Preparing For The Unpreparable.

When I was pregnant with Winter I spent a lot of time wondering how my life would change when he arrived.  I imagined sleepless nights and groggy confusion and newborn survival, all wrapped up in a big thankful-for-his-existence bow.  And actually, despite his death, that expectation was pretty accurate.  But of course, it wasn’t at all the way I had fantasised. The sleepless nights were not tending to a cooing newborn, but me lay awake in a painfully quiet house, pining for my baby boy. The groggy confusion came not from scouring online baby forums for colic relief, but instead rested upon heavy grieving shoulders where I swung from peaceful gratitude to crying on the nursery floor, never really knowing or understanding how I would be feeling next.  And the newborn survival, became instead surviving the death of my newborn.  I had not planned for this, in my months of preparation for life with my baby not once had I discussed and decided just how I would continue my life without my baby.  And I have come to discover that nothing can prepare you at all for that, just as nothing can really ever prepare you for life with a real live wriggling newborn.  And yet here I am, trying to prepare.

It goes without saying that the preparation this time is bittersweet, but ultimately it is exciting and hopeful.  A lot of the items I have for this baby were bought with the intention to be used 21 months ago.  Gifted clothes left unfilled, a lovingly chosen crib left unused.  They sat in Winters nursery patiently awaiting a baby that never arrived home.  And now, they are offered a second chance.  If life were a Disney film then this is the bit where all the objects would jump into action after a long slumber, egged on by a cheery sing song chorus, animated by sprightly co-ordinated dancing.  This pregnancy has breathed life into faded hopeless items, it has polished and sprinkled them with colour.  Where I once pained to peek at the babygrows that I had washed and folded for Winter, I can now hang them up with refreshed purpose.  It may not be his body that fills their shape, but his sibling, his DNA, a part of him can.  It’s the next best thing. Then there is the sense during preparing the nursery that I have done this all before.  Last time our loving efforts went wasted, our talk of how we would raise our child and the dreams we had for their future all fell on deaf ears.  We planted the seed, we watered it and showered it with sunshine but we were rewarded with drought.  A fruitless harvest.  It’s impossible to not plan for the same happening.  Our imagination can be painfully morbid as it teases us with worst case scenarios.  I painted the walls of this nursery excited and laughing with Dean, and then for a split second my mind wandered off the cliff edge and I decided that I would like this exact colour for our baby’s coffin if they died.  I had to quickly remind myself that my past experience is not a guaranteed reality.  It was just a flicker, a millisecond, one of those things that flashes through your mind and jolts you.  A hastened recovery, back to smiling, ‘I can’t wait for baby to be in this room.’

My hospital bag is mostly packed.  This time I haven’t bothered with the fluffies, no chapstick or eye mask for me.  Just the essentials, nappies and wipes and maternity pads etc and a handful of well considered baby outfit in varying sizes.  Last time I made the mistake of taking only small baby clothes, bravely assuming my baby would only ever be small.  We laugh now at the memory of squeezing Winter into a romper that was most definitely too tiny, and seeing that very babygrow hanging in the nursery, stretched open between desperate poppers, still brings a smile to my face.  But that was Winters memory, and now I am ready to successfully clothe a live new baby.  I don’t know what to expect of this baby’s arrival.  Some days I feel like it could happen at any moment in a way I don’t really want, a rushed induction or emergency caesarean, and the loss of control is suffocating.  Other days I feel certain that I will naturally labour and birth this baby peacefully in a way similar to that of Winter before tragedy struck.  And really I am reminded every day that as long as they are alive and well, the method to which they make it is as throwaway as a sweet wrapper.

And then there is this real life parenting shit. Yes, I am already a mother, I’ve no bones about my title. I have 2 children, a little boy called Winter who lives in my heart and a growing womb baby.  But there is no doubt about it, there is a vast difference between mothering a child that has died and mothering a child that is living.  I mother Winter by protecting his memory and keeping him alive in our thoughts, hanging his photograph on the wall and his handprint at our door, but I don’t know too much about weaning and latching on.  Does anyone until they have to do it?  Whether parenting an angel or parenting a walking talking human, neither is easy, each throws challenges in different ways, and I still can’t really know what to expect when I walk through our front door with a babe in arms.  I’m not sure any pregnant woman has ever fully accepted that there is a real life baby in there until they pop out.  I fully expect to have that ‘Holy cow what the hell’ moment when we realise it is actually a proper baby that we are now responsible for. Right now, we feel the wriggles and hiccups and stick the scan photos onto the fridge… but is it true, is there really a baby in there?!  To steal a quote from my good friend and fellow pregnant loss mama Farrah – @somethingrosier – this morning as we text, ‘It’s like walking on the moon, you know its happened and it’s possible but you just can’t really believe it!’.  I lay in bed with Dean at night and we say things like ‘soon there will be a little baby here with us…’ but neither of us really think its actually truly true.  Because it is impossible to envision, perhaps even more so to first time parents or those who have had babies but never bought them home.

