There is an unwritten ladder of grief that bereaved parents seem expected to adhere to. An expectation by society that a miscarriage hurts less than a still birth, a still birth less than a neonatal loss, a younger child less than an older one. And the length of time allowed for grieving contracts the younger your child was at the time of loss.
The truth is, that ladder is a lie. There is no “more than” or “less than” in grief – each story holds its own tragic weight. A weight that defies categorisation or comparison. For as much as there is no “less than” there is also no “the same as”. My grief over Xavier is different from the mother who lost her baby at birth, different from the father who lost his son to an accident at three years old, different from the parents who learned at their thirteen week scan that their baby had no heartbeat, indeed, different from another family who lost their son at two weeks old to SIDS. But it is not “more than” and it is not “less than”. We are different but bound by the common devastation of holding a child in our heart, rather than in our arms.
There is no finite amount of grief that needs to be shared amongst the bereaved. Each journey is different and each journey is valid. How someone else grieves their child is their business – the intensity of their sadness does not somehow invalidate my grief over Xavier. There is no competition. There are definitely no prizes.
When we first lost Xavier at just two weeks old to SIDS, I wondered whether it would have been easier if he had born still. Would that have hurt less? It is an impossible question. I am so grateful for the two weeks we spent with our middle son. I would never wish it away. I would rather have loved and lost him, than to have never had him at all. Every parent treasures the time they get to spend with their child. And yet those that didn’t get to spend any time with their living baby outside the womb are expected to hurt less. It defies logic. A baby is a baby to their parents the happy moment they find out they are pregnant. Hopes and dreams for that child often formed before that. Every baby is a miracle. Whether you grieve the memories you made or the memories you never got to make, that grief is real and cannot be contained within imaginary boundaries. Parents need to grieve, without judgement and without ladders.
In the moments after we were told Xavier would not live, N and I clung to each other – a pain that only we would fully understand drawing us to each others arms. Between tears, I whimpered “no more children. Isaac is enough. I can’t ever do this again”. Through tears, N agreed.
However in the days following, as my arms ached to hold a baby and the milk that should have been Xaviers leaked uselessly from my body, I knew I wanted, NEEDED, to have another baby. These feelings of intense longing – a sense of “if I can’t have my angel child I need his brother or sister” – are common in the bereaved. N needed more convincing but eventually he too felt there was another living child in our family. In the months following Xavier’s death I did everything I could to prepare for pregnancy. I lost baby weight at a speed normally reserved for celebrity mothers. I worked on my heart and my head space. I got fit. I had acupuncture. I wrote. I cried. I talked. I learned how to laugh again. I reached out to others who had lost and embraced those that reached out to me.
Four months after we lost Xavier we decided it was time and we were incredibly blessed to fall pregnant immediately. I remember looking at that second pink line appearing on the pregnancy test and crying my thanks to Xavier. At no point did I take for granted what had come to us so soon.
My pregnancy was wonderful but anxious.
It was also incredibly precious and something I kept relatively private. My Facebook page remained bereft of pregnancy news. Aside from wanting to keep this precious secret, as a bereaved parent I had a new appreciation regarding the hurt a throw away line on a Facebook status can inflict on those who are struggling. I held off telling many friends for several weeks after the traditional twelve. I was overjoyed but also so incredibly anxious – a part of me felt that telling other people was tantamount to a promise I couldn’t keep. And whilst many might have attributed a special dimension to the pregnancy I couldn’t help but think it was less real, less valid than other peoples. When your eyes are opened to the horrific numbers of babies that are born still, you take nothing for granted. When you have been the one in a thousand statistic, you don’t assume you will dodge any bullets. When you know stories about multiple losses, you have no comfort in the promise that lighting doesn’t strike twice. Gradually, as I came to accept the fact that life holds no promises, my “why me?” turned into “why not me?” At times I almost felt guilt about this fear of stillbirth – that I was appropriating someone else’s story and turning into my own when I had no right to do so. Yet, every mummy I know who has lost to SIDS and has become subsequently pregnant has struggled with similar emotions. Anxiety remains, but now when I check if Elijah is breathing, my relief is immediate.
During my pregnancy, Isaac kept asking, hope in his little voice, “this baby is going to stay isn’t it?” To this moment, I can only answer “Darling, I think so – I really hope so.” But the conviction in my voice is growing stronger by the day.