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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Rainbow Art Journal – Masque of the Red Death

Since visiting two of Edgar Allan Poe’s former houses recently, I wanted to include something Poe-inspired in my Rainbow Art Journal.  So, still focusing on the red section, I decided to create a page inspired by the story ‘The Masque of the Red Death’.  I enjoy working with a limited colour palette and that was true of this page which is restricted to just red, black, and white.  You may have noted that I also return fairly regularly to the subject of skulls and skeletons.  I don’t think I am generally a macabre person; I just find that sort of thing fascinating.  I am fairly pleased with how this page turned out.  It was a struggle to maintain the proportions across the two pages and ultimately I failed to do so but I think the illustration still works.  Just.  I use spiral bound journals for convenience but they definitely hinder my ability with double page spreads, that’s for sure.  Still, I like the finished pages enough that I may use them as inspiration for a proper painting at some stage.

16a Masque of the Red Death

16b Masque of the Red Death

The Case of the Zombie Cicada

It is not unusual at this time of year, as Summer slowly starts to wend its way into Autumn, to start finding dead cicadas on the ground.  Cicadas produce the sound of the summer – a modulating, thrumming buzz like the sound of hundreds of tiny maracas or drum kits.  Finding their corpses, therefore, is a signal that summer is nearing its end.

What is unusual, however, is to find a zombie cicada.  If anyone was going to find a zombie cicada, however, it was going to be me.

I was collecting in the washing from the line when I spotted a cicada hobbling across the patio.  Guessing it was injured, I picked it up.   I studied the cicada in my hand and noted that he was missing a leg.  I assumed a bird must have tried to eat him.  What a shame, I thought, to be missing a leg.  My youngest son is also obsessed with cicadas and collects their shed skins so I knew he would be interested in seeing a cicada and especially one who, like our older cat, was missing a leg.  But incredibly it was only once my kids were handling the cicada that I realised he was missing more than a leg.  He was, in fact, missing his entire abdomen.  This cicada was managing to hobble around and climb without having a body.  It was the Undead!

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As zombie fans, we were all excited to have found a zombie cicada.  My kids wanted to keep him as a pet.  They reasoned and argued that he stood no chance of surviving without our assistance.  I pointed out that he stood no chance on surviving in a house with two cats either.  They named him Worf because he liked to cling-on to them.  Naming the cicada did their case no good.  I refused to adopt the Undead cicada.  We left him to go his merry way.

The next day, we found an actually fully dead cicada.  My youngest son wanted to adopt that one too.  He wanted to go full Frankenstein and see if we could revive it.  Things were easier when he just collected their sloughed off skins.

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Rainbow Art Journal – Lady Death

Continuing with the monochrome black and white theme in my Rainbow themed art journal, I decided to challenge myself to work in white on top of black.  I did not have a subject in mind as I loaded the black acrylic on to the pages and actually cannot remember if anything in particular sparked the idea but I decided to draw an illustration of a female Death figure.  I opted against using pencil to sketch anything in so I worked directly in paint pen and gel pen to build up the figure, shape by shape, piece by piece.  The lack of pencil scaffolding meant that some of my proportions went skew-wiff (the arm on the right is too long) but otherwise I thoroughly enjoyed the freedom and spontaneity of working directly in pen and piecing all of the fragments together into one whole.  I did, however, completely use up my broader tipped paint pen so I really put the tools through a work out.  It took me a few sessions of drawing to complete it but it was a relaxing activity.

7a Lady Death

Parenting while Grieving

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.

The Scab of Grief

Six years ago today, I gave birth to my fourth son.  It was one of the worst days of my life.

Today is my baby boy’s sixth birthday.  As he was stillborn, today is also the sixth anniversary of his death.

In the immediate aftermath of his loss, I wondered how I could ever face moving forward, aching with emptiness as I was.  But life does go on.  As much as I felt an overwhelming compulsion to never leave home ever again, the weight of grief sitting so heavily on me, I had three other children to take care of.  I had to pick up and get on with it.  I had to keep going for them.  My living children were the life that goes on.  Life is to be lived for the living and that is what we do.  Our lost baby is very much a part of our family: we can talk about him openly with our living children – including the youngest who was born eight months later – and as a family we have marked his birthday in order to commemorate the part he played in our lives.  Our tradition is to do something fun as a family and then do something special, something quiet and reflective, in the evening as we remember him.  I believe that with each child you have, you don’t divide the love you have but instead that love multiplies.  And so I tell myself that the love I would have given to my lost baby son, I can bestow as extra love upon my four living sons.  That’s what we do.  That is how we cope.

Exactly a year ago, in an emotionally wretched coincidence of dates, we left our home in Scotland for the last time.  Of course, we were not just leaving behind our home, our community, our friends and colleagues, but we were also preparing to leave the country.  We were moving our lives forward.  Life was going on, as it must, but all the places that had significance in the brief existence of our lost son were also being left behind.  Life goes on.  And sometimes that is hard.

So we come to this year and, yet again, life is moving on.  We have moved into our new house, our permanent house, a place that will become our family home.  A home where the six of us will have new experiences, ups and downs, forging new memories.  The new house won’t be entwined with our precious memories of our baby’s brief existence as our unborn son.  Because life moves forward.  Because life moves on.  And sometimes that is hard.

Six years on, I can get through most days without his memory being anything other than a tiny, dull ache at the back of my mind, a scrap of pain as tiny as he was, as delicate as he was, as fragile as he was.  Other days, the days leading up to and on his birthday or other significant dates, the emotion comes flooding back and I am transported back to the raw anguish of the day he was born.

The saying goes that time heals but that’s not quite true.  Time just makes it easier to deal with because you develop coping strategies as time goes on and the raw pain dulls to an ache that some days you might not even notice.  Just as with the deaths of my older brothers, 11 and almost 30 years ago, so too with each passing year the grief of our baby’s stillbirth is that little bit easier to bear.  Time, however, does not heal.  Time has taught us to cope.  Grief, in my experience at least, is like a wound that gradually closes and scabs over but the scar is always there nevertheless.  Ever so often – such as on a significant date or when something unexpectedly jolts the memory – the raw, searing anguish comes flooding back and it is as if that scab has been torn right off.  Gone are the coping strategies, gone is the focus on other things, and beneath that is the grief that is always present, as vulnerable as the new skin beneath the scab.

And so I  remember – on a day such as today – that no matter where we now live in the world, no matter how hectic our lives have become, no matter in what ways our lives move forward, because life is for the living, in some significant, special way, our baby son is always with us, whether it is in the form of a cherished memory on the many gentler days or whether it is the pain that returns on the difficult days like today.

Life moves on.  Today that is hard.

Thank you for reading.