Tomorrow my Ma sets foot on the US soil again. She will come to us for a few weeks, in a new town, in a new house, and we will see her more than three years later. Three years since I have hugged and held my mother. Three years since we have wept on each other's shoulders.Read More
I remember exactly how we were sitting on the hospital bed. I remember the color of light coming through the hospital window. I remember A and I looking at each other, our pause of disbelief, and looking back at this idiotic woman who hadn’t gotten the memo. Then saying what I suddenly know I’ll be saying over and over and over: “The baby died.”Read More
A scream. A bloodcurdling, earthshattering scream.
A stare. A lost, opaque stare.
A shudder. A stranded, unforgetting shudder.
The first emerged – is there a word in any language to describe what it did? – on a July morning last year. It came from a flight down from where I was. It came from the center of the earth.
The next has stuck, to walls, floors, ceilings, grass, roads, the sky, and often even my face, every single day of this past year. It is plasticky, and has a shape. It is not colorless either. It seems to be drawing things in, but actually wants to let things go. Everyone. Everything. Go. Go. Go.
The last, a bodily movement. Like a snake in unsuccessful hibernation, wriggling its way out of crevices and holes after a winter of painful alertness, unsure of where to go. It is an earnest attempt to remember, and a desperate attempt to forget, all at once, all in one.
These are expressions. Or their absence. That have come from, and crept in, my husband of twelve and a half years. A bereaved father of a year.
He found her dead. He laid her to rest. He goes to the cemetery. He works. He reads to her big brother at night, and tucks him in. He takes care of me.
He screamed. He stares. He shudders.
The words I cherished the most from my husband for the entire nineteen years of knowing him were not “I love you,” or “Will you marry me.” They were “Come here.” He whispered these benign, almost mundane, words to me in a moving train, lying on the lower bunk, half asleep, as a cold January day in 1997 broke outside. Teenaged college students, we were on a clandestine trip to another part of the country, escaping our reality that had been rattled by the sudden death of two beloved friends. We needed comfort, and a change of scene, so my mother secretly sent us, then friends and no more, to my cousin’s house near the west coast of India. The thrill of leaving friends and family in the dark, and the excitement of what lay ahead was a heady, almost unbearably explosive feeling. And yet, on that first morning, as the train blazed through the countryside, all was quiet. Unknown, unborn. I woke up in the rocking train, and made my presence felt by reaching down and touching his arm. He opened his eyes, and looked at me as if from a million years away, and yet within a finger’s distance. “Come here,” he whispered with a fluttering smile.
“Come here!” He screamed.
Those exact words. The words that had been sacred, pure, so fragile it almost scared me to remember them. Eighteen years later, on a July morning in 2013, the same words that once weaved our lives together hurled back to me again, to unravel it, strand by strand. They sounded like a visceral grunt, a roar, a call for battle, for disaster. They were the stricken groan of a hunted animal, moments before its fight, its life, is over. The words, the scream hurtled me into space, and I, with my life holding on to my heels, came tumbling down the stairs. The day was breaking outside, and all was quiet again. Known. Dead.
Over the next few hours, and then days, all I would comprehend would be my husband’s words. And his eyes. The same eyes that brought our lives together by asking me to come to him. Forever glistening in a dusky face, and often bloodshot when tired, those eyes have been my Polaris. They were the first thing I now saw in the hospital room after the police officer drove me there. They were red. I saw Raahi, in a pale white bundle, on the distant bed. I collapsed.
“No more knives on her,” he said, declining the autopsy. In the room they took us to, as the ER nurse still held my hand, I remember his words. Back at the hotel, his invisible arms were around me, as I lay in bed and he talked. To social workers, policemen, funeral home people, friends, family, and most of all, he talked to our son. His invisible arms. The invisible umbrella.
