Taking off my grief glasses

We went to see Star Wars the day after it opened. Although of course it was a momentous day for geekdom, for me the evening packed a hefty dose of sadness and wistfulness, as too many things do these days. Zack’s boss had bought out the theater way back in March, when we were blissfully, naively just a few months pregnant. At the time I was a little unsure whether I should go, since Luke would have been just 3 months old. But Zack talked me into it, and so all spring and all summer I’d been thinking that it would be the first time we would leave Luke with a babysitter. Well, of course it didn’t happen that way. And so it was hard for me to fully enjoy what should have been a night of pure entertainment.

There was a trigger in the movie as well (spoilers): When Han says to Leia, “We lost our son forever.” Yeah. Us too.

Another movie we matched recently, Mad Max, contained an even more devastating trigger. It’s graphic and I won’t describe it here, but suffice it to say that it involves an infant.

We first saw the movie in the theater back in May in Chicago, on our babymoon. I was about five months pregnant and I’m pretty sure that when the scene came on, I must have squeezed Zack’s hand. I remember thinking, Thank goodness that will never happen to me. As we watched the movie this time around, remembering my naivete back then made the trigger scene doubly devastating.

These days, the triggers seem to be more and more prolific, and now I’m wondering if they will crest and eventually diminish. I’m hoping so, because it’s hard to navigate this planet without being walloped by a big, unpleasant reminder of tragedy at every turn.

I’ve also been trying to train myself to not experience these moments as triggers, but to reassociate them with whatever they were linked to before Luke’s death. An episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Radiolab, included a very brief reenactment of birth and a baby’s first cry. Of course I immediately thought how my baby never had that cry—but then I tried to remind myself that Zoe cried, and I cried, and Zack cried, and that live birth is completely normal and something that happens all the time, and the vast majority of people associate the scene with wonder and joy. I don’t think I really succeeded in reframing the moment, but I’m trying, at least.

My need to reframe also came into play a few weeks ago when I was in the office at Zoe’s day care picking up some paperwork, and a heavily pregnant teacher walked in. The assistant director said something like, “I wish you weren’t having this baby, like, right now.” It felt like a punch in the gut because I would have given anything to have my baby. (It also seemed insensitive that she said it in front of me; “I wish you weren’t having this baby” doesn’t seem like something you should say when a stillbirth mom is nearby.) But then I tried to remind myself that she wasn’t being serious (I think she said it because they’re down staff and had the holidays coming up) and people make jokes about pregnancy all the time, because most pregnancies turn out normal and result in live births. All the time, after all, is what makes normal normal.

Just yesterday, I saw that a Facebook friend had posted something about her dog’s death. I’m not one of those stillbirth moms who begrudge people who compare a baby’s death to a pet’s death; as an animal advocate and someone who still thinks every day of the dog she lost to cancer three years ago, I totally get it. For some people, pets are like children and their loss is devastating. That’s fine, and of course it was fine for this Facebook friend to post about her dog. But then I saw the number of likes and comments she received, and it was way more than what I received when I first posted about Luke’s death. Like maybe double. And that was a trigger for me to think about how many more people are remembering and honoring this dog than my son. But then I had to stop and remind myself that it’s just the nature of Facebook and how things play out in that fishbowl/popularity contest; it’s not a true reflection of human nature (which is why I try to stay away from it as much as possible).

Then there’s the pandas. One day after I delivered my dead baby, Mei Xiang, the giant panda at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., gave birth to twins. The Internet lost its mind, of course, and I wanted to vomit when I saw the front page of the Washington Post that day. One of the babies died shortly after birth. It seemed like people were sad about that for all of like two seconds and then it was just fawning and photos of pandas for days on end.

The whole thing pissed me off for a few reasons. 1) Mei Xiang got to have her baby. 2) The world cares more about her live baby than my dead baby. 3) No one remembers the dead panda baby.

Honestly, it still pisses me off to think about it. So I try to remember that the sole, simple reason people are acting so batshit crazy is that pandas are freakin’ adorable, and that’s all that it comes down to. It’s nothing personal; the world doesn’t even know about my dead baby. And Mei Xiang lost a baby, too, and her species is under siege in the wild, and I should make some room for compassion in my heart.

