Today

 

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Xavier’s birthday prayer flag

Of all the days, he chose today.  Today to wake in his own bed. It’s something to be celebrated. Something we’ve been encouraging. But this morning, of all mornings, I wanted him beside me. To breathe in his still faintly baby smell and to have his pudgy little hands grasp my cheeks.

His older brother didn’t come in either.  Deeply asleep in his room. There was no bounce to greet the day. If their middle brother had lived, there would be bounce. There would be presents and laughter and wrapping paper strewn every which way.

Instead, I go into the boys rooms. Hand softly on hearts. Checking that they are still breathing. Because today, of all days, I don’t presume a thing.

I have a shower and my thoughts unravel for the day. The cleaners are coming and my white, middle class guilt about that kicks in. Today I won’t tidy. Today they will have to manage around discarded train tracks. I think about the cost and then the cost of daycare that ostensibly allows me to work.  And whether any of it is worth it. I stop short of calculating my hourly wage. Fallen so far from corporate high flying. It’s dangerous territory when I’m feeling useless. When my thoughts are skating around the inevitable. I haven’t bought him a present yet. What sort of mother leaves it until her son’s birthday to buy a present? I try to tell myself to stop but my heart isn’t in it. There is a strong part of me that welcomes self destruction. Today, of all days.

I choose my clothes carefully. Which would seem odd to most people. But clothes have always been armour. I wear jewellery laden with meaning.  A necklace with his initial and foot print.  A butterfly brooch. I look in the mirror and I am old.  Tired and sallow.

My phone sits on the counter and I reach for it out of habit.  Today the tide of routine is what will keep me going.  There are so many messages. So many people remembering him. Tears fall. Not drought breaking but enough to give some relief. This day that has all the grief rolled onto it. So far from my everyday reality. There are only a handful of days I let myself cry. Birthday, Anniversary, Mother’s Day. I let the grief build and build and build and then the calendar demands its release. Today of all days.

This day. His birthday. Four years old and forever newborn.

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When grief comes unbidden

I was upset yesterday. As much as I tired, I could not keep the tears from falling. As much as I tried, I could not bring myself back from the brink. The tears were a disproportionate response to someone else’s actions.  I was with friends and embarrassed at the emotion I could not hold onto. The emotion that was unfairly spilling over into their afternoon.

In the objective light of the next morning, I understand the combination of factors that led to those tears.  Four hours of sleep the previous night. Four or five glasses of bubbles. A whole day dedicated to mother’s day, and in particular mothering boys. Hearing the heart break of another mother who has two boys with her and one in heaven. I was standing on an emotional ledge and it would have taken very little provocation to push me into tears.

The dark stain of grief no longer touches my every day.  In the early days after Xavier died, there would be good minutes amongst the bad. Then good hours amongst the bad. Eventually, good days between the bad. And that continued to stretch, until the good days outnumbered the bad. Nowadays, the bad days are far and few between. But they still hit. And the ferocity with which they hit does has not reduced exponentially in the same way that their frequency has. It’s one of the strange things about grief – you imagine that it continues to reduce, but it doesn’t – it flares.

Those flares can be dis-orienting. I find myself confused, searching for why my emotions are suddenly askew after a period of gentleness.  It always takes time for my head to catch my heart. And even as it dawns on me, it concerns me. I don’t want to use my grief as an excuse. I don’t believe that my grief over my son becomes a blanket excuse for bad behaviour.  I don’t want to use it as a cop-out. And I don’t want my friends and family to immediately assume that whenever I am emotional that it is tied to Xavier.

Grief is a double edged sword. On the one hand, I feel that I can survive anything after living through the death of my son. That nothing can touch me after that. That every other potentially upsetting thing fades into insignificance. On the other hand, when grief has left me raw, then I am emotionally vulnerable, unable to access the resilience that his death gave me.  It’s as though that heart scar has been pulled away, red and raw again, sensitive to the slightest touch.  At other times, that scar tissue has hardened to a point that I don’t even feel pressure against it.  But I don’t always know which emotional state I am in – sometimes the scar test is what reveals it to me. When mother’s day approaches, and with it birthdays and anniversaries soon after, I can presume a level of emotional tenderness.

And hope those around me understand.

The season of grief – Mother’s Day and beyond.

