Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Ghost Belly: Reflections and Regrets

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.


  1. This is exactly my story. I didn't parent Cale in the way I wished and was scared. When I held him and saw his hand under the blanket I couldn't look anymore. I couldn't recognize the beauty at the time - the beauty of meeting my first child or the beauty of him. It was too much for me. I'm still trying to redirect my energy about my regrets as well. I suspect I always will. Wanting to go into nursing is the best way I know right now.

  2. I think...the situation is for SURE made scarier for those of us whose first child was stillborn. I know I was terrified. I was so afraid of holding Luke after I birthed him. I was terrified that I could break him more--Like that was even possible? His body was limp and bleeding out his nose--his skin was wrinkled and blistery, and frankly, I've never even held a newborn baby, so I had no idea how to react--how to explore him. I was scared his skin might fall off. That he'd start bleeding more. The nurses took such good care of him, but I wish I took more part in it. I didn't give him a bath and I didn't dress him. I just remember feeling paralyzed. I didn't want to move past a single moment because it meant that I was going to have to say goodbye to him.

    I regret so much. I feel like I might have done things differently had he been my second child--That I might have thought of all those things you marvel at when your baby is born with a heartbeat instead of reacting to the catastrophe that I'd just taken part in. I hate myself for not peaking at his bum. Or trying to open his eyes to see if they really were blue like the nurses told me. It was just too much to process. I held him and hugged him in that blanket...lifeless. I still think about it and get choked up because I hate that I was fearful of him.

    We all did the best we could. None of us ever imagined holding a lifeless baby in our arms--Let alone OUR OWN lifeless baby. I keep telling myself I did my best--but it's still so hard to accept. I'm not sure it'll ever feel different.

  3. I'm going to comment right away (without reading the other responses) to not alter my own. I started reading this on my phone earlier this evening, but Theo was at my feet and I knew this needed some alone, quiet time to get through. I will say, I scrolled down before I put my phone away and saw you mentioned me/Alexander from our back and forth from last year. And I cried. And not ugly grief soaked tears, but warm, comforted tears that I needed to feel. I know this was a heavy post, but dammit, I'm so thankful that you still get this stuff out (publicly on the internet) so I get to read and let my own out too.

    Just YES to everything. EVERYTHING.

    Yes, everything about having a stillborn baby freaked me out. To the point where I actually thought he was going to be ugly or horrid or something other than my perfect baby (or human even). I was too shocked and too terrified. What?! What is happening!? No. All these things the nurses suggested or encouraged? No. And that was it for me. No.

    And that brings me to my YES to what you said about "as though denial would make it all go away". YES. My story in that hospital room, 100%.

    I didn't know what I was doing. But now. Now, after having Theo... I feel like I was SO BEYOND clueless as a mother when giving birth to Alexander, I'm still ashamed. I too am envious of those who have the know how, who have the PRESENCE of MIND to get with it when their dead baby comes into the picture. You know when we went to the hospital..?. I only brought along MY bag, and thought "well, if I have the baby tonight, I'll just send someone for the baby bag". And after we found out he died, I felt like it was a foreshadow of sorts. And I thought, GOOD THING I DIDNT BRING THAT DAMN BAG - brokenheartedly of course.

    Jesus, I'll just never get over this.

    What happened last year broke me open in a way I'm so thankful for. I'm not saying I'm "healed" by ANY means, but in letting all the hurt out, the admittance of all my regrets and guilt, it let a lot of personal healing take place. Your words (and so many other beautiful and wonderful responses) meant so much to me. Hearing those types of things from another BLM is almost like a kind of magic in convincing in which one cant pull out from within. So THANK YOU.

    I believe those words. And with all my broken heart, I hope you do too. You did so good by Eliza - you love/loved her so much, it cant be explained through the written word.


  4. I do think it's harder for people who lose their first babies. I have a lot of regrets with Genevieve, too, but I think that after parenting Eleanor, there were a few things that were very natural for me to do, such as rock her and sing to her. And I was only able to do that stuff because I had so much practice. I was in total shock. I didn't think to bring clothes for her or any sort of memento to put with her. I had no idea what was going to happen at the hospital.

    My therapist always told me that it was best not to blame anyone for what happened, but if I had to blame someone, then I should blame my doctor and not myself. And to this day, I blame my doctor for all of the ways that I feel I failed. She didn't provide any sort of guidance for me. I don't know how I would have survived without those amazing nurses.

    From my perspective, all of this writing that you do is how you mother Eliza. She would be so proud that you are her mom.

  5. Thank you, as always, Brooke for saying everything and being so damn honest. I held Miles as he died. He was born at 24 weeks, he was too small, he couldn't breathe without the ventilator and when the doctor brought him to me he was gray. So gray and so dead looking and I was terrified of him. I held him and I looked at him because that's what everyone encouraged me to do, but I was scared and uncomfortable and I constantly think about how he died in his mother's uncomfortable embrace. It's something I don't know if I'll ever get over, but hearing that I'm not the only one who felt this way is so helpful. So thank you again.

