Being Okay with Being Okay

On the third Friday of each month, I meet with a group of mothers. Like most mothers groups, we all come from different walks of life, but have our children in common. Unlike most mothers groups, our children do not play underfoot or interrupt our conversation. If anything, our conversation keeps our babies alive.

We are each at different stages in our grief, some of us have seen years pass and some of us have welcomed more children. In this group we are understood, in this group we are not judged and in this group we are all recognised as mothers first and foremost, no matter where our children reside. There are a few of us at a stage in our grief where our new lives feel comfortable and our loss has taken us to passions and purposes that feel overwhelming positive. This in itself is confronting. Did our babies die to provide this new direction? Did they leave so that we could learn hard lessons? How do we reconcile the immense hurt and holes in our lives with the gratitude for new friends, an expanded outlook, and in some cases, the formation of badly needed charities that provide support and research?

Around six months after Xavier died I came across an online loss support group that asked “if you could change your past, and not go through your loss, would you? Think about it carefully before you answer”. At the time, I could not conceive any bereaved parent needing time to answer. My baby, my baby back in my arms in an instant is all I could think. What a ridiculous question to pose I thought. But there were those that were further in in their grief that said that they wouldn’t change their lives. That they had arrived at a point in their journey where they had learned a great deal and had made a kind of peace with their loss. I could not understand that viewpoint at the time, but I can now. I still think it’s the wrong question to ask. An impossible hypothetical with no easy answer. When you reach a point of being okay, not with your loss, but with your life, I think it’s indicative of integration rather than acceptance and certainly not a preference.

The guilty thought “if my baby had died, I would never have met these amazing people” becomes “my baby, their life and their story, which are inextricably linked, led me to these beautiful people”.

The worry “maybe my baby had to die for me to learn this lesson” becomes “all our children teach us important things, mine taught me some of the most important”.

The concern that “my baby’s death has led me to pursue long forgotten passions or renewed my creativity” becomes “I have figured out how to parent my baby – I have created connections with my child.”

The thought “I would not have founded or supported this charity unless my baby died” becomes “every life leaves a legacy and the length of that life in no way correlates to the power or impact of that legacy. My baby continues to make an important and positive impact in the world.”

As a bereaved mother, I feel guilt over so many things. But I will not feel guilty about coming to a place of peace. I will not feel guilty about finding purpose in parenting my boy no longer here. I will not feel guilty about my life reaching a place that feels okay. I worked too damn hard to get here.

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Prayer Flag Tutorials for the Day of Hope

On the 19th August each year, we mark a day of hope.   A day to reflect and honour our much loved babies.  In the lead up to the day, Carly Marie hosts a prayer flag project.  Parents and others touched by the loss of a child are invited to make prayer flags in honour of their child or children.   The project had it’s birth not long after Xavier’s death.  I remember so clearly sitting down and making him a flag, tears streaming, but grateful for something to do.  For the first time, I found something healing to do with my empty hands. I could not stop  making them.  They hang on our verandah, joined by the flag I made last year and the one I have just made.  As Xavier’s birthday is at the beginning of the project, each year I will make  a flag for him, for hope and for healing.  I am drawn to lace and fragility when I create for him. The flags reflect that.  The ones I first made are a little battered and bruised – they are starting to fray.  But I find them even more beautiful this way.  I think it’s an apt metaphor for life after loss.

DSC06160Xaviers Flag by Carly Marie DudleyPrayer Flags

I have a sewing machine and inclination to sew. But you do not need either to make a beautiful flag.

Here are flags you might look to for inspiration.

The Paper Bag Flag 
I wanted to make a flag with objects I had around the house.  As this remains a bag, I have placed all of Xavier’s 2nd birthday cards within it.  If you choose to make this flag, you might like to write a letter to your child and place it within the bag.

Prayer Flag

The Printed Flag
Did you know that you can directly print onto fabric using freezer paper if you have an inkjet photo1-2printer?  Neither did I.  This flag might suit those that prefer to design on-screen than on-fabric.  If you feel uncomfortable printing like this, you could also use transfer paper and iron onto your flag.