My beautiful Dad created this image of all three of my boys.

My beautiful Dad created this image of all three of my boys.

My annual season of grief has begun. It starts with the memories of two little boys whom I never met, but hold dear. March & April saw their respective anniversaries. I remember those two little boys always. But on the days belonging to them, I spent some time thinking about them and their dear mothers.

Since I lost Xavier, ANZAC day has gained a different kind of meaning. I remember the first ANZAC day after I lost Xavier. For the first time in my life, I did not think of the diggers and their sacrifices during the minute silence. I thought instead of their mothers, their children and the memories that would never be made. I thought about grandchildren who would never been born and worlds shattered that had to continue turning. I have no experience of a battle field. I don’t know what horrors lie there. I don’t pretend my grief is the same as the mother who loses her adult son to the bloody futility of war, but I know a little of that pain. I know how life cracks when a parent buries their child.

May holds Mother’s Day and duality of emotions. Elation that I get to celebrate my two boys on earth and an aching sadness for the one not here. Doubt as I receive presents heralding me as “World’s Best Mum”. For clearly, I am not. The World’s Best Mum would have saved her child. The happiest days can be the hardest. Pressure to be jovial for the children in your arms and pressure to grieve harder for the one not there. Always trying to make space for all three of them, and not always succeeding – they live on such different planes. Mother’s Day will see a six year old attempt breakfast, a nearly two year old smother me in kisses and a nearly three year old visited at a gravesite. Joy and hope and love and sadness all intermingled with an intensified poignancy that only occurs on certain days during the year.

June will see Xavier’s birthday and July will see his anniversary. Three years. How can that be? My tiny little baby, three years old. Three year olds are joy personified. They are full of verve and life. They are the antithesis of sadness. Three seems to have very little to do with my Xavier.  My forever newborn son.

In Australia, Mother’s Day is the second Sunday of May. It can be one of the hardest days in the year for a bereaved mother.

Here is what I have found helpful to get through it:

  1. If it’s important to you that your partner get you something on behalf of your child, let them know. I know you don’t want to have to do that, but it’s better than seething all day if it doesn’t happen. They may not realise how very important it is to you.
  2. Let another bereaved mother know that you are thinking of them. Carly Marie does a range of beautiful cards specifically for bereaved mothers.
  3. Set aside some time to spend with your child. Let your loved ones know that you need that time.
  4. Be prepared for the day to be hard. I am always surprised by how difficult Mother’s Day is.
  5. Step away from social media if seeing pictures of perfect families is all too much. You don’t have to torture yourself.

Be gentle with yourself this Mother’s Day.

 

My normal is different

Over the past few weeks I have met quite a few new people – both online and in real life. There is always the hesitation over when and if I reveal how many children I really have. The pause before I tell my whole story and the silent steeling of my heart as I await a reaction. People are kind. I have found this to overwhelmingly be the case. But I always wonder – what do they think of me now? How has their perception of me change now that they know I have a child who was lost to SIDS?

Before Xavier died, I knew no-one who had lost a baby to SIDS. In one of those cruelly ironic twists of fate, my mother told me a few days before Xavier died how she had bought a red nose pin for SIDS & Kids. She said “Can you imagine it?”. I scoffed and said “that would never happen to our family.” And I truly believed it – I did not think SIDS could be a possibility within our family. I wonder if other people think the same thing. I wonder if, behind the kindness, there remains a belief that a person who loses a baby to SIDS must have done something wrong. I would instantly forgive anyone who thought that, but it does make me hesitant to talk about Xavier’s story. I have been through the guilt and the judgement and I have arrived on the other side. Most days, I no longer blame myself. But when I tell the story to someone new, when it is fresh and shocking to them, I do fear judgement. My story isn’t a pleasant one to tell or to hear. My normal is different.

I have placed Xavier’s story in the world. I have written about him here and in other places. A quick google of my name will reveal Xavier’s story before my own. As someone who has just started a new business, this worries me. Will people judge me before they know me because my son died? Will they assume that I am less capable due to grief? Will the words that have bled onto internet cause me harm in the future? I think any blogger that writes about intensely personal things faces that question. What will people who don’t know me think of me? What image have my words constructed? Will I be seen as brave and helpful? Or as an over-sharer who should have taken more care of her online persona? If Xavier hadn’t died, I may not have returned to the embrace of words. If Xavier hadn’t died, my google search results would look very different. If Xavier hadn’t died, I would be travelling a different path and perhaps in a different career. But he did die. And I needed those words.  And I wanted to share those words with people who felt something they could not articulate. I wanted people to feel less alone. Because their normal is different.

