Grief has been rising lately. But its henchman, Trauma, is the real problem. Sneaking up on me. Haunting me at unguarded moments when I'm tired, lonely, overwhelmed. It's not the sadness that's unexpected. Sadness has gotten softer, easier, gentler. It's the sharpness of the trauma, coming back in a flash or in a wave.
A dear friend of mine is going to speak to nursing students about how they can help parents who experience the death of a baby at the hospital. She asked some of us to share our experiences so she could report to these students what bereaved parents need--and most definitely do not need--when they are in the hospital. I wrote to her about my experience because I think what she's doing is so important, can be so hopeful. I read the stories my friends responded with because I know how much these stories matter.
But it was like relentlessly picking at a scab and then gasping at how much it hurt when the air hit that reopened wound.
When I wrote to her, those hours in the hospital come back to me so vividly. I remember especially that weirdly embarrassed feeling of being duped, of being so cruelly tricked when I had least expected it. I had been fully prepared by the world and the internet and everyone I knew for one version of having a baby. Instead, I had the nightmare version.
I knew what hospital rooms were like after babies were born. I knew how new mothers looked--all tired and glowing and happy, with a bundle of baby in their arms.
I did not know how bereaved mothers were supposed to act. The only bereaved mothers I'd ever seen were on television or in movies. Do you know how bereaved mothers are depicted on TV or in movies? They are either hysterical or comatose. Screaming and sobbing incoherently, or silent and sunken into clinical depression.
But what do you do when you've just lost your baby and you're trying not to lose yourself? What do you do when your baby is dead and your husband is watching you with the most hollow, terrified, helpless expression on his face, and you can see how desperate he is for you to be okay? What do you do when you can't believe the reality you just experienced? What do you do when you have to call your parents and tell them what happened? What are you supposed to say when nurses ask if there's anything you need? (My baby. I need my baby.) What do you do when you genuinely think that you might be losing your mind? What do you do when you're afraid to take a pill because you think that you might never stop swallowing the pills and that just might be preferable to enduring another moment of this reality? What do you do when it's the middle of the night and you're staring sleeplessly at an infomercial for a steamer and outside your room you can hear newborn babies crying and six hours ago you were pregnant but now you're not pregnant and your baby is dead?
Writing to her about what it was like to be in the hospital--about the kindness and compassion expressed by our nurse, about the way I wanted to die each time I heard someone else's baby cry, about how grateful I was to be discharged as soon as possible... it brought back so many other shockingly vivid memories of our short time there--how shocked I was that Eliza's nose would bleed, how I would wipe it with a tissue while telling her I was so, so sorry, how David held her in the rocking chair and he was like any dad with a new baby except he was crying and she was silent and I had to bite my fist to hold back a howl because it was nothing, nothing like it was supposed to be. It brought back all the guilt I felt about the way my body (and my ridiculous, careful, thorough research) had inexplicably failed my daughter. It brought to the surface all my regrets of things we should have done differently, and that inescapable feeling of shame that I had failed her, failed all of us, that I was forever marked and set apart, that I'd never fit back in to my old life, my old self, my old friends.
I've spent so many tears on myself--crying for what I've lost in the daughter I didn't get to know, the life I didn't get to live, the person I didn't get to be, the family I didn't get to have. And for all those tears, I've cried twice as many for Eliza, for the life she didn't get to live, for the family she didn't get to know, for the experiences she didn't get to have, for the pain she might have felt, for the death I couldn't prevent.
I cry, too, because in the short time I had with her outside me, I don't think I acted like much of a mother. I kissed her forehead and I told her I loved her and I said I was sorry, but to tell you the truth, I was afraid of her. I was afraid of holding a dead baby. I wasn't prepared for this. I didn't know what to do. I confused newborn smushiness for the limpness of death and she scared me. I was scarcely able to see beyond the too-dark lips and too-cold hands. I couldn't believe the nurse when she told me Eliza was beautiful because all I could see was that she was dead. I cry now because I didn't unwrap her blanket and look closely at her, because I didn't memorize every inch of her, because I can't even remember if I counted her little toes. I cry because I didn't get to hold her long enough, because the nurse asked me if I was sure she could take her away and I said yes. I cry because I had to get away from that room, that hospital, and I couldn't take her with me.
