Additional note, preceding a post that's already probably tl;dr:
It's hard to write about how grief feels now, because it's always too much or too little. A lot of post is about how grief was because if I can name how it used to be, I can say, "So it's not like that anymore." But explaining what grief isn't doesn't go very far toward naming what it IS.
Also the majority of this is written in the second person, which I never (rarely?) do, but that's just how it came out. I'm not actually claiming to speak for anyone else's grief experience, which is why the second person "you" is bothering me here, but it's not bothering me enough to change it, because holy moly there are so many words here. It will quickly be apparent that I'm speaking from my experience of having "rainbow" babies, which I've no doubt has helped me immensely in regard to recovering the kind of life I hoped/planned to have before my daughter died. So maybe it will resonate with you, maybe your experience is/was/will be different. So "you" mostly equals "me/I" but also maybe "us," in one way or another.
Okay. Pardon the interruption. I just felt the need for this intro.
Five years is a big deal.
There's a part of me that wants to post a ragey, tear-filled blog about the unfairness of living without my daughter for five years, about the gaping hole in our family and my heart, about the way grief over the loss of a child never goes away.
And the thing is, I could go there. I could feel and experience those deep, raw, authentic emotions, and struggle to put them into words here.
But here's another part of my truth:
There's a part of me that feels sort of guilty that five years doesn't hurt as much as I thought it would.
The thing about losing a baby is that you lose so many things along with your baby. There's a physical loss of a child who is literally absent. There's the loss of innocence that comes with the traumatic experience of holding a dead baby. There's the loss of your former self that is unavoidable when grief invades. You have to let go of certain relationships that were predicated on you being your old self. You are forced to miss out on the ordinary day-to-day experiences of parenting. Your basic expectations for what your future would look like are suddenly ripped away and twisted into something else, something totally uncertain. And, of course, you've lost your baby and the unique person he or she would have been.
The initial shock and the trauma of having that child taken from you is so vivid and inescapable for a long time. Your body has gone through the physical experience of labor, or the physical experience of surgery. You're recovering from the literal pain of that--the cramps, the bleeding, the engorgement, the deflated belly, the postpartum hormones that have you craving your baby in the most primitive and biological way possible. And you're experiencing all of this without the one thing that every stupid thing you read about motherhood will assure you makes it all "worth it."
That's a kind of pain that no kind words, sympathy cards, fruit bouquets, or flower arrangements can mitigate.
Your arms are empty and physically ache to hold your baby. Your heart is broken, your stomach is hollow, and whole damn the world is full of babies and pregnant women and people who not only have what you've lost, but take it for granted that this terrible thing will blindside you but not them.
So you sit at home. Aching for your baby, and coping with the trauma of postpartum recovery without a baby to soften the blows to your body. After you survive the first few days and weeks, the physical horror starts to shift to a mental trauma--an awakening to a world in which the veil has been ripped away and now You Know. You know that babies die. You suddenly know so many people whose babies have died. You realize that this is unfixable. Time isn't going to turn back. This isn't a nightmare you'll wake up from. Somehow you're going to have to get it together and figure out how to keep living when one of the central focuses of your life has been suddenly and shockingly ripped away.
On top of that unwelcome realization come a new crop of speculative fears and anxieties--what if it never gets easier? How could it possibly get easier? What will it mean if/when it DOES get easier? What if you never have other children? What if you have other children but they are totally screwed up because their mother is a grief-monster? What if you can never be around other people's kids again without wanting to vomit and claw off your face? What if your life always feels empty and sad? What if everyone you care about dies? What is to stop that from happening? How can you expect anything to be okay ever again? What if you've lost everything you thought your life would be forever?
Your anxiety levels are one thing, but there's also a lot of anger and bitterness that can't always be controlled. You may have been the person who hosted baby showers and browsed Baby Gap even before you got pregnant, but now you find that it's painful for you to be around little kids--even little kids you love, even babies that belong to people you love. Especially those that are the same gender as your baby. You HATE being like this, but you also don't know how to not feel this way. Everything is a reminder of what you've lost.
Seasons start to change and you're pissed off about it. You'd imagined what this fall, or spring, or summer, or winter holiday season would look like with a baby in your arms. That baby was supposed to meet your extended family at Christmas, or get baptized right after Easter, or attend that wedding in a miniature tuxedo, or snooze under a tent at the beach on your vacation. All of those dates will come and go, even without your baby there. And the unfairness and sadness of that is crippling. You may have been someone who loved Christmas time or who couldn't wait to celebrate your sister's marriage, and now you're just heartbroken that people have stopped talking about your baby, even though it's all you can think about.
You quit Facebook because HOW DARE someone talk about the burrito they ate for lunch when your baby died?
You have friends you don't see anymore, because they have babies, or because they don't know what to say to you, or because you can't relate to them, or because they failed to show up when you needed them most.
You may be back at work, but you don't care about work. You're either going through the motions, or forcing yourself to get so caught up in it that you get a brief respite from grief, after which you feel guilty.
Everything from your old life is a grief landmine. Getting a pedicure becomes an inquisition about whether you have children. Going to dinner means running into your friend from high school who is expecting her third child. A trip to Target is an onslaught of other people's kids, one of whom is actually sitting in the very same car seat you bought for your baby, and the sight of it there in shopping cart next to the laundry detergent makes you think for a moment that you might actually pass out.
