A Decade of Grief

Trigger Warning: This post contains references to baby loss, stillbirth, grief, reproductive rights, and medical termination.

 

Today is the 10th birthday of one of my sons.  But he isn’t here to celebrate.

Instead today is a sombre and emotionally challenging day for my husband and I as it has been for ten years.  Our son was stillborn.  I have written before about what that experience of grief feels like for me, about how we cope with his absence.  This year, however, as I approached the anniversary of our son’s birth and death, coping felt much harder than it has in recent years.  It feels somehow heavier, more omnipresent.  I think it may be because this year marks a decade and that feels significant.  We make a fuss over our living children reaching double digits so maybe that is why.  Maybe it is just because we often measure life’s experiences in decades.  Maybe it is just because grief is bloody hard to live with.

I talk and write openly about baby loss and stillbirth because it is a subject that is still so taboo despite the fact that so many families endure it.  There is one aspect of my loss, however, that I have not written publicly about before.  This year I feel compelled to do so.  While I am unsure as to why this year feels more difficult, I do know why I feel compelled to share something more about my experience of loss in a way I have not before.  That is because the current political climate here in the US (where I have lived for almost 5 years now) has triggered another debate about reproductive rights and women’s access to safe abortions.  So I am choosing now to be brave enough to share another aspect of my story in the hope that maybe it helps someone going through the same or that perhaps it reaches someone and prompts a widening in perspective on such a personal and emotive subject.

My son was stillborn a decade ago.  He was stillborn because we made the decision to induce labour early.  Starkly and frankly, my son’s stillbirth was the result of a medical termination.  Maybe that shocks you.  If you know me personally or have been reading my blog for long enough that you feel you know me, maybe that detail even makes you think differently about me.  Certainly, in the immediate aftermath of his birth and our loss, I severed a friendship with someone who told me that, while she was sorry for what I was going through, I had “murdered” my child.  Frankly, I choose not to accept or absorb the judgment of others because we are secure in the decision we chose to make.

Let me make clear from the get go that my son was a much wanted baby.  As a family, we were excited to welcome another baby into our lives and expand our happy little family.  My pregnancy was going swimmingly with far fewer complications than I had experienced in my previous pregnancies.  For multiple logistical reasons, I travelled alone to the appointment for my anomaly scan.  The hospital was over an hour away so it was a long drive but a pleasant one.  I felt confident everything would be OK because everything seemed to be going so well compared to my previous pregnancies, the successful ones as well as the miscarriages.  I was also excited for the opportunity to see my baby in so much detail.

It was during that scan, however, that my world came crashing down around me.

As a veteran of anomaly scans, I could tell when a sonographer was having to check something out in more detail.  This time, however, I could tell the sonographer was worried by whatever it was she was having to explore in more detail.  I actually asked her what was wrong before she told me.  There was a problem with my baby’s renal system, that’s all she could tell me.  She needed me to go right away to a hospital in the city for a doctor to have a better look.

I was in a daze as I was told which hospital to go to, which doctor would be seeing me, asked if I was OK to drive, could I please have something to eat before I left.  I remember feeling like I was suffocating under some sort of gauze.  Everything felt blurry, stifled.  I honestly don’t even remember the drive between the two hospitals.  I guess I had to stop thinking in order to concentrate on just the process of driving into the city and finding my way to the hospital.  Somehow, goodness knows how, I arrived without incident.  When I walked into the reception area, a nurse was already waiting for me.  Her face was kindly but pitying.   I felt instantly cold and numb and nauseous. Between her expression and the fact they were not even making me sign in or wait, I knew with sudden clarity that the news was just going to get worse.

And the news, of course, was worse.  Much worse.  The doctor confirmed that there was a problem with my baby’s renal system.  His kidneys had not developed.  Consequently, my baby was not able to process fluids.  His tiny body was swollen with fluid.  His lungs were being crushed and could not, therefore, develop properly.  There was nothing they could do.  His condition was incompatible with life.

