Seasons in Grief

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There are seasons in grief.

The first Winter – desolate and cruel. Seemingly unending. Life is frozen in the moment you said good-bye. Everything is grey, turned to ash. Food has no taste. Blooms no scent. There is a hollowness that echoes through every moment. The weight of a missing baby heavy against you. Absence, weighing more than presence. Crippling. It is impossible to concentrate, to still your mind long enough. There are words, and they fall, softly as snow, around you. You know they mean well but the words don’t bring summer back. And the void the baby who left made is so vast that you could fall into it at any moment.

Then, gradually, the Spring. Hope shooting like new grass. The colour starts to return to a faded world. You hear an unfamiliar sound and realise it’s your own laughter. You hold a newborn baby and instead of it ripping you apart, you think about a promise for your future. Life beckons and, with hesitation, you respond. You wonder if it’s okay – to let this in. Whether you are betraying your baby by smiling again. And then you catch glimpses of him – when the light hits a certain way, when a butterfly floats near, an unexpected tiny white feather settling on your hand. If you listen very carefully you can hear him. And he wants you to be happy. You open the window and you let hope in.

Against all odds, Summer enters your life. There is joy again. There is sunshine and there is life. There is beauty and purpose. There are so many things you once never thought possible. And against this brilliant blue sky, the knowledge that you lost a baby feels uncomfortable. How could you have lost someone so precious and be happy? How is it possible that a life full of love and laughter can also accommodate such enormous loss? You once thought that you could never be happy again – that life could be bearable at best. Yet, here you are, filled with contentment. The photos that once could only illicit tears now bring a melancholy smile and there is gratitude for being part of a precious life, no matter how short. You have come to some sort of peace. Not an acceptance, or even an understanding, but a life that can accommodate loss and still be beautiful. You feel him in that sunshine and it warms your heart.

Autumn falls. Little reminders. The tug of winter. Things that were once easy, become less so. An anniversary approaches, a birthday, Christmas, Mothers Day, Fathers Day. Days that remind you of the great hole in your life. Or perhaps it is a word, a memory, a song that cuts at the wound not quite healed. A chill enters. You try to shut the door, to close it out, but winter is insistent and sometimes grief has its own agenda.

And then Winter can come again. Never as long or as cruel as the first, but the sadness creeps back.

But no season lasts forever and love lasts through them all.

Poetry in Grief – Dichotomy

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Every Thursday, I am sharing a poem I wrote in the first year of my grief.  This poem is about the tension I felt (and still do feel to some extent) between feeling better, and feeling further away.

Dichotomy

I want the time to pass quickly
– The hurt to lessen every day
I want the time to pass slowly
– It carries me further away

Away from my precious boy
Away from when I was whole
Away from when I was unaware of pain
Away from my complete soul

And where I am going on this journey?
This long, circuitous road
Where the burden is so heavy
And no one else to take the load

Sometimes I feel okay
And the load a little lighter
Perhaps that is his gift
When the sun shines a little brighter

Sometimes the load is heavy
And I feel so bereft
And I don’t feel him close to me
Just the absence he has left

Some days are filled with sunshine
And in the  warmth I feel him near
Some days are filled with storm clouds
And I can’t escape the fear

One day there will be peace
I will remember without pain
They will be together in my heart
Both the sunshine and the rain

The Grief Words

Your world shatters.  You find yourself alone.  You see pity and sympathy in the eyes of family and friends, but they do not understand.  They hurt, but their hurt is not your hurt.  You search for others who share your story.  You try to normalise the thing that is so far from any sane normality.  You find them.  Online and in person. This community of loss.  This beautiful and fragile community of tattered souls.  Facebook groups, blogs and forums dedicated to babies and children stolen from their mothers’ breasts and their fathers’ embraces.  And there is such aching beauty.  Words strung together as delicately as beaded necklaces.  Artwork that touches deep nerves.  Poems and images that steal your breath as they gift you tears.  Enormous and important things achieved in the name of children who may no longer live on earth but whose impact is great.

But through this thin veneer of beauty, do we hide from ugly truth?  Do the newly bereaved come across these sites and wonder where the pain is?   Where the heart-stopping, gut-wrenching, puking, sobbing messes are?  I don’t think I have ever written publicly about the true pain of grief.  The darkest of days, where even the weight of water in the shower was too much to bear.  When my skin crawled and the ache in my arms to hold my baby felt like the loss of a limb.  When the only relief could be found in sleep and the sleep would only come when I was too exhausted to think.   I cannot convey in words the pain of those days.  I remember wanting words.  Yet, no words were horrific enough to capture the pain.  I do not swear, I never have.  But even the worst words I knew could not scratch the surface.  There isn’t even a word in the English language to describe a parent whose child dies.  There are orphans and widows and widowers but no noun for those who lay their children to rest.  And as I searched for a word ugly enough to sum up the wretchedness I felt, words beautiful enough to describe my baby boy also remained elusive.  Perhaps that is a struggle felt by many who populate those online groups and forums.  How do you express a pain so horrific in the place you are recognised as mother to your child?  How do you articulate the depts of hurting when you also want to celebrate your baby? How do you find language that isn’t repressible and offensive to describe something so bitterly broken? How do you reach out and seek comfort when you want to spew barbed wire and bile and venom?  How do you tame the rage and the anger to a gentle simmer to remain polite amongst people who share common ground but are, for the most part, strangers?

