I have been reading Ghost Belly at the recommendation of a friend. It's well-written and good and interesting and challenging and last night I had to stop because it was breaking the grief wide open and I just don't have the capacity to handle that right now. It's weird to find myself a place where breaking down feels almost... indulgent? (that's not quite the right word)... but I guess that's where I am. I need to put the book--and my grief--away.
My friend Sarah had a better analogy, which was to say that grief is like a sleeping tiger. We can't afford to wake him up right now because there are so many other things that need attention. Life is hard enough without a tiger on the loose. So we tiptoe around him, trying to pretend he's not there, that his teeth aren't still sharp, that he won't snatch us up should we stumble.
One thing I was struck by in the book (right before I had to put it down last night, actually) is how lovingly the author, Elizabeth Heineman, treated the body of her dead baby. It seemed like such a contrast to my own timid response.
I held Eliza, and touched her hands, and kissed her forehead, but I did so fearfully even more than tenderly. I was scared to touch her. Honestly, I didn't really want to touch her, but I guess I was a little afraid of feeling like a terrible person later if I didn't touch her.
Really, I was afraid of her. I was scared of holding a dead body, even if it was my baby. I was scared of how morbid and terrible it all seemed. I felt like I was someone else watching this scene play out and everything felt awkward and forced, like I was performing these rituals that weren't offering me any comfort whatsoever. I was not caught up in the moment. People talk about how meeting their stillborn baby was both the best and worst but for me it only felt like the worst. I was not overwhelmed with any feelings except sadness and disappointment and guilt.
Don't mistake me--I'm glad now that I did what I did then, but I still didn't really want to do it at the time. I did not marvel over her the way I wish I would have, the way I did her sisters. I did not bathe her (the nurse did that) or dress her (again, our nurse Stephanie, to whom I am so grateful) or measure her size with my hands. I was too worried about how she smelled, too horrified by how her nose kept bleeding. I wanted to know the color of her eyes, but I was too afraid to lift her eyelids.
As new parents, there's a shift when you get used to the way a newborn feels, the surprising combination of heft and lightness. You marvel at the wrinkly skin, and the way it changes in just a few minutes from grayish purplish to rosy and then to (in the case of my caucasian babies) pale. You watch your baby start to stretch and change before your eyes and all of it is so miraculous and awesome in the true sense of the word. I thought Eliza's hands looked weird. (It turns out all my babies' hands look weird! I had no idea! They cute right up--they are just weird at the very beginning.)
But I didn't really know that yet. I had been around a few newborn babies visiting friends, but I'd always held them swaddled up and wearing hats and mostly sleeping. I didn't know that they were always curled up and wrinkly. I didn't understand how much of Eliza's appearance was typical newborn baby and how much was dead baby and so all of it scared me and freaked me out.
The nurses did such a great job of telling me she was beautiful and holding her like it was no big deal she wasn't breathing, but I (her mother!) never could really see past the deadness. I was too shocked and too horrified.
I know I told her I love her, and I know I told her again and again that I was so sorry, but I am quite sure that I did not "mother" her the way I did my other babies.
I've been through enough therapy to know now that I did the best I could at that time. I know that I am allowed to forgive myself for being unprepared and completely freaked out. I believe that Eliza felt our love the whole time she was in my belly. And if I didn't do such a good job of loving her after that...
Well, as I told a friend in a comment on one of her blog posts (which she actually wrote in response to one of my posts, so it was kind of like an actual conversation) I think that everything that happens after the baby is born--the rituals, the photographs, the bathing and dressing--that's for us. It's not for them. We may feel better if we held them for hours, or introduced them to everyone in our family, or dressed them in the clothes they should have worn home from the hospital, or had them christened or blessed or planned a memorial service for them. I personally did not do any of those things except have Eliza blessed by a random chaplain (I wish we had called a minister we knew, but at that time I didn't want to--I think now I didn't want it to be real, and telling someone else like that would have made it real), but I know many people who did those things and are glad they did them.
But I suspect there are also many of us who didn't do the things we wish now we would have. I wonder if I would do things differently now. I know for sure there are some choices I would change without a doubt, but I also know that we were in an impossible situation and we were just trying to keep from completely falling apart. That doesn't change the fact that I have enormous regrets, and I'm still trying to get past some of them.
