The true things that people don’t see

Here are some things that are true:

  • I was pregnant for nearly nine months with Xavier. It was a happy and uneventful pregnancy.
  • I gave birth to Xavier. I birthed him and I held him and I cried as he was placed against me for the first time.
  • He lived for two little weeks. He fussed and he cried and he made me laugh.  He was held by a proud big brother.  He met family and friends.
  • I am a mother to three sons.

I felt like I had to write these things down. To make them feel concrete. Because so often, those facts seem unsubstantiated and unsubstantial. Paper thin. A mirage.

When people meet me for the first time, they presume I am a mother of two. People ask whether I will have a third child. There are only two little beds in our house. Two carseats. Two little heads that snuggle against me when I hold them. I hold two boys in my arms and three in my heart. I am a mother of three, appearing as a mother of two. And very often that appearance feels more real than the truth.

In the wake of Xavier’s death, I wanted to scream about his existence. I would tell anyone who would dare ask. He was so real to me. My life was so full of him. I felt I had to advocate doubly hard for the child no-one could see. He was the largest thing in my life for a long time and he could not be seen by anyone else. There was a large and painful hole in my life where my baby boy should have been. A gaping black hole that could swallow a person. But that hole started to close. I learned to experience him in different ways and that allowed me to miss him less. I think it was the missing that made the hole so large and angry and empty.

Sometimes it feels like my life has been cut into thirds. The girl before Xavier’s death. The girl in the wake of it.  The girl who emerged from the darkest of grief.  And it’s hard to grasp onto the girl before. It’s hard to think of those people as linear. They feel more like tangents.

My life now is full – it is not without pain – but for the most part I have no complaints. There are days when I miss him dreadfully – his birthday or anniversary – and there are days that I miss him for no other reason than he is gone. But I do not feel the pull of that dark hole anymore. And here I stand, a bereaved mother but no longer a heavily grieving one. A mother of three boys in a world that only sees two. And a fading memory of a tiny boy with peach fuzz hair and eyes like his great grandfather’s. His essence, who he is now, is alive and vibrant in my life but it is getting harder to recollect the tiny baby. And so it is with time. And so it is with grief.

Advertisements

Christmas and Regret: Did I give him enough?

Christmas WreathThe Christmas tree has been packed away. The lights have been stowed. Stockings no longer hang and wreaths have been taken down for another year. Christmas is well and truly over and I am a little sad. Not the usual Yuletide  hangover, but regret that Christmas wasn’t as magical as I could have made it. We had sickness and birthday parties, beach holidays and projects that all encroached upon the season. Christmas cookies were hurriedly baked on Christmas Eve. The school carols were rained out and we didn’t get a chance to go to another. I didn’t go to a Christmas Eve mass, as I was so very tired and unwell. Hand made Christmas presents went unmade. We didn’t take the train one evening to see the big Christmas tree in town.

I didn’t make Xavier a decoration this year and I didn’t place a Christmas tree beside his grave. His little Christmas area was necessarily condensed due to the reach of a curious toddler.  I didn’t get a chance to write Xavier a letter. Out of everything, these things sadden me the most. Sometimes life gets in the way of the best laid plans. And I feel like he was forgotten – not by family and friends, but by me. That he didn’t have the Christmas he deserved.  Continue reading

What New Year means when your child has died

Missing your Baby with you this NewAs 2012 passed into 2013, there were many that assumed I would feel a sense of relief.  That I would be glad to turn my back on a horrific year and say good riddance to it. Like so many things in grief, it wasn’t that simple.

I was pregnant New Years Eve with Elijah and so 2013 held the promise of a new baby and healing. It also felt like leaving my son behind. As the only year he ever knew faded into history I felt another pang of loss. 2012 would forever be his. It would hold the two weeks of his life. It would hold the joy of his birth. It would hold the lovely, easy days of his pregnancy.  It would hold the devastation of his death. It would hold the day we said good-bye. It would hold my last days of naivety and innocence.