It goes without saying that I expect motherhood to be challenging.  What kind of mother will I be?  Will I know how to soothe a screaming baby?  How will I know what my baby wants from me?  I work in a school and we have recently begun to take children as young as two years old in our pre-nursery, and I have many friends who have had babies since Winter died, both in real life and online. In that sense I’m not in a naïve bubble anymore.  Before we had Winter I had never even changed a nappy, these days I change them in my job.  I know more about young children and baby’s development, the toys they play with and the TV shows they watch.  And I hear and read about the struggles of teething and colic and sleep deprivation.  I’m lucky to follow some open and honest mothers alongside the more picture perfect families on my Instagram, I enjoy both varieties on my feed and I’ve taken a lot from each and every one.  I also see that having a baby after loss is both easier and harder than parenting can ever be.  Easier perhaps because we know the true value of life on a deeper level that can only come with the death of another child, and provides us with greater patience… maybe?  Harder because we are still riddled with grief and the anxiety that our child may die… and heap a whole load of pressure onto ourselves to never be cross or frustrated because we wanted this baby so much…?  It is all speculation of course, and the reality will prove that motherhood is tricky no matter what your background.  Do I expect I will be forever calm and thankful and accepting even when my baby has cried for hours non stop…?  Probably not, I am human and I’ve no doubt I will struggle in all the ways that every woman has struggled on their new path of motherhood.  A rainbow baby won’t literally be all rainbows, with glitter poo and unicorns dancing around them as they sleep through each and every night.  We’ve all been the pregnant perfectionist who swears their child won’t have a tantrum in the supermarket like that… until it happens.  I’ve seen this, I’ve taken note, I’ve already began to make peace with the fact that whilst preparing for this baby fills me with hope and excitement, I have no idea what to really expect and that’s ok.  Winter taught me that we have very little control over life, it can change in an instant.  As long as I can offer love and protection and take the time to live in the moment then everything else is out of my hands.  All I can do is prepare to try my best.

 

Finding Happiness For Others: Choosing Joy Over Jealousy

Jealousy is an emotion we have all encountered in our lives, both experiencing the repercussions from someone else who feels jealous, or living with the uncomfortable feeling ourselves.  If someone were to ask you ‘how many times have you felt jealous?’ it would be an impossible question to answer.  Even if as adults we don’t suffer with strong jealousy, there are countless times we experienced it in the past and there are always future opportunities for this mind to arise, even in the most subtle of ways.  So why is it so shameful to admit our jealousy and begin the simple journey to relieving ourselves of its poisonous burden?

I have pondered over this blog post for an exceptionally long time.  Jealousy is everywhere in our human world, and of course this includes the emotional minefield of the baby loss world.  My intention here is not to alienate anyone or judge someone’s personal grief journey and all the deeply painful trauma that comes with the death of your child.  But I also know – having naturally experienced it myself – that jealousy is hugely painful and of great burden to us as humans, and having received Buddhist teachings on ways to ease it I feel like I would like to post this for anyone suffering and wanting to find ways to escape the suffocating clutches of the green-eyed monster.