He decided that two days later was the day. She would turn three months old that day, it was another Thursday, her birth day. I could not decide if I could go. Again I remember his words, telling me not to, as if they came from a faceless crevice. A gurgle of invisible but omnipresent waters, flowing underneath the rocky surface, the jagged edges. They flowed, the words. And yet they were stilted, like water entering, and then flowing out of, fissures. They sometimes disappeared into the hollow of his mouth. During one such act, I began, “But how can I not …”
Now the waters roared. They poured out with a conviction only those set free but wanting to be contained can enforce. “No, you will not go. You don’t have to, and you can’t. Stay right here. Stay with how you know her. That is not her. Look at me. I don’t have a sense of smell or taste anymore. I can only smell her from the CPR. I can only taste her.” The bloodshot eyes, dead, and all-seeing. The waters of clarity, the powers of a storm, gushing at me, pulling me in, holding me in place. Bobbing, bouncing, but in place.
What place was that! What was the “here” my husband no longer wanted me to leave, as he drove our daughter’s tiny casket to its resting place? Just like I had touched his arm from the top bunk of a moving train, wanting to be one with him, he now took me in by placing his palm on the glass windows of the car as he stopped at the driveway for a moment. I stood up from the chair on the funeral home porch and floated a few paces, holding out my hand. Our eyes met. Our hands met. He did not ask me to come, he wanted me to stay. Stay away, stay apart, stay far from the abyss that he was creeping into, all by himself, alive, wide awake, wildly alert.
And yet, we were together. In a new place, unmeasured by distance. Our last “here” with our daughter. We couldn’t ask her to stay. She didn’t ask us to come.
Over the past year, Raahi’s father and I have grieved differently, at a different pace, in a different way. And yet every week, there comes a time when he carries an invisible me, unable to walk, but eager to be borne, to a patch of grass, and sits with me there, our new “here.” He observes and memorizes how the grass is growing into and becoming one with the surrounding ground. He tends to it, planting a pinwheel, organizing a few sticks to mark the space, feeling the wind he always wanted her to feel.
Back home, he shudders often, as if his body disperses his horrific memories into the air around him, and his mind, invisibly, forcibly, desperately, gathers them back into the broken shell he now is. He stares blank with the same eyes, now blunt and lifeless, their brightness inherited by, and forever gone with, a beautiful dusky little girl. His facial muscles taut, his posture gaunt, and his hair standing on its roots, my daughter’s father walks on with me, carrying our two children on his shoulders.
Come here. Stay here. He’s here. But where?
How have you rediscovered and redefined your relationship with your partner after losing your baby(ies)? Have your perceptions of each other changed or grown stronger? Do you grieve in the same way, or differently? Do you both have specific roles and responsibilities around your loss, or is it undefined? Are there specific words, phrases or incidents in your story that have assumed a new meaning or dimension after your loss(es)?
My name is Jess and I'm here to talk to you today about my experience of Stillbirth.
Before I begin, can I ask you all to stand up. Please stay standing if you have given birth, or witnessed the birth of your own child... Thank you... OK, now stay standing if you've given birth more than once? More than twice? May I ask how many children you have? How old are they? Wow! You have three children and you're studying full time to be a midwife! You're incredible!
OK, can you all stand up again. Stay standing if, as a Student Midwife, you've delivered more than 10 babies. More than 20? More than 30? WOW! How many have you delivered? 40-ish?! 44??!! How about you? About 40 too? Amazing! OK, please sit down.
I ask you these questions because I want you to understand where I fit in to all of this. I am not an expert on birth. I have been present at three births, and at all three I was the one doing the pushing. Of those three babies, one of them was stillborn. I am not an expert on stillbirth either. I don't know any statistics. I can't make professional recommendations. I don't have any official resources for you. What I represent is an opportunity... I stand here as a woman who has given birth to a dead baby and I am going to tell you my story, and her story, and then you can ask me questions. You can ask me anything, really and truly you can ask me anything. I promise - hey, listen! I'm brave! I can say vagina and everything!
OK with that let's begin. On 15th May 2008 I gave birth to my second daughter, Iris. She died during early labour the previous day...
The secret places of my heart are often visited by strangers.
I write them out in my best words and awkwardly proffer them to people from Missouri and Norfolk and South Australia.
I say them aloud. I turn my womb inside-out and speak its fleshiness.
Mutter, mutter. I conjure her. I create her. She appears, shimmering, then vanishes again into silence.
She is an agreement between me and you.
She existed, didn't she?
Yes, yes, that's right, she did.
Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington.
I defy Noel Coward.
She shall have a stage. She shall have the biggest platform I can find for her.
