to row.
The day - this almost 5 years on day - clatters to a close; the hallway strewn with bags and my outraged berating voice as I trip across a boot and shout for chores to be completed. Those muted, bleary grief days seem so far away when the children slid to bed - often found curled together, sleeping in comfort pairs - and we huddled beneath a blanket and stared blankly at TV trash, all resources spent and the grief storm raging all around us.
We rarely mention him. We rarely speak of grief. Less and less do we need to poke gently at the wounds that grief left across the children - or ourselves - and consider what balm we need to offer. My husband is not one for pulling up the past and I could be forgiven for thinking that all of it - Freddie, grief, loss and all the rest - is long gone from his mind.
But we are changed. In all the murk and carnage that came after, we seemed to reach for mindful rest, to be together in some other way than vacant entertainment. And so we sit, companionable, entertained by our own pursuits but together. Reading, making, doing, gaming, writing, learning. And sometimes I tentatively pull the threads of grief to see if he still has some and mostly, he stitches firmly at the ragged edge and neatens down the the damaged patch without a reciprocating comment. Polite, gentle, closed.
He read Wolf Hall 5 times. I couldn't imagine why, having shied away from it myself. But lately, we've listened to it together, sharing spoken word and taking our own meaning from it. From time to time, he reaches out, touches my hand or arm and each time I know what is coming: a loss, a grief, some pain or hurt written inside, and his care to let me know that he is there. That he notices these parts, I think. I hope.
I keep my face unflinching, afraid to break and stop him offering the comfort, lest it is too much to risk again. But I do notice.
“It is not the stars that make us, it is circumstance and necessita...." (Hilary Mantle, Wolf Hall).
How has grief affected your relationship? Are you different? Better? Worse? Are you raging at difference or can you offer a path or way or hope to those seeking acceptance and understanding of each other and themselves?
They shed tears for the woman describing the miscarriages which devastated her. They stand, applauding as she breaks the taboo of silence around her situation. "She is so brave," they say, talking about this. "No one used to speak of this. Nature can be so cruel".
And it is right that she speaks and right that she is heard.
They shed tears for the woman who laboured to bring a silent baby into the world. They sympathise, imagining the pain without hope and the sound of silence at the final push. "So awful," they say. "I can't imagine. Lessons should be learned."
It used to be that a stillborn baby was not named, not spoken of, wrapped and taken without even time in mothering arms.
And it is right that we have changed this and the sound of silence is more readily acknowledged.
Hearts break for the child who left suddenly, inexplicably, horribly."I don't know how they carry on," they say. "I'm holding my child tighter tonight. I'd die if that happened to mine. How can life be so cruel?"
It is right we give our dead children a place now. It is right to see the space and honour it.
Then there are the heroes, the little fighters, the ones born too early or too sick, who battled on against the odds and through tenacity of spirit or luck, fought the fight and triumphed, made it home.
Their pictures, wire covered but surviving, festoon the walls of Facebook. "Such an inspiration," people say to still stunned parents. "I don't know how you did it."
It is right to have their photo on the graduation wall. Right that parents who survived the trauma can work out the pain and repackage it into a success story.
Medicine can be amazing when nature lets us down.
But what of me?
I did not miscarry.
He was not premature or known to be sick before his birth.
He was not stillborn.
There is no once occupied empty space inside our home.
There is NO WORD to describe us. There are no films for undiscovered damage and a baby carried to the morgue, not by midwife but by quiet faced SCBU nurse. There is no soft edged happy ending for my arms that screamed for him. He was born - and he lived (just) - and he was grabbed from me and all his days were outside of my control, more cared for by a nurse than by me, more chosen for by a doctor than by us. He died by my command and circumstance tore me from his soft and lifeless body far too soon.
Later, I had to register the birth of a boy already dead. We did the two certificates in one. How convenient.
Do you think the words "neonatal loss" do him justice? He was a person who died. He died in my arms, after 11 days of loving him, 11 days of SCBU terror, of decisions and fear and roller coaster highs and lows. But when they speak of heroes, they only speak of the ones who made it. When they speak of fighters, they don't remember the ones who fought and lost.
The lack of understanding falls in a gap between "at least you never knew him" and "thank goodness you had a little time together".
And I'm supposed to be grateful for both of those.
The truth is no one wants to know that a baby born safely in hospital might die anyway. No one wants to hear about dashing to SCBU and the medic-magic not working. No one wants to hear about the ones without a picture on the going home board.
I think the taboo of us - of mystifying early death inside the hospital but outside the womb - may never be broken.
And so the platitudes come and I, to be politic, suck it up and stay silent; I am the black widow at every birth story, the hovering witch shadowing every pregnancy. I am the spook and the death wish and the unspoken horror of the space between nature and medicine.
I am when everything fails. And no one wants to hear.
Do you feel you fit one of the loss pigeonholes? Or do you feel you fall between the gaps? Or is every situation so unique that in fact we are all in the gaps? Do we only see the pigeonholes that other people seem to sit in?
It's hard to write about grief at four years out. Hard to know what to write here.
I want to tell you that you will never forget your baby.
I want to tell you that you will find a way to move on, grow about the pain.
I want to be the beacon of hope ahead of you, the woman with the life that has not collapsed around the dark matter of the dying star; that I was not sucked in and lost, heavy as the universe and destroyed in a hopeless inward swirling soup of moulten grief.
I want to tell you that you won't forget, that cosmic clutter and home grown atoms seared themselves into your soul and cannot be unwritten.
It feels wrong to write of present grief here. It feels wrong to write of recovery. It feels wrong to be either - healed or unhealed.
I missed my slot here last month. Almost missed it this month.
Grief hauled at me, made me unreliable. I chose to fail to prove that grief had me in its grip and prove that I had outrun it. But the truth is I couldn't feel it. I was numb. No words came. To write badly is the ultimate betrayal of my boy.