 

You Need

  • An A4 sheet of paper
  • A piece of cotton fabric the same size as an A4 sheet of paper
  • Freezer Paper (you can buy this from Spotlight for about $1.50 a meter, they have it behind the counter)
  • A computer
  • An iron
  • An inkjet printer
  • Sewing machine (optional)

To Create

  • Create a design on your computer that you are happy with.  It might include a photo, a verse or a beautiful picture.  I chose to include Xavier’s footprint and a quote that speaks to me.  Keep in mind the final flag will be 9inches (width) x 12inches (height) when creating your design.
  • Using the A4 sheet of paper as a template, cut the freezer paper and the fabric.  They should be the same size.  
  • Iron the freezer paper onto the fabric.    This article gives more detailed instructions – please follow them – I would hate for anyone to damage their printer!
  • Print onto the fused together freezer paper and fabric, ensuring that your print will be on the fabric side.
  • Peel off the freezer paper.
  • Trim or hem your fabric to size 9inches (width) x 12inches (height).  If sewing, fold the top over with enough room to thread through a ribbon to hang your flag.  If trimming, you might like to hang your flag with pegs.
  • I chose to sew a heart around the image.  It would also be sweet to add beads or other objects precious to you and your baby.

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I dearly hope your creative process brings you healing, hope and mostly, a sense of connection with your baby.

First birthdays, Rainbows and Growing Up

In a few short weeks Elijah will turn one. It is impossible. My tiny baby is growing up. I feel the melancholy of every mother as he takes his first tentative steps away from babyhood. My heart aches as I put away the clothes he no longer fits, knowing that the next baby to wear them will not be my own. I look at his photos, taken when he was so new and tiny and wish myself back to that moment. He takes up so much space now – in his cot, his pram, his car seat – and I feel a pang as I remember when he looked so little in all of those places.
As a bereaved mother, One feels improbable. I have only just accepted that Elijah’s presence is permanent. I was drinking him in, savouring him, fearing that if I did not, I would deeply regret it when he left. He has not left and he will not leave but I am grateful that I have treasured the moments so carefully. I never let myself believe that Elijah would be one, or two, or twenty. It seemed presumptuous and arrogant. And now, here we are, on the brink of a year on earth.
Elijah was never born to replace Xavier, but we did think he would bring healing and hope. He has brought both in equal measure. As a newborn, I projected a comforting, healing personality onto my son. When babies are too tiny to express their opinions, we imagine what they may be thinking. Look at their little faces and prescribe thoughts to their expressions. We form an idea of their personality, their likes and dislikes before their personalities emerge. Part of Elijah will always represent healing to me, but he is so much more outside that persona. He suddenly has a host of opinions on a variety of things. He gazes at his brother adoringly and will laugh at his antics with a giggle reserved purely for Isaac. He will reach out for cuddles from the people he loves. He will try to pat any dog that might come his way, accompanied with a determined “d-d-d”. He will attempt to catch and return a ball. He scoots along the floor, with his funny crawl, at top speed with a broad smile when his father comes to the door. He wiggles his way out of my arms to explore and demands being scooped back into them when he has satisfied his curiosity. He has dozens of toys, but will always choose the Tupperware and DVD drawers as his favourite play things. He is funny and bright and calm and inquisitive. He is not the sage old soul brought on earth to give me comfort that I may have first imagined. He is light and colour but he is so much more than a rainbow baby. He is Elijah. And as he grows up, as I am sure he will, I look forward to learning ever more about him.

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Clipping their wings?

In our house we don’t just greet the day, we launch a full-on assault on the morning.  As soon as it hits 6am, Isaac barrels into our room, full of energy and verve.  There is no slow wake up, although N bravely and resolutely pretends to sleep through it all.   Before kids I considered myself a morning person.  I would get up early and enjoy a (hot) cup of tea, watch the sunrise and read.   It was gentle.  There is no gentle anymore.  Isaac goes from zero to a hundred at a pace that would spin the head of any race car driver.  

For the past two weeks his extreme energy have filled my days.  I am unsure whether I had forgotten his intensity or whether the constrains of school meant it was building all semester.  But my little boy was in full flight over the break. His energy fills me with awe, is slightly terrifying and is mostly exhausting.   I find myself losing patience, not because he is naughty (although we have plenty of that too) but because the sheer pace of him fatigues me.   I have asked him to turn it down, to calm down, to take a breath, to lower the intensity.   When I ask why he is so full on, he replies, wide eyed, “I am just so excited”.  “About what, my love”, I ask.  The eyes open wider: “About everything mummy!”  

