Good Grief

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.

Life Before Death

Winters brief life gave me the gift of an immeasurable love, but Winters sudden death gave me a gift even greater than that.  He taught me the delicacy of life, the fragility of something we take for granted every second of everyday, he opened my eyes to the uncertainty of this path we walk.

Death isn’t generally a topic of conversation in western society, it is considered inappropriate, depressing and awkward.  It’s as if it is less likely to happen if we just don’t bring it up.  But there is only one thing in this life that is absolutely certain, and that is death.

In Buddhism, death is a huge subject discussed daily, in fact many of our 21 daily meditations relate to death, and the first practice in our New Kadampa Meditation Handbook is based entirely on the contemplation of death itself.  And if realised sincerely, rather than bring with it doom and gloom, death instead invites a meaningful intention to your life, for many reasons and in many different ways.

To begin with, if we ask ourselves honestly, do we believe that death will surely come?  Aside from a fleeting comment about ‘life’s too short’ and ‘you only live once’, do we truly and sincerely believe that our life is brief, extinguishable at any time and entirely out of our control?  Just consider this for a moment.  As you look around, try to grasp the notion that one day everything that appears to you now will one day no longer exist.  The very thought of it feels almost out of our human understanding, as though we are teaching a cat about the stars.  It is a thought which flickers but never truly seems to sink in because it is so abstract to imagine ourselves no longer existing.  But it is true and we can all agree, one day we will die.  Whatever our personal beliefs about life after death, we can mostly agree that life before death is impermanent, and if we contemplate this further, we will realise that whilst death is certain, the timing is unknown and the causes are countless.  Winter reminded me what Buddha had already taught, that we do not have to be sick to lose our life, we do not have to be old to die.  Before we lost our son, I had become complacent in my practice, distracted by the colourful mirage of this life, forgetful that we control nothing and believing that death was saved for the elderly.

Understanding that death is real is not depressing, quite the opposite, it is altogether enlightening.  Realising that our time in our lucky human bodies is only temporary instead drives us to lead meaningful lives.  If you knew for sure that you could die today, what would you do with your time?  Would you spend an hour worrying about a problem which can or cannot be solved or would you desire a peaceful mind?  Would you open your curtains and curse the grey clouds or feel thankful to feel the rain on your skin one last time?  Would you crave expensive threads or cars or would you realise that once you die wealth and objects mean nothing, not even your clothes are yours anymore?  We would suddenly see that fame, money, beauty, talent, popularity, personality, confidence… nothing could stop our lives eventually ending.  We would lead very different lives if we thought we could die at any moment.  But if we think about this carefully, we can see that unless we have a signed godly certificate that says ‘you will not die today’ then this is the reality.  Many people who die today will have woken up believing they will go to bed tonight and wake up tomorrow, their belief is no different from our own.

So we can check for ourselves, which of these statements is true?

I will definitely not die today.

I may die today.

If we wake up every morning and contemplate this truth, slowly over time we gain a deeper realisation of death and the preciousness of our lives.

Of course, we also have to use our wisdom.  For example, it would not be wise to say ‘I may die today so I will not pay my rent, I will quit my job, I will not take care of myself’ because with life comes a responsibility to provide food to nourish our bodies and a safe, warm home for our family.  But we would notice that with each day we realise this truth, we will become less attached to material objects, less disillusioned with chasing followers and likes on our social media, less time wasted on idle gossip and negative minds, and a happier, more thankful life emerges.  I am alive, tomorrow I may not be, I will accept any problems that arise and face them with patience, I will use my energy for love not hate because when I am gone all that I leave behind is the results of my actions.  Whilst my life has ended, for everyone else their life continues.

Today my mama -Winters Great Grandma – said to me whilst looking through his photographs, that she never expected that he would die because he was just a baby.  And she is absolutely right, whilst I was pregnant we never even considered it.  We decorated his nursery one year to the day, we spent months preparing for a life that lasted just one day, and whilst I would do it all again and preparing for a baby’s arrival is vital and meaningful in itself, Winter reminded me that death is rarely expected.  We prepared for a life but we never prepared for a death, we forgot that life, no matter how short, is a gift and not a certainty.  Winter taught me that every morning we are born again, each day of life is a blessing, and death ends all except love.

Thank you Winter, you know that I love you x

 

A Bigger Taboo – Facing Other Babies When You Have Lost Your Own

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.

Can be.

Not always.

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.

Nine Months Without Winter

Nine months have passed since I last held my son, 39 weeks since I was ripped from a safe and comfortable reality and tossed into the frightening and painful world of infant loss.