All babies are teachers, but the dead ones have the best lessons.
Have you ever shared your story with a group of strangers, like the student midwives I spoke to last Friday? How was the experience for you? What do wish you they knew about delivering a baby that has died, or is likely to die? Do you have an answer to the question I've asked before, and I asked of them again: Is it possible to have a good birth, when the outcome is a dead baby?
My grandmother died two weeks ago. A few hours shy of two weeks actually.
The phone call from my sister broke time in a way we are all familiar with. It really shouldn't have, probably-- it had been a long time coming. She wasn't well, as a matter of fact she wasn't herself. She had Alzheimer's. But physically she was relatively strong. She'd had bouts of infection and a few other things, any one of which probably could've killed her if not for profound attention her daughters paid to every little change. Some weeks before she died a blood test revealed that she probably had some kind of cancer, but given her condition nobody wanted to put her through invasive tests to figure out exactly what kind it was. Her daughters signed her up with hospice. About six months was their prediction. Even that was hard on the daughters. In the end, her end was a lot gentler than her last several years.
The last several years were awful. Watching a strong person diminish is never easy. Watching a strong person lose themselves, lose their understanding of who surrounds them, lose all their bearings in the world is a particular pain, made worse when you are the caretaker. My mom and my aunt kept trying to relate to their mother, and their mother wasn't there. That made it worse.
My rabbi visited us in the hospital, when I was being induced. My son still in me, we talked about funeral arrangements. She explained the Jewish custom of quick burial by quoting from sacred text: "[y]ou can not be comforted while your dead lie before you." I've thought about this a lot during my grandmother's decline. Removed somewhat from the situation, I could accept a lot earlier than my mom could just how little of the woman we knew remained in the woman my mom was faithfully caring for.
My grandmother, in her time, took care of her own sick and dying mother for many more years than what her daughters ended up doing for her. But my great-grandmother had a stroke and lost her mobility. She was still herself, and so she died when she died. In contrast, I can tell you when my grandmother's body died. I can't tell you when she left, not really. It's been a long time since she recognized anyone. Yet mere weeks before she died, she had a good day when she seemed to know who everyone in the family was. One good hour, really.
So over the course of the last four years, my family had to slowly let go of my grandmother. Expectations, understandings. Memories. Things that bind us together. Bit by bit. Two weeks ago the definitive, indisputable end. Before that? Strange state of suspended grief. Her daughters didn't have their mother anymore. But I don't think they knew how to grieve that, and they didn't really have time for it anyway-- they were her dedicated caretakers, after all.
This story is the opposite of most perinatal death stories. We rarely get any warning, and even those of us who do are never prepared-- we're supposed to be raising them, not burying them. My grandmother had a hard life, full of pain and loss. But she also had a rich life, full of joy and love. She was in her late 70s before her mind started going. My daughter knew her, and even if she doesn't now remember most of their interactions before the onset of the bad part of the disease, she has a sense of her great grandmother. We chose her casket because that color and even the spare details on it was the kind of wood furniture she liked. We knew what she liked. The opposite, you know?
We now know that she realized things were going wrong, and to cope, while she still could, she wrote notes to herself. That makes perfect sense-- too proud to tell anyone, but determined to manage.
My grandmother came to visit us along with my parents and aunt and uncle for Monkey's fifth birthday. That was less than six weeks after A died. While here, she asked to see A's pictures. I now think of that as the very last thing I can confidently say she did as fully herself. After she'd seen them, it seems she let go. Even during that trip, she was not the same after the pictures that she was before. I think she must've written a note to herself about A, about asking for the pictures. Either that or she willed herself to stay fully with it until she did. Task completed, she could let go of the enormous work it took to hold on. (She did not disappear completely after that, but she was less present, and for less time. And for a while after, she remembered A-- she'd talk to my mom about how sad it was.) That's the kind of backbone that defined her. And it took one hell of a disease to be stronger than that.
