In the nine months that have passed since our son lived and died, entire pregnancies have evolved from the meeting of egg and sperm, to live and kicking out-of-the-womb babies. During that time, I have held more babies more times than I will ever hold my own, and each Facebook log in brings with it a flood of pregnancy announcements, bump shots, birth details and first milestones.
If infant loss is considered a taboo subject, and surprisingly to me, it is, then the feelings that arise from grieving mothers when faced with other babies, has to be the biggest taboo of them all.
It is one of those subjects that we would rather avoid and my stomach knots as I imagine people reading this with anxious trepidation. But with a little gentle honesty and understanding from both sides of the coin, no knots need be involved.
Since losing Winter I have become part of the online infant loss community, a place thanks to the ever growing world of social media that probably didn’t exist even five years ago. On there I have discovered a sea of other humans in the exact same situation as myself, childless mothers, desperately trying to make sense of the emotions that they battle continuously in this thick swamp of grief, all whilst they mourn their loss and try to maintain their everyday lives. I know from talking with these newfound friends, that the feelings I experience are commonly shared and natural, and through my Buddhist practices I am working hard to make sense of them and, more importantly, ease them.
Firstly, this is taboo because, well, no one wants to admit to having negative feelings towards an innocent baby, and the initial feelings that we experience can be trailed by a huge amount of guilt and shame. But the truth is not so scary. We are not experiencing these feelings because we are met with a healthy baby, we are experiencing these feelings because we don’t have ours, and those feelings arise simply at the moment we are confronted with that reality. Most regular people experience heightened emotions of some kind around little babies, creating a new life is a highly charged event. And when you have had your own baby pulled from your arms so suddenly, those emotions are heightened tenfold. We are talking about instinctive, animalistic emotions, feelings that are knitted into your DNA, and threaded into every atom. When things go wrong and your baby dies, these intense emotions derail spectacularly and can be terrifyingly difficult to understand and exhausting to manage.
Speaking from my own personal experiences now, being around other babies can be difficult. Seeing other people share the happiness at bringing their baby home from hospital can be painful. Hearing other people talk about the achievements of their young children can be heart breaking.
The varying factors shift and change. There have been many, many times when I have successfully held a newborn baby and separated the experience from that of my own, and there have been other times when I’ve had to politely avoid a situation or paint on a brave face. The feelings that arise in that instance depend mostly upon other unrelated events. How am I feeling that day, in that moment leading up to meeting the baby? Has it been a difficult morning, am I feeling particularly low? Or am I feeling light and positive? Other factors can be thrown into the mix. Babies tuning one, babies born around the same time as my own, babies who have just been freshly delivered. Sometimes it’s effortless and sometimes it’s impossible. Each day is different and each baby brings with it its own ties and connections. A close family friend that has a baby changing right at your very touch, an acquaintance in a shop with a baby whose name you can’t remember or an online face so familiar but far enough out of reach that it’s safe. As with everything in life, each individual experience is dependent upon the mind in that moment.
Jealousy is an emotion that gets thrashed around feverishly after your baby dies. When someone has something that you want for yourself, it is our self cherishing mind which leads us to jealousy. If we experience even some low level jealousy when someone gets a promotion we wanted or a wedding we dreamed of, then we can begin to understand the burning jealousy that can be overpowering when something as precious as a child is involved. It is, I believe, completely natural to experience that, but it can be overcome with time. When I see a birth announcement or a first scan photograph, I can get that first sharp ping of jealousy. I recognise it, and I face it. On the one hand, I’m thoroughly relieved for healthy babies being made and born, who wouldn’t be? On the other hand I am reminded that mine wasn’t. Sometimes it takes just a minute, other times a day or even a week of contemplation, before I feel relaxed and able to sincerely congratulate. During that time, I am reminded by Buddha’s teachings, that my happiness is not dependent upon others, only myself. I have a choice to firmly face and avert negative minds. I remember that whether or not that baby was created and born, my son is not here. If other babies stopped existing, my son would still not exist. Other babies being born does not change my situation, I can therefore choose to harbour negative feelings for no purpose other than to poison myself, or to let go of them and rejoice in the good news. A jealous mind is simply a mind that wishes for someone else to not experience happiness at a time when we feel that we are not experiencing happiness for ourselves and realising that our experiences are entirely unrelated helps us to enjoy the happiness of others.
But of course, it is not easy and it takes great effort. I am only human with human emotions, I am far far far from a perfect enlightened being. Feelings arise, they are intense, all consuming, I cannot always gather the reigns and steer my horse with a smile and a jaunty tip of my hat. Sometimes, I can’t do it. And honestly, I think that is ok. And I think it’s even better if the mother who is no doubt looking after their live baby with great love and affection, can understand that sometimes you just can’t do it either.
With every baby I see I am reminded that Winter has a lifetime of missed opportunities. My heart aches, I struggle to find words to describe the longing I experience to have my son here with me, knowing I will never have that chance. For the rest of my life I will track his age, I will see children around me that are growing at the same pace, and with every milestone I will miss my boy and wonder how his first steps and first day at school would have played out had he just been given the gift of life.
I’m sure most mothers would understand that after holding your baby as they died, holding theirs will ultimately bring with it some level of pain and I have discovered that with some open conversation and gentle effort from both teams, the experience can one day bring with it some joy amongst the heart ache.