My littlest baby is growing up fast. Toddling and talking and spending time outside of my care. He is happy and thriving and he and his brother are the lights of my life. And I am filling the time busy-ness. I am finding myself feeling anxious about what I have set out to achieve. And I berate myself for feeling this way. I feel as though I waded through the raging seas of early grief and managed to swim. That I should be able to conquer anything. But I was careful with my mental health in those early months. I exercised. I watched what I ate. I slept. I talked things out. I took time to appreciate all that was beautiful. I have let many of those things slip. And keeping my mind healthy needs all those things. Grief has no time frames. You don’t wake up and find it’s over and done with. A little over two years ago my normal changed. And it’s still different.

A crisis of confidence

I remember it quite clearly. Driving with my sister, Xavier in the back-set only precious days old. I remember telling her how blessed I felt. How everything in my life felt pretty perfect. That there were a few little things I would change but in the grand scheme of things they seemed so minor that complaint seemed ungrateful. Did I throw down a challenge to the universe when I uttered those words? Did life suddenly notice that heartbreak had been conspicuously absent for too long? I have given up searching for reasons as to why Xavier died, but in the early days that was a big one. Life had been too good for too long and the balance needed to swing wildly in the other direction. When my son died, the world beneath my feet crumbled. And I had been so sure of that solid earth. And even now, more than two and a half years later, the ground still shifts.

I might have imagined grief as an ocean of tears to swim through. Or a staged process with an outcome. I might have thought sadness to be the primary emotion. But it turns out, that’s not how grief works. Grief is, above all other things, unpredictable. It changes your footing. Even when you think you have slain a particular dragon, it rears up and strikes again. At the moment, my self-confidence is taking a beating. There are a variety of reasons for this – I am challenging myself and pushing myself into uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory. That’s never easy, but I can’t help but think the girl who I was before Xavier died would be tackling it with more confidence. That she wouldn’t second-guess herself so much.

When I headed back to work, months after we buried Xavier, I was frustrated with myself. Tasks I once found easy took three times as long. Words that once flowed were stilted. The escape that I sought in work didn’t prove the distraction I’d hoped for. Before Xavier died, I swam easily through clear waters. After he died, that water turned viscous. Everything was a struggle. And that, in and of itself, was so frustrating. I was continually exhausted from the effort of merely appearing normal.

Eventually, I found my way. The viscous thinned, but never returned to the consistency of water. And now, as I embark on a new adventure, I find myself thrashing again. I know I am not the only one to do this – to turn on myself and become my worst enemy. I throw unhelpful thoughts and walls up. And when you are busy beating yourself with a stick, telling yourself that you failed to protect one of your precious children delivers a crippling blow.

There are so many things that change with grief. Self-perspective is a large one. Where once I believe the earth beneath my feet rock solid and incapable of movement, I now know it’s quick-sand. When life travels along beautifully, I watch over my shoulder, breath held, for the pendulum to swing the other way. And I find it hard to believe the universe will deliver simply because I wish it to be so. I know that the only way for me to succeed is to believe in myself. To realise that the self-doubt may never leave, but to walk on fearlessly anyway.

Sitting with Sadness

I was sad the other day. Not aching grief, just sad. Low. At first I wanted to reach for grief as an explanation. But I know how grief feels. I can feel it’s distinct pull. This was apathy and malaise and exhaustion and not being bothered. I desperately wanted to feel something else – I had things to do and words to write but it all felt impossible with the weight of this sadness. I tried to bully myself out of it. I am convinced that I can think myself out of any situation. That if I tell myself to snap out of it, I will. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. It didn’t work the other day. I tried counting my blessings. It just made me feel more miserable that I was sad in the face of blessing. Sadness feels like failure. We are not meant to sit with sadness, we are meant to strive for happiness. It has become the default expected emotion.

