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.
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.
Elijah, like all babies, goes through periods of not sleeping, crying jags and general grumpiness. On the whole, he truly is a “good” baby, but even good babies have their off days. Good mothers have them too.
But I won’t tell you about those days. Not because I am trying to hide behind the image of a perfect baby and mother. But because it would seem too close to ingratitude. When you are robbed of your child, you feel robbed of your right to complain about anything other than that loss. How can I complain about transient things? Everything becomes insignificant in the face of such giant loss. All other problems dwarfed. And to complain about a child, the very thing that I lost, that would be an ingratitude too great.
Grief teaches you things. Teaches you to to appreciate each moment. You begin to understand the enormous privilege it is to bear and bring up a child. You start to glimpse the compete preciousness of it all. You meet those that are desperate to have a baby to hold in their arms, not just in their hearts. And you realise, even though you have had the most horrible thing to occur, how truly blessed you are to have children. You cannot help but wonder if you needed to lose in order to learn that lesson. You hang onto appreciation as a kind of insurance. If I am grateful for each moment, then Elijah can stay. If I consciously appreciate every single second of him, I can protect him. Conversely, if, for even a moment I lose sight of that, maybe he will be taken from me. I must not complain.
After Xavier died I would see Facebook posts or hear whinges about babies that wouldn’t sleep or were fussy. I would wish, wish that were me. I would wonder how people could be so blind. I would vow never to be so unthinking. But does the pendulum swing both ways? Is all this thoughtful gratitude and gushing presenting an unrealistic image of life? Am I expecting too much of myself and pressuring others? Is it just as unthoughtful of me to be posting photos of a picture perfect, content baby all the time?
After all life does goes on and it continues to be challenging. I wish that Xavier’s death had solved all my problems. All the problems of my friends and family. But it didn’t. Perhaps it offered some perspective, but it didn’t eradicate all other pain and it didn’t magically make our lives easy.
After Xavier’s death it took a little while before friends and family would once again discuss their problems with me. I was glad when they did. Glad that they thought my perspective would be useful. Glad that they thought I could cope. But I know even then they were careful not to complain, not to give any inference that they weren’t completely grateful for their blessings.
Perhaps the answer lies in living with grace, rather than finding limitless gratitude for every moment and a moratorium on complaints. Living with the grace that I know no matter what life throws at me, I will handle it. Living with the grace that I know I can see beauty, even in the darkness. Living with the grace that problems still occur, to me and to others, and that listening and talking about those things doesn’t make me ungrateful. It just makes me human.
When we lost Xavier, we were incredibly lucky with the support we received. Very few people said “the wrong thing”. And whilst I know most of our friends and family were lost for words, we felt their support, their prayers and their love. This is not everyone’s experience after losing a child.
There are plenty of excellent blog posts about what not to say to a grieving parent. I wanted to talk about why these things are hurtful and some alternatives. Grief is different for every single person, but at the same time there are commonalities about what gives comfort and what does not. If you cannot find the right words, that’s okay – just say that rather than relying on trite platitudes. The sweetest sound will always be my baby’s name.
At least you have your living child/ren.
A bereaved parent is highly aware of their blessings – it may be the only thing they are holding onto. They don’t need you to point them out. They did not gain those living children as part of this loss and those children are also grieving their sibling. In addition, grief is time consuming and tiring work – it can make looking after other children very difficult. The slack that would be given to a mother of a newborn baby is not afforded to a newly bereaved mother, even though she needs it just as much.
Instead say “I am sure that your living child/ren are a huge comfort right now but I can also see that you need to spend time with your baby and your grief. Can I help you out by baby sitting?”
You can have more children.
Firstly, you don’t know this nor do you know what the parents have decided regarding have more children. Secondly, it’s actually irrelevant. This grief is about their child that has passed away – children are not replaceable or interchangeable.
Instead say “I am so very sorry that (say their baby’s name) couldn’t stay longer. I will always remember him/her with you.”
It could have been worse – your husband / wife /older child might have died.
You play head games in grief. You think of people you would have rather lost than your baby. Don’t second guess what the result of that horrible game might have been. Besides, this comment is never going to be comforting to a person who is now suddenly terrified that loved ones can be snatched away without cause or reason.
Instead say “I can’t understand why this happened to you. It’s just not fair.”
There are in a better place / this happened for a reason.
This might be your belief. But I can tell you now, the only person that gives comfort to is the person that hasn’t lost the child. The best place for any child to be is in their parent’s arms and there is never a good reason for a child to die. This just isn’t helpful and I think we only say it because someone taught us to say it when someone dies. Perhaps it has it’s place when an elderly person dies, but not an infant.
Instead say “I don’t know how the world works and why such terrible things happen. I wish your child was still with you and I will remember them always.”
It was only a miscarriage / thank goodness you lost them now, rather than when they were older.
There is no “only” in child loss. Every person deals with things very differently and there is no right or wrong. There are no measures in child-loss grief, there are just different circumstances and the same aching longing to hold our babies. If you have children, ask yourself – would you prefer to lose them now or later on? It is an impossible question and trying to answer it gives no comfort.
