How to honor a loss anniversary, and other thoughts

A local loss mom friend and blogger over at Surviving the Loss of Baby Sidney is approaching the first anniversary of her son’s death and recently sent an email to family and friends with suggestions for how to mark the occasion, including the following:

First, I am asking people to do something kind for themselves or someone else on May 4th. This can range from smiling at someone in the street or allowing yourself to sleep in, to donating your time or money to an organization that you believe makes a positive difference. I need to know that at least a little bit of good came from Sidney being part of the world for the short time that he was here.

Second, if you would like to, please send us a stone from a place that is meaningful to you, with a slight description of where you found it, so that I can put it at his grave (Jews traditionally leave stones when they visit graves of loved ones. While the reason behind this seems somewhat unclear, my favorite explanation is to indicate that the loved one is remembered and thought of, with an object that lasts longer/is more permanent than flowers).

Finally, do not be afraid to let us know that you are thinking of us, and to say Sidney’s name. Hearing Sidney’s name does not upset me–what upsets me is that he is dead. Instead, knowing that others remember him makes me feel like I do not have to carry him around in my heart alone. Lighting a candle in his memory (or sending us candles, trees, buying us stars, making a dedication in his name etc–I hope I have included everyone/everything) or simply reaching out to tell us that you remember him, has meant so much and will continue to mean so much.

I love the idea of doing something good in his name on that day, and wanted to pass it along as a suggestion to my readers for honoring any lost children that you know. I wasn’t aware of the Jewish tradition of leaving stones, but my daughter loves rocks and always leaves one at Luke’s grave, so I will have her pick one out for Sidney, and we’ll plant some flowers next to Luke’s bench in our garden as well, so our boys can be together.

In other musings …

The other day I was wearing a hoodie (before April suddenly turned to July) and in the pocket I found a memorial necklace that someone must have given me at some point, only I have no memory of receiving it. I received a lot of jewelry after Luke’s death, and it’s hard to keep track of who gave what, but I still feel bad about blanking on this one.

After spending so much time obsessing about fetal movement during Wyatt’s pregnancy, I thought for sure I would be counting phantom kicks for weeks after he was born. Strangely enough, though, that already seems like a distant memory, and I can’t even remember what the movements felt like, or what it was like to be chained to my KickCounter app.

Wyatt has been sleeping for longer stretches, and last night he slept through the night, until just after 5 a.m. So that’s obviously great if he starts doing that consistently, but now I also need to decide whether to throw in a middle of the night pumping session, because, well—holy boobies, Batman.

I took Zoe to her 4-year checkup last week, and when the nurse practitioner asked Zoe to list who lives at home with her, she named myself, my husband, Wyatt, and Luke, which made my heart swell, but then when I said, “Well, Luke lives in heaven,” the nurse practitioner said, “Awww, is that a pet?” and I wanted to punch her, but Zoe kept talking, and the moment passed.

I suppose it’s marginally better than my encounter at Zoe’s third-year checkup, when, after I informed the doctor of Luke’s death, she said she wasn’t aware that losses could occur that late in pregnancy.

At Zoe’s birthday party, while I carried Wyatt in a sling, I struck up a conversation with the mom of one of Zoe’s classmates. She is a perfectly lovely and sweet person, but I don’t think she knows of my loss, and she mentioned that Zoe’s friend was born when her daughter was only 2, and it was difficult to have two children of that age, and it’s so much easier to have a baby around when they are 4, and more independent. And I wanted to tell her that Zoe should have been 2 when her first brother was born, because normally I don’t have a problem telling people about Luke, but I just couldn’t figure out a way to bring it into this otherwise innocuous small talk, and so I didn’t say anything, which made me feel sad and also guilty, like I wasn’t honoring Luke properly. It also reminded me of how much of a gulf will always remain with other moms who haven’t experienced a loss, and how conversations can still catch me off guard, and break my heart.

Recently I’ve attended a few services at our local Unitarian Universalist congregation. I suppose I’ve been searching for something different, as our current church didn’t provide any support when Luke died, and his death also further cemented my agnosticism, wherein it’s difficult to believe in a God who would allow children to die, but it’s also difficult not to believe that some kind of being was responsible for this amazing, incredible universe. Anyway, the UU church actually cares about things like climate change, and people’s suffering, and everyone is really friendly, and the pastor (is that what you call him?) this past weekend gave a sermon (is that what you call it?) addressing a racism controversy among the higher ups of the national organization. His openness was refreshing and something I’m not used to. So I like it there, but when it comes to spirtuality, basically I am still kind of wandering.

 

Hiatus

I haven’t written a word for this blog in months, largely because I’ve been so busy with school that I haven’t had a lot of time to stop and think. Over the summer I enrolled in two back-to-back intense undergraduate classes, first in chemistry and then in biology. The classes were three to four hours long, every day, and I would then come home and spend the rest of the afternoon doing the readings and homework.

I then started grad school in late August. I enrolled in two classes, by far the most intense I have ever taken. Every week I read hundreds of pages of the textbooks and scientific papers. I also read three books, gave four presentations, wrote an 8-page research paper in addition to five shorter essays, and took four exams. In addition, I spent the fall completing master naturalist training through the state of Maryland. For 12 weeks every Monday, I took 6.5 hours of training at a local nature center on topics ranging from tree identification, mammals, and reptiles and amphibians to interpretation, stream ecology, and humans’ effect on the environment. I’ll be an intern for the next year and then graduate to certified master naturalist, putting my training to use volunteering at the nature center and working on local environmental issues.