  6. Ghostbelly was one of the first books I read after losing Lydie. It horrified me that Elizabeth brought her son home with her and would go visit him in the funeral home. I couldn't imagine having done that with Lydie, but should I have? I wondered if that meant Elizabeth loved her son more than I loved Lydie? And then I had to work really hard to shut that nonsense down.

    As far as the second child, I'm not sure. Lydie was my second but that didn't make me any more prepared for it. Lydie was so very dead when she was born, and everything about the situation was completely horrifying. Justin usually is the one to give Ben baths and of course, he pictured Lydie joining them in those baths. And a few days after we got home from the hospital, he realized that he allowed the nurses to clean Lydie up rather than giving her that first and only bath himself. And he was a total mess about it. I kept having to remind him, we did the best we could. We did the best we could. We were in complete and total shock and we had to make very quick decisions that we had never ever thought about (burial or cremation?) in a short amount of time.

    And Lydie was so fragile. I couldn't examine her the way I wished I would have because she was so fragile. I have a friend who spent days in the hospital with her stillborn son. Justin and I went home 6 hours after Lydie was delivered. But she was getting more and more fragile during that time and it was hard for us to see that. And made me wonder how long she had been dead and why I didn't know.

    So I also try to remind myself - and Justin - that we did the best we could. But I appreciate your view, that those are the things we do for us, not for them. That helps, I think.

  7. Oh and the nose-bleeding. It was horrible, horrible. Holding my poor dead little baby and her nose won't stop bleeding. I kept wiping it and then wondered why I bothered because it would not stop. And then I thought, "I am her mother and her nose is bleeding. I will wipe it." The situation is just all kinds of fucked up, and so not the way it is supposed to be.

  8. Thank you for this. While I have never had a stillbirth, I have terrible, terrible regret over my reaction and my inadequacy after my daughter had a massive stroke when she was 2 days old. She is five now, and doing amazingly well, but the feelings I had back then are still so close to the surface, and so easily exposed. It's nice to know that I'm not the only one.

  9. I really appreciate your perspective on this, Brooke. It's not that I didn't intellectually understand how my mom could've been scared to see and hold my little sister (Sharon, who had trisomy 18, and only lived a few hours... It was 1979, and Mom had zero warning that there was a problem with my sister until she heard the doctors talking during her emergency c/s), it's just that you put the shock and horror of being told your baby is dead or dying in such relatable terms, I guess. In my 5 y/o mind, and as I grew, I struggled with the thought of Sharon wondering where we'd all gone, why we weren't holding her. Bc I was 5, you know? I thought of it in terms of my own needs as a little girl. And bc I really wanted to see her, and kids want what they want. Mom did not see her - none of us did. and I've written you before about all of this - I've just been thinking more lately about how my mom acted, choices she made that did or did not affect me as a child. Looking back and wondering was she grieving at this point? Was that depression? How did she make peace with those decisions? Because I know she has, but my sister would be 35 were she alive today. Lots of time to process and forgive herself. But again, she's not over Sharon's loss. I always call Mom on Sharon's birthday, and it's clear that's meaningful, but last year I got her one of Carly's pictures from Christian's beach with Sharon's full name on it, and framed it. It's the only thing she has really suitable for display on memory of Sharon, and it made her *so* happy. And it's something I never would've thought to do without you and your community of women, all of you in the same club as my mom.

    Anyway - your posts where you dig into the heartbreak and how you dealt with it then and now, they're like windows into my mom's heart. Thank you for that.

  10. Your posts are so powerful. I know Eliza would be so proud to know you are her mother.

    Andrew's nose didn't bleed. He was quite purple, but no blood from my memory. I was afraid that his skin was so fragile that I could tear it-- not sure how I got that impression. I never bathed him or dressed him. He wore two outfits, but neither were changed by his parents. We simply held him and I do remember kissing him. Nothing more. I was too afraid.

    I definitely blame my doctor, like Sarah. If there is someone to blame for not encouraging me to do those things, it's her. She makes me angry just thinking about how terrible she treated our loss. I still hate her for that.

  11. Another great post, Brooke. My reaction was similar to yours. I wasn't even sure I wanted to see my baby girl, but I decided I would regret it if I didn't, and I am SO glad that I did. They handed me this tiny bundle, wrapped up in a beautiful crocheted white blanket, with a tiny white cap perched on her tiny red head. And I just held her, and stared, and stared. I only touched her when they came to take her away -- I kissed my fingertip & pressed it to her cold forehead and said goodbye and that I loved her. I did not unwrap her or count her toes or give her a bath or put a diaper on her. And I think I would have, if someone had suggested these were things I should or might want to do. But -- while the nurses were great in so many other ways -- nobody offered me that guidance, and it just didn't occur to me that you might do these things with a dead baby. And when I hear babyloss moms who talk about doing all these things with the babies they lost, without prompting, I feel envious -- and I feel guilty. I tell myself I did the best I could in an impossible situation... because who knows the "right" way to act when someone hands you the body of your dead baby girl? I'm intrigued, though, by your question of whether women who already had children act differently in this situation than those of us who lost our firstborn. Hmmmm.

    By the way, I left you a Valentine on my blog. :)