Instead say “I am so very sorry for your loss. I am here if you need me.”
I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning / I couldn’t be as strong as you are / The Lord only sends you as much as you can survive – you must be so strong.
The truth is, if this happened to you, you would be getting out of the bed in the morning. You would be trying to make things work. Your family and friends would still need you. Your heart and head would have stopped and life would keep moving around you. Whilst it is probably not what you mean, when this is said to a grieving parent they can hear the intimation that the speaker loves their baby more – that the loss of their baby would render them incapable and therefore their love must be greater. Strength comes to you because you need it, not because it existed prior to loss. Extra pain is not allotted to those with extra strength.
Instead say “The days must be really difficult and I want to help you. When can I bring dinner around for you?”
My sister/friend/mother/aunt lost her baby, and she didn’t carry on this way. You need to get over it.
Every grief journey is different. Some are intensely private and you actually wouldn’t have a clue what their heart really looks like. Others need to express their pain publicly. Some have never been allowed to express their grief. The pain of losing a child doesn’t go away, it dims with time but often flares up. A bereaved parent will need to talk about their child. Will have bad days, even years after loss. A grieving parent learns where their grief is accepted and where it is not. You need to decided which kind of friend you want to be – the one that can live with the discomfort and be there, or the one that would prefer your grieving friend wear a mask for your benefit. Think about why you want them to “get over it”. Do you just miss the person that they used to be or are you genuinely concerned for your friend’s emotional wellbeing? If you are concerned about their wellbeing, then you need be there for them. Whatever that might look like.
Instead say “I know that you will miss (say their baby’s name) forever. Do you want to talk about her/him?”
If you are genuinely concerned that their grief is overwhelming them to a point where it is unhealthy – that is they aren’t taking care of themselves or their family or they seem suicidal, say,
“I know you will miss (say their baby’s name) forever. I miss them too. I am worried about you. Is there anything I can do to help? Do you want to talk? ”
Educate yourself and contact your nearest SIDS and Kids. They have counsellors who are experienced in consoling the grieving and they can help you understand what your friend needs and how you can help.
Ever since you lost your child, I have been terrified of losing mine. Being around you makes me uncomfortable.
Fortunately, child loss isn’t contagious. But you do feel terribly, terribly alone. Having people move away from you because they see their worst fears realised in your life adds to that isolation. It is natural to fear something that has suddenly become real in your world, but that’s something you need to deal with – not the parent that has lost their child. Think about the level of your friend’s discomfort and compare it to your own. It’s not that bad is it?
Instead say “I am so very sorry that (say their baby’s name) isn’t with you. They should be in your arms. Please let me know if being around my baby/bump makes you uncomfortable. “
I don’t pretend it’s easy to find the right words. I don’t pretend it’s easy to go out of your way and really help the grieving. I don’t pretend that it’s easy to step out of your comfort zone. But, at the end of the day, if you think any of it’s really hard, it’s nothing compared to losing your child.
Every Saturday my little family heads down to the local coffee shop and I wonder what we look like to other people. Beautiful four year old running at the front of the pram, cute little Hugo, our cavalier puppy, on his heels. N or I pushing the pram, lightly touching each other around the waist. It must look idyllic. It must look like the perfect family. What it looks like and what it is are so very different.
I felt similarly when pregnant. I wondered if people who had recently suffered loss or infertility looked jealously at my growing bump.
I know in the weeks after Xavier died I wanted to rush up to mothers of newborns and say “Do you know? Do you know how utterly privileged you are?” I wanted to talk to those heavily pregnant and ask “Do you know? Do you know the precious weight of what you carry?” I didn’t of course. But what if I had and she had returned the pain in my own eyes. If she would have said, with a heaviness another loss mother would recognise, “Yes”.
We go about our daily battles and it seems like everyone else’s battles are being easily won. But we don’t know. We don’t know how much pain lies before apparent happiness. Each of us are icebergs, only revealing the tip of our lives. Carefully constructing the image we allow the world to see. We know this of ourselves – why do we presume that everyone around us does any differently?
My personal Facebook feed is filled with photos of Elijah on different outings – parks, various beaches, numerous cafes. As my parents are currently overseas, I am posting daily pictures so they can watch him grow. This no doubt gives the impression of a terribly confident mother – happily out and about with a perfectly behaved newborn. This would be a generous assumption. In truth, I am not a homebody and will always prefer out to in. When I am at home alone with Elijah, the darker thoughts creep in. It’s when I hold him close and beg him not to die. Do I prefer the facade of a mother breezing through parenthood? Of course, but it masks a darker truth.
I never want to be defined by my loss – although I am happy to be shaped by it. But sometimes, I want to scream “Getting here wasn’t easy – the road to this seeming perfection was paved with tears and still, always, there is someone missing”.
But that’s not the image I have chosen to present to the world. There is a large element of choice here. Could I fall apart? Of course I could, in a heartbeat, in an instant. But I hold myself and my family together. Is this a form of lying? Would it be truer to myself to let more of the pain show? Would it ease the pressure on those around me if I was to be more “real”? I am not sure. So much of how I coped with Xavier’s death was “fake it until you feel it”. When faced with something that cleaves your heart in two, people really don’t want to see the full ugliness of it. I didn’t want to be the full ugliness of it. For all our talk of being real, there comes a point of too real. And so I have been play-acting for some time now. Not just for those around me, but for me. I have been play-acting for so long that it might be difficult to tell where the reality and where the acting meet. And perhaps this simply is my new reality.
