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.

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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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The incomplete, complete family

Before my world shattered and my beliefs were turned on their axis, I was a firm believer in two children.  I never thought I would have to specify two living children.  I felt two children was socially, economically, logistically and environmentally responsible.  Replace yourselves. Mimimise your footprint.   In the same idealist and naive manner, I assumed that when I did have children, I would fall pregnant easily, carry blissfully, have empowering births and enjoy the baby years as the best of my life.  And that all my friends and family would enjoy the same experience.  Sometimes it seems like everyone pays a price on this journey called motherhood, and my price was an exceptionally high one.  As though the good fortune I had experienced with pregnancy, birth and babyhood stacked so high that it was destined to topple.

My white-picket fence dreams have been smashed to smithereens.  My logical approach defeated.  Because families are not logical.  They are messy and wonderful and frustrating and beautiful and they defy reason.  We go back and have more children.  Even when the baby is still crying, when the toddler is still tantrum-ing and the mother is wondering when she last had two minutes to herself.  We go back.  It defies all reason.  There is the biological imperative and there is something else.  Even when we doubt the car or the house, our hearts that will always, always accommodate more children. And once opened, they never contract.  Our babies can leave us, but the expanded heart remains.

After we said goodbye to Xavier, I came across a number of bereaved families that had gone on to have numerous children after loss.  At the time I wondered whether they were trying to mend broken hearts with babies.  After having Elijah, I no longer think that.  I think tragedy changes your priorities.  I think the importance of family grows.  I think things that seemed scarily impossible no longer seem so.  I think that in the face of surviving the death of your child, anything is possible.  I think the noise and the joy of children is the most healing of all music.

Our family feels complete and incomplete.  I do not think there are any more children.  There will always be an aching void, but it is an Xavier-shaped hole that cannot be filled by anyone else.   And with that realisation, comes a little grief of its own.   I think every woman probably feels a pang when the realisation hits that there will be no more babies.  No more pregnant bellies and pushing kicks.  No more euphoric, inexplicable, indescribable moments of joy as a newborn babe is first put to your breast.  That the intense intimacy of caring for a newborn will never occur again.  

But I know that there are even more wonderful adventures to look forward to.  That the priceless moments all three of my children give me are abundant.  That my future will be full of them.   And that is a bright future.

Easter – when love triumphs

Easter is approaching. The time of the year we celebrate love and life triumphing over death. Even in it’s pagan incarnation Easter is about welcoming the spring, a time of growth and newness. A time for birth and rebirth. The tender shoots of hope finally peeking through the cover of desolate winter.

After Xavier died, I wished for resurrection. When people would describe Mary as a grieving mother my heart would harden a little. For she had her son returned to her. She was given the miracle every bereaved parent begs for. Xavier was never returned to me in a physical sense, but the lasting relationship we share is a form of love triumphing over death.

In the yoga class I attend with Elijah, our instructor will often tell us to take a moment to nourish the bond between mother and child – the most un-breakable of all bonds. Whenever she says that, my mind wanders to Xavier. The bond between baby and mother cannot be severed. Not even by death. I was robbed of the physical relationship I had with Xavier by SIDS. But I could choose how much was stolen. The heavy burden of grief and the constant longing for what could have been threatened our continuing relationship. It took time to nurture and navigate a different kind of parenting but I am learning. I feel him close.

There are beautiful people and purposes in my life that would not have come to me if it wasn’t for Xavier. For a while I would question my attitude towards them. That I could not feel gratitude for things that existed due to Xaviers death. I feel differently now – a slight change of perspective. The positive things in my life that have come about because of Xavier are part of my relationship with him. They are not causally linked to his death, but rather his life, lived in the short span granted to us. There are so many beautiful things in my life because of him – not because he died, but because he was here. I do not believe that as a parent you can every truly accept the death of your child. Acceptance is popularly heralded as the last hurdle of grief. I do not think it is true. I think you reach a stage when you integrate the death of your child within your heart and your life. Where you can come to a point of resolution. For me, it was when the magnitude of love I hold for my son finally over-shadowed the magnitude of my pain. That took time and it took hope and it took faith.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is Love.

I hope Easter brings you all three and the last in copious amounts.

Welcome to the world little rainbows

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All over the world, new parents are gazing with untold love, adoration and awe at their newborn children.   Of these, a small percentage are filled with just a little more wonder, just a touch more disbelief, slightly more  gratitude that their sweet little baby has arrived and done so safely.   They are the ones who do not sleep, but watch over each breath.  The ones who marvel at the sound of little cries, not quite believing they are real.   The ones that have to pinch themselves that so much joy has finally come into their lives.   When a midwife assures them that babies are less fragile than they look, they are the ones that regard that advice with suspicion.  Experience has taught them differently.

They are not first time parents but the baby they held first was without breath.  And at painful times, without  recognition. Midwives, doctors and friends might refer to them as first time parents, as new mums and dads.  Not necessarily because they are ignoring the baby who came before – the baby that didn’t take a breath or only snatched the smallest amount of life. But because our language has no word for a parent that loses a child, let alone to describe a parent who has lost a child and then welcomed a living baby into the world.    These mothers and fathers have had to parent in the hardest of situations.  They have had to find ways to love and connect with a child that they cannot see.   They have had to nurse aching, empty arms.  They have had to find strength they never knew possible.  They have had to fight for their motherhood, for their fatherhood.  They have kept memories alive.  Their hearts have been broken and yet swelled to accommodate the most amazing of loves.