Incompatible with life.

I felt like I was falling or sinking.  I had set out that day with so much excitement and hope for the future and now …. Now the future I had envisaged was going to be different.  The doctor explained those possible futures but I was not absorbing the information at all.  I was suffocating again, still sinking.

I was taken to a private room by the kindly nurse.  She sat me down in a comfy chair, ordered me to eat some shortbread that she forced into my hands, and told me she was going to make me some tea.  When she returned with the tea, she explained to me what the doctor had said and checked I understood.  I did understand.  I had choices but none of them were real choices.  None of them were the choice I wanted which was to have my baby and take him home and love him and nurture him and raise him.  All of the choices resulted in an outcome I did not want, could not accept.  I had never felt more alone and lost.  The nurse cupped my hands in hers and told me I had time to make the decision, I didn’t have to decide now, shouldn’t decide now.  She told me to go home and talk things through with my husband and to phone her when we had made our choice.  Our choice that wasn’t a choice.

That drive home felt like the longest and loneliest drive of my life.  I drove through the mountain glens and around the lochs on autopilot because my mind was lurching between buzzing and being numb.  And then I was home.  And I didn’t really want to be.  Because now I had to tell my husband the news and we would have to discuss it and make a decision.  Because now I would have to tell my children that their new baby sibling would never be coming home to them.  I did what I had to do because, in a time of personal crisis, all we can do is take a deep breath, put one foot in front of the other, and take the steps that propel life forward as best as we can.

We discussed our choices over time.  All the while, the baby tumbled and kicked inside me.  All those flickers of life.  Incompatible with life.  I felt like I knew this little being who was growing inside me, this little person who I already loved keenly, and yet I knew I would never get to know him outside my womb.  I told him I loved him over and over.  I wished I could freeze time.  I needed those kicks and punches and tumbles to never stop.

The choices we had were for me to carry the baby until the point at which I spontaneously miscarried or to have labour induced and deliver the baby before I reached that point.  There was no expectation that I would manage to carry to term and nor would it make a difference to the outcome anyway.  All the choices resulted in the same outcome: “incompatible with life”.  There was no scenario in which my baby lived.  The doctor had made clear that there was some risk to my own life in waiting to miscarry naturally, especially since we lived so far from the hospital – almost 90 miles away.  I had to think of my three living children.  I couldn’t risk being incapacitated or worse and putting them through even more loss and trauma.  So we made our decision.  We accepted a choice that felt like no choice at all.  We decided to induce labour and have the baby delivered early.

The way I choose to look at our choice is that I was switching off my baby’s life support system.  It just happens to be that I was the life support machine.  It was my body that was sustaining his tiny life and I had to disconnect my baby from the machine that was me in order to end his suffering.  As much as I wanted to keep feeling his life inside me, I knew that with each passing week his fragile little body was being crushed by more fluid.  I felt I was being selfishly cruel trying to keep him alive for longer.  I had to be merciful and let him go.  I had to switch off the machine.

Having taken time to really think things through, we were already at peace with our decision when we arrived at the hospital.  Being at peace with the decision did not mean it was easy to walk through those doors.  It really wasn’t, not remotely.  It was the most complex, challenging, and searingly anguishing decision we have ever had to make.  Nothing about it was easy.  But we knew that we were making the right decision for our baby and, ultimately, for our family.  Therefore, we were at peace with the decision and the choice that was not a choice.

It was a beautiful September day and the light was streaming into the delivery room.  My husband and I always remember that glow of the Autumn light and the conkers on the chestnut tree just outside the window.  What I also remember is hearing all of the other noises coming from adjacent delivery suites.  All around me I could hear women yelling and grunting in pain and determination and then there would be the joyful noise of a newborn baby crying.  It absolutely withered me inside, made my chest seize up with sorrow and despair, to know that I would labour like those women but the result would only be silence.  My baby would never cry or yell.  My baby would most likely not even breathe.