Firstly, I want to make a few things clear.  My life is not devoid of jealousy, I am a human, one who has suffered the loss of her child shortly after he was born and has lived with the subsequent sting of pregnancy and birth announcements.  I’m not pointing the finger and rolling my eyes at you, or anyone, and I believe wholeheartedly that some level of jealous feelings are entirely natural when your baby dies and others live.  There is inevitably the feeling that after so much raw pain we have to at times protect our own heart and I am not suggesting anyone denies themselves that privilege, but rather I want to pass on some helpful relief.  To begin I would like to share with you a personal moment when I felt the rages of jealousy.  I had just suffered my second miscarriage following the sudden death of my newborn son and we were in the run up to his first birthday and angelversay.  I was heartbroken and losing hope when a close friend of mine announced – quite out of the blue – that she was expecting a baby.  She sent me a beautiful and well-considered text and I’ve no doubt she was aware that the news would bring with it a level of pain for me.  But despite knowing all that, I read the message and my chest burned, I felt angry, I went straight to bed and cried a river, my mind said ‘why can she have a baby so easily but I can’t?!’ and it took me until later that day to reply to her message.  After some crying and resting, to help regain my perspective I looked through my teaching notes and meditated with a mind focused on eliminating my jealousy.  I did not suppress the feeling, I did not beat myself up for it, I simply challenged why I felt that way and used practical reasoning to slowly overcome it.  It isn’t magic, it’s just changing your thinking.

Firstly, if we know someone is feeling jealous then we should also know that this requires great compassion.  Jealousy is so often hurled as an insult, and with it comes a huge amount of personal attack and negative insinuation.  But if we all think about a moment when we have felt jealous, then we can easily realise just how ugly it feels.  When we are jealous we are angry, ashamed and most likely comparing our personal value to the value of others.  It is such a consuming emotion that it is quickly out of our control, and many crimes of passion have been committed by someone who feels jealous.  Whilst it doesn’t always mean we are going to turn into a murderer… it can lead us to cut contact with friends and family and say and do tremendously hurtful and regretful things.  There is never any good that comes from a feeling of jealousy, and it feels painful and poisonous.  No one has ever said ‘I love feeling jealous, it’s so wonderful!’ and those around us who feel jealous are suffering great mental pain.  When we do retaliate in jealousy, it feels good for a short time but it is quickly chased by feelings of shame and guilt.  If we know how this feels, then we can realise that those around us suffering from jealousy do not require shaming and mocking, but actually they require great compassion to relieve them of such a terrible feeling.  And not in a patronising and sarcastic way with an underlying intent to embarrass or shame them, but in a way that truly comes from a compassionate intention – that is the most important point.

So why do we feel jealous?  From a Buddhist perspective, jealousy is a negative mind that arises when we feel like our own needs are not met.  This mind comes from our deep-rooted self cherishing, the mind that all humans possess that puts themselves as their number one priority and most important person.  We don’t need to be ashamed to admit that we have this mindset, we all do, it is our greatest flaw as humans, and it leads to all our minds of anger, attachment, jealousy etc, and is the mind that subsequently leads humans into division, war and other disastrous situations.  To give an example of this mind, we can use an analogy; Imagine you are walking down your street and you notice that all the houses have smashed windows.  Our mind instantly thinks ‘Oh wow, I hope my house hasn’t had its windows smashed’.  Whilst of course we may feel natural compassion for our friends and neighbours, we are ultimately relieved that our house is ok.  Now imagine that you are told that only one house on your street has been broken into, our mind of self cherishing leaps in again and says ‘I hope it’s not my house!’.  Self cherishing is the mind that values my things greater than it values others, whether that be my house, my car, my family, my idea, my religion or my country.  It is not to be confused with selfishness, but is rather a natural arising mind that promotes strong attachment to ‘me, my, our’.  As Buddhists we are always working to eliminate this mind – with wisdom from other practical teachings.  It is the mind that is the root of all our daily problems and our one true enemy.  Jealousy arises from our self cherishing mind.  When my friend announced her pregnancy, it was my self cherishing mind that instantly screamed ‘what about me?  Why couldn’t my baby live?  Why can’t I get pregnant?’.  Before I thought of my friends happiness, I thought of my own sadness, and jealousy tightened its grip.

There have been many times on this infant loss path that I have wished I had a greater skill at reducing my jealous feelings, and luckily for me (and anyone else who is hoping to reduce this suffering) Buddha provided us with some wonderful and practical advice.  I don’t think it is an instant cure without great practice – and devoted bodhisattvas and monks are training their minds tirelessly for many years to eliminate their mind of self cherishing, the root cause of all our problems and suffering.  But with some simple perspective and contemplation, we can at least begin to ease our jealousy and relieve our personal suffering whilst rejoicing in the happiness of others.

The first thing I always consider is this – jealousy is a wasted and pointless mind.  By feeling jealous of someone else’s happiness or success, it doesn’t make me feel better and it doesn’t stop them feeling happy or being successful.  In that sense it is a double loss; I feel worse, they are still happy.  If our jealous mind is hoping for the other person to stop feeling happy (which is sadly what this mindset promotes) then we will never be successful in that.  Our jealousy simply leaves us feeling even more miserable, whilst the other person continues in their happiness.  As we realise how empty and worthless the mental pain of jealousy is, we can make a rational and firm commitment to dispose of it.

