Ten months into this baby loss business, and I am suddenly struck by the shift in attitude to my grief. What was once an outpouring of support and “you’re doing so well’s” has hardened into confusion and murmurs of “perhaps you should get some pills”. But what I am experiencing seems to be shared by others grieving a loss – a child, a husband, a parent – and so it appears to be not the fault of any well meaning individual, but rather a miseducation of grief as a whole in our western society.
Firstly, I have to stress that I am surrounded by immense support, I’m blessed to have an incredible network of family and friends and the ongoing outpouring of deep love for our son is breathtaking. Secondly, this blog post is not intended to rain judgment on those who are feeling just as confused about my grief as I am myself. I understand with all my heart that even my own personal expectations of grief have shifted dramatically over the past ten months, I realise that I was clueless to the pain before losing my little boy and most likely spoke all the words and carried out all the actions that I now find so difficult to receive myself. But seeing as I’ve now lived and continue to live with the heavy weight of grief, I felt like I could share my thoughts, a little act of ‘pass it on’.
In the very early days, my grief was raw yet gentle. I would fall asleep crying and wake up crying, but ultimately I was protected by shock and disbelief. Looking back I can see that after nine long months of preparing for a baby who came and went in a single day, I spent the first few months still feeling as though I was pregnant, still waiting for something, still in limbo. Those early days of grief were devastating and proactive all at the same time, I was both heartbroken and motivated by my love I had for my invisible son. SO MUCH LOVE and nothing to direct it at, fundraising, returning to work, talking about Winter all day everyday, that is where I housed my homeless energy.
And in the beginning, when it felt as though I was living someone else’s story, everyone was there ready to help. They spoke Winter’s name, they expected my tears, they brought flowers and cards and said “call me anytime!”
And these days, those people are still there for me. But time changes people’s perspective of your tears. Misled judgements and opinions on ‘how you’re coping’ are crushing and isolating. Why are you still feeling tearful? But you just got married, why are you sad? You’re struggling, I’m concerned about you. Have you considered anti-depressants?
These are my loved ones and they care about me, so I focus on the intention and dismiss the delivery. But perhaps they are lucky enough to have never experienced such a huge loss themselves and find themselves confused, bewildered, ill prepared to support their friend and deal with the long term sadness that comes with the death of their child. And had Winter lived, I would find myself lost with them. But he died and so here I am writing about my grief and hoping that it might provide a little helpful insight for those trying to be a good friend to an angel mother, and those angel mothers trying to be a good friend to themselves.
Here’s what I have learnt about infant loss and grief.
Firstly, my child died, my CHILD died. That is a huge, huge devastating event. Controversially I don’t believe that what happened to me personally is the absolute worst thing that can happen to someone. I see stories in the newspapers everyday about someone’s son or daughter being brutally murdered, whole families wiped out in natural tragedies or children living and dying in warzones. Winters beautiful brief life and peaceful death in our arms, brought with it happiness amongst the sadness and therefore I don’t feel entitled to everlasting sympathy. But I do feel that it is difficult to understand the enormity of losing a child and the impact that has on you forever. A stillbirth, a neonatal death, a death of a toddler or a seven year old. They are all child loss. Absolutely worlds apart in experience, and possibly pain (I can only speak from my own personal experience) but still all child loss, none-the-less. Just because Winter lived only for one day, does not mean I don’t love him as my CHILD as well as my newborn baby. Had he been one day old and someone asked if I had a child, my answer would have been yes. I would be ticking that box that asks if you have children rather than hovering over it and wincing as I have to tick no, no children, none living. I’m grieving my baby, I’m grieving my CHILD. Not just someone I had for one single little day, but my much wanted little boy, grown for nine months, breathed for one day, loved forever. I’m grieving his lost life and our lost future.
Secondly, there is no such thing as a grieving period. I think we should all just rub this phrase out the western dictionary and be done with it. This idea that when someone dies we grieve for a bit, feel gradually better and then heal is painfully misleading and only reinstates the false idea that grief can be jotted into a calender, charted, arranged into phases and neatly wrapped up in a pretty box with bows. Grief lasts forever, because love lasts forever, and you grieve those you have lost and still love. That doesn’t mean that in twenty years I will be in bed sobbing uncontrollably for weeks on end because I’m grieving my son, but then again, so what if it did? I’m grieving all day everyday, I grieve when I cry on the kitchen floor and I grieve when I laugh with my friends. I will grieve for my son for as long as I live. If you are wondering why I am still feeling sad, then please understand that it is because, simply, my baby died and I miss him. I miss not just that one day we shared, but I miss his first smile, his first laugh, his first steps, his first day at school, his first partner, his first very own child. I barely cried at my sons funeral, instead I felt full of pride as though I was showing my baby off to all those who came to say hello and goodbye, yet just the other day I spent the whole day in absolute tears. Am I going backwards? No. Each different day brings with it different emotions, different experiences. When Winter first died my emotions were mainly ‘missing’ and ‘loving’, but over time grief becomes much more complicated, friendships are challenged, relationships can become strained, family celebrations and life events become minefields for emotion explosions. Just like we cannot go through life in general without changing emotions and ‘good’ days and ‘bad’ days, so grief can be unpredictable, and anything but within a certain period.
Thirdly, I’ve learnt that this ongoing grief can be uncomfortable for others to witness. We have a need to fix it, grief is seen as a problem to be solved. But you cannot solve a broken heart just as you cannot replace a missing loved one. There is no solving grief, there is only experiencing grief. Whether you are the person grieving or you are the person helping the grieving, it is all an experience. We’re all in this life business together, so we just have to help each other out as much as we can. We can’t shy away from the grief of others, it can be ugly and painful to witness but it needs to be seen to keep us connected to our mortality. And grief can be beautiful, after all it is a side effect of love. I often sense that people feel as though they are running out of things to say and advice to pass on, but grief is repetitive and relentless. I have spoken the same words over and over to my own mum, and every time she just sits and listens, and really that’s all I want I suppose, to be able to free my mind of all my squashed in jumbled up thoughts and relieve my heart of a little pain, to say his name and be Winter’s voice as well as my own. I don’t expect anyone to heal me, that is impossible, I just want the gift of time, patience and a listening ear. Life will always involve loss, but we can use our humanity to ease it a little and hold each other up rather than take the easy option and just pretend it isn’t happening. We will all lose a loved one eventually, such is the nature of this life.
Lastly, and this is a little piece of advice to myself as well as other grieving parents, strong and weak do not need to be mutually exclusive. Too many times I have heard ‘you’re so strong!’ when I’m fundraising and writing a positive upbeat piece only to be met with ‘I don’t think you’re coping well at the moment’ when I am feeling emotional. Crying, screaming, sobbing, holding my baby’s empty clothes to my chest, clutching his photographs, these are moments of strength too. This is not a weakness. Confronting grief with all its harsh realties is strong, feeling weak is strong, accepting our human emotions and letting them drown our bodies is strong. My little boy is important to me and I cry for him, he is deserving of these tears. I may get up in the morning and cry as I eat my breakfast or drive to work, but I am getting up in the morning and going to work, and there is strength in that alone. When your child dies, just living takes strength. Go easy on yourself and those around you trying to help, after all, when your baby dies, no one knows what the f*** to do because it’s not supposed to happen in our perfectly planned out lives.
There is a saying, ‘Grief is the price we pay for love’ and I would grieve a thousand times over to keep this beautifully fierce love I have for my son. It is just my hope that my loved ones will keep a little patience for me and pass it on to others who are grieving.