Being grateful for each and every moment, striving to live in the now and taking advantage of every possibility can seem unbearably Pollyanna-ish. It can seem fake and impossible. But my alternative is impossible and so I take this path and I will smile through the pain.
I have had a rough week. Plagued by doubts about my ability as a mother. Many episodes of being convinced that Elijah will die. Watching each breath as though its his last. Missing Xavier more acutely as I am reminded exactly of what I missed and time takes Elijah further away from Xavier’s little life.
When it all gets too much, I imagine what Xavier might tell me if he could.
I have seen you struggle these last few days. Seen the tears fall and wished I could wipe them away.
When you watch over Elijah, so convinced this breath will be his last, I am watching over him too. I promised to keep him safe. Trust.
Why do you think yourself a poor mother? You have been told so many times you could not save me. You have been told so many times you are a good mother. Those that you know that have suffered loss, those you have cried with, do you judge them poor parents? Do you think them anything but beautiful and wonderful parents? Turn some of that kindness to yourself. You are a good mother. Believe.
I know you hold him in your arms and ache for me. I know that having a newborn has made what we missed so much more real. I know that connecting on a spiritual level comes a poor second to touching, kissing, breathing in sweet baby scent. I wish things could have been different too. But this is what we have. And I need you to still nurture it. I still need you. Love.
These days shall pass. Too quickly. Enjoy them. Enjoy the moments that will eventually draw us together again. Cherish.
I love you mummy.
The baby loss community is an especially beautiful and supportive one. When a new member joins this terrible little club, they are extended love and understanding. When I joined this group that no-one would ever want to be a part of, that support was invaluable.
In the wake of Xavier’s death, I found comfort online but I needed to see someone who had lost their child and was still living and breathing. I met with a gorgeous lady who had lost her baby son many years ago. At the time, I was in a strange robotic stage of grief. Not entirely sure what I should be doing or feeling but fearing the future. I was acting from a script I had to re-write myself from day to day. In so many ways feeling liking a passive observer – watching myself from a distance and fascinated that this was the way I was handling things. I felt like I was edging along the huge abyss of time that separated me from Xavier and any mis-step would see me fall right in. Was this my life from now on? Was it even possible to sustain? How would my life look in the months and years to come? So, I looked to this lovely stranger who shared my devastation and she told me how her son had changed her – how her grief had reshaped her into a very different person. A better person.
I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want Xavier’s loss to make me into a better person. I was entirely fine with the person I was before he left. I needed no extreme makeover administered by the hand of fate. And this empty vessel, clinging to life, battered on the shores of grief? I didn’t want to be her. I looked in the mirror and I couldn’t recognise myself. I had become a stranger. This was not some better version of myself. This was a shadow, an echo. A leaf on the wind, without substance or purpose. I didn’t want to get out of bed and be strong each day. I didn’t want to be looked at with pitying admiration. I had no interest in being an inspirational story. All I ached for was my son. I would think “this grief thing has been interesting, I have learned a lot but I will have my son back now please”. Hoping against hope that someone would come to the door, Xavier in their arms, and apologise for a dreadful mix up.
In that early time, I was convinced that Xavier had been taken from me to teach me a lesson. To show me that life couldn’t be perfect. Until that point, my life had remained untouched by tragedy and was rich with blessings. I thought I had been spared fate’s cruelty. And then it was as though fate noticed me, said “Ah yes, she’s had it easy for far too long, now, what’s the worst thing I could do to her?” And this conspiracy by fate to teach me a lesson – I wanted no part in it. I would not be taught – I would not allow a reason for Xavier’s death. If grief had gifts to give, I didn’t want them. Accepting them felt too close to accepting Xavier’s death.
Could I not simply go back to who I was after a period of grieving? Did I have to lose who I was as well as my son? Where did the losses end?
But grief becomes a gentler companion with time and it was inevitable I would change. Perspectives alter when your world shifts. What is important becomes crystal clear and you begin to see that it is possible to gain in the midst of loss. I began to realise that the person I was becoming was a way of honouring Xavier’s life rather than giving some sort of credence to his death. Began to appreciate that treasuring every moment was a gift he had given me. In the early months after Xavier died I struggled with the idea that the happiest moments of my life were behind me. That no beautiful moment could ever be perfect. Whereas I may have had plenty of those perfect moments prior to Xavier’s death – did I realise them? Did I treasure them? Did I truly realise the full precious weight of those moments? And so now, even though the moments are dulled by sadness, I appreciate them in way I never could before. There is more beauty in my life because I pause to notice it. I invest more in friendships because I know how valuable they are. I love more because I have seen just how much I am loved. I take each moment as a gift. Each of those moments, strung together and stitched into time. Those moments that rather than separate me further from Xavier, will eventually bring me back to my son. And that is something to treasure.