On the cusp of another New Year, my memories of him are fading a little. Still there, but yellowed around the edges, a little fuzzy. The sharpness has faded, the pain has dulled, but he feels further away. And that’s the thing about time. People will tell you that time will heal – and it will. But it also adds distance from your loved one. I might not hurt quite as much, but I don’t feel as close to him either. I do not miss the darkest days in grief – I have no desire to return to them. Yet, I do miss the intense closeness I felt to Xavier. That closeness was inextricably linked to the depth of pain I was feeling. I do not think it is healthy to cling to pain as way of connecting to your child who left too soon. I do think it’s important to find other connections – but for me those connections are associated with how I view Xavier now – a soul, a spirit, a presence. They are not connected with him as a tiny baby, beautiful and helpless in my arms. That connection belonged to 2012 and it is difficult to let go.

If you are moving into a new year without your darling baby in your arms, be gentle with yourself. It is yet another milestone on a long list of milestones. I was surprised that my first New Year without Xavier brought with it the same depth of emotion and confusion as Christmas. I had not expected it to affect me so deeply. That first Christmas felt empty without him. The first New Years felt like moving on without him.

If you are supporting a friend who has lost a loved one in 2014, please don’t assume that they are happy to move into a New Year with all its promise of new life and healing. When you have lost someone dear, you hold to all that reminds you of them.  You hold to things that surprise you. And no matter how devastating the events of the year may appear to you, it will also hold precious, precious memories that will be desperately clung to forever.

Time is a great healer, but it is also a thief – it dulls the pains and the memories in equal measure. There is grief in that too.

Be gentle with yourself this New Year.

The Gift of Time

The Precious Gift of TimeI remember holding Xavier’s tiny hand in my own. Willing his little fingers to curl around mine.  Of course, they didn’t. The rise and fall of his chest was the only testament to life and it was artifice. A mirage. But he was there – his tiny little body – being kept alive by machines. I could touch him. I could let tears fall over him. I could kiss him. And as we said our final goodbyes, I could hold him. I sang to him as his last breath left his body. I kissed him softly as I said “he’s gone.”

Our time together had contracted suddenly and violently.  I thought we would have a lifetime to share, but in the end we had 13 perfectly normal days and one deeply sad, deeply profound, deeply beautiful one. I am so grateful for that last day.

A day when friends and family gathered around our son and bid him farewell as he passed from this world into the next.

A friend of mine recently became a mother.  She gave birth to a beautiful baby boy.  She imagined a lifetime with him. Her time with her son contracted when he was born without breath. She didn’t have years with her son. To kiss him. To hold him. To tell him all the things a mother tells her child. Instead, her and her partner had to try and convey the love of a lifetime within a few short, raw hours.

It is hard to describe how precious that time with your child is. Knowing that this beautiful, perfect little being will not be a physical part of your life going forward. Knowing that this time is all the time that you will get. Wondering how you will survive. Willing yourself to remember each fingernail. Inhaling your baby’s scent. Trying to fight through the fog and shock of grief so that the memories will be indelible. Wanting your friends and family to see your little one – for them to understand his perfection, his importance, his profound impact on your life.

There was a time when a baby born without breath would be whisked away, never laid in their mother’s arms. A time when women were urged to forget and have another baby. Time has taught us that this approach does not heal, that it has left deep wounds and that a mother never, ever, ever forgets. Mothers and fathers need time with their babies. Babies are just as precious when they are born still. And it perhaps it is even more important to spend that time, to form that bond, when there will be no future opportunity to do so.

Many hospitals have invested in cuddle cots – a specialised cooing system which allows the parents to spend more time with their precious child.  The system allows babies who have passed way to remain with their families so that they are not required to be cooled in mortuary environment. Cuddle cots enable family members to travel to visit and meet the baby, siblings to meet one another and even gives parents the option of taking their baby home to lay in their own cot, in their own room or travel in their own car seat. It’s about giving parents choices, and reassuring them that they can spend as much time as they like with their child, without the fear of the baby needing to be cooled in a traditional mortuary.

Not all hospitals have them, or enough of them. In honour of her son, my friend is raising funds to buy such a cot for the Greenslopes hospital. It will give other families the gift of time, when time has been cruelly shortened.


 Please consider donating to her cause here:
PLA Cuddle Cot for Gabriel


***

The friends, the friends who understand and why I need both

Beautiful ornaments created by Kirstie for all the families.

Beautiful ornaments created by Kirstie for all the families.