I'm held back and pushed forward by grief, by loss, by the bundle of boy in the paper flat pictures, the boy I grew quite perfectly who couldn't live without tube and wire.
You might imagine that pulled in all directions is unfathomable pain but it seems to bring nothing but inertia and dulled senses.
You don't need me, I told myself, because I am both then and now and neither is helpful. At four years out grief absorbed is of no more use than grief worn smeared upon my person and slathered, unwelcome, on every interaction.
Do you want to know that grief is just as painful 4 years on? Do you want to know that 4 years on I cry most often because his loss is so familiar that somedays I do not think of him at all?
Do you want to know you will forget? Do you want to know you never will?
That is my apology. Grief is endless and full of ends. Grief is circular, linear, long and short, impossible and easy, ever present and constantly receeding.
I'm sorry I wasn't here.
This morning my living son, born after, brought me Freddie's picture. We don't speak of him here. We are not a family of vivid gesture and outward remembrance. His photos live in my room and nowhere else. I have not wanted to make this youngest child one growing in the shadow of loss. I've never spoke of Freddie to him.
He asked us who the baby was, seemed to know that this was a baby who had not become a person he could place. And then, with uncanny understanding, he gestured to my candle shelf, to the collection of trinkets and gifts I have bought his brother.
"Baby Freddie all gone," he said.
He's all gone.
No fine words can alter that.
4 years or not, it feels a giant of a thing to understand.
I don't think it is ever going to change.
What do you hope for as the days turn to weeks and the weeks turn to years? Do you have a sense of the resting place you grief should have? Or, how do you accommodate your lost baby or babies in your family? And how do you cope when others from inside or outside your immediate family, step outside your coping parameters?
This post is a reflection on my sense of self before baby loss and after and the effect that Freddie's death has had on that. I was a stay at home parent of young children before I had him and my life therefore revolved around the trappings of that life. There is some mention of how I was shaped by ordinary pregnancy and birth as well as infant loss. Please bear that in mind before reading if you are in a sensitive phase of loss.
Once it defined me, my knowledge, my experience, my hoard of stories, grim and detailed.
Once I huddled in gaggles of mothers and gossiped - heartless midwives, empty threats of dead babies. I thrashed through birth trauma, postnatal depression, botched, unsatisfactory deliveries. My ill-used body, caught in the nets of a harried medical system that sucked me in, processed my heaving body, signed me out alive, with scant regard for my soul or sanity.
Those things, the worst that could happen, consumed the centre of my wounded being. All encompassing, damaging, poisoned.
All talked out, gradually growing around and through the pain, I became something new.
Once it defined me, my knowledge, my experience, my hoard of stories, gritted teeth and battles won.
Once I huddled in flocks of mothers engrossed in motherhood - failed breastfeeding, sleepless nights, babies born with challenges (I will not call them small, not even now) to be overcome. We loaded laundry and knew not the value of the little people in our care. The minutae of the tedium was our currency of connection.
I had no idea how lucky I was. I do not hold myself responsible for that.
And, all talked out, we grew, moved on. Stories rolled and rubbed and took on the sheen of a well fumbled pebble, soft, smooth, snag-less.
I became something new; lacking nonchalant patter, I formed an armoury of parenthood, my tales the scales of my skin. A persona grew, I became the mother people love or hate, who fought the battles, won and lost and emerged confident, skilled and with all the answers I needed. I believed in me.
I do not begrudge myself that confidence. It was good while it lasted.
And it all came tumbling down. In the screaming silence of the birthing room without a cry, I lost every opinion I had ever had about birth and babies. In the humming heat of SCBU, I lost everything I knew about parenting. I couldn't help him. I didn't know the language, couldn't do the procedures, couldn't choose when to hold him, might hurt him if I did.
No time to learn.
My outer shell smashed and washed away, all my conversation, all my wrath and passion, all my innocence and ignorance. I didn't know I had that.
When I lost my son, when I crumbled him to dust, consigned him to a memory, I also lost myself, my role, my place in society. A core was left, naked and bruised.
No one wants the baby lost mother. We are not welcome. We are the spectre - festering and infectious. Who would want my knowledge? It is tainted by Freddie's death, despite the four before him. I would run a mile from me. Who would chat to me about birth and babies, fearing to see me cry, hoping that "please god, she doesn't mention HIM again!"? Who would believe my nappy choice might be right when I let my baby die? Who would believe I had knowledge about breastfeeding when I couldn't even tell he was sick before he lived.
I see the recoil even if it never comes. I see the blank weariness as they wait for me to find a reason to mention him. I see myself, hovering in their joy and deserved naivety, spoiling the thrill of the moment. I imagine myself tainting their hope, excitement. I imagine them making the opposite choice to mine, hoping to ward off the devil.
I cannot ever re-enter that world. I will distance myself even from my daughters when their time comes, hoping - irrationally - to not remind them of the brother who died.
So, crone like, my gift is to the girl I once was, to all mothers who never walk a harder path than tired out drudgery.
I will try not curl my lip at those with no reason to know better. I will not belittle them because their path has not been strewn with ashes and they know not that ashes can arrive in a tiny box with an etched brass plate. I will not deride them for a merry life with smaller hurts and smaller mountains to climb.
I envy them. I'm glad for them. With gritted teeth I will smile for them and the rose-tinted life they lead. I do not want them to know this pain. And I will barter my forgiveness of their lack of understanding for the gift of no future grief in this family.
If I could. If only I could.
How do you feel about the person you were before loss arrived in your life? Do you miss that person? Would you have that person back? How do you feel about people who have not experienced loss and their world view? Has it changed over time, have you become more or less tolerant about ignorance of loss?