Sometimes, it’s good to have your grief glasses on, though; it can awaken your empathy and spark a deeper perspective. At Mass on Christmas Day, we sat near the front, close to the musicians. As the cantor approached the mic at the start of Mass, she raised her hands, announced, “Today is Christmas”—and started to cry. It was just a brief moment; she quickly composed herself and continued the announcement. But in that instant, I recognized her as a sister in grief. I don’t know who she lost—a spouse, child, parent, sibling—or how recently, but I know the loss was deeply felt. I also saw a few women wearing mourning veils, and several people sitting alone, and thought about who they would be missing at the table later that day. With my perspective of Christmas already irrevocably altered—and songs like “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” bringing incalculable pain—their quiet suffering changed it again, like a kaleidoscope of sorrow.

***

I posted recently about a vision of Luke I experienced during an acupuncture session. Shortly after, I had a second vision in which Luke, Zack, Zoe, and I were sledding and playing in the snow in cloudy purple moonlight. Though I don’t know if the visions were “real” or not, I can say that they brought a lot of comfort.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was sitting with Zoe on a park bench at a local playground. She’d just woken up from a nap and was grumpy and just wanted to be held, so I wrapped her up a blanket and rocked her and sang to her. When I closed my eyes, I felt like he was there too. I can’t really describe it, but I felt his presence. It was the first “waking” moment I felt like I had both of my children with me. I hope there are more to come.

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Vision

Some people are probably going to find this post a bit … out there. If you don’t believe in visions, heaven, the afterlife, etc., you might want to skip it.

I have heard of or read about many grieving people saying their loved ones visit them in dreams and it brings them great comfort. I haven’t experienced that—in fact for weeks, I don’t think I had any dreams at all—and so I’ve been kind of pissed off and bitter about it.

Separately, I’ve been going to acupuncture for a few months. It’s something I always wanted to try, and my grief counselor suggested it. At first I went twice a week and now I go every other week. I talk to the acupuncturist about what’s going on and what emotional state I would like to move toward, she selects points to put the needles in, and then I lie on the table for a really long time.

The first session walloped me. The needles allow energy to flow and, just like the acupuncturist warned might happen at first, that initial treatment seemed to dislodge a hell of a lot of negative emotions. I felt overwhelmingly sad and hopeless for several days. But the energy kept flowing, and eventually it lifted.

The best way I can describe the sessions is that they “dislodge” emotions that are stuck, and when I’m lying on the table I can often physically feel them move up and out. I usually feel lighter when I walk out the door or later the same day. It’s a bit insane and I don’t pretend to understand it, but it seems to be helping, so I keep doing it.

This session was a bit different from normal. Beforehand, we talked about some uncertainty I’ve been dealing with in my professional life, how some of the depression seems to have returned even though there’s been no clear trigger, and how I try to ignore those feelings and find things to distract me so they don’t overtake my life. She said that wasn’t healthy and suggested that instead of ignoring the feelings, I find some way to acknowledge them, through a saying or some other sort of ritual, and then move on. We talked for a bit and then she put the needles in and left.

Almost as soon as she closed the door, sadness overwhelmed me and I started crying. And then I started having a vision.

I could see a little boy of about 5 years old standing in a field surrounded by fog. He seemed far away at first. But eventually, in my vision, I was able to go up to this little boy. I couldn’t really see his face, but I hugged and kissed him. Then he said, “I love you, Mommy.” My heart burst, the tears flowed, and I whispered, “I love you, too.”

This part of the vision kind of faded in and out for a bit; it always returned to the little boy standing by himself, enshrouded in fog. But then, after a while, I was beside a stream in a gorge. He was at my side, but I couldn’t see him. Then I started seeing other streams, and some lakes. Some I recognized and some I didn’t. I can’t explain it, but I felt like he was showing these places to me.

Then we were hovering above the earth. I could clearly see the world turning below me, the cloud cover and the blue oceans. I had an impending sense of doom and devastation—and the strong feeling that he was telling me my future, my purpose, lies in helping to prevent the human race from destroying itself and all other species on the planet. He was urgent, and sad, and he wanted me to help.

We talked about God and heaven. I got a vague sense of who else is with him. He said, “You don’t have to be sad, Mom. I’m OK.”

Then he said, “God speaks to those he believes can make a difference. It’s up to them whether they choose to listen.” I thought about Syria, the refugee crisis, the Paris attacks, and the turmoil in the Middle East. He said, “That’s a battle for others to fight; that’s not your cause.”

Eventually, the vision faded. It’s hard to explain, but I don’t think I was controlling it; I felt like I was just receiving the thoughts and images. At one point early on in the vision, I did try to control it; I tried to visualize walking through a field of tall autumn grass with Luke, Zack, and Zoe. But those images kept being replaced by the little boy standing in the fog.