I admire bereaved parents who were able to process their reality, the horror of the situation, and then go on to make decisions they feel really good about now, who were able to "parent" their baby in a way that I was not. One friend of mine called and had her daughter's Christmas dress brought to the hospital so she could see her in it. That never would have occurred to me. I try to remember that I truly was not able--it's not like I didn't want to, I truly didn't know how I was supposed to parent a dead baby or what I was supposed to do. I had never prepared for this situation. I mostly just wanted to die myself, but I didn't want to make David feel worse so I didn't say that out loud.
When I read Ghost Belly, and read about how she was able to make decisions that other people would find controversial or bizarre, and how she made them unapologetically, for herself and her dead son, not only do I admire her, but I also envy that awareness. I cannot measure up to that. I did not do a good job of anything in regard to parenting Eliza after she was born. The best things I did were at the nurse's suggestion. The worst things I did (or didn't do) were my own ideas, a product of my squeamishness and fear and reluctance to accept the truth that our baby was dead. As though denial would make it all go away.
I had to stop reading Ghost Belly, even though it's lovely and true and good, because it brought those moments in the hospital back to me, and all I could see were my own inadequacies.
Heineman had a living son when she lost her second child, and I wonder if I would have been a different kind of parent to Eliza if I'd already had a living baby. I wonder if I could have loved her not better, but differently, in the hospital. I think maybe I was half afraid of a living newborn baby, so a dead one was simply beyond my capacity for functioning as a mother of any sort.
At any rate, I hope to return to the book someday, but for now I'm trying not to break that grief wide open. I'm trying to put that tiger back to sleep. I'm trying to extend to myself the kind of compassion that I would offer a friend struggling with similar feelings of guilt and failure. I still believe what I wrote in my comment:
Oh, Veronica. I just want to see you and hug you and cry with you. We are all so angry and we all feel so guilty and filled with regret. I do think some people were able to understand what was happening and cope with it faster than I was able to, and I envy them their foresight in doing things that I would later wish I had done.
But you, like me, no matter how guilty and sad we feel, must believe that we did everything that mattered for our babies when it counted. What happened after Alexander died, there were things you could have done that might ease your ache now, that might help YOU. But the baby you'd fallen in love with--he was already gone. There was nothing more you could have done for HIM. He was gone, but in his short, perfect life, he already had everything you could give him--all the love, all the care, all the warmth and the safety. He knew your voice and your laugh and the rhythm of your walk. You were his mama as long as he was here and there's no way you could have done that with more love or joy or care. It's obvious from the way you write about him how much he is loved, how much he is wanted, how much he is missed. I don't know how things really work in life or death or what comes after, but I know that Alexander felt that love while he was with you, and what happened after--those are memories we cling to for comfort (or torture) but they are ours alone. They don't burden our babies. I believe that with every ounce of me.
I DO believe it. But I also think I need to say it in an effort to convince myself. Even if it's true--and I do, actually, really think it's true--my disappointment in myself, for what I failed to do for Eliza after she died and was born, cannot be written away.
I just realized, too, in linking up to those posts that it was really about this time last year that I was struggling with heavy grief in much the same way I am now. I don't really know why--we're past Eliza's birth date and due date and I have never been pregnant in late January or early February. I guess it's something about this cold, dark time of year, when the momentum of resolutions has already started to lull and spring break still seems so far away that I get caught up in regret.
My therapist would prescribe self-care. (Man, I kind of miss meeting with someone a couple times a month who would always promise me that I was doing okay and encourage me to get a massage and meet up with friends and attend a yoga class. No wonder I paid her so much money.)
My version of self-care, for now: Last night, I had a good ugly cry, tried to distract myself with a rerun of Castle, and was actually relieved when Coco fussed in the middle of the night so I had an excuse to get her out of bed and cuddle her.
The thing about these regrets is that there's no fixing them. There's no do-over. We just have to try to redirect our energy and figure out how to put that tiger back to bed. You'd think by now I'd be an expert on this sort of thing. Nope. Still working on it.