My son Winter Wolfe was born at full term with 39 weeks and 2 days of healthy growth in my belly.  My labour was spontaneous, natural and altogether regular.  He arrived at 4.37am on October 23rd, crying, pink and a strapping 7lb 6oz. We fell in love and our future appeared to be bright and exciting. But just half an hour after he began his life, our baby boy stopped breathing and the next day he died.

In the months that have followed our sons unexpected death, I have posted regular updates on my Instagram feed and on there I have discovered a world of support and love.  I recently decided that I would like to extend my reach, and so after a full 9 month term of microblogging, onedayofwinter.com has been, excuse the pun, born.

The saying goes ‘every journey begins with a single step’, but the journey through infant loss begins instead with trips and tumbles.  The cliché of a rollercoaster really is the best example to use.  Life after Winter has brought us the lowest of lows alongside the highest of highs, and the continuous mix of emotions is exhausting and at times, terrifying.

The preparation for a baby’s arrival is full of excitement and anticipation.  There is nursery wallpaper to choose, names to ponder, discussions about breastfeeding and cloth nappies, cots to assemble, maternity leave to plan, rompers to collect and baby showers to attend. Every piece of your life is working towards the end goal… bringing your baby home.  So what happens when the end goal is erased, when the final hurdle is disguising a cliff edge? Even 9 months into losing our little boy and a whole year since we decorated the nursery he never made it home to, I still sit on my rocking chair and wonder how his room ended up so empty.

And after the run up, comes the jump. Birthing your baby is an experience a mother never forgets.  Winters labour was long but relatively uneventful.  I was naturally focused on the task at hand and all my energy was squeezed into the aim of meeting our creation.  Then comes the immense rush of love you experience when your baby is placed in your arms, that hazy moment of unbelieving and dream like state of ‘wow here is my child!’. I had already pre-typed our announcement message with blank spaces for gender, name, date and weight ready to send with the heading ‘First we had each other, then we had you, now we have everything’. Instead a tearful phone call to parents to ‘come quickly they said he might die.’.

Winters dad held our son in his arms for the first time as he left this world and entered the next. The following days and weeks blur together. We had stepped onto the rollercoaster, and try as we might, there was no getting off.  Leaving the hospital with a memory box instead of a baby, registering Winters birth, funeral arrangements, collecting his ashes, Christmas, New Year, returning to work, post mortem results, hospital meetings, registering his death, mothers day, birthdays. Eight months after losing Winter and six months of hoping desperately for another baby, I fell pregnant.  We were overjoyed and thanked Winter for his gift, only to miscarry at just over five weeks, the day after Fathers Day.

Each milestone since Winter has become a hurdle, and every anniversary is tinged with a deep hollow sadness. There have been days, recently still, where I have not been able to stop my tears, days where I wonder how life can be so cruel and thieve my only child so quickly. But alongside our pain, Winters life and death has brought with it feelings of immense love, gratitude and meaningfulness despite the suffering we face.  To date we have raised around £14,000 through various projects for the baby unit who cared so beautifully for our son, who gave us the chance to spend a day together, to call extended family to meet him, to bathe him, dress him and hold him, to be there for his every transition from birth to life and from life to death.  I feel lucky to have seen his big dark eyes and heard his gutsy first cry, I know so many families whose babies were stillborn and were robbed of these simple pleasures.  I feel lucky to have had him with me as he grew, to have experienced a naïve and carefree pregnancy, to feel the kicks and document my swelling belly. I know so many families who have never had that opportunity and face a lifetime of infertility and empty arms.

I’m thankful every morning for my life, all thanks to my son.  I had become complacent and Winter reminded me that life is so fleeting and with no guarantee of time.  We can’t waste even a single drop of this nectar called life.  Winter lived for just one day, so when I open my eyes in the morning and feel heavy, I’m reminded that I have a little Winter lifetime ahead of me, to make it worthwhile and full of gratitude.  Whether that means cleaning the house and feeling thankful for a roof over my head, or missing my son and feeling thankful he existed simply by honouring my grief. Winter taught me, and those whose life he has touched, to cherish friends and family, and through his brief life we have experienced greater bonds.

Nine months ago yesterday was the greatest moment of my life. Nine months ago today was the most painful but also the most profound.  I’m still hurting, it is still raw, and we still have a long way to go yet with huge hurdles fast approaching. But the infant loss community I have encountered, the support I have received from those around me and the strength gifted to me by Winter keeps me going and most importantly, keeps me hopeful for the future.

I love you Winter x

If you are interested in my past micro blogging posts on Instagram and our journey so far then please feel free to add me @life_of_pea x