I’m overwhelmed by this and don’t yet know what to make of it; my first priority was to get it down on paper so that I would remember. I do know that the vision brings me a great deal of peace and a new way to connect with Luke, whether real or imagined. I’m not sure it makes a difference which.

Triggers

When someone becomes a bereaved person, at some point in the grieving process they start to encounter what are known as triggers: statements, moments, or events that recall the traumatic event, remind the person of what they lost, and unleash the pain all over again.

Think of the widow who has lost her lifelong husband to cancer or heart disease. Upon hearing of relatives’ or friends’ 50th wedding anniversary, happiness for the couple in question might be overshadowed by her own sense of loss—the knowledge that, if her husband had lived, she too would have reached such a milestone.

A friend who lost her dad in her early 20s speaks of triggers at other people’s weddings: the bride being walked down the aisle, the daddy-daughter dance. She has to leave the room to compose herself.

For baby loss moms, it’s almost impossible to avoid triggers. Social media, the local park, TV, and the supermarket are full of them. Baby showers and birth announcements can trigger a tidal wave of emotions, and the bereaved parent may wish to withdraw herself from the celebration. Many baby loss moms struggle with witnessing milestones and life events of other children born around the same time their child died: speaking their first word, taking their first step, attending their first day of kindergarten. The moms see a ghost in all those posts and photos.

These situations can be uncomfortable, but they shouldn’t make bereaved parents into pariahs. Instead, I offer these suggestions.

  1. Ask the bereaved parents what ground rules for communication they would prefer. If you are expecting a baby or have a newborn, understand that the bereaved parent may wish to avoid discussing the situation with you. Pregnant moms in particular should be careful to avoid complaining about pregnancy or treating it casually. These feelings may dissipate over time or they may last a lifetime.
  2. If you are a parent, be extremely sensitive when discussing living children. Even casual remarks about something as innocent as baby clothing could trigger a sudden wave of wistfulness or remorse in the grieving mother or father.
  3. Reach out to bereaved parents when other family members or mutual friends are celebrating a life event. The parents know and understand that life goes on despite their loss, and usually they want to be happy for the person in question, but it can be difficult to feel anything but sad and alone, particularly when they see the person being inundated with congratulations when all they received were condolences. A simple note to say, “I heard about xx and just wanted to let you know that I am thinking of you today” can go a long way. I wish my husband’s co-workers had done this in the early days whenever one of his colleagues discussed his newborn, born alive at around the same time Luke was born still. If you are the person experiencing the life event, I can assure you that the thoughtful note will mean that much more to the bereaved person and may actually help in the healing process.

As an example of the latter, a coworker of mine sent an incredibly thoughtful note on Halloween saying she was thinking of me in knowing how kid-centered the holiday is. It lifted my spirits and help ease a sense of loneliness that has been settling in.

These suggestions require empathy: being able to project yourself into the thoughts and emotions of the bereaved person. I understand that this will bring some people uncomfortably close to thoughts of death and mortality that they would prefer to avoid. However, for those who have asked what they can do to help and who truly mean it, know that for the bereaved it’s not the casseroles and the flowers and the gift cards that carry lasting meaning, but rather the simple acts of kindness and reaching out that take only a few moments to execute but reverberate forever.

Is this normal?

In the beginning, people—often medical professionals—would assure me that some part of the grieving process was normal. You’re collapsing into tears every few hours? That’s normal. You don’t feel like getting out of bed? Normal. You can’t concentrate? Normal. You’re terrified that some other horrible thing is going to happen to you and/or your family? Normal, normal, normal. And in my head, I would reply, Normal? F– you. Nothing about this is normal. Babies of middle-class, healthy, college-educated moms in wealthy countries aren’t supposed to die in the third trimester. That ain’t normal, sister.

Fast forward nine weeks or so, and hearing the words that’s normal now brings comfort. Bursting into tears at a witnessed casual moment or stray remark, feeling extreme jealousy or anger, experiencing tiny bits of happiness or normalcy followed by a day or morning of crushing sadness—my fellow baby loss moms have been there and done that. That’s normal, sister, they tell me.

So. Nothing about this fucked-up, twisted, dismal world, this planet where I Delivered a Dead Baby, is normal. And everything is.

Father Time

When I’m visiting Luke, wandering among the graves can be oddly comforting. After all, there’s no place where death is more normal than a cemetery.

graves overlooking hills

The cemetery where Luke is buried

Whole life histories are etched there on the stones. Marriages, births, military service, favorite sports teams, inside jokes (“Remember, I’m watching you like a hawk” reads an inscription on the back of one marker). And, of course, deaths.