But maybe it’s okay to sit with sadness sometimes. In the darkness of my grief I sat with sadness as a constant companion. It was not possible to think myself out of it. I could not shake it off like a skin, it had permeated my being. And I was given permission to be sad. The saddest thing I could imagine, a baby dying, had happened and it happened to our family. There was no pressure to be happy – to count my blessings and put away the tears. Sadness was to be expected and it was okay. This permission to be sad taught me something. I don’t think it’s fair to expect our emotional lives to ride on a constant high. Constant happiness sounds like a great idea, but expecting it and panicking when it’s not our reality, seems to cause more angst that happiness. There is a lot of guilt associated with being sad. Immediately my mind asks “What right have you to be unhappy?” When I had a very good answer to that question, I could let the pressure go.

There are times when sadness feels like sitting in a great big hole. People pass you, shout down and invite you to come back up. Someone might throw down a ladder or the tools they think you need to build one. And then, once in a little while, someone might come down and join you. Say “I know you won’t be down here forever, but for just a little while, I will stay with you and keep you company.” And with that kindness, the hole doesn’t seem so deep anymore.

I don’t want to feel miserable. I would prefer happiness. But pushing myself to be happy when I feel blue isn’t the answer either. I can’t tell myself to be happy. I can do things that make me happy – and that’s generally where the magic is – to find those things that bring me joy and immerse myself in them. To write, or to create, to dance, to laugh or to read. Sadness is a part of our human experience – it’s not a sign of failure, it’s a sign of humanity.

Holding onto baby

Baby Elijah is a hesitant walker. At eighteen months old he still prefers to shuffle along the floor, one leg extend out the back to provide momentum. He is surprisingly fast. He took his first hesitant steps at around sixteen months and we expected him to start running shortly thereafter. That hasn’t happened. The doctor says it’s okay – that at least he IS walking and if doesn’t move to predominantly walking within the next few months we will look at it further. We are cautiously watching. There is a part of me that is worried. There is a part of me that doesn’t mind at all. A part of me that aches to keep him a little baby. When I see him on his unsteady feet, cautiously placing one foot in front of the other, my heart catches. Another milestone Xavier never had a chance to reach. And a reminder that Elijah is leaving behind a babyhood that Xavier is forever frozen within.

When Xavier died, I ached for him and if I couldn’t have him, then another baby. I wanted my arms to be full of dimpled skin, baby scent, peach fuzz hair and helplessness. I wanted my arms to be full of baby. Then Elijah arrived, and my wish was finally granted. The aching arms finally had someone to hold. But my arms are not quite as full anymore. Life is yet again beckoning in a different direction. My days are no longer completely full of tending to a little one. Elijah is in daycare two days a week, allowing me time to set up and run a new little business. Isaac is back at school and taking to grade One like a duck to water. I am faced with new challenges and once again redefining myself.

After Xavier died, I had to figure out who I was – it was a difficult thing – to become someone I hardly recognised. But slowly the pieces came back together and we were gifted hope when I became pregnant with Elijah. I became someone else again as I emerged from the darkest parts of grief, the hope and the happiness of a new baby coaxing me from under that heavy blanket. I found a new purpose in bringing up my youngest son. He consumed me where once grief had consumed me. And now, things are changing again. Chapters in life close and new ones open. The poignancy of that seems to be sharper when you have left someone behind.

The other day, I felt the turning of that page keenly. I dropped Elijah at care. He did not cry and he happily played with a toy as I left. I went into town and met with people and for the first time I spoke about my new business like it was a realistic proposition. The wheels started to turn. I caught the bus home, feeling confident and excited, rather than scared and deluded. The lady next to me started chatting about the weather and it led to other things. She asked if I had any children. These days, I say “I have one at primary school and an eighteen month old” and then I whisper “and one in heaven” to myself. I asked her the same question. She looked at me sadly “I have one son. He died two years ago to the day and I am feeling very lost today. He was my only child. The love of my life and he died of cancer at not even forty years old.” She had no grandchildren. Her son and his wife had chosen travel over babies. She told me about her son and I asked her questions. I was going to tell her about Xavier, but she didn’t need my story. She needed to tell hers. I got to learn about her one true love and I was reminded, yet again, that each of us has a story to tell. No-one lives the perfect life. We need to be kind and mindful of each other – for every one of us has shards of glass in our hearts. And how blessed am I, that I get to see my baby Elijah grow up.

And so I will smile and clap as he shakily walks, letting go of my hand.