On Sunday I attended the SIDS and Kids Christmas memorial service. It was my third. It is always a beautiful and poignant event. There are tear-stained faces and new little babies bringing hope – finally filling arms that had been empty too long. There are brave speeches and burgeoning bellies, as new little rainbows dance into the world. The names of children gone too soon are read and seen and acknowledged. And as I read and heard them, I recognised so many of them – the children I now view as Xavier’s friends.

At the service I saw some friends I hadn’t seen in a while. Friends that had supported me through my grief, and friends I had made when they joined the most heart-breaking of clubs. My need for support has changed, as has theirs. Our lives have taken off in millions of different directions. And that’s okay. When we come back together, we are still connected, joined by the bonds of loss and children remembered.

It is important this community. Not just in the bleak aftermath of loss where it is a necessary life-line, but as a continuing family that supports each other. Why do we need each other? Why is it so important to be supported not only by those that already love us, but by those who know our pain? There are some things that only another bereaved person understands. There are some perspectives that are only changed by loss.

When we say good-bye to Xavier, there were some people who knew exactly what to say, exactly how to support us. Those people had experience their own heart-breaking losses. They were the friends who understood.

A friend says, “he was beautiful”.  A friend who understands says “he is beautiful”.

A friend says, “he will always be in your heart”. A friend who understands says “I will keep him in my heart, beside my loved one gone too soon”.

A friend says, “you will always remember him”. A friend who understands says, “I will always remember him”.

A friend says, “you will always be his mother”. A friend who understand says, “you continue to be a good mother to your son gone too soon”.

A friend says, “it wasn’t your fault – you need to stop blaming yourself”.  A friend who understands says “I am sorry you are in the horrible dark place of guilt. It is part of this grief. I am here for you.”

Newly pregnant with my baby’s sibling, a friend sees my terror and says “this baby will be fine”. A friend who understands says, “I can’t make promises but always remember every baby has a different story and a different life to live.”

A friend says “it is time to rejoin the world”.  A friend who understands says, “do you want me to stay with you when you are in the darker places?”

A friend is sometimes cautious about speaking his name, worried that they may make me cry.  A friend who understands speaks his name often, accepts tears as a gift and knows that his name is a kind of music that makes me smile.

A friend waits for the grief to end. A friend who understands knows that the grief stretches as long as the love.

A friend says “I cannot begin to imagine your pain”. A friend who understands says “I know how terrible, how painful this is. The light will return and I am here for you until it does”.

I need the friends, innocent of loss, to bring lightness, love and joy into my world. I need the friends who understand, for they are the ones that can nurse my broken heart, who know how to collect the fractured pieces and have practiced carefully piecing them back together.

Grief and Choices

Before I became intimately acquainted with grief, I presumed it followed a linear path. A difficult first period, which would gradually ease until reminders of a loved one lost eventually brought smiles rather than tears. Reaching that point would mean grief was over.

Perhaps some grief does work like that. My grief doesn’t. I don’t know anyone who has lost a child who identifies with that pattern of grief. They do identify with people expecting that pattern of grief from them. They do talk of friends and family urging them to “get over it”. There does seem to be a time period when deep grief is allowed and after that point the hard and dark grief is deemed “unhealthy”.   Grief stays with a person, changes them, as uncomfortable as that might be. Exercising “tough love” and demanding they try harder to return the person they once were will not help.

There are those whose grief is complicated, who cannot move on from the darkness, where joy has completely left their lives and they are unable to find a reason to continue. It’s not a position anyone wants to be in. Those in the grip of complicated grief need support and understanding.

Sometimes you make choices about your grief, and sometimes your grief makes choices for you. There have been days when I have quite purposely avoided grief – I have pushed thoughts of Xavier aside and I have taken myself away from support groups. I have needed the rest. There have been other days when I have chosen to stay with my grief. To understand it better and to immerse myself in my son gone too soon. These days are harder but necessary. These are the brave days that help me heal. You have to go through grief – there are no shortcuts. Then there are the days when I don’t get to choose. When grief over takes me and hijacks my chosen path. In the days coming into Xavier’s second birthday, I was paralysed. I couldn’t do simple tasks. And I was so angry about it. So devastated to be back in a place I thought I had long left. I did not choose it – this regression. It was not what I wanted. I was not indulging myself or holding tight to grief. Sometimes grief just takes over.