We took Monkey with us to the funeral and the burial. We didn't take her, less than five years old at the time, with us to A's. She still tells us we were wrong in that decision. She probably always will. She's never been to a funeral, in fact. I think my grandmother's was a sort of a proxy for her. She got to see the casket put in the ground, the kaddish recited, she got to see and hear the dirt hitting the casket-- the hollow sound of finality, of indisputable end. From the safe distance of four plus years and her great-grandmother's eighty three and a half, she could imagine her brother's funeral. The rabbi and the funeral director were incredibly kind to her, and that helped too.
She's perceptive. She gets the difference. She knows great grandmothers die, and it's sad, but it is how life works (though she is not exactly happy about this). Little brothers shouldn't be dying, but hers did, and it's a different kind of pain and grief. And yet, she also gets that sometimes the differences matter very little. We were talking about the different kinds of sad, and that though it is how it is, it is still sad for me that my grandmother died. "It's [my grandma]'s mom" she said, as her eyes got bigger with recognition of the enormity of the loss for someone else. Yes, she was.
Have you encountered death since your child's? How has it been for you?
Angie is a writer, poet, and painter. With the stillbirth of her second daughter Lucia, Angie began writing about mothering and grief at Still Life with Circles. She shares a piece of art, music or writing from a bereaved parent or family member every day at the year-long creative project still life 365, and paints and illustrates mizuko jizo and other aspects of babyloss, pregnancy and parenting.
For a couple of months after my daughter was stillborn at 38 weeks, my husband and I saw a grief therapist recommended by the hospital and our midwives' group. She served a purpose, mainly by helping us answer the thousands of questions we suddenly had:
How do we tell everyone that our daughter died?
What do we do with the nursery?
Is it okay to tell people that we would prefer not to receive flowers?
How do I eat breakfast in the diner where they fussed about my pregnancy?
How do we talk to each other about something other than her death?
After a few months, when those mundane moments of terror in the market passed, our therapy sessions became unproductive. She would ask how my husband felt and he would say, "Hungry."
She would ask me how I felt and I would tell her about Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seed, compassion, Buddhism, and suffering. Her eyes would glaze over and she then she would tell me I was avoiding my true feelings by intellectualizing.
"Perhaps individual therapy might be more beneficial for us," I mentioned to my husband as we left her office one snowy Tuesday. I had some bigger questions. This therapist wanted to educate us about our grief, not philosophize about the nature of the universe. I felt nostalgic for a time in which I never lived where a stinky Socrates sat in the town center, just waiting for someone to pose a question about fate, death and the gods. I needed an oracle, an unemployed philosophy PhD. Or maybe even a lama.
photo by MC-Leprosy
I began seeing my Buddhist therapist again. I saw him many years earlier, when I was a single woman bitching about my non-committal ex-boyfriend, insomnia, and my career. I have dabbled in Buddhism for fifteen years. And by dabble, of course, I mean reading Buddhist teachings and writing, but not finding a regular sangha, or community.
Sure, I meditated, occasionally visited a Buddhist monastery for group meditation and teachings, but I never sought an actual teacher who challenged me. Zen. Tibetan. Shambhalan. It didn’t really matter. I sometimes just wanted to feel people around me who could sit quietly together. Intellectually, Buddhism just makes sense to me. Life is suffering. Suffering is caused by our attachments to worldly pleasures and illusions of happiness. One needs to be accountable for his or her actions in every aspect of your life. Compassion, meditation, letting go of attachments and kindness can change suffering. Totally get it. Of course, there were times when I would get fascinated by some obscure text and teaching, but mostly I lived by the basic tenets, except the no wine thing. Alcohol always found a place in my Buddhism.
When I thought I should seek therapy, I sought a Buddhist therapist. I didn’t want therapy devoid of my spiritualism. I sought a more holistic solution to my angst and emotional ennui. The Buddhist therapist became sort of a de facto teacher for a lone wolf like myself. He guided me in meditation. He gave me some incredibly deep insights that mirrored my own beliefs. I learned more from him in the eight month period than I could have imagined. My therapist suggested that perhaps I was a Pratyekabuddha, or a bodhisattva who develops realizations without the guidance of a guru. He encouraged me repeatedly to seek a teacher. He pointed out, "Of course, you know, the challenges of that path are always arrogance and misguidance."
Of course, I have always been arrogant and misguided.