I will spare you all the medical detail.  When my labour cramps started, I immediately wanted to resist them.  Each contraction was taking me further away from my baby, was part of the process of separating us.  As much as I had made peace with our decision to have him delivered early, I wanted to cling on ferociously to every single moment that he was still inside me.  When it was time to push, I roared not with physical pain but with emotional anguish.  It was time to part.

He was born and the room was silent.

He was delivered inside his sac, a caul covering part of his head.  For my seafaring ancestors, this was a good omen.  A caul was a charm against drowning.  I felt the irony.  The midwives removed him from his caul, informed me that he was a boy, and handed him to me.

He was tiny but perfect.  His skin was pink but more translucent than that of a full-term baby.  He had ten little fingers and ten little toes.  My husband and I held him, kissed him, hugged him close, told him how much we loved him.  My husband carried him over to the window so that the warm sunlight would touch his delicate skin.  We were allowed to spend a lot of time with him but, no matter how much time we were given, it was never going to be enough.  We wanted a lifetime with him.  We were being denied a lifetime with our baby boy and we wanted as much time as we could have.  We understood, however, that our time was limited.  Parting with our son, this time forever, was an agony I absolutely cannot express in words.

Leaving the hospital empty-handed was utterly awful.  Two of our three living sons had been born in the same hospital – our youngest would be born there eight months later.  We should have been leaving the hospital with a newborn baby just as we had before.  I was ordered to wait in the lobby area while my husband brought the car up from the car park, since I was unsteady on my feet.  I sat in that lobby area waiting and watching, seeing new dads bound through the door with wide smiles, grandparents arriving with balloons and stuffed animals, and I watched parents leave through those doors with brand new, squishy, wrinkly little babies.  I felt crushed.  When my husband arrived, we walked through the doors together but alone.

We left that hospital as grieving parents.  We have been grieving parents ever since.  There was a before and there was an after.  Our lives have never been the same since.  We were shaped by that experience.  Walking across the threshold of that hospital that day ten years ago was a dividing line between who we were before and who we have been since.  As I have written before, the grief never actually leaves.  The healing is about learning to cope but the wound of bereavement is never completely repaired.  The wound easily reopens.  That is why I can feel the loss of our son so keenly even now, an entire decade on.  As painful as our navigation of loss has been, however, we have never once regretted our decision.  Never.  Not once.  Do I wish things could have been different?  Of course I do.  But there was no realistic prospect of things being different for us.  There was no path we could have chosen that would have led to our baby coming home with us.  Every option available to us involved walking through those doors empty-wombed and empty-handed and shattered by grief.  Our choice at least ensured that I was walking through those doors and returning home to our children.

So yes we have grief and we have pain that we live with.  But we don’t have regret.  We made our choice that was never a choice.  And we remain at peace with that choice.

Thank you for reading.

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Wonky Selfie

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, / Gang aft agley”.  Robert Burns might as well have been writing about my summer.  We pulled off the travel plans but all my other schemes either went totally pear-shaped or just entirely withered on the vine.  I do a sort of homeschooling, educating by stealth, summer project with my kids ever summer – have done since my oldest was a preschooler – but this summer the project had to be abandoned because pretty much everything else got derailed by so many stupid things plus my flipping awful oral pain.  Anyway, in early June I had this whole vision that I would have so much art time – so very much art time – over the summer break.  Ha!  Yeah.  Didn’t happen.  In fact, I have probably spent less time on art this summer than in previous summers.  Sigh.

For that reason, I desperately had to eke out whatever art time I could to make sure I don’t rust up to the point of my creative joints being totally seized up.  I wanted to do something really loose.  There was an Art Journal Adventure prompt from a couple of weeks ago about “doodling”.  I thought that would be the perfect thing to do for some super-quick art time in my art journal.  Determined to be loose and not fuss about perfection, I decided to draw with my non-dominant hand (which is my left) and – for a bit more challenge – using the blind contour technique.  I opted for a self-portrait because I figured I would be familiar with the shapes, forms, and proportions of my own face so that the drawing didn’t get too abstract and crazy.