I cry because I remember getting home and sitting on the couch in our living room with absolutely nothing to do in the world and I turned to David and said that I knew this was totally creepy and messed up but I wanted to have her with us because I just wanted to hold her in my arms. My arms just ached for her and she was gone and I thought the pain of it should just kill me too.
One of the things my therapist talked to us about in the early days is the way our grief was further complicated by trauma. Although I had a relatively uncomplicated delivery, all things considered, the entire process of arriving at the hospital, being told there was no heartbeat and my baby was dead, and then delivering that baby, was nothing if not traumatic. The link with trauma makes grief harder to process, and leaves many of us experiencing our own version of PTSD with certain triggers (one of mine was the voice of the one doctor who declared Eliza dead when she came in to say hello while I was in labor with Zuzu--she meant well, and I appreciate that she remembered us, but I honestly hope I never hear her voice again).
I know this complication of grief and trauma to be true now, because I live with the grief every day and I've gotten so much better at balancing it. I've learned to walk and talk and laugh around the grief and while I never let it go, it's become easier to carry, to shift to one side when necessary. I wear it like the bracelet on my arm that has Eliza's name. It no longer feels like my defining characteristic, even though I carry it every day and it's become part of who I am.
The trauma lurks, sharp and scary and real, and when it surfaces, it takes me out. Usually, this happens around Eliza's birthday, when the memories and the triggers are most vivid. This December was busy--in good ways and in exhausting ones--and full of distractions and activities and the blessedly busy Zuzu, and while I grieved Eliza intensely, I managed to avoid reliving the horrifying moments of her birthday. I didn't let myself go back there. I didn't have the time or the energy, and my brain obeyed my decision to not relive every moment of that day three years earlier.
But then I had a good reason to think about it, and while I'm glad I did, I find that the sadness uncovered is hard to escape. It's dark and it's cold and winter seems to stretch on forever. I live everyday missing Eliza, but then there are moments when I realize all over again what happened to her, what happened to me and to David, what we have endured, and it knocks me to my knees and makes me feel like I can't catch my breath.
I can say "stillborn" or "died when she was born" without dissolving into tears. But when I let myself slowdown and really think about what those words mean--that I went to the hospital, that I was pregnant, that I had every reason to believe I was going to have a healthy baby girl, that I was told by a stranger that my baby didn't have a heartbeat, that I still went through labor pains and pushing and that she was born and she didn't move and she didn't cry and her nose bled and her fingers were long and perfect and she never opened her eyes and we held her and we loved her and she was real and we had so many dreams and expectations for her and we were so young and naive and we never in a million years expected that this would happen to us, to our girl, that the only time I've ever touched a dead body, it was my daughter's, that our entire future died with her and we had to stumble around to create a different life than the one we had hoped for and imagined, that we will forever live a life that has been shaped by Eliza without having her in it...
Sometimes it seems like a dream and I can't believe it was ME, that it really happened, that it was MY LIFE. And sometimes those memories are so vivid that they take my breath away and I can't believe that I ever kept going, that there was ever anything else.
I cope with the trauma by writing about it. By having a good cry. (And then another and another). By holding on to the things (and the people and the dog) that keep me grounded and keep me here and keep me safe. By talking with friends who are traveling the same path as me, who understand my guilt and regrets and can say to me as I would to them, You did the best you could at the moment. You did the best you could for Eliza. You took care of her as best you could for as long as you could, and what happened afterward was for you, not for her. She knew was loved. I hold on to those thoughts and I take a deep breath and I try to put the trauma away. The grief I can handle. The trauma is still more than I can bear.