The next thing I do is I remember what jealousy is.  It is just a mind that says ‘my wish not to suffer is more important than your happiness’.  To put it brutally, when I read the announcement I was thinking about my pain rather than my friends happiness.  I put my pain first, it was more important than the fact that my friend had just discovered that she was about to become a mother and was overjoyed at such a life changing moment.  I instantly thought ‘I want that’ rather than ‘she deserves that happiness’.  Grief is complicated and we must allow ourselves to engage in self-care and be gentle on our hearts, but we must also remember that we are just one single person whilst others are countless, and everyone around us deserves happiness.  It doesn’t mean we don’t find these situations painful and want to crawl into a corner and lick our wounds, but it also means that we can accept that the happiness of others is as important as our expectations of respect for our own grief.  I realised ultimately that I didn’t want my friend – or anyone – to feel guilty for her happiness, I didn’t want her pregnancy and motherhood to be tainted by my personal pain, she was happy and why shouldn’t she be, I remembered the feeling from my first carefree pregnancy and what a wonderful gift it was for her to experience and celebrate that.

Another point to contemplate – at the risk of sounding like a total hippie – is that we are all on our own journeys.  But really, we are… if my friend falls pregnant, has that robbed me of my own chance?  Absolutely not.  Her – and anyone else’s happiness – is not related to mine in that sense.  And so, does it really make any sense to not feel happy for her?  Actually, another healthy baby has an opportunity at life, and that doesn’t make or break my own chance at motherhood.  The same goes for any situation, our lives are all dependent upon circumstances arising, and so we can celebrate the happiness of others as if it were a success of our own.  We can remember that another person feeling happy doesn’t mean that we can’t, nobody is capable of stealing your happiness simply by adding to their own.  Often when we feel jealous we discover that this feeling vanishes when we achieve our own happiness, if this is the case then we can see that jealousy is simply dependent upon our own mind in that moment and therefore we have the ability to make it vanish ourselves, with some guided training and effort.  Just because we feel jealous in that moment, doesn’t mean we will always feel this way, our mind shifts and changes constantly and we can make the decision as to which direction we point it, after all it is our mind, we own it.

There are other countless things to consider.  For example, a stranger who sees me pass by with my now 6 month baby bump, may look at me and feel jealous that they do not have a baby.  But of course, they don’t know my journey to this point.  The fact is that we rarely know a persons full background and history.  Nine months ago as I stood in the shop queue, empty womb and heartbroken, behind a heavily pregnant lady, I looked at her as if she had the whole world.  I thought ‘I want that’.  But of course, everyone suffers in life, mentally, physically, emotionally.  Was the woman in front of me happy?  Who knows.  Perhaps she faces redundancy from her job, no longer loves her partner, or suffers from anxiety.  It’s easy to compare suffering and feel as though ours is worse, and of course I can agree that child loss is severely cruel, but suffering is suffering, and no one escapes it for a lifetime, no one.  When I looked at her as if she had the whole world, there are others looking at me and thinking the same.  We only have to turn on the news and witness the devastation that exists alongside us in this world to see that we – in our safe-roofed, cosy-warm, war-free, full-bellied worlds – are objects of jealousy too.

It took several hours for me to overcome my instant and writhing jealousy in my own situation, but after contemplating Buddha’s teachings and giving myself a little time to breathe and regain perspective, I felt relaxed and confident enough to send a heartfelt congratulations.  And the greatest things happen from those moments, I relieved myself of the added and wasted suffering of jealousy at a time when I already feel the relentless grip of grief, and I celebrated my friends happiness.  It’s not always easy, and I’m certainly far, far from a pure enlightened being, but as long as we have a mind it is possible to enhance our positive virtues and reduce our negative minds that bring with them so much destruction and pain, jealousy included.

I want to end by sending lots of love to all my fellow angel mother friends who walk this cruel path so courageously and with the greatest of grace, even during our messiest, most confused and vulnerable moments.