I used pencil just to avoid making a total mess while not looking at my page but I did not erase a single mark.  What I did was go over those pencil marks with microns in three different sizes, just for a bit of variety and interest.  Then I added watercolour and – to keep the challenges coming – I painted with my left hand.  I am actually stunned by how well I painted with my non-dominant hand.  Certainly I achieved keeping things looser than normal.  For other people, this drawing probably is not remotely loose but, believe me, for me this is loose.

34 - Self-Portrait- Blind Contour & Non-dominant hand

Zombies!

I’ve embarked on another challenge – my second year of participating in the Brooklyn Art Library’s Sketchbook Project. My subject is going to be Zombies. I’ll be posting my completed drawings over on my art-only blog, Pict Ink, and on Instagram. Visit me in either location if you want to have a look.

Pict Ink

Last year was my first year participating in the Brooklyn Art Library Sketchbook Project.  I enjoyed participating so much that I immediately decided to dive in and sign up for this year’s project too.  However – upon receiving this year’s sketchbook pack – I then sat with it for months, procrastinating and failing to make a single mark in its blank pages.

It was not that I was intimidated by the blank page or didn’t know how to start.  Instead, I found I was crippled by having too many options.  I was brimming with ideas for several of the project’s themes and just could not make a decision as to which theme to settle on and then which subject to illustrate.  Ultimately, it got to the point where I had to crawl out of my own head, quit over-thinking, and just put pen to paper.  Late one night, when…

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Niagara Falls

We couldn’t possibly be in the Buffalo area and not visit Niagara Falls.  I am told that the Canadian side is prettier but, for various complicated reasons, I am unable to cross an international border right now so we had to plan our trip around staying on the American side.  I have seen so many images and so much footage of Niagara Falls and it is so very commercial and touristy that I felt there was a risk I would be underwhelmed by seeing the Falls for myself.  However, I was neither disappointed or deflated.

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Niagara Falls is in fact a gathering of three waterfalls, a fact which I had not really appreciated before my visit.  In order of viewing them from the American side, there was the American Falls, the Bridal Falls, and the Horseshoe Falls.  The latter straddles the international border and is the most powerful waterfall in North America.  Wanting to see the Falls from as many perspectives as we could, we decided to get tickets for the Maid of the Mist.  We were given blue ponchos and headed aboard the boat.  It was actually really cool to see the Falls from water level, to experience the roar and strength of the spray, in order to really appreciate the power of the Falls.  The Horseshoe Falls in particular was so powerful that we had to turn our faces away from the water at times.  It was also kicking up so much spray that our view, once we were as close as possible, was like peering into dense fog.   It might be a super-touristy thing to do but it was actually pretty awesome.

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Having disembarked from the Maid of the Mist, we took in two further perspectives of the Falls.  One of these was a flight of steps that took us up the crags alongside the Falls and the other was a viewpoint high above the Falls.  While I cannot say I was overwhelmed by my visit to Niagara Falls, I definitely was not underwhelmed.  It was very impressive and I was really glad we had made the trip.  Let us just say that I was sufficiently whelmed.

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Family history in Buffalo cemeteries

Something I am certain you know about me is that I love cemeteries.  Even when I don’t have any sort of connection or personal interest in a cemetery, I love to wander around and explore cemeteries and graveyards.  I enjoy the restful tranquility and appreciate the memorial symbolism and funerary sculpture.  Something you may know about me is that I am a total family history nerd and, therefore, when a cemetery has personal significance to my genealogy then it is all the better.  When we were visiting family in update New York, therefore, it was the perfect opportunity to have some family history fun while exploring cemeteries.  I do not have to have a DNA connection in order to be absorbed in a family’s history.  I have researched the genealogy of my step-grandfather, for instance, and when Mr Pict and I became parents, I decided to take on his family history as the custodian of that information for our children – whether they like it or not.  The dead folks I was pursuing in Buffalo, therefore, were not my own but were indeed the ancestors of Mr Pict, specifically his Strickler ancestors.