For those in their grief who find comfort from the beauty, but wonder if they are lost alone on an ugly path.  Please know, you are not alone.  There are just no words to capture the depth of the hurt just as there are no adequate words to capture the enormity of the love.  For the pain and the grief run deep because the love never ends.

The hearts that surround us – educating those that support the bereaved

Within the support groups I am a part of, whether in person or online, a common topic of discussion is insensitive  comments and actions made by loved ones.  It seems every bereaved parent has at least one story (most many, many, many more) about being deeply hurt by the words, actions or inactions of someone they hold dear.

But just as there is no definitive guide book on how to handle your own grief, there is no ‘Support 101’ for friends and family to rely on.  The unfortunate fact is that it often falls to the grieving to instruct those around them on what they need.  An almost impossible task, particularly in the earlier days when  you don’t know what you need, aside from the one thing no one can give – your baby back.

Whilst it seems momentously unfair,  it is often a choice between losing friendships or being open and honest about the support needed.  Personally, I could not fathom further losses.   But I know for others, certain friendships had to be let go.

So how do you educate those around you?

  1. As callous as it sounds, work out who is worth the effort.  For me, it was all of my friends but if you have one of those people in your life who only ever take, it might be time to let them go. You have nothing left to give.
  2. Consider telling people about the positive things that remind you of your child.  Through telling people about seeing Xavier in the sunshine, they often refer to “Xavier’s sunshine” and will send me pictures of beautiful sunsets and sunrises.  It’s a way to share him and have people remember him that feels joyous.   It makes people feel comfortable about sharing in his memory and helps them realise that as much as his death makes me sad, his life makes me happy.
  3. Have a forgiving heart. People are going to say hurtful things they don’t even realise are hurtful.  Try to see the intention rather than focussing on the content.  If the intention seems pure – explain to them why what they said or did caused you pain.  Do it sooner rather than later.  There is no point in holding onto hurt and leaving your friend completely unaware of the pain they unintentionally inflicted.  If you think the intention was hurtful, see point 1.
  4. Share articles and blogs that resonate with you with your support network.  Not only are you educating your friends and family, you often feel validated – a sense of – “see, other people who have lost a child feel exactly the same”.  It helps the non-bereaved to understand that what we imagine “healthy” grief to look like and what the reality is are often very different.
  5. Realise that the person who has stayed silent may have nearly rung a dozen times, had a half-written email filled with good intentions, verged on texting and then second-guessed themselves and thought their words would bring more pain than relief.  It’s not an excuse – if that person is dear to you they need to know that silence is often the most painful of reactions.   But don’t assume their silence immediately means they don’t care or aren’t thinking of you.  The opposite is the most likely scenario.
  6. If it’s your baby’s birthday or anniversary and you want people to remember with you, let them know that in advance. For Xavier’s anniversary, I had ribbons made with his name on them and asked people to wear them. Others have asked loved ones to reflect on how their child has touched them.    If you’d rather be left alone, let people  know that too.  But please don’t get to the end of the day and feel wretched that nobody remembered your baby. Some people may have forgotten, others may have remembered and been unsure what to do and so opted for silence as the safest bet, particularly if you haven’t mentioned the day in a public way.  With the exception of close family,  I don’t expect others to have Xavier’s dates engraved on their heart as I do.
  7. Lead by example.  People are so scared of doing the wrong thing – they will look to you as an example of how you want your baby remembered.  If you talk often about your child, they will hopefully also feel comfortable to do so.   Let them know you like talking about your baby (if you do).
  8. As a bereaved parent, you sometimes ended up supporting others through their grief over your child. This isn’t okay.   This is pretty much the best advice I have ever read relating to support –  Ring Theory.   Share it.
  9. If the thought of explaining how you want to be supported to all your friends and family seems overwhelmingly daunting, enlist the help of your dearest and closest friend or family member.  Get them to help you educate those around you. This also works well when returning to the workforce.  Having a trusted colleague talk to your team mates on your behalf can help avoid awkward conversations.   If you still feel quite lost and unsupported, you can ask friends and family to talk to SIDS and kids. Their counselling service extends to all of those touched by child loss. A dear friend often rang SIDS and kids in the early days as she wanted to learn ways to support me as best she could. I am so grateful for that.
  10. Unless a person has lost a child, they will never fully appreciate the depth and breadth of your grief. That’s okay – we want as few people as possible in this “club”.  However, it’s  important to connect with people who do know that pain and can offer a different kind of support.  Whether online or in person, child loss support groups are incredibly important and will relieve some of the pressure on you and your friends and family.

There is nothing fair about losing a child.  It’s not fair that this burden of education falls on the people who already have such a heavy load.  But the reality is, it does and the way we carry that load has a significant impact on how well supported we will be during this journey.  By assuming people know what to do, or seething without saying anything when they try and fail, we break our fractured selves just a little bit more.   The best advice I received when we said good-bye to Xavier was to “go gently”.  Go gently on our own hearts, and the hearts that surround us.  Go gently.