If anyone is interested in reading further about Buddhism or visiting a centre close to you where anyone is welcome for teachings, meditation or a friendly cup of tea, then please visit Tharpa.com

Mothers On Mothering

This week I am honoured to appear on Country Munchkins Blog feature ‘Mothers on Mothering’.  Just to be included in the ‘Mother Club’ is music to my heart and it was wonderful to write the piece from the perspective of a loss mother.

No one ever tells you that… sometimes, babies die.  Healthy, loved and wanted babies.  I don’t suppose many people want to be faced with the reality that death doesn’t care about status, wealth, or age, and we don’t want to imagine that babies are sometimes taken from their families.  It’s perhaps too painful to realise that parents sometimes bury their children, and that sometimes babies die before they are even born.  But it is, sadly, a ‘sometimes’. 

Click Here to read the full article.

Love from Pea, Winter and Baby Oppy x

All Is Not Lost At Christmas Time

This past year without Winter has been the most difficult of my life.

Yet when I look back at this past year I realise that I survived, and at times even flourished, in the most poignant annual celebrations; Birthdays, Mother’s Day… and Christmas.  And so, as we arrive upon our second Christmas without our little boy, I have composed a list to remind myself of all the thoughts and rituals that helped me through.

I have refrained from making this a ‘to-do list’ and instead felt it best to share what I do myself, in hope that it could inspire others in a similar situation without forcing upon them ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’.

And so here is my self-survival guide to embracing the festive season after losing our baby boy.

*Christmas is coming, there is no stopping its arrival.  The first step is to accept that and realise that I can’t hide away for a whole festive season.  It’s not practical, it’s not possible and it would be a ridiculous and miserable month.

*I imagine swapping places with Winter.  If I was gone and Winter was here, would I wish for him and my family to miss out on the joys of Christmas?  If I was no longer a live participant, would I sit amongst my family in spirit and will them to have a miserable Christmas, or would I wish for them to embrace the magic as much as possible, with me in their thoughts? Easy answer.

*To begin with, just dip your toe into the festive pool.  Maybe just spend some time imagining Christmas, watching the adverts, seeing its slow descent into the stores.  Instead of dread and panic, just sit with the feeling of festive acceptance. Notice that it is beginning, trust that we are stepping onto a sturdy boat and the river will be gentle with our journey.

*Put up your tree.  I feel like it’s hard to resist the magical pull of Christmas with little twinkling lights dancing in the corner of my lounge.

*Fill the tree with remembrance decorations.  We often call our little boy our snowflake baby, because we named him Winter and his life resembled a snowflake in so many ways, beautiful and unique, swift and impermanent.  So, we blanket the tree in snowflakes alongside name baubles, angel wings, and a photograph of his peachy face tucked into the star that is perched on the very tip top.

*We also decorate the whole house with him in our mind.  A mini tree in his nursery, twinkling lights to brighten up his photographs, a Christmas candle flickering next to his footprint.  With every embellishment, I hold him in my thoughts and decorate for him, with him.

*Christmas is about love, family and a sense of togetherness. It’s a difficult concept to invest in when we feel a loved one’s absence so strongly, but it is also an opportunity to celebrate those around us, those who have helped us on our journey and those who grieve alongside us.  Winters sudden death reminded me that nothing in life is guaranteed and loved ones can vanish so swiftly, and so we can take Christmas as a chance to cherish those around us with greater gusto than ever.

*We can remember the lessons our babies taught us; that material possessions bear much less significance than the loved ones we cannot replace, and we can thank our babes for the gift of this understanding, by wrapping friends and family up in love on this special day.

*Above all, remove any expectations.  This is a new style of Christmas, it is different from previous years and different from our imagined family gatherings, but very little in life goes to plan and nothing in life ever stays the same.  We can just relieve our pressure of how we ‘should be’ and accept the experience, tears and all. Take each day, each moment as it comes.

*Give yourself space and time to remember your baby on the day.  I will be sitting in Winters nursery in the morning, we will be visiting his memorial with flowers and festive wreaths.  There will be tears, at times the day will hurt like hell, and it’s ok to not be ok. Allow yourself to have your special moments with you baby and wish them a happy heavenly Christmas.

*As much as possible, surround yourself with loved ones and those who are understanding of your journey and holding you up on this wibbly wobbly path.