The Stricklers had arrived in America from Germany at the turn of the 18th Century, fleeing persecution and discrimination for their Mennonite beliefs.  They settled in Pennsylvania (so I have lots of Strickler adventuring to do in future) but, two generations later, Mr Pict’s 4x great-grandfather, Ulrich Strickler, set out with his family north, first to the Niagara River area before settling in Clarence, in New York’s Erie County.  It was in Clarence that we found Ulrich.  Finding the cemetery was a challenge.  It doesn’t appear in GPS listings because it is disused, was never a public cemetery, and now sits on private land.  My research had narrowed the search area and happily my 12 year old caught a glimpse of a distant sign flashing white in the sunlight as we drove a circuit of the relevant streets for the second time.  We disembarked from our cars – as there were 10 of us on this mission – and in no time at all we were in the shady spot where Ulrich Strickler (1767-1838), his wife Magdalena, and various of their relatives are interred.  We had three generations of Stricklers gathered at the grave of their direct ancestor.  That was pretty cool for me as a family history nerd.  The name of the cemetery incidentally is the Strickler Pioneer Cemetery and we also stopped off on Strickler Street for a quick photo of my husband, his mother, and her cousin.

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Next up was Forest Lawn Cemetery.  When I got the other family members on board with the idea of my cemetery trip, my mother-in-law and her cousin had thought they were signing up to visit two cemeteries.  Forest Lawn was the one they had not anticipated and they seemed stricken at the thought of a visit there.  That is because Forest Lawn is a vast city cemetery, covering almost 270 acres and containing over 150,000 graves.  It is where many of Buffalo’s wealthy, successful, and famous residents ended up and is, therefore, home to some spectacular mausoleums and statuary.  I agreed, however, to focus my attention on finding the Strickler graves and I, by and large, kept my promise.  I think the relatives anticipated we would be in the cemetery until dark trying to locate the graves but – thanks to the wonderful volunteers of Find A Grave – I was prepared with the two lots where the most direct ancestors were buried.  It was my father-in-law who found the graves of Daniel Strickler, his second wife and children from both marriages.  Daniel (1809-1901) was the son of Ulrich so these were the 3x Great-Grandparents of Mr Pict – or a full six generations above our kids if that makes more sense.  My mother-in-law has just entrusted me with caring for a blanket made by Daniel’s wife, Eliza Faust, so it was great to see her grave too.  In a nearby lot, it was my mother-in-law’s cousin who almost literally stumbled upon the grave of another of Mr Pict’s 3x Great-Grandparents, this one being Sarah Augusta Tyler, nee Clapp (1831-1920).  It is she who is the connection to John Alden and Priscilla Mullins who came to America on board the Mayflower.

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Despite my commitment to stick to the clusters of Strickler graves in Forest Lawn, I am afraid I did break my promise.  Since we have found ourselves visiting a number of Presidential graves, it did not seem right that I should be in Forest Lawn and not stop off to see Millard Fillmore.  The 13th President is certainly one of the more obscure ones, and perhaps would be even more so if not for his memorable name, and he frequently appears in lists of the nation’s worst presidents.  He is also controversial for a number of reasons but especially his enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act.  Still, I thought I would pop by to have a gander.  In contrast to the more elaborate presidential graves we have seen, Fillmore’s was a simple obelisk.  Nevertheless, it was easy to find thanks to the flag flying above it.

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I also visited the grave of Red Jacket.  I had, however, successfully convinced everyone of a family history connection so they were agreeable to seeing his grand statue, which is sited near one of the cemetery entrances.  Red Jacket (Sagoyewatha) was a Chief of the Seneca and is, of course, famous in his own right.  However, his connection to Mr Pict’s family history involve his remains.  Red Jacket – and many other Native Americans – were originally buried in an Indian Burial Ground that was on land opposite the Stricklers’ houses.  Not being keen on this, the Stricklers successfully petitioned for legislation that led to the closure of the burial ground and the removal of all of the remains, most of which ended up in Forest Lawn, including those of Red Jacket.  Therefore, Red Jacket is only commemorated in Forest Lawn because of the prejudices and insensitivity of Mr Pict’s ancestors.