So there’s all that, but truth be told, there’s another reason I haven’t been writing on this blog. In July I found out I was pregnant again, and I’ve honestly been afraid to write about it, or even to tell many people, for fear of jinxing it. I’m a rational, scientific-minded person and I know it’s ridiculous to believe in jinxes. But just like those commercials from the 80s (or was it the 90s?), this is your brain on pregnancy loss. Scrambled and fried with heaping helpings of paranoia, fear, and anxiety.

I’m currently 27 weeks and 1 day, and it’s another baby boy. I’ll write more in a future post about how the pregnancy has been going (in a nutshell, fine, with the exception of my mental state). In the meantime I’ve been jotting down a few of the things that have happened over the last several months and wanted to share them here.

When we found out about our miscarriage in April, the OB who delivered the news was not unsympathetic, but she was also very matter of fact. And the office seemed to immediately kick into a precisely programmed, finely tuned sequence of paperwork and scheduling and instructions. It wasn’t that they didn’t care at all, but everything just seemed so … routine. And miscarriages are way more common than stillbirth, so that’s understandable to some degree, but miscarriages are still a big deal when they are happening to you. And it doesn’t excuse insensitive behavior. At the hospital, the anesthesiologist commented on our private room, as if we had scored some sort of sweet deal. Then he remarked on how nice the weather was and that he couldn’t wait to get home so he could go outside. This was right after the nurse had forced me to state that the reason I was in the hospital was for a D&C following a “missed abortion.”

In the weeks to follow, we received far fewer cards, phone calls, and messages of support from family and friends than we did following Luke’s death. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed since joining this sad club of women who have lost babies, it’s that people seem to have far less empathy for those who’ve had miscarriages. Apparently it’s much easier to empathize with someone who’s had bad luck versus bad DNA.

With this pregnancy, I was at the dentist a few months ago and after I told them I was pregnant, the inevitable question came up of how many children I have. Since it’s a medical office I felt I had to give full disclosure, so I stated that my daughter is 3 and my son was stillborn at 37 weeks. This was the first time I had seen this dentist, and right away I didn’t much care for him anyway. He had perfect hair and seemed like just another 40-something, white male toolbag. This impression was confirmed by his response to my disclosure, in which he, without missing a beat, replied, “Aww, that’s too bad,” and then in the next breath, “I’m sure she’ll love the baby. My kids are 5 and 2 and they’re best friends.” Shut up, asshole. Take your perfectly spaced kids and go f yourself. My daughter can’t be best friends with my firstborn son. Because he’s dead.

When I was interviewing to get into the aforementioned master naturalist training, one of the questions was to describe a time where something didn’t go as expected and how I handled it. All I could think was, “Well, I was pregnant, and the pregnancy had supposedly been going fine, and I was three weeks away from my due date, and then my baby died. How did I handle it? I spent the next year-plus consumed by grief and anger and anxiety. So, I guess I handled it pretty shittily.” I can’t remember what answer I gave instead.

On a related note, I was eating lunch with some of the other students in the training program one day when this annoyingly self-absorbed 20-year-old decided to embark on an elaborate retelling of how he was once called to substitute in an intramural college soccer game and had to dash across campus to catch the bus. He attends Cornell and, in true Andy Bernard fashion, is always reminding us of that fact, and as he told the story I got the sense that this close call with the stupid soccer bus just might have been the most dramatic thing that has ever happened to him. There was more than one person at the table, so I was able to sneak away without being rude, stuffing down the urge to mutter, “Man, that’s soooo rough. There was this one time I had to check into the hospital to deliver a dead baby. That tooootally sucked.”

Luke’s first birthday in August fell on a Sunday. We visited him at the cemetery and added a few items to his box. We brought cupcakes, mostly for Zoe’s sake, and read a few books. Because I’ve lived and breathed his loss every day since he died, it honestly didn’t feel that much different than every other day. It just felt like a pathetic little commemoration, and I wish we could have done more to honor him.

More than a year after Luke’s loss, most of the people in our lives have moved on. Only a few hardcore carers still ask us how we are doing. Hardly anyone included his name on Christmas cards, which were full of cheery messages that failed to acknowledge how shitty and sad we might be feeling given the huge hole in our family where a 1-year-old boy should be.

After a year of needling our hospital to acquire a Cuddle Cot so families experiencing perinatal loss can spend more time with their babies, the hospital finally installed one. They ended up paying for it so we didn’t have to conduct any fundraisers, which was great on the one hand, but on the other hand, the other loss moms and I who’d been working on this weren’t really able to participate much in the endeavor in a way that would have allowed us to commemorate our children. The hospital didn’t even coordinate the cot into their annual perinatal loss ceremony for Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month—at which they released balloons, which I hate, and despite my asking them not to, so I didn’t/couldn’t even attend. Maybe next year I’ll organize a ceremony of my own.

We recently attended a birthday party for one of Zoe’s classmates. It was at one of those indoor bouncehouses where the kids run around like maniacs for an hour or two, then retreat to the party room and eventually collapse into a sugar coma. In the waiting area before we went back to one of the rooms, an old codger walked up to Zoe and one of her little friends. I think he thought they were sisters or something. But for some reason he asked Zoe, “And where’s your brother?” Zoe didn’t know how to respond, and in my mind, I told him, “In the f’in ground. Now shut the f up and go away.” Why do so many old people lack filters and common sense?

Until next time …

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.