Being the mother of a dead baby is a really uncomfortable space to occupy in this world.
At the hospital, just before August was born, I asked my midwife, “If he’s born alive, should I try to nurse him?” She shook her head, No. Later, I felt foolish for having asked; what a stupid question. Except I don’t think it was stupid. How was I supposed to know what to do? I didn’t know what it meant to be the mother of a dead baby. I still don’t, though more and more lately, I have moments in which I think I have finally integrated it into who I am.
But then that sense of integration slips away again, replaced by the confusion and disorganization, the sense that my life has taken a turn I never could have imagined, and though it did happen, I still can’t imagine it. I lived through it, yet still can’t fathom that it was real.
The other night, I was out with some friends, and we ended up seeing an extremely dark, depressing movie. As I drove my friend home afterward, somehow we started talking about August and his birth. She started asking me questions — she wanted to know certain things about what had happened at his birth and how — and though we’ve talked about it plenty of times before, and despite the fact that I wanted to be open about it, I still felt very uncomfortable answering. Maybe I still have some shame about it all; I’m not sure. I do know I am committed to telling the truth about this event in our lives. I don’t want to add to the taboo surrounding the death of a baby or a child, because the truth is that it happens. Though the death of a child is most parents’ worst nightmare, it’s a reality. I want to be open about our son’s death, so that maybe someone else living through something similar will know they are not alone.
And yet, I still get so uncomfortable when people, especially strangers, ask questions that lead me to a more thorough, detailed account of what happened when we lost our son. I have been surprised again and again by the questions that strangers will ask. If it comes up — maybe someone asks whether I have children, or how many children I have — I tell the truth: I have a daughter who is 14 months old; I also have a son who died.
The next question is usually either, When did that happen? Or, How old was he when he died? I tell them he would be almost 3 years old, but he died unexpectedly at birth.
The next question, inevitably: Why did he die?
I still don’t know how to answer that one. Are they asking for the medical reason that he died? The physiological reason? The spiritual reason? Are they really asking why my husband and I apparently didn’t deserve to have a living child?
After August died and before I was pregnant with his little sister Pearl, he was my only child. I was his mother, yet people who didn’t know me couldn’t tell by looking at me that I was a mom. If they asked that seemingly innocuous question, Do you have any children? — then the whole conversation would begin.
I started thinking a lot about what kind of mother I wanted August to have. I knew I did not want him to have a mother who was always sad, angry or full of regret. I knew I did not want him to have a mother who lived only in the past. I knew I wanted him to have a mother who was strong and loving, a mother who continued to love him, others, and herself, despite the fact that he was not here anymore.
When I got pregnant with Pearl, I thought about that even more. What kind of mother did I want my children to have? Pearl was the child who was here, and I most definitely did not want her to have a mom who lived in the past or was consumed by grief. And yet I still wanted and needed to honor and connect with August, and to honor my own true feelings about his death.
It’s difficult these days to find the time and space in which to be authentic in my grief — meaning, to give myself over to it, fully and completely. This must be true for most people who have lost someone they loved. Time passes; life mostly resumes its (new) normal pace. If you have a job, children to care for, or other commitments, the time and privacy in which to sit alone and cry or wail or beat your fists into your pillows just don’t present themselves anymore. Your feelings aren’t so enormous anymore that they eclipse everything else; and so you learn to let regular life eclipse your inner feelings of loss and loneliness that continue.
For two-and-a-half years after August died, I attended a support group for bereaved parents. I joined the group three weeks after his birth, and I just quit at the end of this summer, when Pearl turned one year old. At my last group meeting, I felt very afraid that I was cutting off my last direct tie to August. Those twice-a-month meetings were the only time that I still devoted especially to him. If I quit going, I worried that nothing in my life would still be just for August — just for me to connect with my son.
This blog now serves that purpose. It’s the only space in which I connect with August in a direct, honest way. It’s uncomfortable, but I don’t want to stop.
I guess that means I’m still working on my old question: How you “move forward” from this kind of loss without letting go of the person you loved.