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All of which is a neat segue into the next location of the family history trip which was to Buffum Street, where generations of Stricklers had owned property and lived and where the original Indian Burial Ground was located.  One of these, at number 49, is currently the focus of a restoration project given its significance as the oldest extant house in South Buffalo.  My mother-in-law and her cousin explained some of the history of the house and then we all wandered along the street to see two other houses that had once been Strickler residencies.  While the older family members chatted with the current occupants, I took the kids across the street to the Indian Burial Ground.  I felt it was important to impress on them the connection between their family history and local history.

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The final cemetery of the day was Woodlawn, where the more recent generations of Stricklers are buried.  Among others, we visited the graves of Allen Darius (1845-1938) and Emma Augusta Strickler (nee Tyler, 1851-1946) who are Mr Pict’s 2x Great-Grandparents (five generations above my boys), and their son, Herbert Arthur Stickler (1881-1951) and his wife Lily, nee Styles (1886-1962).  When figuring all the graves we had visited, not just the direct ancestors but also the collateral ones, we had visited the graves of Stricklers from seven generations.  Now I really must visit the graves of the even earlier Stricklers in Pennsylvania!

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Elemental Sprites

Last week’s Art Journal Adventure prompt was “4” with an additional challenge to use three or more media in the creation of the page.  The obvious subject was the Four Elements and initially I resisted because it was so glaringly obvious.  However, having just depicted a Flame Sprite in my Rainbow Art Journal, I liked the idea of creating an image of other elemental sprites so I decided to go with my first thought and see what developed on the page.  I used micron pens, watercolour, and Inktense pencils in creating the illustration so I fulfilled the side challenge too.  Time and other life limitations meant this page was a much quicker and simpler illustration than the Flame Sprite and the figures are simplified as a result.  However, there is a germ of something in each of them that I might return to and nurture into a more detailed illustration at a later date.

33 - Four Elements Sprites - Art Journal Page

Canandaigua Lake

We recently spent a few days in upstate New York visiting with extended family of Mr Pict’s while his parents were also in the country.  The couple with whom we were staying own a boat so – on our first full day there – we were treated to a trip out on Canandaigua Lake.  Canandaigua is one of New York’s eleven finger lakes.  I learned it was 16 miles long and 1 mile wide (hence the “finger”) and was about 130 feet deep on average – but sinking to 276 feet at its deepest point.  Humphrey Bogart used to vacation at Canandaigua so it’s an upscale kind of place.  We saw plenty of incredible properties lining the shore as we headed out on the boat, some of which had their own funicular systems for getting down the steep hillside to the water’s edge.

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Our kids had never been on a powerboat before so this was a first time experience for them.  They were unsure of the motion of the boat, especially when it slammed into and crested the wakes of other marine vehicles.  They were especially not enjoying the motion when Mr Pict was given a turn at driving the boat.  What they absolutely loved, however, was getting to tube.  A large inflatable was launched into the water and pulled behind the boat with the Pictlings (and sometimes their dad) clinging on.  There were zero complaints about the motion then.  They were grinning and laughing the whole time as they were flung around on the tube.  At first they were tentative and asked that the speed be kept to a minimum but soon they were using their hand signals to request higher speeds.  Our youngest, who had been the most reticent to clamber on to the tube, didn’t even bat an eyelid when he and his father were pitched off the tube and into the lake.

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After a few hours out on the lake, we pulled into one of the marinas and enjoyed an evening meal at one of the bars there.  We felt like we were really getting to experience a little sliver of life as part of the boating set.  I think our kids might be wanting a boat now.