It made sense for me to visit the Buddhist therapist again after my daughter died and I was flailing. After I had met with him for a few sessions, we had begun reincorporating the Four Reminders into our sessions, which had been a bit revelatory to me in my earlier therapy.
1 :: the preciousness of human birth (It is a gift you are here)
2 :: the truth of impermanence (You are gonna die)
3 :: the reality of suffering (Life’s gonna hurt)
4 :: the inescapability of karma (You better do it right, or you are doing it again.)
He mentioned the last one again. "Karma," he said, "is how our actions affect our suffering."
"Oh, I have been meaning to talk to you about that," I said. And I had. I’d been thinking about how different religions deal with suffering. Majoring in Religion at university, I became fascinated with theodicy, which is the theological problem of reconciling evil and suffering in the world with the existence of a just and good God. But, in Buddhism, suffering is a whole different animal. Buddhists mostly take out God, but leave the suffering. Suffering is the nucleus around which Buddhist thought orbits. Still, something never sat right with me and karma. I want to believe that if someone commits a horrible sin against man or humanity, he or she will suffer eventually.
But what if you are suddenly the one suffering?
"Uh, yeah, with something like stillbirth or the death of your baby without any reason, I wanted to know, uh, you know, I mean, when I think about karma, with this kind of suffering, the bad-things-happen-to-good-people-type suffering, uh, this is awkward, but what I wanted to know is: do Buddhists think it is my own fault that my daughter died?"
"Of course not," he said, after a pause. "At least not in the way that you are talking about. Traditional Buddhists feel that in our past lives we were all kinds of people: thieves, mothers, butchers, farmers, murderers, liars, nuns, doctors, children, and animals. A monk once told me that if we piled the bones of all the lives we have lived, it would reach through three universes. You may be going through your loss as a result of past karma from a life hundreds of years ago."
I hated that answer.
I wanted to spit on the floor and demand my money back. In no uncertain terms, I told him so. Then he clarified that the complexities of the idea of karma makes it difficult to explain, but Buddhists do not traditionally blame the victim for their own suffering. You could study karma for years and not quite get it. The Buddha taught not to take his words literally. He said to use this teaching to develop my own understanding of the universe. He asked me what I thought. What does karma mean to you now, as the mother of a dead baby?
I think the world is chaotic and random and often cruel. The death of my child had nothing to do with me—nothing I did, nothing my husband did, nothing my daughter did. She just died.
Thinking that Lucia’s death is my karma, or heaven forbid, her karma, or the karma of my entire tribe is of no comfort to me. Without a physical reason why Lucy died, it is hard not to search for a metaphysical one instead. It is hard not to speculate on why the Volcano Gods are angered, or what action in my youth caused my daughter to die now. And yet, I reject that. The guilt of that interpretation would eat me from the inside out until I am nothing but a withered shell of a parent.
To me karma means something much different than tit for tat. Spiritually, I have to figure out my own reason to move forward. What I do have control over is what I do with my experience of chaos and suffering in the world. This life, right now, is my choice. This is my karma. What am I going to do with this experience of loss?
Compassion. Fear. Love. Understanding. Grief. Sadness. Comfort. Kindness. Anger. Patience. Misplaced emotion. Mourning. Selfishness. Selflessness. If I toss each one, carefully peeled and scrubbed, into a blender and drink this past year down, I hope to emerge healthier. I hope this bitter juice helps me emerge more of those things I believe makes the world a place less wrought with suffering. I control that part of me, the patient loving compassionate part, the part that experiences other people's suffering and responds with love. Since Lucy died, I am frequently impatient. I am frequently unloving and unlovable. I sometimes give into anger and pettiness. But I try to use those experiences to forgive. Myself. First for the emotion, and then for the death of my daughter.
I have to forgive myself everyday.
As I walked away from that session, the therapist said one last thing just as I left his room.
"Maybe Lucy fulfilled her karma by living her life just as she lived it. Maybe she simply needed the love and comfort of your womb for those months. Maybe she was supposed to teach you about love."
Did you seek out a counsellor, therapist, or spiritual mentor after the loss of your baby? Why, or why not? What phrases, concepts, or exercises learned in therapy have contributed to your healing? What moments felt at odds with what you needed to heal? Do you remember a session that felt like hard work for you? Why, and where did it bring you?