You miss being lighthearted. You miss joking and making your partner laugh. You miss caring about celebrity gossip (instead they are all just having more and more babies, and the only thing you like about them is that they are all almost 40 when they have their first kid, so that makes you feel like you have more time). You miss thinking about something besides dead babies and grief. You want to get interested in something else again, but you don't have the energy because it's been months and you are still so. damn. sad.
You thought everything would change when you had a baby, and it has. But not at all in the way you'd imagined. All of the things you thought would be different are exactly the same. Your house isn't overrun with baby gear. You don't have bottles on the counter and rattles underfoot. You still have the freedom to go see a movie or get a drink or take a vacation, and all of those pleasures taste like dust in your mouth. You don't want the fucking tropical vacation that your privileged first world self is taking. You want your baby--colicky, sleepless, pooping, peeing--you just want what you signed up for when you fell in love with a freaking lima bean with a fluttering heartbeat on a television screen in a dark room.
The sadness is so heavy. It's a relentless weight, pressing on your chest.
And then, not suddenly, but slowly, it's five years later.
You're making jokes again. You're listening to podcasts. You're reading celebrity gossip magazines and suggesting to your husband that he had better watch out because Gavin Rossdale is single again.
You've held your breath through two more pregnancies and somehow--with luck and vigilance and as many ultrasounds as you needed to maintain your sanity--your rainbow babies are here and your life looks almost the way you thought it would when you got pregnant for the first time. Your arms are full of babies and your house is full of toys and your heart is so full of love that you are a bawl bag of emotion every time you think about how freaking lucky you are (when your kids aren't, you know, biting other people's faces, and during other typically frustrating parenting moments).
You've culled your friendships ruthlessly, and the people you're surrounded with now may be different than those who were there before you had kids. You've salvaged some friends from your past, and you've connected with bereaved parents who understand your life in a way no one else can. These relationships are sweet and affirming and you're grateful for them.
Your life does not feel like a wasteland anymore.
You may not have transformed into an amazing and compassionate do-gooder who is channeling Mother Theresa on a daily basis, but you do look at the world differently because of your love and your grief. You are braver and wiser than you were before, even if you don't always know it. You've found ways to honor and protect the memory of your child, even if some of those are private and held close to the heart.
You are five years into this and it doesn't hurt to take a deep breath anymore.
The truth is that so much of what you've lost has been softened by time. Your brain no longer forces you against your will to re-live those moments in the hospital room. Your body has, for the most part, recovered from the experience of giving birth. You've found your way back to parts of your old self, and you've been shaped into something new, but you're no longer excruciatingly uncomfortable in your own skin. You can think about your own life without dissolving into a puddle of self-pity.
In so many significant ways, you have recovered. You have restored yourself, and come to terms with who you are and what your life looks like now. You have forged a happy life even after the greatest loss you could imagine. Your resiliency astonishes you. Five years ago it would have seemed as impossible as breathing underwater without drowning.
There are still triggers--off-handed comments about "your first" from people who don't know that she's your second. Someone else's confident plans for having X number of children, seeing your baby's name appropriated by someone you used to know, watching a family at the zoo who looks the way your family would have looked, if...
In spite of these things, life is not terrible. Because in five years, you have managed to regain so much of what you lost the day you lost your baby.
You miss her, but you haven't missed out on everything, the way you thought you might.
I grieved Eliza's loss from the start, but in addition to loving her and missing her, I was grieving for myself as well. I was also terrified that losing her meant that I'd lost my chance at the motherhood I'd imagined. I'd lost my baby, but maybe that meant that I'd also lost my only chance to raise a daughter, my chance to have any living children, my chance to have a future and a family that looked like the one I'd been imagining since I was a kid. Everything I'd felt certain of suddenly felt flimsy and fleeting. Grief and fear went hand in hand, fighting for precedence.
Fear takes a different shape now, because I've gotten so lucky. I'm scared I could lose it all, of course, but I'm grateful I have this chance to have this life. I know how easily it could have gone another way.
The thing is, as happy as I am now, I'll never stop wishing that things could be different. Or, rather, that things could be exactly the same, but with Eliza here.
Every holiday, every back-to-school milestone, every major life event will be accompanied by a wistful desire that she were here.
Everything in my life could get better, but nothing can bring her back. I can get back almost all the happiness I thought I lost that day, but I can never get her. As my girls get older, my future might look just like the one I vaguely imagined when I was pregnant, but I'll never get to know who she would have been.
After five years, I'm not desperately aching for my baby the way I was in December of 2010, but I am longing for my five-year-old.
It's wistful, this longing. It comes from my heart rather than my guts. It's more like a daydream of what might have been instead of a nightmare of what just happened. It's woven into everything, so seamlessly that I've forgotten about the extra weight, or, rather, I've grown used to carrying it.
I don't want to understate how much I miss her (I'm not sure I could--understate it, I mean). But I don't want to overstate the pain or grief, either. As much as I miss her, it is a longing that is so different from five weeks or five months or even two years out.
You see, five years in, I've had a chance to have everything I dreamed of when I was pregnant with Eliza--I just didn't get to have it with her.
And that's the best I can do at explaining how grief gets so much easier, and not really easier at all.