*Christmas can feel like an enormous hurdle, almost like an obstacle in our grief.  We can feel such strong aversion to it, like we want to swipe it off the calendar altogether.  But Christmas is essentially a title for a celebration of love, and therefore it is an opportunity to honour our babies in another new way.  By including our loved ones in the day at every opportunity, we can transform what feels like an unwanted event into another way to express our love for our angels; We have lost our babies, but we have not lost our love for them.  We will be raising a glass to Winter during Christmas dinner, collecting donations for the hospital and dishing out gifts for the nurses who worked so valiantly to try and save his little life.

*Remember that Christmas is simply a time of year.  I mean that in the sense that I will love and miss my baby in the Spring, Summer and Autumn too. I miss him on December 25th and I miss him on August 25th, because every day is a day with empty arms. For me, this disempowers the looming date, it is simply another day without my son. Of course, during the holidays our emotions are intensified, but that is a direct reflection of the heightened love we feel for our loved ones at Christmas.  We feel greater pain, because over Christmas we discover that we love them in so many new ways. And that is something else to celebrate.

*We hang a stocking up for Winter, but I can’t bear to see it empty, so I fill with little heavenly homemade gifts from Winter to hand out to his family.  It does actually break my heart to think I will never experience a Christmas with my little boy here and never watch over him as he excitedly tears open gifts.  Passing out presents in his memory is the next best thing, it keeps his memory alive and both giver and receiver can feel his love living on.

*And you know, buy your baby a gift if you like.  Maybe a new memory box, a sentimental keepsake, or even clothes that would fit them now that you would like to hold close and let reality escape you for a moment.  Nothing is considered weird when you’ve stepped into this wild world of baby loss. If it suits your grief and doesn’t harm others, then just do it.

*And finally, I would just say, give yourself lots of self-compassion.  Christmas is hard when we lose a loved one, and particularly I think if you have lost a child.  Give yourself a break.  I had several tearful moments last year, and I expect the same again.  At times, the pain of infant loss in unbearable, a searing burn that demands attention. If something is too difficult, then just let it pass you by, do whatever you have to do.  I won’t be suppressing any feelings, if I want to hide in bed for a whole day then I will, but also if I feel strong enough to experience the festive season in whatever way it appears to me, then I will be brave and just think of my son the whole time.

Winter didn’t experience a single Christmas, he was robbed of that experience.  But here I am, experiencing what he will forever miss out on.  I know Winter would have loved Christmas, so I will love it for him.

If you can’t have Christmas WITH your baby, have Christmas FOR your baby.

 

Winter ONEderland… Happy 1st Birthday Winter

This week marks a whole year of Winter being out the womb and in the world.  What is, for parents of living children, a time of great excitement and celebration, can be a time of huge anxiety, pain and sadness for those of us amongst the infant loss community.  Whilst for many, the first birthday represents a year of achievements and memories made with loved ones, for me it represented a whole year since I last held my baby boy close to me.

The build up to the day was genuinely terrifying and filled with high levels of anxiety which are still lingering now, despite the eventual success.  I had no idea how I would feel on the day, I was afraid that my emotions would swallow me whole and the pain I experience daily would sky rocket out of control. I was still coming to terms with my latest miscarriage and the crushing disappointment that my dream of a rainbow baby was not yet in the making. My safety net of a happy pregnancy had proved whimsical and unreliable and I was instead expected to celebrate with both empty arms and empty womb.

But I knew I had to gather this strength yet again, I couldn’t let Winters special day slide past with no cake, balloons or happy birthday sing song.

We decided early on that we would throw a big party, include some fundraising and celebrate our boys angelic accomplishments as much as possible.  It felt to me like the right thing to do for us personally.  At a time when I was feeling my sons absence the most, I wanted to draw myself closer to him, I wanted to play pretend, to feel like a real life mother and dedicate time and effort to arranging a whole day just for our deserving baby boy.

It wasn’t without challenge.  I was exhausted and tearful.  At times my strength escaped me.  We went to buy balloons and I was feeling excited at the thought of collecting my sons giant foil number one balloon, Dean and I decided to make a day of it.  But as soon as we found the birthday boy aisle emblazoned with the slogan ‘It’s fun to be 1!’ I exploded in tears and we left.  When we did finally pick up the balloons I was so pleased with them I grinned from ear to ear and we laughed trying to get them in the car.  Once we got them home and I carried them up to Winters room and I said out loud ‘These are for you…’ I noticed the stillness of a nursery without a baby, and I found myself again in tears.  Balloons with no birthday boy to show them to. And so the pattern of rise and falls and rise and falls continued, every moment was bittersweet, every victory was mourned, every joy swamped in heartbreak, a constant battle between my excitement and my grief.  A cake baked so lovingly but with no one to blow out the candles. A birthday wish with no one to grant it. A card filled with heartfelt words that would never be read.  Preparing for his birthday felt like intense ‘face your fears’ style therapy, I so desperately wanted to give him a day he deserved but in the process I was forced to confront difficult emotions head on. I couldn’t fold up and give in to them or else the party wouldn’t happen.  My strength came from wanting to celebrate his birthday more than I wanted to curl up and cry.