Everything is exciting when you are five year old boy.   I didn’t grow up with brothers but  close friends of mum and dad at our church had boys.  I remember their manic energy.  My sister and I would thrill to their madness.  Crazy antics undertaken for no reason other than they could.   We would giggle and call them “bonkers” which would only send them to an even sillier place.  I’d forgotten all about those boys until I saw their behaviour mirrored in my son.  And I worry that there are limited places for that energy to unfurl.  

I often speak to other parents about how differently we do things from our own parents.   I imagine we are romanticising a little. I don’t think every parent in the seventies and eighties sent their children off in the morning, blithely unaware of their whereabouts and didn’t expect them home until dinner.  But they certainly didn’t hover as we do.    They gave us room and space to make mistakes and figure our way out of them.   Now, dangers real and imagined stymy that space.  It feels likes the larger community is quick to tut tut and point out parenting flaws, but less inclined to help recreate a space where children can exercise the freedom we once enjoyed.  

I am a cautious parent – it’s hard not to be when you have lost a child.  But I also have a sense of fatalism that I didn’t before.  We simply cannot protect our kids from everything.   Xavier died doing nothing more dangerous than sleeping.   When fate points its bony finger at your family, there is nothing you can do.   In reality, there aren’t more evil people around than there used to be – we are just hyper-aware of when bad things happen.   It is not good luck that protects our children – it’s incredibly bad luck to have something happen to them.  We don’t live in a world full of bad people, but we have created a community were people are scared to do the right thing for fear of being judged as doing the wrong thing.  

And I wonder if our collective fear is stopping our children from finding their wings and soaring.

Connections with my Son-shine

These will always be the hardest days of the year – his birthday, his anniversary and the short days in between. A curtain is lifted.  Those days, my head space, the evocative smells and sounds belonging to this time of year, all conspire to draw him closer. The memories coming rushing back, clear and raw. My thoughts are once again full of him. And even as my heart breaks, I am thankful for the deeper connection these days bring.

It is a precious thing, this connection with my son. A considered thing, a nurtured thing.

When Xavier first left, I knew I could not relate to him as a newborn.  He had become something else and I had to find a differently shaped relationship.   The newborn baby on the television, the billboard for a maternity hospital, the tiny little boy being held by his mother – those things were too hard to bear.  They brought me pain and I desperately wanted to sustain a relationship that was based on more than hurt.  Grief tied me to my son, but something else, something stronger, needed to connect us.

I feel him in dozens of ways, and most strongly in the sunshine’s rays. It has helped me enormously to have something so constant in my life that feels like it belongs to him. To have something family and friends can hold to and let me know they felt him near. Something accessible and relatable and hopeful. I have taken dozens of photos over these past days, often intentionally of sunny rays of light. Then there are the photos that I never intended to be filled with light, but rays of sunshine still made their way in. There are the beautiful signs that friends have shared that seem too coincidental to be anything but Xavier reaching out.

We are taught to doubt the things we cannot see. We are taught to be skeptical and to close our minds to that which we do understand. But when something happens that defies explanation, when the impossible becomes your reality, new possibilities open up.  When life, brand new life, is proved fallible, you have to wonder what is beyond it.   If a baby can die for no reason, then is it such a stretch that their spirit stays near? If medicine cannot explain what happened to my son, why not accept the inexplicable signs and coincidences that have occurred as being from him? If I am asked to have faith that nothing could have saved him and that his brain was fundamentally flawed, why not have faith that he still lives around and in us? I have had to accept so much that seems doubtful and unreal, that accepting the things I once would have scoffed does not seem a great stretch. I do believe that Xavier’s spirit is near and real. Whether the manifestations of that are real or imagined matters little. Whether he lives on within me or external to me, he still lives on.  Whether my beautiful friends remember him because they are moved by his spirit, or their compassion for me, it matters not – there is still loved expressed because he was here.  I hear his voice sometimes – whether it’s my imagination or truly his spirit speaking is irrelevant – I still hear his voice.   The nature of the connection does not matter, the existence of a connection is what is important.  And for those whose scientific minds do not allow such flights of fancy, I leave you with the beautifully comforting words of Aaron Freeman:

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly