TRIGGER WARNING: This post is about bereavement, stillbirth and parenting.
I have been overwhelmed by the recent response to the post I wrote this time last year, a post titled The Scab of Grief. I have been touched by the words of kindness, the understanding and empathy, and I have been moved by those readers who have chosen to share their experiences of grief. The timing of that post being featured on Freshly Pressed was peculiar in that it occurred just as I was steeling myself for the emotional tumult of my baby’s anniversary once more. At first I thought perhaps that was bad timing but actually all the support for the post has been a source of succour. Thank you for that. Consequently, for this anniversary, I feel compelled to write again about my experience of grief but with a slightly different focus. I drafted this post in advance – as it would be far too difficult to write on the day itself – and almost did not hit “publish” but I feel that if sharing my experience publicly helps even just one person process their own experiences of loss then it is worth doing. Thank you again for all of the support.
Today is the seventh birthday of our son; today is also the seventh anniversary of his death. Every year this day is a commemoration of his loss and each year we strive to frame that loss and his absence in the context of our lives as parents to our four living sons, four wonderful people who we are very lucky to be the parents of. As such, this weekend we will do something fun as a family so that we can all be together while we remember our baby, so we can focus on what we have while feeling our loss. I know some people find it very strange that we have this tradition of marking our son’s birthday but it is what works for us, our strategy for dealing with the grief that wells up from time to time and never more so than on his birthday. As parents, we were forever changed by our experience of stillbirth and as parents we accept that as part of our family life now. Striking the right balance between commemorating the baby we lost while focusing on our living children on days like today is important to us. Our act of remembrance is a celebration of life.
Parenting is full of non-stop challenges; parenting through grief is beset with challenges. From the very beginning, we have considered ourselves to have been very lucky to have living children when our son was stillborn. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to weather the deep and gruelling anguish of such a loss when childless. As I explained a year ago, the responsibility of having living children to care for was what made me dig deep and find the strength to face each day, to battle through the grief by remembering that life goes on. My living sons are a blessing and a balm now as they were then. However, parenting while grieving is extremely difficult and very complicated. There is no adequate guidebook to everyday parenting: it is the most important job any parent will ever have yet there is no training manual, no assessment of competency and skills, no qualifications to achieve; it is just a case of feeling your way through it with instinct, experience and observation and accepting the moments of failure along the way. That’s everyday parenting. Trying to find one’s way through parenting in difficult circumstances, such as through a bereavement, is therefore very difficult indeed.
I remember vividly the moment of walking through the door of my home and my oldest son – then aged 5 – rushing to greet me, yelping excitedly and wanting to know if I had spotted whether he was getting a brother or a sister. I was still reeling with shock myself, having learned that my baby was not going to make it, and I had no idea what to say. My mind was still processing the information I had been given, the prognosis for my unborn child, so I had no idea how to convey this information to my child. Nobody at the hospital had even mentioned my living children let alone how I might begin to explain to them that the baby they were eagerly anticipating would never be coming home. Honestly, I have no idea what I said in that instant, no recollection at all. My next memory is of my oldest son scurrying downstairs and handing me his drawing of me with the baby in my rounded tummy. I assume drawing was his way of trying to process it. In that instant I realised that I had to be mindful and focus on being a parent for the sake of my children.
How do you go through a trauma while trying to prevent your children from being traumatised? How do you deal with soul-shattering anguish while trying to protect your children from such dreadful, overwhelming emotions? We had no guidance whatsoever. We had to trust our instincts. We gave them just the amount of information that was required for them to comprehend what they needed to understand and we concealed the worst of our devastation from them. I am not sure, in retrospect, that our immediate instincts were the most sensible but the overriding instinct was to protect our children.
One of the benefits of having very small children when dealing with grief is that they keep you very busy. My older boys were 5, almost 3 and 18 months old at the time, all demanding ages. During the day, we were kept busy which kept us numb. During the period between the diagnosis and the birth of our son, being busy with the kids and keeping the house running kept us focused on the here and now, minute by minute. It was in the moments of peace and calm that the barely suppressed emotions would surge forth and overwhelm us. For us as the adults that probably was not the healthiest way to process our thoughts and feelings but we felt we had to be parents first and foremost and not let our children see that we were splintering to pieces inside.
After our son was born into silence and we returned home empty handed, we had to parent through the next stage of our grief. Thankfully my husband found it inside himself to be the stronger one who kept things ticking over because I was a mess, physically but mostly emotionally. For the first week, I could not face the world at all. I did not want to see people. I found it very hard to just function on a basic level. My children would have been hermits had it not been for my husband. It was he who maintained a sense of normalcy for the boys. Then, of course, he had no choice but to return to work and I just had to give myself a good, hard talking to and remember that I was a mother and that I had to mother my children. My children are my life and life goes on. That natural instinct became my mantra.
So I returned to the school run, to facing everyone in the playground, pregnant mothers suddenly everywhere. I resumed taking my younger kids to play groups, having to interact with newborn babies. I did these things because my kids needed me to do them and because being a parent had to come before my grief. I just stifled the feelings, shoved them deep down, maintained my focus so as to not let my mind wander, just pushed through it. Except for the moments when I broke down from the emotional pressure. I lost it a few times in public but mostly I did a great deal of crying in the shower, crying until my throat was stripped and my temples throbbed, crying where my kids could not hear or see my pain.
And then I discovered that I was pregnant again. Still bewildered with raw grief, we had to not only find a way to parent our children while processing our thoughts and feelings about our recent loss but had to wrap our heads around the fact we were embarking on another pregnancy. We had to navigate the rocky terrain of hope and fear, excitement and trepidation, joy and terror. And we had to parent our children through that pregnancy too. Their first response when we finally revealed I was pregnant again was to ask if this baby was going to die too. And it was impossible to reassure them, partly because we knew all too well that it was possible something might go wrong again but mostly because it was a pregnancy fraught with complications, hospital visits and eventually a premature delivery. I had to parent my kids through all of that stress and worry on top of the grieving process. In just eight months my children endured the emotional tumult of losing of one sibling and gaining another.
We all came through the storm together and our rainbow baby – our youngest son – was the final piece of the puzzle we needed to be able to see the way forward through the fog of our grief: we had to focus on being a family in order to start to heal from what had happened to us as a family. As we gradually felt stronger, we started to talk about the baby more openly in front of the kids and, when the first anniversary of his loss happened, we decided to do something as a family to commemorate him, to remember. We could accept that he was forever gone but could forever be part of our family life.
Therefore, every year on the closest weekend to our baby’s birthday, we do something as a family. We focus on our blessings, on the miracles that are our living children, on everything we are so lucky to have, while we also remember what we have lost and feel the sadness of his absence. Maybe people find that peculiar but there is no guidebook to grief let alone parenting through grief. We found our way forward in a way that works for the six of us. Really that is all that matters.