As much as I prepared busily for a birthday full of love and celebration, I also felt intimidated by the anniversary of his death the following day, gently referred to in this world of infant loss as his ‘angelversary’. I was very aware that the high of Winters birthday party would be quickly chased by a low.  A kind of post-Christmas season blues on a more intense level.  This was a little rain cloud that lingered visibly over our birthday plans.  And after his birthday party passed, then what?  Where would I focus my homeless love then?

Finally, a pressure to begin to move on weighed heavily on my shoulders.  A year after losing Winter, at a time when his birth and life is more a part of my past than my present, sayings such as ‘the first year is the hardest’ played on my mind.  Would I be expected to heal now that the ‘hard part’ was over?  Was I expected to feel better now I was entering the ‘easy part’ of grieving my baby?  Looking back over this past year, when I had only just lost Winter and this baby loss world felt so new and bleak, I think even I was guilty of looking at angel mothers a year ahead of me and thinking ‘well they must feel better than I do right now…’.  It’s times like this that I realise just how much I have learnt over this past year.  No, I don’t feel better actually. And I accept that now.  My grief is eternal, I will never recover from this loss, I will always be a bereaved mother.  I suppose I’m just beginning to get used to life without my child.  When Winter died I thought his first birthday would never come, it felt forever away.  And now it’s here and gone. But it is still very early days, one year down, the rest of my life to go.

It turns out that his birthday wasn’t as scary as I imagined.  It was a whole day dedicated to Winter, surrounded by family and friends, swathed in love.  So many people who remember and think of our little boy, all pooled together to celebrate his life. I spent the entire day feeling as proud as punch.  I was afraid that the passing of time was pulling him further away from me, but in fact I felt closer to him that day than I have for a while.  We released balloons, we sang happy birthday, we cut up his cake, we collected funds and gifts for the hospital in his memory, we shared his newspaper clippings and heavenly achievements, I smiled all day at the thought of Winter watching the celebrations unfold, it was one of the best days of my life.

And his angelversary was survivable to.  We ate pancakes, we opened gifts, I had a cry and took a nap, we went for dinner together.  We took the collected gifts to the hospital, we gave one birthday cake to my family at the Buddhist center and another to the nurses on the neonatal ward who cared for Winter.  How did I feel? Gutted, heartbroken, deeply sad, like a piece of me is forever missing.  But then I feel like that a lot anyway, so it was a familiar feeling and not at all the crazy distressing day I had conjured up in my mind.  We held his heart urn close and talked about our baby boy. We were reminded that in order to die, you first have to live, and Winter lived safe inside me for nine months and in our arms for a day.

I was listening to a podcast the other day where scientists and astrophysicists debated the possibility of time travel, and when describing what ‘time’ actually is someone said  ‘Time is a perimeter that measures change’.  Isn’t that crazy, that’s what ‘time’ actually is.  I wrote it down straight away.  We put titled markers on time as humans.  One year, 365 days since my son was born.  The Earth has circled the sun in one whole swift lap with him missing from it. The movements of the universe offer us these markers and we gather them into calendars and title them with importance. 365 days and I miss my son.  But 369 days and I still miss him.  I missed him at 300 days and I’ll miss him at 400.  The big scary ONE YEAR mark is just as big and scary, and entirely survivable as any other monthly, weekly, daily mark.  It kind of feels like less of a terrifying deal when we consider that.

I thought that Winters birthday would mark the end of something, like the last step in a journey.  I was expecting a physical crescendo, a grand finale.  But I realise now that our story is not finished yet.  And it won’t finish when we have another baby or even a house full if I’m lucky. In fact, Winter proved that your story can outlive even your death.

This time just over a year ago I was pregnant and excited.  I already know now just how much can happen in one single year, so I suppose I am just wondering what this next year will bring us.

Happy 1st Birthday Winter, the weight missing from my arms, the occupier of my heart.

 

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.