And now these parents face a new and alien set of challenges.  How to bathe this little one.  How often to feed. How to soothe cries. How to tell if he’s too hot, is she’s too cold.  But there are other things they already know.   That the love for your child is all consuming.  That you love them a little more dearly each day.  That being a mother or father is such an awesome and beautiful responsibility.   They know the full precious weight of their baby. They know every breath is a treasure.  And they know that this little one has a big brother or sister, looking over them. Keeping them safe.  They know that their family looks a little different from others, but their first child or children will always have a place within it.  They have loved and loved and  loved.    And now they get to love a baby that demonstrably loves them back.

With much love to all the parents who have recently welcomed rainbow* babies into their families, but particularly those who are welcoming a child after losing their first.

*A rainbow baby is the term used by the loss community to describe a child conceived after loss. It refers to the hopeful rainbow that appears after a storm.  The storm does not refer to the child that did not live. But rather the very dark place that inevitably follows after loss. Nor does a rainbow signify the end of grief.  A rainbow baby brings hope and light into a shattered family, whilst they still miss and grieve for the child they hold in their hearts rather than their arms.  

The Narrow

Have you ever noticed how often we use words associated with death and dying when we describe how babies sleep?  Dead asleep, dead to the world, sleeping like an angel, out like a light, in another place, dead weight, gone, out to it, passed out.   People sometimes say these things when describing Elijah sleeping.  Then they realise and look at me with momentary horror as they register the meaning of their words.  It’s okay.  It doesn’t worry me too much.   But there is a reason we use those descriptors.   The space between a baby sleeping and a baby never waking is narrow.  Narrow in a way that terrifies me.

When Elijah is deeply asleep, his body still and his breathing almost undectably shallow, I panic.  I place my hand against his stomach until I feel sure that he is okay.  Even though I know what a baby without breath looks like, I am still terrified.  That moment that severs them from life is instant in most SIDS cases.   One moment of this earth and the next beyond it.   I imagine two lines branching out from single one.  Two lines travelling in very different directions, but at their origin, separated by only the slightest of degrees.  When Elijah is deeply asleep, it’s not a stretch to imagine him taking the darker of those two paths.

I used to say “babies bounce” and be part of the confident parenting brigade that espoused the deceptive toughness of newborns.  It’s conventional parental wisdom – you are afraid of breaking your firstborn and treat them like china.  You realise that they are tougher than they seem and relax on your second.  And it’s true – babies survive so much.  It’s hard to hear tales of babies surviving starvation, abuse, tragic accidents and medical difficulties when your own baby couldn’t even survive a nap.   I love a miracle story as much as the next person, but there will always be that lingering thought “where was my miracle?”    Why was Xavier the antithesis of a miracle? He had a 999 in 1000 chance of living and he did not.

When my first son, Isaac, was born I expected to feel an immense love. I had read enough to know that would happen. I was surprised by the ferocity of that love.  That feeling that I would not only take a bullet for my son, but that I would have no problem pulling the trigger if I needed to, to protect him.     That there was absolutely nothing I would not do for him.  A lioness with her cub.  When Xavier was stolen by SIDS, I had no chance to fight for Xavier.  We were given a day in hospital, which is so much more than so many SIDS families, but it was immediately clear that this was a chance to say goodbye. There was to be no fight.   There was no rollercoaster of “will he make it or not”. There was just a little life snuffed out.   He had no chance to change his world whilst he was a part of it.   He was here and then no longer here.   The space between those realities too narrow.   No space for me to squeeze between and save my son.   Two weeks.   A sliver of time, too short to seem of consequence.   And yet his impact is indelible.   He changed lives.  Mostly for the better, but now fear is written on my heart.

The chances of Elijah dying are narrow.   So close to zero that it would seem impossible.  But Xavier fell into that narrow crack, beyond all reason and sense.
As Elijah gets older, the smiles and gurgles more frequent, he feels more of this earth.   It feels as though his place is permanent.    And every time he wakes again in the morning, the gap between him and the unthinkable narrows.

Reclaiming Motherhood

The other day I was enjoying a beautiful brunch outing with some other mothers.   They had their first children in their laps – from newborn to 18 months.    We talked about the things mothers talk about.  Sleeping, eating, toilet training, breast feeding, weaning, husbands, careers, having more children, facing bikini season.   As the only one with more than one child, I fell into advice giving.   It’s not something I am very comfortable with.  No-one likes a mummy-know-it-all.  Besides, I have always, always believed that mothers who trust their own instincts never go too far wrong.

Until one does.  I trusted every instinct with Xavier and he didn’t survive.   You know those Facebook memes where the mother hails her day a success because she’s kept all the children alive?   You can’t imagine how much they hurt.  The old adage that you don’t need to be a perfect mum, you just need to be enough, that stings as well.

And so sitting and dispensing advice makes me feel fraudulent.  I can’t help but wonder, why would these women want advice from me?  They have their beautiful children surrounding them, loving them, touching them.  Do they nod politely and inside think “at least I can keep my child alive.”  I know my friends, and I am sure that this thought wouldn’t pass into their heads, but it could and I would understand if it did.

When I expressed these feelings to N, he hugged me gently and said “What happened to Xavier and your abilities as a mother have absolutely nothing to do with one another.  You are the best mother I know.”  Coming from the best father I know – that did restore my faith somewhat.

Isaac is a beautiful boy of nearly five.  Boisterous but as well-behaved as you can expect any five year old boy to be.  He is full of life and colour and imagination.  He is fun to be around.  He cares for those around him.    He is a credit to his father and I.  He is proof that I can mother.

Elijah is adorable and wonderful.  Every moment I spend with him is precious.  I love everything about taking care of him.  Even at 4am in the morning, I cannot help but be filled with excitement that this precious little baby is mine!  He is proof that I can mother.

Xavier remains an integral part of our family.  I talk about him fearlessly.  I love him through space and time.  I try to make his memory accessible to other people in a positive way.  He is proof that I can mother in the most extraordinarily difficult of circumstances.

I lost my baby to SIDS and  I am still a good mother.