There’s the woman who died at 101, outliving her husband by 50 years. The 23-year-old “loving wife and mother.” The couple who had four children from 1911 to 1915: a daughter who apparently never married, a son who served in World War II and the Korean War, a second son who served in World War II, and a third son who died at age 9.

One couple died on the same day in 1922. How did it happen, I wonder? House fire?

There are many children buried here. In the children’s section, along with Luke, there are eight other babies. Most apparently were stillbirths or died the day they were born. One lived 10 months. Another lived 9.

Children's graves

Children’s section at the cemetery, including Luke’s fresh grave and temporary marker

One baby boy is buried a row over from his parents. His dad died at age 51 (cancer? heart attack?). His mom is still alive, and now 57 years old. Does she have living children, I often wonder?

Elsewhere in the cemetery, there’s a fresh grave, a 6-year-old boy who died 11 days before Luke. In the photo on his temporary marker, he’s grinning and wearing a Oshkosh hoodie. There’s a 9-year-old (“finally free to be a boy”) and an 11-year-old (“We will never forget your infectious smile”).

Some graves date to the Civil War era, the stones blurred and darkened, the names difficult to make out, the flowers and decorations gone for decades.

Most of one row is occupied by a matriarch/patriarch born in the 1820s and surrounded by more than a dozen of their ancestors.

There are children in this section, too. The 1-year-old who died in 1862, the 5-month-old who died in 1892. The white cross marked simply, “Little Gussie.”

child's grave

We can’t outrun Father Time. He always catches up. And eventually, our loved ones will stop visiting, themselves entombed in the earth or scattered on the winds. But someday a grieving mom or dad, husband or wife, sister or brother may wander past our graves, read the inscriptions, and hold their breath in honor and awe of the life and love immortalized there.

Tomb of unborn children

The tomb of unborn children

Inscription inside the tomb of unborn children / Photo by Angela Moxley

Inscription inside the tomb of unborn children

Grave decorations

What it all boils down to: simple sentiment at graveside

Poem on back of marker

Poem on back of marker

Blessed Mother statue

Grotto featuring Blessed Mother statuary and stations of the cross

angel statue in cemetery

Angel statuary and cross in children’s section

Away but Never Gone

The moon’s on its way to its nightly shift
The frogs fill the creek below
The tall grass waves a farewell to the day
The wind moans sweet and low
The heron tucks his head in his wing
The fish in the lake float along
The sun sinks from sight
Away but never gone

The dawn brings the dew like a thousand jewels
A nest rustles high on a bough
A blue egg stays warm in the cool of the morn
Under a red breast of down
The clouds turn and stretch, the moon checks its wrist
gathers itself with a yawn
And winks to the sun
Away but never gone

And all o’er the world as it turns and it turns
the stars twinkle off and on
And we come and go
Away but never gone

-The Wailin’ Jennies

Rainbow

The day before I Delivered a Dead Baby, the day we found out Luke was gone, it rained for the first time in weeks. Stormed hard. We actually lost power at the house.

On the way to the hospital that night, as we were driving on the highway, my husband saw a rainbow.

As we approached the exit to the hospital, there was another rainbow directly above the exit.

I think I was kind of pissed or annoyed at the time. If the universe was trying to send me a sign that things were going to get better, a rainbow seemed like a small consolation.

When we got home from the hospital, I started looking for online support groups for women who’d suffered pregnancy or infant loss. I kept encountering the term “rainbow baby.” I didn’t know what that meant, so I looked it up.

From the Urban Dictionary:

A “rainbow baby” is a baby that is born following a miscarriage or still birth.

In the real world, a beautiful and bright rainbow follows a storm and gives hope of things getting better. The rainbow is more appreciated having just experienced the storm in comparison.

The storm (pregnancy loss) has already happened and nothing can change that experience. Storm-clouds might still be overhead as the family continue to cope with the loss, but something colourful and bright has emerged from the darkness and misery.

So, there’s that.

I know some people will look at this story and think the rainbows were just a random coincidence. I did too, at the time.

But how bleak would this universe be if it’s nothing but randomness? Who would really want to live in a world like that?

Like many, I’ve struggled with my beliefs for a long time. But this experience has pushed me in the direction of wanting to believe there’s more. Otherwise, I don’t see a way out of this darkness.

Faith is a choice. Today, I choose hope.