In the dark and terrifying months after Xavier died I desperately wanted to feel better. If I could have made that choice, I would have. But grief isn’t a choice. Grief is the searing pain that follows when someone you love is ripped away. After time, it becomes a scar. Not deep and angry and weeping as it was at first, but a scar nonetheless. Sometimes the scar flares. It’s not a scar I chose to bear, nor is it a scar that I can control. At times, I can hide it. Sometimes, it is so faint that I can almost believe it has gone away. But it will never truly heal.

Bereaved parents can be protective of their grief, holding fast to it as a tie to their child. And that is completely understandable. I do not think grief is my only tie to Xavier. I do not think that deeper love is expressed through darker grief. Although, I worry that perception is there – that if my grief lightens, others might think the love I have for my son has lessened. Grief and love are linked, but I do not believe that they are an echo of each other. My grief has lessened, whilst my love has intensified. I have no choice over that love. What parent does? The unconditional, completely wondrous, absorbing love that takes a hold of your heart when you become a parent. And just as that love has a life of its own, so does its darker cousin, grief.

If you are struggling with grief, be gentle with yourself. If a loved one is in the grip of grief, be gentle with them. There are times when you simply just cannot choose.

Lies, Damn Lies and Karma

Life was very simple when I was teenager. Things followed a linear path. Whilst  I was riddled with teenaged angst, unsure of myself and my place in the world, I was at least sure of cause and effect. If you worked hard, you would achieve your dreams. If you were kind, kindness would be bestowed on you. If you did the right thing and made the right choices, then things would turn out just fine. Good things happened to good people. I believed in karma.


I don’t believe in karma anymore.


As a group, the girls I went to school with have been beset by more tragedy than seems fair. They are not my stories to tell, so I will not list the challenges and tragedies here, but there have been enormous losses sustained amongst a concentrated group.

When I think back to the fresh faces of my senior year, I wonder what we would have thought had we known the future. In what now seems like cruel irony, we had nicknamed ourselves “immortalised”.  Time has taught us we are neither immortal nor immune.

When we first lost Xavier, I was sure I was being punished for something. I searched my heart and my soul for answers. What had I done to deserve this? And when my friends experienced their own personal hells, my first thought was “they don’t deserve this”. Despite life continually teaching us differently, it is hard not to assume cause and effect. That tragedy would somehow be fairer if it was only dealt to those who lived carelessly. That some cosmic system of checks and balances exists. It doesn’t. Sometimes terrible things happen to good people. Sometimes terrible things happen to people who appear to have had their fair share of tragedy. As you get older, it seems the terrible things mount up.

It is an eternal question – why bad things happen to good people? The theoretical and theological answers to that question are cold comfort when you are the person. When that question is not asked in some esoteric context, but wailed, pleading for answers. It is hard to accept that bad things happen so that others can be grateful for their blessings, or to give us an opportunity to lean on God, or because the world is imperfect. It easier to believe in chaos when you are in the midst of it. That there is no sense, no rhyme and no reason. That fate is random and cruel. When we lost Xavier, the inelegant words “it’s so unfair and it sucks” brought so much more comfort than pretty stories about God working in mysterious ways and things happening for a reason. Life does not owe any of us fairness. And quite often, she does not grant it.

We live in our world that believes in justice and blame. That seeks to attribute a terrible occurrence to someone’s misdeeds and punish them for it. But when there is no one to blame, what can you do? Shake your fist at God? Invite blame into places it does not belong? When we lost Xavier and they told us there were no answers, I blamed myself.  There was no-one and nothing left to blame. But some-one had to be responsible and I took up the mantle. Like so many before me, laying under blankets of guilt. We are so sure of this karmic circle – that one thing leads to another that it is difficult to accept there is no link. That some terrible things happen without there being anyone to blame.

I don’t believe in karma.  But I still believe in kindness. Not because it will be returned, but because it is a better way to live and it makes the hard things easier to bear. I still believe in hard work. Not because it will necessarily be rewarded, but because it is satisfying in and of itself. I still believe that there is good in the world – but it is not bestowed on the good people all of the time. The most we can do is hold fast to the love that surrounds us and give it away freely. In the midst of tragedy, it is kindness that offers some sweet relief and it is often tragedy that opens the flood gates to love. Karma may not exist, but kindness abounds.